When I started learning German, people offered a million reasons why I shouldn’t.
When would I ever use such a thing? Why not something more in-demand? (Speaking of which, here’s why you should start!)
These questions would always be followed by two assertions from these doubtful people: One, that all Germans speak English anyhow. I would one day learn how horribly false this was when struggling to file a police report in Stuttgart.
But then came the other misconception: “They 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. There’s no point in learning one type of German if you’ll be surrounded by other types all the time; learning them all would be impossible.
Somehow this half-truth was only ever spread by people who didn’t speak any German, but wanted to seem like know-it-alls.
Let’s tell the other half of the story today.
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. There’s often more of a spectrum of differences among languages and dialects than clear-cut borders of who can understand who.
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 willy-nilly aberrations without any rules of their own, or that their speakers are unintelligent.
For instance, most people in the UK don’t naturally speak as if they’re about to present the news on the BBC. In America, even less so. Does this mean that the two countries have tumbled into chaos, where words no longer have any meaning? Are Americans inferior or incomprehensible for saying “truck” instead of “lorry”? Of course not. People just speak differently. It’s okay, I promise.
So Which German Have I Been Learning?
Now, let’s turn back to German. It’s true that people speak differently in different parts of Germany and within other German-speaking countries and communities. That said, 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), though I’ll explain in a moment why I prefer the first term.
Standarddeutsch is also what we focus on here at FluentU.
If you browse through our authentic videos and exercises, you can be sure that you’re learning material that will help you communicate throughout the entire German-speaking world. We’ve got you covered!
That’s because Standarddeutsch exists in every German-speaking country. Germany, Austria and Switzerland each have their own, somewhat different version of Standarddeutsch, however. With Germany as the largest country in the trio, most non-native speakers learn German Standard German. That may sound redundant, but that’s what happens when your country’s name and your language’s name are politically inseparable.
German Standard German is used throughout the media, politics and education in Germany. If you watch the news from Germany, it’s what you’re hearing. If you read a book from Germany, it’s what you’re reading. 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 don’t ever fall for the “they all speak different dialects anyway” hype ever again.
So what other different types of German are there?
I know, I know. This is the part you’re really waiting for. You want to see and hear examples of 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. Remember: It’s a spectrum. But enjoy perusing a small sample of this diversity. We’ll focus on seven kinds.
7 Different Types of German You Should Be Able to Recognize
1. Swiss German (Schwiizerdütsch)
For kicks, we’ll 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. In fact, 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. Mountains are high ground. That’s all it means.
Remember that we’re dealing with a dialect continuum here, not strict divisions. Bavarian shares similarities with the other varieties I’ve just described, but it often strongly 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)
Isn’t “Saxon” just another word for “German”? Not quite! 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. Listen to this video of the numbers in Sächsisch and see if you like counting “eens, zwee, drei, vieor“ instead of “eins, zwei, drei, vier.”
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. Alas, it really would be counterproductive to try to learn to speak them all.
The good news, however, is that the Standarddeutsch you’re learning is pretty much all you need, wherever you may go. 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.
To find out how your German is shaping up, you can try this dialect placement quiz in German. There’s a similar placement map for American English that went viral too.
Es lebe die Vielfalt! Long live diversity!
Amanda “Andy” Plante-Kropp teaches at the HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She strives to bridge the gap between second language acquisition research and practical pedagogy. You can learn more about her at English with Andy.
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