german dialects

German Dialects: Can You Understand These 7 Different Types of German?

When I started learning German, people offered a million reasons why I shouldn’t.

One of them being this misconception: “German people all speak different dialects anyway.”

German, as the myth goes, is a fractured collection of independent mini-languages. Move from city to city, and you won’t understand a word.

Let’s put that myth to rest and tell the other half of the story.

Contents

What Is a Dialect?

As the old saying goes, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

In other words, the division between “language” and “dialect” is often political.

Why do we consider Portuguese and Spanish to be two separate languages when they have so many strong similarities? Why do we consider Cantonese and Mandarin to be two dialects of Chinese, even though they can be very different? Pull up a map, look at some national borders and then get back to me.

Mutual intelligibility, or the degree to which speakers are able to understand each other, plays a more limited role than some people realize. 

To refute another stereotype, a dialect is not just a messed-up version of a “true” or “proper” language. Sometimes one dialect sets the norms within a community of speakers, but that doesn’t mean that other dialects are aberrations without any rules of their own. People just speak differently, and that’s okay. 

So Which German Have I Been Learning?

Now, let’s turn back to German. Even though there are a lot of dialects of German, there is a dominant, norm-setting variety that almost all non-native speakers learn. It is called Standarddeutsch (Standard German) or often Hochdeutsch (High German).

That’s because Standarddeutsch exists in every German-speaking country. Germany, Austria and Switzerland each have their own version of Standarddeutsch, but most non-native speakers learn it from Germany because it’s the largest country in the trio.

You’ll find that a lot of German media are in Standarddeutsch. In fact, you can even take advantage of this to learn German—for instance, FluentU’s German program teaches Standarddeutsch through clips from actual German shows, music videos, news reports and more. All of these have interactive subtitles and transcripts, with explanations for each German word.

By knowing this variety of German, you’ll be able to communicate throughout the entire German-speaking world. If you study abroad in Germany, it will be the language of your classes. Even Germans who grow up speaking a non-standard dialect at home will still usually be masters of Standard German because they are exposed to it throughout their lives.

So aside from Standarddeutsch, what other different types of German are there?

You probably want to check out other kinds of German to find out if you understand them. Some will have mutual intelligibility with the Standarddeutch you’ve been learning. Others, perhaps not.

We’ll focus on seven kinds.

7 Different Types of German You Should Be Able to Recognize

1. Swiss German (Schwiizerdütsch)

For kicks, let’s start with the German variety you’re least likely to understand. Schwiizerdütsch, also spelled Schweizerdeutsch or even Schwizertitsch, is the catch-all term for the different varieties in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland.

So yes, they do vary from place to place even in this small country. However, they share some common trends—such as vowel shifts—compared to Standarddeutsch, which can affect even how the Swiss say the articles (words meaning “the” or “a”). See how many differences you can recognize just in this one sample of animal names.

2. Austrian German (Österreichisches Deutsch)

As noted before, there is an Austrian Standard German which is very, very similar to the German Standard German you’re learning. If you see Austrian German in writing, such as in the newspapers Die Presse or Der Standard, you might not notice any differences at all!

But again, spoken language is different. You’ll immediately notice some pronunciation differences in the Standarddeutsch of this YouTuber, and when she switches out of the standard, you might even feel a little lost!

3. The Bavarian Dialect (Bayerisch)

We’ll continue our sweep of southern High German by looking at the Bavarian dialect next. Bavaria is in southeastern Germany, and it is the largest of the 16 Bundesländer (roughly equivalent to states or provinces) that make up the country.

Why have I called it High German? “High” in this sense has nothing to do with high prestige or a high level of formality. It’s geographical—Bavaria is near the Alps, and mountains are high ground.

Bavarian German shares similarities with the other varieties I’ve just described, but it often confuses Germans from other parts of the country.

This Bavarian ska band almost became Germany’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013. Despite being a fan favorite, the song’s hard-to-comprehend lyrics may have been the reason for its defeat. How much do you understand?

4. The Upper Saxon Dialect (Sächsisch)

Saxony, or Sachsen, is another one of the 16 Bundesländer. It is in the eastern half of the country and was part of the former German Democratic Republic during the Cold War.

Germany may be reunited now, but this dialect still provokes some strong and divisive opinions. It’s considered by many to be the “ugliest” German variety.

Markers of this dialect include a different pronunciation of the “ei” vowel sounds, so that they sound less like English “hi” and more like English “hay.” Some “R” sounds also take on a different quality. For example, instead of counting with “eins, zwei, drei, vier,” you’d say “eens, zwee, drei, vieor” in Sächsisch.

5. The Berlin Dialect (Berlinerisch)

Some say that Berlinerisch is dying due to the mass media influence of Standarddeutsch, decades of division and the shrinking number of Berliners who have lived in the city their whole lives.

The dialect is known for replacing its “ch” sounds with “k,” softening hard “g” into “j,” and blurring the lines between the accusative and dative cases

See if you can hear these differences in this lively rant.

6. Low German (Plattdüütsch)

“Low” in this case just means the lowlands of northern Germany, in contrast to the highlands of the Alps. Although this dialect is also slowly fading away, many speakers still see it as a part of their proud heritage, even going so far as to consider it its own language rather than a dialect.

Efforts are underway to protect Plattdeutsch, including the dialect short film festival that gives us this clip.

7. Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch)

But not all German is spoken in Europe! Pennsylvania “Dutch” is really a misinterpretation of the word Deutsch. It is a variety of German that has been passed down within some communities in North America, usually among the descendants of 17th and 18th-century Amish and Mennonite settlers.

It has its origins in the Palatinate region of Germany and still has similarities to the modern Pfälzisch dialect. One feature that sets it apart is frequent code-switching or borrowing of English words in some speaker communities, as you can hear in this man’s story of growing up with the language.

So Which German Should I Learn?

This list is an incomplete sample of all the types of German that exist. 

The good news, however, is that the Standarddeutsch you’re learning is pretty much all you need. Remember, most speakers of these non-standard dialects know the standard too, so you will be able to communicate. Even if you only study the standard for a number of years, you may find yourself beginning to understand these dialects too!

The important thing is that you don’t let myths surrounding different German dialects dissuade you from learning. Ideally, you’ll also let go of the idea that any of these dialects are inferior or wrong. Everyone speaks differently, period.

 

Es lebe die Vielfalt! Long live diversity!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe

Close