Maggie Childs Reflects on Language

It’s humbling. At least it was for me, arriving in Vienna at age 11. Almost every kid in my class spoke at least two languages, if not three. As I struggled to get any kind of handle on my first foreign language, German, the kids who tried to talk to me in English were on their 3rd or 4th. Back then, I thought they were nothing short of awesome. 

Today, I see my 2.5 languages as a superpower. It lets me inhabit multiple worlds, multiple schools of thought and traditions. Hundreds of thousands of children in Austria become proficient in German as they attend grade school, and perhaps you can identify with what it’s like to be a student and an Ausländer.

Charlemagne is credited with saying: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” That second soul creates a new identity and enhances the existing one, as we discussed with Vienna residents hailing from all over the world. In case you’re just as new as some of them are, we’ve also gotten the help of the brain behind the Wiener Alltagspoeten (Vienna Everyday Poets), Andreas Rainer, to teach us How to Master the Art of Viennese Dialect. 

As we emerge from the 4th lockdown (or was it the 5th?) the Metropole team delved into the thing that ties us together: How we speak to each other. We looked into how the Viennese language evolved in our first cover story and you may be surprised about how we examined the challenges and contradictions political correctness and cancel culture have raised, as well as hearing the insights of a non-binary linguist about choosing pronouns and why it’s not an attack on language.

From trash talk to spoken word

For the uninitiated, Austrian German is a lot to take in: The pronunciation and dialect, for one, but, more importantly, the attitude and sense of humor are more of a key to the Austrian soul than any vocabulary list. Who better to teach us about that than one of the country’s poetic sons, the irresistibly irreverent pop artist and wordsmith Paul Pizzera? But language is complex, so we cast a wider net to find the subjects of our profiles: A linguist, a speech therapist, a translator and a spoken word artist who share how they see language color our world. 

Understanding and interpreting a language is a high stress business – particularly in Vienna, where the UN and OSCE require constant simultaneous translating. That profession is dying, you say? Perhaps, but the limits of natural language processing software are just as important to understand as the opportunities, both of which we examine in “Siri You Cunning Linguist.”

The man who said “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” developed his ideas in this very city. Ludwig Wittgenstein had a dramatic life but his contributions changed the way we think about language forever. We’ve put together a selection of books for language-lovers, and spoken with one of the great literary critics and professors of our time, Marjorie Perloff, whom Austria lost during the Anschluss. Don’t miss the tales of the unsung heroes of cultural communication: the publisher and translators making Austrian literature available to English-speaking readers.

Most of all, we hope your curiosity will bring you outside, to an outdoor language café or a new neighborhood; try out new phrases with the “Viennese by District” guide and discover your favorite new outdoor market.

Whether you stay in town this summer or venture beyond the city limits, stay true to Viennese humor – if something goes wrong, take it in stride and whatever you do, 

Don’t be a stranger, 

Maggie Childs


 This season’s cover seeks to reflect the many topics, questions and debates that arose when we put this issue together. Language is about communication, identity, opinion, emotion, dialogue, expression and so much more. The pen of Berlin-based illustrator Anna Gusella sought to capture Vienna’s daily multilingual reality and how life in the city turns on the sound of an Ahoj, Habibi or Hawara. Look up annagusella.da and IG @anna.gusell for more inspiring design pieces by the illustrator.