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GERMAN LANGUAGE

EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

Standard German is called Hochdeutsch and is heard all over the country. But there are many regional dialects and other languages spoken in Germany.

A woman holds dictionary editions with different German dialects.
A woman holds dictionary editions with different German dialects. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

The wide-ranging dialects of Germany

There are believed to be as many as 250 dialects of German, with many tracing back to the languages of Germanic tribes.

In the north and around Berlin, many dialects have been displaced by the standard German language, however in the south, dialects are still prominent. This divide is thought to be due to the fact that the upper German south was a strongly rural region for a long time, becoming industrialised a lot later than its northern counterpart.

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Rheinhessisch (from Rheinhessen) and Pfälzisch (from Rhineland-Palatinate) belong to a group of Rhine-Franconian dialects which are spoken across the western regions of Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Hesse, and even in the northeastern part of France. 

Bairisch – from Bavaria – is one of the most widely spoken dialects and is more easily understood by German speakers, partly due to its prominence. 

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: "I mog di" (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019.

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: “I mog di” (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Other dialects include Schwäbisch, Kölsch, Hamburgisch and Allgäuerisch.

READ ALSO: The complete guide to dialects in Germany

But how many people actually use their dialects on a daily basis?

According to a survey by the Institute for the German Language (IDS) in Mannheim, every second German claims to be able to speak a dialect. 

However, decline in dialects has been noted by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research. In 1991 the institute found that 41 percent of Germans in the former East almost always spoke in dialect. By 2008 this number had dropped to 33 percent. In the west, this figure fell from 28 to 24 percent. 

It is also a lot more common for older generations to speak in dialect, which is contributing to its decline.

While many dialects are gradually disappearing, a so-called Regiolekt (regional dialect), which is a combination of dialect and standard language, seems to be sticking around. This is a regional, colloquial language that still maintains the grammar of High German. For example, the word “ich”, which people in Hesse and some other regions pronounce as “isch”, has been integrated into standard German.

What about other languages?

Overall, around 67 percent of the population speaks at least one foreign language, with 27 percent mastering two.

The most common second language is English, with many Germans learning English in school, especially with the emergence of bilingual kindergartens and schools. A number of businesses and start-ups in Germany use English as a working language, and even universities offer many classes or degrees in English, which further encourages teaching of the language. 

READ ALSO: ‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like working at a Berlin tech startup

English is taught in schools in Germany.

English is taught in schools in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Marijan Murat

Learning French or Latin is also still a popular option in German high schools. If you’re living near the Western or Eastern borders, it isn’t uncommon for Dutch or Russian language classes to be offered (the latter being especially the case in former GDR or East German states). 

Due to the number of first and second-generation immigrants from Turkey, Turkish is also widely spoken in households across Germany.

Minority languages in Germany

Minority languages have long played an important part in German culture, with Germany being one of the first countries to sign the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from the Council of Europe in 1992, aiming to preserve minority cultures in modern Europe, encouraging tolerance and diversity.

The minority languages most present in Germany include Romani (0.8 percent of the population), Danish (0.06 percent of the population) and the Frisian languages, including North Frisian and West Frisian from Schleswig-Holstein and the North Frisian islands, and Saterland Frisian spoken in Lower Saxony.

The West Slavic languages of Upper and Lower Sorbian spoken in Saxony and Brandenburg, while mostly spoken by older generations, have been given the right to protection under the Brandenburg constitution.

Low German or Plattdeutsch is closely related to Frisian, and is also spoken mainly in Northern Germany. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works. 

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