Urban slang is ‘more logical’ way of speaking

The street slang spoken by young people in Germany’s big cities is so distinct that one language expert is arguing for it to be recognised as a dialect.

Urban slang is 'more logical' way of speaking
Photo: DPA

Linguistics professor Heike Wiese says “Kiezdeutsch” which roughly translates as “neighbourhood German”, is a mutated, fluid form of high German spoken by urban young people across the country.

Incorporating many foreign words, the slang also simplifies German grammar, but is often dismissed as “ruining the purity of German language,” she said.

Wiese has spent over ten years exploring the language melting pot that is inner-city Germany to collect colourful anecdotes about the street language used by young people.

Kiezdeutsch” is, in many respects, a more logical spin on a complicated language, despite negative media coverage dismissing it as an incorrect version of German, said the professor from Potsdam University.

Her book “Kiezdeutsch: ein neuer Dialekt entsteht” – (Neighbourhood German – a new dialect arises) – aims to give an in-depth explanation to those left baffled by it, and proffer an argument as to why it holds its own linguistically. It will be published – in high German – in February.

Wiese uses the two letter word “so” as an example. She said that young people use it freely to lend emphasis to a statement – although it is not grammatically accurate, it makes sense.

Another example of “Kiezdeutsch” is “Gestern war ich Schule” (Yesterday I was school) which is grammatically incorrect but accepted and understood by most young people.

One of the teenagers Wiese interviewed for her book was 18-year-old Sharon Wendzich, from Berlin.

Wendzich told Wiese about an incident when she and a group of friends chatting on the street were approached by an elderly couple, one of whom asked them “What are you young people saying nowadays?” They couldn’t understand the “Kiezdeutsch” that the girls were using.

This, said Wiese, suggests that “Kiezdeutsch” should be considered as a dialect in its own right and not a bastardisation of the German language.

Young people can switch it on and off, though. She said none of her young interviewees, “spoke with their teacher in the same way they speak to their friends, unless they are trying to anger an authority figure.”

Kiezdeutsch”, which differs from city to city, is most common in multicultural areas, where different languages are mixed, said Wiese.

Young people of Turkish or Arabic origin seem to dominate the wannabe-dialect, she said.

Dalia Hibish, a 15-year-old from Berlin, has been working on a language project with Wiese.

She said she spoke mostly Arabic yet the majority of her neighbours are English-speaking and is taught in German – but in the school yard she speaks “Kiezdeutsch” – which for her is a mix of all these language.

“Chatting in “Kiezdeutsch” sometimes is fun” said Madagascar-born Aichat Wendlandt who, like Wendzich and Hibish, is working towards her high school leavers’ Abitur certificate. But she admitted she did not speak it regularly.

While “Kiezdeutsch” crosses multicultural borders easily on the street, it has yet to be accepted in the classroom, as Wendzich discovered after slipping a phrase into her homework by accident. Her teacher wrote “What does this mean?” next to it.

“After eight years in a multicultural school it was bound to happen sometime,” Wendzich told Wiese.

DAPD/The Local/jcw

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‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”


“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”