Two Fires and a Linguistic Oddity

Early this morning, Bremen suffered two arson attacks in the same neighbourhood, in the very same street even. The attacks were very nasty, the arsonist set fire in the stairwells of two apartment blocks. Those are old buildings – both built pre-WWII – so the stairs were made from wood and caught fire quickly. Luckily, no one was killed, though more than thirty people were injured, including nine children and a baby. Even more luckily, they caught the guy who did it. Apparently, he has a history of mental illness and arson.

Because today was a slow news day – after all, the media can’t talk about Peer Steinbrück all the time, particularly since the election is still a long way away – the national news picked up the story of the arson attacks in Bremen. However, I noticed something odd in the national news reports about the fires. For if the reports gave the name of the street where the two fires occurred at all, they inevitably got it wrong.

Both fires happened in Gröpelingen, an old working class neighbourhood that now houses many Turkish families and that has been on the cusp of gentrification for years, but has never quite managed to step over, much to the relief of the locals. The street where both fire happened is called “Gröpelinger Heerstraße”. It’s a very long street and a main thoroughfare besides, so the fact that both fires occurred in the same street is not as remarkable as it sounds at first glance.

However, the national news reports did not speak of fires in the Gröpelinger Heerstraße. They spoke of fires in the “Heerstraße”, which was rather confusing to every local, because Bremen has a lot of Heerstraßen. There is the Gröpelinger Heerstraße, the Waller Heerstraße (really the same street, only it changes names when it passes from one neighbourhood into the other), the Kattenturmer Heerstraße, the Schwachhauser Heerstraße, the Hemelinger Heerstraße, etc… All of these streets are main thoroughfares (and permanently clogged) and have been the main roads leading into the city for centuries.

The word “Heerstraße” translates as “Army road”, because these roads were expanded by the French during Napoleon’s times to allow for the rapid marching of armies. And because the French built a lot of army roads, Bremen has a lot of Heerstraßen. So in order to avoid confusion, every Heerstraße is also tagged with the name of the respective neighbourhood. Hence, the Gröpelinger Heerstraße passes through Gröpelingen (and becomes the Waller Heerstraße once it hits Walle), while the Kattenturmer Heerstraße passes through Kattenturm and so on.

Having grown up in Bremen, it’s absolutely natural to me that “Heerstraße” means “main street” and that the full street name designates the neighbourhood. Hence it never even occurred to me that not every city might use the same practice to name its streets.

However, the use of “Heerstraße” in combination with the name of a neighbourhood as a street name is apparently a Bremen specific feature. For example, Berlin only has one Heerstraße sans neighbourhood modifier (which would probably have gone on the list of reasons why Bremen is cooler than Berlin I kept in my teens along with “Berlin is only 750 years old – even our fair is older” and “Berlin doesn’t even have a first league football team”). Hence, the national media automatically assumed that the “Gröpelinger” in “Gröpelinger Heerstraße” was just a modifier rather than part of the street name, so they omitted it.

Here’s one example from the RTL TV news. The commentator speaks about fire breaking out in the Heerstraße in the Gröplingen neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, the relevant article from the local newspaper Weser Kurier uses the full name and clearly states that the fires took place in the “Gröpelinger Heerstraße”.

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3 Responses to Two Fires and a Linguistic Oddity

  1. Well, I’m certainly glad that no one was killed, and I hope that none of the injuries were too serious.

    Pretty confusing street name protocol.

    • Cora says:

      Most of the injuries were either smoke inhalation or broken legs due to people jumping or climbing from windows onto the awning of a shop on the groundfloor of one of the buildings. According to the local newspaper, all injured people have already left the hospital. Nonetheless, 30 people lost their homes. Luckily, they caught the guy who most likely did it.

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