Everything You Wanted To Know About German Dialects

If you were wondering about German dialects — from what they are, where they come from, and how many there are — we have the answers.
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Everything You Wanted To Know About German Dialects

What is Hochdeutsch, and what does it mean? How many dialects does German have? And while we’re on the subject — what is a dialect, really? Before we get into everything you wanted to know about German dialects, let’s clarify a few concepts.

What’s The Difference Between Accents And Dialects?

In English, an accent is how a language is pronounced. This has several implications, because 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 includes different pronunciation, but goes further and includes differences in grammar and vocabulary. Dialects of a language are usually mutually intelligible, but it can require a lot of effort for speakers with differing dialects to understand each other.

We don’t have as strong of a sense of dialects in English, because almost all varieties of English are pretty similar. We do have a couple examples, however. What do you call something baked that is small, flat and sweet — a cookie or a biscuit? Or what do you call long cuttings of fried potatoes — fries or chips (or something else entirely)? If you took these types of 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 because people use it to refer to both Standard German and a dialect within German (more on that later). Most of the time, you’ll probably hear it used synonymously with Standard German. Unsurprisingly, Standard German is the result of the standardization of the German language. It is the German that is portrayed as “correct” and “free of dialect” — but 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 of German grammar and pronunciation like Académie française does for French. In lieu of this, Duden dictionary is often consulted as an authoritative work for German. However, the Duden editors themselves argue that they don’t create the language, they just describe it objectively. For civil servants (including teachers) and public service workers, there is an official Hochdeutsch  established by regulations, but this isn’t enforced on private individuals.

But Hochdeutsch Is ‘Proper’ German, Right?

Not really. Standard languages aren’t any more logical or regular than dialects. Often the opposite is true, because dialect speakers are less interested in “correct” speech, so they tend towards greater grammatical regularity when speaking.

Even standardized pronunciation rests on arbitrary rules of “correctness” — and doesn’t always align with the written form. For example, the “dialect-free” pronunciation of the number vierzig (forty) is [virzich], with a short [i] and [ch] at the end. Don’t believe me? Have a listen to the Duden entry. Some dialect pronunciations follow the spelling more closely, with a long [i] and a [g] at the end. Considering that, it’s pretty closed-minded to consider Standard German as more correct than the 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 still the lingua franca and the people spoke in dialect. The vast differences between the dialects first became apparent with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and the arrival of the printing press. A unified German, capable of being understood anywhere, had to be created in order for something to be widely circulated. From this background, it’d be better to think of Standard German as a lingua franca, rather than the “true German.”

What Dialects Are There In Germany?

In general, German dialects are divided into High German (hochdeutsch) and Low German (niederdeutsche) vernaculars. To return our previous point about Hochdeutsch, the descriptors “high” and “low” aren’t judging the quality of the German. They simply refer to the dialects of the “high” and “low” states — the mountainous South and the flat North. This can be confusing for learners, because of the natural desire to conflate North with “high” and South with “low.”

In German, dialects are differentiated from each other by the extent that they were affected by the so-called High German consonant shift. Generally, a sound shift describes the long-term and multi-stage way that speech changes in the pronunciation of sounds 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, for example, and the word schip was now 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 countries (where English comes from if you could guess from the examples!) were largely unaffected by this shift, while the dialects of higher regions were affected to varying degrees. These dialects, now classified as High German, can then be subdivided further into Middle German and Upper German dialects.

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

Dialects in the Low German grouping include northern vernaculars, such as the Schleswig, Holsatian and Ostfriesian dialects, but also centrally located dialects such as Brandenburgisch or Limburgish, which is spoken in North Rhine-Westphalia in the area around the cities of Mönchengladbach and Düsseldorf. As you might guess from the name, Limburgish is also spoken in the Dutch province of Limburg and the Belgian province of Limburg. And fun fact: Low German is actually more closely related to Dutch than it is to Standard German.

The Middle German language area comprises areas such as Cologne (Ripuarian) and Hessen (Hessian), but also 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 city-dialect made up of a mixture of different vernaculars.

The Upper German language area extends roughly 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: As well as Germany and its neighboring regions, there are German-language enclaves in Poland, Slovenia and Ukraine, for example. How do we deal with Luxembourgish — do we view it as a dialect of German, or an independent language? What about Plautdietsch (Mennonite Low German) in Central and South America? Or Pennsylvania Dutch or Texas German? Are these independent languages or dialects?

While questions like these complicate the issue, they also underline one characteristic of language: All languages live, change and breathe. German is no exception! These dialects make German a more interesting language to learn and to speak. You’ll have to master Hochdeutsch first, but afterward, any dialect will only enrich your experience.

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