All you need to know about German dialect
Published on August 22, 2022 / Updated on January 5, 2024
The infamous German dialects! Rumor has it that Germans from different parts of the country cannot easily understand each other as the dialects are much more than an accent. There is at least some truth to it. Dialects developed on cultural grounds and according to geographical regions, not taking modern borders and national states into account. Yet there are common roots that justify the name “German” for all of them. And with notorious exceptions like Bavarian or Low German, most of what is said in a different Mundart will be understood throughout the country. In the other cases … well, there is always standard German to fall back on.
Dialects are a funny thing: nobody really knows how to define them. Linguists have been arguing for decades about the precise limits between a language and a dialect. Generally speaking though, we can say that a dialect still supposes the ability to communicate amongst different groups.
That being said, as a German, I have plenty of dialects that sound like complete gibberish to me. I speak Hochdeutsch (literally meaning “High German”), which is usually considered as being the “cleanest” German (meaning that everybody who speaks German would be able to understand what I*m saying). It’s the general type of German that you would hear on public television, national radio, in national politics, etc. …
Hochdeutsch hasn’t been around for all that long. Itonly came about in the second half of the twentieth century. While this is the standard German, at least 54 different dialects, also called Mundarten (vernacular), are still spoken all over the country. Not to mention Switzerland and Austria.
So, where do German dialects come from? In general, dialects are unavoidable. Every language in the world has different variations. When people live in different areas, the languages will develop differently. In some respect, a dialect is the early stage of a new language that is developing.
German specifically comes from the Germanic language tree (the Indo-European language tree if you want to go way back). It also has some Dutch, English, Frisian and a lot of Northern European influences. Like any language, it is the product of many languages mixing together over centuries. Historians pinpoint the birth (or start of evolution) of the German language to around 500 CE.
So what are the main differences in dialects in Germany? Well, they focus mainly on the inconsistent evolution of consonants in the German language. For example: the sound th in the English language comes from a common linguistic “ancestor” so to speak. It evolved into the German sound for d.
Frisian goes back to the Germanic tribes of the Northsea area. There are slight differences between the North Frisian spoken close to the Danish border, the West Frisian that is spoken across the Dutch border and the East Frisian spoken north of Bremen. Frisian is a good example of how languages develop with no regard to political borders. Did you know that Wetter in Frisian means water, not weather?
Low German is quite close to Frisian but goes back to the continental tribes. Platt means flat and nieder low or, in other words, nether. Both hint at the geographical characteristics of the region as does the word Netherlands – the lowlands, which speak Dutch, in which we recognize the resemblance to the word Deutsch. Niederdeutsch is spoken from the Dutch border eastwards and includes variations like Northern Lower Saxon, Westphalian or Brandenburgian. Water is a prominent feature here, and is called Water instead of Wasser. The relation to the English word is clear, but the pronunciation is that of the German Wasser with t instead of s.
No surprise here: Middle German is spoken in the middle of Germany. But not only here. Again, political borders don’t stop languages. Lëtzebuergisch is the middle German dialect spoken in Luxembourg.
Surprise! The Saxon did not live in Saxon, and saxish is not what is spoken in the Bundesland Sachsen today. The Saxon were West Germanic tribes in the Northwest of today’s Germany and the East of the Netherlands. Migrations and political reasons transferred the name to Sachsen but not the language. This would be Upper Saxon, but alas, it’s gone extinct! The least beloved German dialect from former East Germany with its dark, throaty sounds is actually just a local variety of standard German, for which it indeed formed the historical basis.
Ik instead of ich, “j” instead of “g” and a confusion about the dative and accusative cases. The city dialect of Berlin seems to get lost with the last few native Berliners being outnumbered by all those attracted to the buzzing capital of Germany.
While the German Bavarian accent is a softer version of high German, the actual Bayrisch dialect is much more than that. This dialect takes differences to an extreme and is hardly understood by outsiders, even if they are native Germans. The reason lies in the geographical seclusion of the mountainous area, a characteristic, the home of the Oktoberfest shares with Austria and Switzerland. This is because the old Bavarian dialects have developed as a mixture of old romanic and new Germanic words.
The high German of Austria and Switzerland is very similar to the one used in Germany. If you know German, you can easily read an Austrian newspaper or watch Swiss news. You might not, however, be able to communicate on the streets. The spoken language is a dialect that is closer to Bayrisch than high German, and Schwiitzerdütsch shows its characteristic difference already in its name.
German dialects go back to a time before there even was a unified Germany. The tribal origins are reflected in different roots that don’t take into account today’s political structures (see Saxish and Upper Saxon or Friesisch and Plattdeutsch spoken across the borders of the Netherlands and Denmark). The regional development of dialects in the low, middle and high parts of Germany resulted in a multitude of dialects that range from a slight accent to a language hard to understand, sometimes in the same area as the German Bavarian accent and Bayrisch. These days, it seems as though the divergence of the German dialects is slowing down, as it is for many other languages, especially in developed countries. This is due in large part to urbanization, modern communication like radio, TV and the internet, and more standardized educational systems. Languages are moving more and more towards uniformity amongst each individual branch. Is this going to put a hold in the evolution of languages as a whole? Of course not. But maybe it’ll help my great-great-grandchildren go to Switzerland without needing a “German to Swiitzerdütsch” dictionary.