How Hard Is It To Learn Austrian German? — Two Brits Find Out!
Two Brits, who have lived for years in the safe linguistic cocoon of Northern Germany, take on the challenge of learning Austrian German in just a few hours. Will they succeed, or will it be a case of goodnight Vienna? Read on to find out!
After 6 years of living in Germany, I think I’m fairly proficient in German. Do you need me to chat with the Hausmeister over the broken shower in your flat? I’m on it. You’d like me to haggle with the vendor at the flea market over the price of the supposedly ‘vintage’ wardrobe? Pfff, easy. Since moving to Berlin, I’ve even grown to love Berlinerisch, and will happily show off by peppering my German with the odd ‘ick’ and ‘dit’. The point is, I can handle myself pretty well in German… unless you put me in a room with a Bavarian, a Swabian, or a speaker of any other regional German dialect from outside the capital. These regional variants are way beyond my level of German.
So when my Austrian colleague, Isabella, asked me, ‘Are you up for learning a bit of Austrian German – for a Babbel video, of course?’ my reaction was a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Sure I’d LOVE to test myself with a bit of Austrian, and yes I DO already have an unhealthy addiction to schnitzel, but what if my butchering of the local lingo offends 8 million Austrians? Would I ever be able to show my face at a Viennese coffeehouse again? In the end, when my colleague Ed agreed to humiliate himself alongside me, and Isabella promised we’d get to wear Lederhosen and eat pretzels all afternoon, I quickly signed on.
What do you mean ‘learn Austrian’?
‘Standard Austrian German’ refers to the official German spoken in Austria, which, despite the strong accent, is largely indistinguishable from the German spoken in Germany. There are small differences in vocabulary, of course, such as heuer being used to describe ‘this year’ (in standard German this would be dieses Jahr), but these differences provide no real hurdle for German (or non-German speakers) to navigate.
Nevertheless, the challenge that Ed and I were given was to learn real Austrian German, i.e. the language spoken by ordinary people on the street corners of Salzburg or the Alpine footpaths of Tyrol. For us, the dream was to master authentic Austrian so well that we’d able to blend into a Schuhplattler dance without raising any eyebrows or be able to pull up a stool to a busy table in an Austrian beer hall and successfully chat with the locals over a Maß.
But motivation and pretzel-fueled energy can only get you so far. If Ed and I were going to successfully transform ourselves into bonafide Austrians in just a couple of hours, we were going to need all the help we could get from Isabella.
So what did we learn on our journey south of the Weißwurstäquator?
How to speak Austrian: In 3 simple steps
Step 1: Make everything sound cute
I mistakenly thought Austrian would consist of a lot of shouting and throaty growls, but actually the opposite couldn’t be more true. It’s waaaaaay softer than I thought, and far more ‘sing-songy’ than I imagined.
For example, in standard German the translation for ‘a little’ is ein bisschen – pronounced ‘ein bish-shen’ – but in Austrian German bisschen is colloquially pronounced as bizzle, which to my British ears sounds like the perfect way to emphasise the essential cuteness of smallness.
Another example of just how cutesy Austrian can be is the way Austrians say goodbye, as they swap out the harsh and choppy Tschüss! favoured by cold Northern Germans for the sweet-as-butter Baba!. I’m no linguist, but this definitely sounds like one part ‘baby’s first word’, one part cute cousin of the English ‘Bye Bye’. And I love it.
Step 2: Watch out for Falsy McFalsefriend
Austrian German is chock full of phrases and words that at first glance look recognisable, but the minute you start trying to guess their true meanings, you find out that you couldn’t be more wrong.
Take the word Reparaturseidl. Ed and I took the logical route, and broke out the word into two parts. ‘Reparatur’, we thought, must mean ‘repair’ right? Boom! Our teacher confirmed this, 1-0 to the Brits. But ‘seidl’, on the other hand, had us truly flummoxed. Maybe the word is similar to the English ‘saddle’? Ergo, maybe Reparaturseidl has something to with getting your horse fixed? (Alright alright, I’m doing my best here).
Actually, a Reparaturaseidl is the beer that you drink the morning after a heavy night out on the tiles. You’re hungover as hell and feel like death, but once you’ve washed down a Reparaturseidl, all is right with the world again. This word really spoke to me because using a beer to solve your troubles might be the most British thing ever, but let’s not gloss over the fact that Reparaturseidl makes more sense than its British counterpart – hair of the dog.
Step 3: Put some oomph into it!
Austrian is for go-getters!
Maybe I’m unfairly characterising Northern Germans here, but as down to earth and earnest as they are, they’re not really known for their upbeat and outgoing nature. However, all the Austrians I’ve ever met have been nothing but energetic, positive and up for anything. I mean how else are you going to get through those epic portions of Schweinshaxe and climb those mountains?
To get us pumped up like a true Austrian, our teacher taught us the two phrases that best encapsulate this ‘get up and go’ Austrian spirit – Sammas! and Pock ma’s!
These words are rallying calls to get something done.
Is it time to get off the sofa and hoover the flat? Pock ma’s! Has everyone finally got themselves ready to go to the pub? Then it sounds like the perfect opportunity to shout Sammas! at the top of your lungs and pump some fists. Nothing could be more Austrian.
Did we successfully Austrianize ourselves?
Before I started my Austrian challenge, I had no idea of how Austrian German was supposed to sound. All I had in my head were ill-informed visions of big burly mountain men speaking quickly, harshly and loudly whilst rolling their r’s all over the place. I was convinced that my delicate British tones would never allow me to pull off a convincing Austrian accent – but I was wrong! Being from the West Country, I could certainly hear a lot of the Austrian folksy charm in my own mother tongue, and the swallowing of the vowels and mish-mashing of multiple words into one felt like home to this Devon boy.
Ed and I really loved the upbeat enthusiasm of the Austrian language, and once we’d digested our lessons, we felt like we could certainly conquer any mountain that stood in our way! – Green-screen or otherwise.
Sure, we had a great teacher who armed us properly with words, phrases and insider tips on pronunciation, but we learned that the real secret to Austrian awesomeness is that you’ve got to turn your enthusiasm up to 11 and say everything with a smile. Learning Austrian is like making friends with a smiley, sporty and slightly mad person. They’ll say everything super fast, and you might have trouble keeping up, but it doesn’t really matter because they have this infectious, sunny nature that really rubs off on you!
So if you’re itching to dust off those mountain boots and head to the Tyrolean hills to put your German skills to the Austrian test, then trust me when I say that there’s nothing to be afraid of. To pass off as a genuine Austrian, you’ve only to throw all caution to the wind, and inject some country charm and gusto into your German!
And remember, Pock ma’s!