Everything You Wanted To Know About German Dialects

If you’re wondering about German dialects — what they are, where they come from and how many there are — we have the answers!
June 21, 2018
Everything You Wanted To Know About German Dialects

So, you’ve come here to learn more about German dialects. Perhaps you have a few questions already, like what, exactly, is Hochdeutsch? Or how many dialects does the German language have anyway? And while we’re on the subject — what is a dialect, really? Let’s clarify a few concepts before diving into everything you wanted to know about German dialects!

What’s The Difference Between Accents And Dialects?

In English, an accent is how a language is pronounced. Accents can refer to both how you pronounce your native language (like British vs. American English) and how your mother tongue influences your pronunciation in another language. Meanwhile, a dialect also involves different pronunciation styles, but goes further to include differences in grammar and vocabulary. Dialects of a language are usually mutually intelligible, but sometimes it takes some effort for speakers with differing dialects to understand each other.

We don’t have a strong sense of dialects in English because almost all varieties are pretty similar. We do have a few examples, though. What do you call something baked that is round, flat and sweet — a cookie or a biscuit? Or what do you call long slices of fried potatoes — fries, chips or something else entirely? If you took these small differences and intensified them, you’d get an idea of what dialects are like in German.

What Is Hochdeutsch?

The concept of Hochdeutsch can be a little confusing for learners to grasp. People use it to refer to both Standard German and a dialect group within German (more on that later). You’ll most likely hear it used synonymously with Standard German. Unsurprisingly, Standard German is the result of the standardization of the German language. It’s the German that’s portrayed as “correct” and “free of dialect,” though both of these attributes are questionable from a linguistic perspective.

It’s worth mentioning that there is no authority in Germany that provides strict rules for German grammar and pronunciation, like the Académie française does for French. In lieu of this, the Duden dictionary is often consulted as an authoritative reference. However, the Duden editors themselves argue that they don’t create the language, they just describe it. Public officials and civil servants (including teachers) are meant to use official Hochdeutsch established by government regulations. Of course, these rules aren’t enforced on the general public though.

But Hochdeutsch Is ‘Proper’ German, Right?

Not really. Standard languages aren’t any more logical or consistent than dialects. Often the opposite is true, because dialect speakers are less interested in “correct” language. They thus tend to use more grammatical regularity when speaking.

Even standardized pronunciation rests on arbitrary rules of “correctness,” which don’t always align with the written formFor example, the “dialect-free” pronunciation of the number vierzig (forty) is [virzich], with a short [i] and [ch] at the end. Some dialect pronunciations follow the spelling more closely, with a long [i] and a [g] at the end. Considering this, it’s pretty closed-minded to say Standard German is more correct than other dialects.

The biggest benefit of Hochdeutsch is that it allows communication across Germany between speakers of different dialects. Until the end of the Middle Ages, Latin was the lingua franca, while the general public spoke various dialects colloquially. The vast differences between dialects first became apparent with the printing press and Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. A unified German capable of being understood anywhere had to be created in order for literature to be widely circulated. With this in mind, it’d be better to think of Standard German as a lingua franca, rather than “true German.”

What German Dialects Are There In Germany?

In general, German dialects are divided into High German (hochdeutsch) and Low German (niederdeutsch) vernaculars. Following our previous point on Hochdeutsch, the descriptors “high” and “low” don’t indicate quality or superiority. Somewhat counterintuitively, they simply refer to the dialects of the “high” and “low” German states in the mountainous South and the flat North.

In German, dialects differ from each other by how much the so-called High German consonant shift affected them. Generally, a sound shift describes the long-term and multi-stage way that speech changes in pronunciation over time. This High German consonant shift took place somewhere between the 6th to 8th centuries and primarily affected the consonants [p], [t] and [k]. This might sound very theoretical, but here are a few examples to make things clearer:

  • In the consonant shift, [p] became [pf] or [f]. The word appel became Apfel, and the word schip was later pronounced Schiff.
  • The consonant [t] changed to [s] or [ts] (which sounds like a contemporary German [z]). This is why even today, speakers in Northern Germany say dat, wat and Water, like they did before the shift, while in the South they say das, was and Wasser.
  • The [k]-sound changed to the fricative [ch], so ik became ich and maken became machen.

The Low German spoken in the flat part of the country (where English comes from, if you could guess from the examples!) was largely unaffected by this shift. The dialects of higher regions, however, were affected to varying degrees. These dialects, now classified as High German, can be further subdivided into Middle German and Upper German dialects.

What Are Examples Of Low, Middle And Upper German Dialects?

Low German includes northern vernaculars such as the Schleswig, Holsatian and Ostfriesian dialects. Also included are more centrally-located dialects such as Brandenburgisch or Limburgish. As you might guess from the name, Limburgish is also spoken in both the Dutch and Belgian provinces of Limburg. And fun fact: Low German is actually more closely related to Dutch than it is to Standard German!

Middle German is found in areas such as Cologne (Ripuarian) and Hessen (Hessian). You’ll also hear other varieties farther East in Erfurt (Thuringian), Dresden (Upper Saxon) and Bautzen (Silesian-Lusation). Berlin is also right in the center of the Middle German language area, but its dialect is a metrolect — a mixed city-dialect made up of different vernaculars.

Upper German is spoken in the region that extends from Franconia across to Austria and Switzerland. Its most prominent vernaculars are Bavarian (East Upper German), Alemannic (West Upper German) and Franconian (North Upper German).

So How Many Dialects Does German Have?

It’s difficult to say exactly how many dialects can be classified within the overarching Low, Middle and Upper German dialect groups. Political criteria also come into play alongside linguistic ones. Besides Germany and its neighboring regions, there are German-language enclaves in countries like Poland, Slovenia and Ukraine. And how do we deal with Luxembourgish? What about Plautdietsch (Mennonite Low German) in Central and South America? Or Pennsylvania Dutch and Texas German in the US? Should we consider these examples German dialects, or independent languages?

While questions like these complicate the issue, they also underline the fact that language is alive and changing. German is no exception! These dialects make German more interesting to learn and to speak. You’ll have to master Hochdeutsch first as you learn German, but afterward, picking up another dialect will only enrich your language learning experience.

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Author Headshot
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.

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