Reverse Engineering "Frembdsch", A Fantasy-Language Radio Play by Dagmara Kraus and Marc Matter

by Jonah Lubin

First aired on the German radio station SWR2 on December 17, 2022, “Frembdsch” (which could be translated into English as Fornlish or Foreysh) is an audio play composed by author/translator Dagmara Kraus and media artist/sound poet Marc Matter. In the performance the composers are joined by the voices of Susanne Reuter, François Cavaillès, and Uwe-Peter Spinner. For the most part, the dialogue of the play is in an invented language, while the stage directions, which were derived using the German Drama Corpus at, are spoken in relatively understandable, mostly standard High German. Hörspiel und Feature describes the piece as being based on the concept of “mots fantômes,” incorrectly read and written phantom words that have found their way into dictionaries and then into the mouths of speakers. What is produced is a broad polysemy with very indefinite semantics.

What sort of language is Frembdsch? A multilingual speaker of a Romance, Germanic, or Slavic language might be reminded of Hungarian for its opaque semantics and familar phonology. Common word endings include -os and -ć which are reminiscent of the Greek noun and the Polish verb. Some words are repeated, among “gudem,” “finestre,” and “mazgrab,” which, as a German speaker, sound like “good,” “gloomy” or “window,” and “mass grave” respectively. The R is in most cases an alveolar trill, as in Italian or in Slavic languages. Phonologically it is clearly European, although which language it most closely resembles differs based on the speaker. Its least Indo-European feature is rather prevalent reduplication (as in some creole languages), whose function seems to be primarily narrative. The only period in which I detected a consonant unused in Indo-European languages was between ‘20:00 and ‘21:00, where an actor produces what sounds like a dental click (k͡ǀ), a sound only found in Africa and in the Damin ritual jargon of Australia. To this, the person saying the stage directions says “Befremdet” (tr. disconcerted or estranged).

As stated above, the stage directions were produced with the help of the German Drama Corpus. Many of these stage directions appear word for word in the corpus (some many times), other have been distorted and denatured, so as to make their identification impossible. Some were simply invented by the authors. I did a search in order to see how many times each stage direction used in Frembdsch appears in the German Drama corpus. The top ten are:

Stage direction Count
Für sich. (tr. to oneself) 3015
Heftig. (tr. severely) 1537
Verwirrt (tr. confused) 234
Zuckend. (tr. twitching/flinching) 216
Geheimnisvoll. (tr. mysteriously) 199
Spöttisch. (tr. mockingly) 189
Von innen. (tr. from within) 187
Taumelt. (tr. staggering) 162
Neugierig. (tr. curiously) 146
Befremdet. (tr. disconcerted/estranged) 99

To oneself, severely, confused, flinching: these are the bread and butter of German stage directions.

I also compiled a list of the works in which the stage directions from Frembdsch most often appear. The top ten:

Play Count
Ignorabimus by Arno Holz 173
Das Konzert by Hermann Bahr 103
Das Haus der Temperamente by Johann Nestroy 82
Sonnenfinsternis by Arno Holz 80
Die Industrie-Ausstellung by Friedrich Kaiser 75
Der Vampyr by Wilhelm August Wohlbrück 74
Einen Jux will er sich machen by Johann Nestroy 74
Der Talisman by Johann Nestroy 65
Zar und Zimmermann by Albert Lortzing 65
Faust by August Klingemann 61

These are generally the works in which the above most common stage directions most often appear. In Arno Holz’s Ignorabimus, for example, the word “heftig” appears no less than 93 times. “Für sich” appears 101 times in Nestroy’s Das Haus der Temperamante.

I wanted to see which of the stage directions could be traced back to single sources, that is to say, which of them are distinctively from a single work. The 31 stage directions with a distinct, exact match in the German Drama Corpus were:

Time Stage direction Play
00:43 Kein Licht. (tr. No light) Ödipus und die Sphinx by Hugo von Hoffmansthal
02:56 Noch halb im Fass. (tr. Still half in the barrel.) Eulenspiegel by Johann Nestroy
04:00 Der Wind stöhnt. (tr. The wind moans.) Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert
05:00 Springt mit allen Zeichen des Entsetzens zurück. (tr. Springs back with every indication of distress.) Der Sohn by Walter Hasenclever
05:37 Von großer Erregung übermannt. (tr. Overwhelmed by great agitation.) Der Sohn by Walter Hasenclever
07:32 Tod geht ab. (tr. Exit death.) Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert
08:32 Übertrieben elegant. (tr. With exaggerated elegance.) XYZ by Klabund
08:41 Immer mehr schwatzhaft und schnodderig. (tr. Ever more loquacious and flippant.) Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert
08:47 Absichtlich gemein. (tr. Purposefully base.) Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert
10:27 Abwechselnd lauschend und sprechend. (tr. Alternately listening and speaking.) Meister Oelze by Johannes Schlaf
11:38 Nimmt sich das Rätsel vor. (tr. Gets to work on the riddle.) XYZ by Klabund
12:41 Bricht disharmonisch ab. (tr. Discontinues dissonantly.) XYZ by Klabund
13:01 Kugelfüsse. (tr. Spherical feet.) Der Wetterfürst by Paul Scheerbart
13:35 Wird immer leiser. (tr. Grows ever quieter.) Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert
13:45 Mit strengem Ton. (tr. With a harsh tone.) Almansor by Heinrich Heine
14:10 In größter Ungeduld. (tr. Extremely impatient.) Eulenspiegel by Johann Nestroy
14:14 Tut pikiert. (tr. Acts piqued.) Meister Oelze by Johannes Schlaf
14:26 Robust, um nicht zu heulen. (tr. Stolidly so as not to sob.) Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert
15:45 Perplex zurück. (tr. Back, perplexed) XYZ by Klabund
16:05 Mit komischer Gravität. (tr. With comic gravity.) Zar und Zimmermann by Albert Lortzing
16:36 Mit ungeschickter Ängstlichkeit. (tr. With clumsy anxiety.) Eulenspiegel by Johann Nestroy
18:14 Mit den Bewegungen einer Marionette. (tr. With the movements of a marionette.) Eulenspiegel by Johann Nestroy
18:23 Alle fahren erschrocken herum. (tr. All wheel about, shocked.) Der Sohn by Walter Hasenclever
19:36 Auf beide los. (tr. Coming at both.) Zar und Zimmermann by Albert Lortzing
21:29 Und ziehen sich zurück. (tr. And draw back.) Hidalla oder Sein und Haben by Frank Wedekind
22:13 Mit affektiertem Schmerz. (tr. With affected anguish.) Almansor by Heinrich Heine
22:43 Sich etwas erhebend. (tr. Rising somewhat.) Aslauga by Friedrich de La Motte Fouqué
23:58 Alle in größter Verwirrung ab. (tr. All exit in great confusion.) Eulenspiegel by Johann Nestroy
28:09 Fällt rauschend ein. (tr. Collapses noisily.) Zar und Zimmermann by Albert Lortzing
29:04 Buntes Gewühl. (tr. Pied turmoil.) Almansor by Heinrich Heine
29:52 Burleskes Ballett. (tr. Burlesque ballet.) Almansor by Heinrich Heine

I then wanted to see which plays have more than one distinctive line in Frembdsch. They were:

Play Count
Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert 6
Eulenspiegel by Johann Nestroy 5
XYZ by Klabund 4
Almansor by Heinrich Heine 4
Zar und Zimmermann by Albert Lortzing 3
Der Sohn by Walter Hasenclever 3
Meister Oelze by Johannes Schlaf 2

It seems Borchert, Nestroy, Klabund, Heine, Lortzing, Hasenclever, and Schlaf, entered Frembdsch relatively unharmed. Note that only one of these plays (Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann) is present in the previous list of works in which stage directions from Frembdsch most often appear. Only two authors are represented in both lists: Lortzing and Nestroy. Nestroy also appeared three separate times in the previous list, suggesting a general stylistic affinity between his stage directions and those of Frembdsch.

A closer look into Nestroy’s Eulenspiegel, the play with the second-highest number of distinctive lines in Frembdsch, reveals narrative borrowings that would otherwise not be captured by this strategy of exact matching. Reminiscent of Beckett’s Endgame, the narrative, as it is, of Frembdsch begins and ends with stage directions indicating a character exiting and then again entering a barrel. For example:

Time Stage direction
01:05 In der Ecke steht ein Fass. (tr. A barrel stands in the corner.)
01:10 Lauscht ein Kopf heraus. (tr. A head listens out. [sic!])
02:56 Noch halb im Fass. (tr. Still half in the barrel.)
03:28 Aus dem Fass steigend. (tr. Climbing out of the barrel.)

Then near the end:

Time Stage direction
31:52 Lauscht in das Fass. (tr. Listens into the barrel.)
31:56 Steigt ins Fass. (tr. Climbs into the barrel.)
31:59 Bückt sich, schlägt Deckel zu. (tr. Bends, closes the lid.)

The only exact match with the German Drama Corpus is “Noch halb im Fass.” This comes from Nestroy’s Eulenspiegel, a play with a great deal of business with people in barrels. A closer look into Eulenspiegel reveals two near misses: instead of “Steigt ins Fass,” Nestroy’s text has “Steigt ins Faß,” and instead of “aus dem Fass steigend,” Nestroy’s text has “aus dem Fasse steigend.” It seems that Nestroy’s work, and Eulenspiegel in particular, is disproportionately represented in Frembdsch.