German Dialects: The Franconian Dialect

Learn more about one of the most diverse dialects in Germany.
The Franconian dialect represented by a nighttime photo of a bridge in Cologne, Germany.

It’s pretty well-known that the Franks do not enjoy being grouped in with the Bavarians. And thus it follows: Franconian and Bavarian dialects are not the same. But the problem of dividing up Germany into linguistic groups doesn’t stop there. For one thing, Franconian doesn’t technically exist. And to show what we mean, we’ll take a look at the many different Franconian dialects and languages.

Languages And Dialects

Anyone who has explored languages and dialects knows that sometimes, it’s not so easy to put them into categories. First of all, the decision to classify something as a dialect or standalone language is often political rather than linguistic. Additionally, dialects don’t stop at borders — foreign or domestic. There are often a variety of dialects or variations within a supposedly uniform language that are barely noticeable from the outside. In many areas, a dialect will disappear altogether, with the standard language taking its place. Furthermore, some expressions are used differently in colloquial language than they are in linguistics.

The expression Hochdeutsch (“High German”) means Standard German colloquially, but in a linguistic context refers to the Upper German dialect. Sometimes, terms are also used in multiple ways. Saxon describes both Lower Saxon in the old settlement area of the Saxons in northern Germany and Upper Saxon in the modern-day state of Saxony.

All of these problems come together when we talk about Franconian. Intuitively, we’d like to place it in Franconia, the piece of land in the corner of Bavaria. Indeed, to outsiders’ ears, Franconian sounds similar to Bavarian: They greet with Grüß Gott and speak with a rolled [r] — so, enough said, right? With an introduction like this, it should be abundantly clear to the clever reader that the term Franconian is much more complicated in real life.

Are There Franconian Dialects or Franconian Languages?

When we say Franconian languages, that could to the West Germanic languages and dialects spoken by the Franks around the third century CE. More relevant to us, it can also refer to the languages and dialects that developed out of the Franconian dialects spoken in the north and east regions of the later Franconian Empire from the fifth to the ninth century.

There are, for example, the Rhine-Franconian and Moselle-Franconian dialects, which are spoken in Alsace and Lorraine, and which also include Luxembourgish. Dutch and Afrikaans (the official language of South Africa) are also both Lower Franconian languages. Franconian languages are, then, far more widely distributed than one might have thought, and these languages are barely scratching the surface.

The diversity of the Franconian dialects is due, among other things, to the fact that the language spread before an important change in pronunciation took place in the German-speaking regions. That is, the High German (or “second”) sound shift advancing from the south had been in progress since the sixth century. This regular, multi-phase type of language shift is characterized by the fact that the pronunciation changes over time.

  • In this case, a consonant shift turned [p] to [pf] or [f]. For example, the word [appel] started being pronounced as [Apfel] (“apple”), and [schip] became [Schiff] (“boat”).
  • The consonant [t], meanwhile, shifted to [s] or [ts]. To this day, speakers in the North say [dat], [wat] and [Water], while Southern speakers who underwent the shift say [was] (“what”), [das] (“that”), and [Wasser] (“water”).
  • The [k]-sound changed to the fricative [ch], which turned [ik] to [ich] (“I”) and [maken] to [machen] (“to make”).

As we can see from these examples, northern dialects (Low German) were largely unaffected by the second sound shift, while the southern dialects (Middle and Upper German) were affected to varying degrees. There are Franconian dialects in Low German, Middle German and Upper German variants, as this structure is based on purely phonetic aspects. These variants contain agreements in other respects, for example in vocabulary, but despite this are far enough removed from each other that they are recognized as separate but related Franconian dialects.

What Is Spoken In Franconia Today?

Now we come to the dialects spoken in modern-day Franconia. That is, the High and Upper Franconian (North Upper German) dialects. These consist of the East Franconian (which, confusingly, is colloquially referred to as Franconian), and south (or Rhine) Franconian dialects. These are spoken not only in Franconia, but also in adjacent areas. The Upper Franconian dialects have strong Alemannic and Bavarian influences, and they sometimes have more in common with those dialects than with the original Franconian dialects.

East Franconian comprises all the dialects that are colloquially referred to as Franconian today. But of course, there is no single (East) Franconian dialect. For example, in Nuremberg, one calls a girl (Mädchen) a Madla, whereas in Fuerth it’s Madli and Alfeld bei Hersbruck it’s Meudla — and all of this takes place within a 30-kilometer radius.

What Does East Franconian Sound Like?

How To Pronounce With The Franconian Dialect

The consonant system of East Franconian is similar to that of Standard German. However, there are some differences.

  • One of the most noticeable characteristics is the rolled, “American”-sounding [r]. This is a distinctive feature that speakers of East Franconian bring to their Standard German, often revealing their Franconian roots. (Sometimes the “normal” (gurgled) German [r] is also used.) In syllables pronounced after vowels, the [r] is often vocalized as an [a], as, for example, also occurs in the Berlin metrolect. So, for example, Bier (beer) is pronounced [Bia]. Sometimes, the [r] in East Franconian isn’t pronounced at all.
  • Similar to the Saxon dialect, in the Franconian dialect certain consonants are softened: [t] becomes [d], [k] becomes [g], and [p] becomes [b].
  • In many dialects, the [g] and [b] that occur between vowels turn into fricatives. For example, Vogel (“bird”) becomes [Vochel], and Gabel (“fork”) is pronounced as [Gawel]. This also happens with a [g] that ends a word, so Berg (“mountain”) is pronounced [Berch].
  • The consonant [ch] sometimes disappears at the end of a word, for example endlich (finally) turns into [endli] and the personal pronoun ich becomes [i].

The most noticeable difference between the Franconian dialects and other German pronunciations, however, is probably the vowels. Like the consonants, areas of Germany went through a vowel shift. One famous line about Franconia is that it’s where die Hasen “Hoosn” und die Hosen “Huusn” Haasn. What that means is that in Franconia, people say Hasen (“bunnies”) like [Hoosn] and they say Hosen (“pants”) like [Huusn]. While that’s only one example, you can see how the vowels in these words are subtly different from Standard German.

Franconian Grammar

The East Franconian shares some characteristics with other Upper German dialects:

  • In the perfect tense of stehen (“to stand”), sitzen (“to sit”) and liegen (“to lie”), the modal verb sein is used instead of haben. That looks like this: Ich bin gestanden, ich bin gesessen and ich bin gelegen.
  • The genitive case disappears. In its place — as is the case in much of the rest of Germany — the dative is used to denote possession.
  • The word wo is used as a relative pronoun and can be used with articles of any gender (der, die or das): Die Frau, (die) wo ich kenn […] (“The woman whom I know…”)
  • Shortening of the prefix ge– in the participle to g-. For example, gesagt (said) becomes gsagt. Before certain so-called plosive sounds (consonants that require a short expulsion of air), the prefix is reduced completely. For example, gekommen (came) becomes kommen.
  • Names in the East Franconian dialects are not made diminutive with the suffix -chen, but rather with -lein or similar variants.

Some grammatical particularities are limited to East Franconian.

  • In both Lower Franconian and Hohenlohisch, the infinitive (the unconjugated form of a verb) ends with an -e rather than the Standard German -en (hoffe and mache rather than hoffen or machen, for “to hope” and “to make”), whereas in Upper and Middle Franconian, it’s hoff’n or mach’n. Some of the East Franconian dialects (Schweinfurt, Würzburg) simply get rid of their infinitive endings altogether: schlafen (“to sleep”) becomes schlaf, kritisieren (“to criticize”) becomes kritisier.
  • This reduction trend continues into the conjugated forms of verbs as well: gegessen (“eaten”) turns into gegess or gessn. In some cases, the past participle takes a completely different form than it does in Standard German: Instead of gewusst (“known”), it’s gwist; instead of gedacht (“thought”) it’s denkt.
  • Further, in the East Franconian dialects, the dative doesn’t merely stand in for the genitive. It often takes the place of the accusative, as well. For example, ohne mich (“without me”) often becomes ohne mir; für dich (“for you”) becomes für dir.

Is French Franconian?

Now that we have cleared up what Franconian is, only one question remains: Are Franconian and French related? The answer is: Yes, but distantly. Franconian is not a dialect of French. The similarity of the names can be explained by the fact that the West Franconian faction of the Franconian people (who settled in what is now France and Wallonia) stuck to the name frencisk (Franconian), even though they had adopted the Gallo-Roman language — let’s not even get started on the Gallo-Roman languages, because that opens an entirely new can of worms.

This article was originally published on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.

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Katrin Sperling

Katrin (Kat) Sperling was born and raised in Potsdam, Germany and moved to Toronto, Canada after high school. Since her Hogwarts letter still hadn't arrived by her 20th birthday in 2011, she finally had to face reality and went to study English and German linguistics in Berlin. Luckily, linguistics turned out to be just as magical, and Kat is now very happy to write about learning languages for the Babbel Magazine.

Katrin (Kat) Sperling was born and raised in Potsdam, Germany and moved to Toronto, Canada after high school. Since her Hogwarts letter still hadn't arrived by her 20th birthday in 2011, she finally had to face reality and went to study English and German linguistics in Berlin. Luckily, linguistics turned out to be just as magical, and Kat is now very happy to write about learning languages for the Babbel Magazine.