The non-word of the year 2016 (Unwort des Jahres) is “Volksverräter” – betrayer of the people. A good choice?
The initiative wants to raise the public awareness of how language is used and what kind of impact it can have. Thinking about what you say and how it may affect others is always a good idea. However, by choosing one word to criticise the (mis)usage of language, you attribute a special importance to a divisive political theme and give the people who use this word a bigger lobby than they deserve.
Few decide, everybody talks about it
The non-word is chosen by a jury consisting of four linguists, one journalist, and one other person. Everyone can participate and send in their suggestions. Afterwards, the jury selects the word (or phrase) according to certain criteria, for example: Does it go against the propriety of language or humanity? Is it taken from (recent) public discourse?
The submissions reflect that a lot of defamatory language is being used when it comes to the topic of migration and that people are aware and critical of this. At least that’s what the official press release says: With 1.064 entries in total (only three of those suggesting the winning non-word), however, the participation was meagre – remember: Germany has a population of over 81 million.
Who betrays whom?
Betrayer of the people is a phrase that is used by right-wing populists like the Alternative for Germany (AfD). It is reminiscent of dictatorships, of Germany’s dark past in which the people (“das Volk”) had their Führer instead of a democratic voice. Or a choice, really. Nowadays, agitators use this kind of anti-humanitarian language to voluntarily dissociate themselves from what they see as a corrupt society.
It’s important to recognize, reflect, and point out tendencies in the usage of language, particularly in the public space. Still, choosing a word like this as non-word of the year also gives succour to agitators and encourages them to publically unite under it. By trying to point out the discrimination and anti-democratic tendencies inherent in the word, it simultaneously gets blown out of proportion.