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What Is 'Swabian' German?

Just when you think you finally understand German, you discover that many Germans also speak a regional dialect. We encountered one of these on the first leg of our bike journey, as we rode through the Black Forest.

Jimmy and I have lived in Germany for a few years now and both speak some German, but our friends in Berlin have warned us about how difficult it can be to understand the southern German dialects. A lot of Germans living in Berlin seem to have bad impressions of German dialects in general — branding them as ugly and uncivilized farmer talk.

So when we set out on our bike trip from Berlin to Venice, we were a bit nervous about understanding folks the further south we went. However, after a couple of weeks riding through the southern half of the country, we are happy to report that we think the rural dialects down here are wonderful! Standard German (Hochdeutsch) can sound quite harsh at times, but the further south we have headed, the more intimate and musical the language has become to our ears.

The dialects weren’t too hard for us to understand, until we ended up near Swabia, the region containing the Black Forest in the southwest of Germany. When people first talked to us, assuming of course that we understood everything, we had to nod and grin before asking them to “please repeat."

It hasn’t been a problem for the Swabian Germans to switch to standard German in order to communicate with us, but when they speak among themselves we really have to concentrate just to get the gist of what they are saying. Now that we’ve been here for a couple of weeks, we’ve gotten used to some of the eccentricities of the dialect, and are beginning to understand more. So here’s our mini-guide to Swabian German for Ausländer (foreigners.)

The diminutive form in Swabian

The most obvious difference between Swabian and standard German is how the diminutive form changes. In standard German the diminutive ending (which makes any noun smaller and cuter) is -chen or -lein. For example; Tischlein (small table), Mädchen (girl; lit. "small maid"), Häuschen (small house), Mäuschen (cute, little mouse). In Swabia they use their own diminutive ending, -le, and they do it with EVERY SECOND WORD!

So Mädchen (girl) becomes Mädle. Here are some more examples:

Swabian Standard German English
Kätzle Kätzchen small cat
Häusle Häuschen small house
Fläschle Fläschchen small bottle
Büble Bübchen small boy
Würschtle Würstchen small sausage
Männle Männchen small man
Vögele Vögelchen small bird


Unique Swabian words

There are also a bunch of new words that we have never heard before, and luckily the locals are happy to translate them into German if need be. The first Swabian words we came across were different types of jam. What we know as Johannisbeermarmelade (redcurrant jam) is known here as Dreiblesgsälz, and Erdbeermarmelade (strawberry jam) is Bräschdlingsgsälz.

Many more new words were to follow. Here are a few:

Swabian Standard German English
älls manchmal sometimes
Grombiera Kartoffeln potatoes
mordsmäßich sehr very
gschwend mal eben; kurz mal for a second; just
dabbich ungeschickt clumsy
Gugg Tüte plastic bag
Zibeba Rosine raisin
oinawäg trotzdem anyway
äwwl immer always
bruddla meckern; nörgeln to grumble
schäbbs schief askew
Bäbberle Aufkleber sticker; label
Butzele Baby; Kleinkind baby; toddler
noddla schütteln to shake somebody/something


We may now be more familiar with the local dialect, but our bikes take us ever southward. The next mountain to conquer (besides the literal mountain range of the Alps!) will be Austrian German. More on that in my next article, but in the meantime wish us luck!

Follow the rest of Pia and Jimmy’s adventures on the road from Berlin to Venice:
Part 2: Austria
Part 3: Italy
Part 4: Venice
And catch up on their bicycle tour across South America:
Crossing South America By Bike

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