German Dialects - Dialekte (1)

Two Mature business colleagues talking
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You're not always going to hear Hochdeutsch

German-learners who step off the plane in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland for the first time are in for a shock if they know nothing about German dialects. Although standard German (Hochdeutsch) is widespread and commonly used in typical business or tourist situations, there always comes a time when you suddenly can't understand a word, even if your German is pretty good.

When that happens, it usually means you have encountered one of the many dialects of German. (Estimates on the number of German dialects vary, but range from about 50 to 250. The large discrepancy has to do with the difficulty in defining the term dialect.) This is a perfectly understandable phenomenon if you realize that in the early middle ages in what is now the German-speaking part of Europe there existed ONLY the many different dialects of the various Germanic tribes. There was no common German language until much later. In fact, the first common language, Latin, was introduced by the Roman incursions into the Germanic region, and one can see the result in "German" words like Kaiser (emperor, from Caesar) and Student.

This linguistic patchwork also has a political parallel: there was no country known as Germany until 1871, much later than most of the other European nation-states. However, the German-speaking part of Europe does not always coincide with current political borders.

In parts of eastern France in the region known as Elsace-Lorraine (Elsaß) a German dialect known as Alsatian (Elsässisch) is still spoken today.

Linguists divide the variations of German and other languages into three main categories:Dialekt/Mundart (dialect), Umgangssprache (idiomatic language, local usage), andHochsprache/Hochdeutsch (standard German).

But even linguists disagree about the precise borderlines between each category. Dialects exist almost exclusively in spoken form (despite transliteration for research and cultural reasons), making it difficult to pin down where one dialect ends and another begins. The Germanic word for dialect, Mundart, emphasizes the "word of mouth" quality of a dialect (Mund = mouth).

Linguists may disagree on a precise definition of just what a dialect is, but anyone who has heard the Plattdeutsch spoken in the north or the Bairisch spoken in the south knows what a dialect is. Anyone who has spent more than a day in German Switzerland knows that the spoken language,Schwyzerdytsch, is quite different from the Hochdeutsch seen in Swiss newspapers such as theNeue Zürcher Zeitung (see link in Part 2).

All educated speakers of German learn Hochdeutsch or standard German. That "standard" German may come in various flavors or accents (which is not the same thing as a dialect). Austrian German, Swiss (standard) German, or the Hochdeutsch heard in Hamburg versus that heard in Munich may have a slightly different sound, but everyone can understand each other. Newspapers, books, and other publications from Hamburg to Vienna all display the same language, despite minor regional variations.

(There are fewer differences than those between British and American English.)

One way to define dialects is to compare which words are used for the same thing. For example, the common word for "mosquito" in German may take any of the following forms in various German dialects/regions: Gelse, Moskito, Mugge, Mücke, Schnake, Staunze. Not only that, but the same word may take on a different meaning, depending on where you are. Eine (Stech-) Mücke in northern Germany is a mosquito. In parts of Austria the same word refers to a gnat or house fly, while Gelsen are mosquitos. In fact, there is no one universal term for some German words. A jelly-filled doughnut is called by three different German names, not counting other dialectical variations.Berliner, Krapfen and Pfannkuchen all mean doughnut.

But a Pfannkuchen in southern Germany is a pancake or crepe. In Berlin the same word refers to a doughnut, while in Hamburg a doughnut is a Berliner.

In the next part of this feature we'll look more closely at the six major German dialect branches that extend from the German-Danish border south to Switzerland and Austria, including a German dialect map. You'll also find some interesting related links for German dialects.

German Dialects 2

If you spend any time in almost any part of the German Sprachraum ("language area") you will come into contact with a local dialect or idiom. In some cases, knowing the local form of German can be a matter of survival, while in others it's more a matter of colorful fun. Below we briefly outline the six major German dialect branches-running generally from north to south. All are subdivided into more variations within each branch.

Friesisch (Frisian)

Frisian is spoken in the north of Germany along the North Sea coast. North Frisian is located just south of the border with Denmark. West Frisian extends into modern Holland, while East Frisian is spoken north of Bremen along the coast and, logically enough in the North and East Frisian islands just off the coast.

Niederdeutsch (Low German/Plattdeutsch)

Low German (also called Netherlandic or Plattdeutsch) gets its name from the geographic fact that the land is low (nether, nieder; flat, platt). It extends from the Dutch border eastward to the former German territories of Eastern Pommerania and East Prussia. It is divided into many variations including: Northern Lower Saxon, Westphalian, Eastphalian, Brandenburgian, East Pommeranian, Mecklenburgian, etc. This dialect often more closely resembles English (to which it is related) than standard German.

Mitteldeutsch (Middle German)

The Middle German region stretches across Germany's middle from Luxembourg (where the Letztebuergisch sub-dialect of Mitteldeutsch is spoken) eastward into present-day Poland and the region of Silesia (Schlesien). There are too many sub-dialects to list here, but the main division is between West Middle German and East Middle German.

Fränkisch (Frankish)

The East Frankish dialect is spoken along Germany's Main river pretty much in Germany's very center. Forms such as South Frankish and Rhine Frankish extend northwesterly towards the Moselle river.

Alemannisch (Alemannic)

Spoken in Switzerland north along the Rhine, extending farther north from Basel to Freiburg and almost to the city of Karlsruhe in Germany, this dialect is divided into Alsatian (west along the Rhine in today's France), Swabian, Low and High Alemannic. The Swiss form of Alemannic has become an important standard spoken language in that country, in addition to Hochdeutsch, but it is also divided into two main forms (Bern and Zurich).

Bairisch-Österreichisch (Bavarian-Austrian)

Because the Bavarian-Austrian region was more unified politically-for over a thousand years-it is also more linguistically uniform than the German north. There are some subdivisions (South, Middle, and North Bavarian, Tyrolian, Salzburgian), but the differences are not very significant. 

Note: The word Bairisch refers to the language, while the adjective bayrisch or bayerisch refers to Bayern (Bavaria) the place, as in der Bayerische Wald, the Bavarian Forest.