Questions And Answers About German Dialects

by Helmut Richter

This article was initially planned as a companion article to be published along with the article about the history of the German language but in fact it appeared more than three years later. Nonetheless, the two articles should be read together: prior to looking up the answer to a particular question from the following list, the reader is invited to read the history article at least up to and including the section where the difference between High and Low German is explained. Reading the first two of the questions and answers is also recommended before going to more specific sections.

Now, here are the questions. Only those written in boldface have already an answer, the others still wait for the author to complete this article.

What kind of German is spoken where?

There are lots of local features in German dialects and languages, and the borders between the regions where each is spoken do not coincide as to form coherent areas for few basic languages, and any short description will be full of inaccuracies. Hence it is only for a first very crude sketch that we divide the German-speaking countries as follows:

In the sequel, the remaining portion of the German-speaking countries, between the North and the South, will be called the Centre. It can be further subdivided as follows:

The South is the region where the Second Sound Shift (see the separate article on the history of German) is fully in effect for the local dialect, and the North where it is not in effect at all, whereas in the Centre, it is partially in effect (in the East more than in the West). As standard German is based on Eastern and Southern language, the Northern vernacular with its greater distance to the standard has more problems to survive.

As far as dialect is concerned, the main border is between the North where the dialects are varieties of Low German, and the rest where this is not the case. For colloquial standard German, the main border is between the South where the regional language mingles more easily with the intended standard and the rest where this is the less the case, the farther North we are. The mountain range South of river Mosel and North of river Main is indeed a border for many features where Northern/Central and Southern usage differ. Examples:

Written language differences between North and South Germany

Pronunciation differences between North and South Germany

Concerning the voiced and unvoiced pronunciation of consonants, the East is closer to the South:

Why are varieties of German called “high”, “low”, “upper”, or “flat” (Hochdeutsch, Niederdeutsch, Oberdeutsch, Plattdeutsch)?

The “Hoch-” (high) in “Hochdeutsch” may either refer to

Conversely, “Platt” (flat) may refer to non-standard, dialectal German or to Low German.

The usage of these terms is therefore sometimes ambiguous. Here is a list of possible meanings and ambiguities:

Term Meaning
German English (lit.transl.) Region Level
Hochsprache high language n/a standardised language for official and most literary use; antonyms: Umgangssprache, Dialekt, Mundart
Hochdeutsch High German vernacular of the Centre and the South of the German-speaking region; antonym: Niederdeutsch same as German Hochsprache
(Alt-, Mittel-, Neu-)hochdeutsch (Old, Middle, New) High German High German as spoken at different times in history n/a
Oberdeutsch Upper German vernacular of the South of the German-speaking region; antonyms: Niederdeutsch, Mitteldeutsch n/a
Mitteldeutsch Middle (or Central) German vernacular of the Centre of the German-speaking region; antonyms: Niederdeutsch, Oberdeutsch n/a
Niederdeutsch Low German original vernacular of the North of the German-speaking region; antonyms: Hochdeutsch n/a
Platt(deutsch) flat (German) same as Niederdeutsch; antonym: Hochdeutsch local dialect (North and West Germany only); antonym: Hochdeutsch

Note that although “Hochdeutsch” is the typical antonym of “Plattdeutsch” in both meanings of both words, the meanings do still not coincide: in the West of Germany, “Platt” refers to the local vernacular which is a Central German, not a Low German dialect, and in the Northern Lowlands, one would only call Low German “Platt” whereas colloquial language with many regionalisms is still not “Hochdeutsch”.

The ambiguity stems from the fact that High German has become the basis for standard German. Etymologically, “Hochdeutsch” comes from the regional meaning and “Platt” from the language level, but nowadays these words are mostly understood the other way: when a non-linguist speaks about “Hochdeutsch”, typically standard German is meant, and “Platt” is typically (albeit not exclusively) associated with the thick Low German vernacular of the coastal regions.

In English, most translations given above as literal are acceptable to convey the meaning, with the exception of “Hochsprache” which should be translated as “standard language”. “Plattdeutsch” is used as a loan word in English, and is thus not translated.

Are Swiss, Austrian, and Luxemburgish separate languages or German dialects?

There is no linguistic criterion to distinguish a dialect from a language. A dialect is a language if it is treated as such in a particular country. Or, as Max Weinreich put it: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

In Germany and Austria, local languages are treated as dialects: they are never written or used in radio or TV broadcasts with the exception of folkloristic programmes, and their usage is restricted to situations where both speakers agree on using the dialect. In South Tyrol (Italy), German has a minority status, but also there it is standard German and not the local language which has this status.

In Switzerland and Liechtenstein, there are much more occasions where the local language, Schwyzerdütsch, is used: in most radio and TV programmes, in court trials, and many more. However, Schwyzerdütsch is rarely written, and the minutes of a negotiation held in Schwyzerdütsch would be written down in standard German: hence the term “Schriftdeutsch” (written German) for standard German. Schwyzerdütsch has not the status of an official language but it is something like an official, albeit unwritten, dialect. Schwyzerdütsch comes in several subdialects which are mutually intelligible.

In Luxemburg, there are three official languages: the local language, Lëtzebuergesch, which is akin to West Central German dialects, French, and standard German. Other than all German dialects including Schwyzerdütsch, Lëtzebuergesch has a well-defined orthography and it is taught in school. So there is no question that Lëtzebuergesch is a language in its own right, and not a German dialect. - Due to the judicial system in Luxemburg, which has developed out of French law, most contracts and documents are written in French, so that the actual use of written Lëtzebuergesch is somewhat limited.

Which local dialect is nearest to standard German from a linguistic standpoint?

This depends a lot on which linguistic criteria one wants to apply. Historically, standard German has developed out of Southern and Eastern dialects, and was most heavily influenced by Luther who lived in the East and took an Eastern language, the chancery language of Meißen, as his standard. The dialect of Meißen in Saxony, Saxon (sächsisch, more precisely: obersächsisch) compares to standard German in an interesting way:

To sum up, despite its very pronounced sound which distinguishes Saxon from standard German, it is probably a good candidate for a German dialect linguistically close to standard German.

Where in Germany are chances best to learn standard German when you just talk with people?

Surprisingly, this is not where the local dialect is linguistically close to standard German which developed out of Southern and Eastern High German dialects. In these regions, the local dialect mixes too easily with standard German. Moreover, the phonology of these dialects happens to be thoroughly distinct from standard German (see previous question).

In the regions where Low German was the local vernacular, High German has also been the official language for quite some time, but there, until not long ago, it was a language distinct from the local idiom. Therefore, it was not so much “spoilt” by local language habits, and chances are better for a foreigner to pick up standard German. Moreover, the standard pronunciation was defined by Theodor Siebs who himself came from the Low German region, further contributing to the puzzling effect that standard High German can quite well be learnt in the formerly Low German area.

The answer to the question is therefore: in the South of the Low German region, and there in the greater cities where interaction with people from the rest of Germany has traditionally been frequent. Hannover is often nominated as “capital of Standard Germany” but in other cities like Münster or Magdeburg you will hear standard German as well.

Are German dialects mutually intelligible?

The short answer is “No”. Had people from different German-speaking regions not all learnt a common standard German, they would have a hard time understanding each other.

Each of the dialects contains some typical words that aren't cognates of standard German words and are thus hardly understood elsewhere, but in none of the dialects these words account for a large percentage of the vocabulary. Mutual intelligibility should therefore not be measured by the knowledge of such words but rather by the ability to understand the flow of language consisting of cognates of standard German.

In general, we have a dialect continuum in the German-speaking countries: normally, the dialect of neighbouring regions is easily understood even when it is clearly recognised as distinct from one's own. Only in the Alps, the range where a dialect is understood outside the region where it is spoken can be rather small: so there are Swiss dialects not understood in all of Switzerland (contrary to the remark in another section that Swiss dialects are mutually intelligible which is in general true). Perhaps, distance should not be measured in kilometres or miles but in walking days; then one valley in the Alps can be quite “far” away from a neighbouring one.

The Low German dialects in Germany's North are mutually intelligible but not understood elsewhere. Of the remaining dialects, those of Switzerland, of Southern Bavaria and Austria, and of the West bank of the Rhine are particularly difficult to understand outside the regions where they are spoken whereas the Central and Eastern German dialects have much better chances to be understood everywhere.

When Swiss TV contributions are broadcasted in the whole of the German-speaking countries, they are usually equipped with German subtitles in order to be understood. Folkloristic theater from Bavaria or the North Sea coast is usually not subtitled, but for Germany-wide dissemination, a watered-down version of the dialect is often employed.

Do the names of German dialects denote tribes, geographic regions, or political entities?

Tribes have disappeared for a long time: the people now living in a certain area are not the descendants of common ancestors. But the old Germanic tribes have let their names to become names of political entities, often in different times of history the names of different countries which have little in common from an ethnic, linguistic, or geographic standpoint. Roughly, there are three possible reasons why a name can mean different countries in history:

The dialects spoken in the regions which, in some time in history, carried the name of Franconia (Franken) have little or nothing in common, and the same holds for Saxony (Sachsen). The question of this section can thus be reworded to: If the name of a dialect is that of a country or province, which of the countries that have had this name in history is meant? Unfortunately, scientific and popular usage of dialect names differ in this respect:

Of course, dialect borders do not always coincide with today's political borders and do sometimes indeed reflect earlier political borders. For instance, Swabian (schwäbisch) is not only spoken where we find “Schwaben” on our maps today, to wit in Bavaria between the rivers Iller and Lech, but above all in Württemberg which once belonged to a dukedom Schwaben. Nonetheless, a usage of names that can be understood only from history does not occur in popular but only in scientific usage of dialect names. Such inconsistencies in naming are particularly confusing when the same qualified name has two different meanings, as for instance: The Southern central part of today's Franconia around Nuremberg (Nürnberg) is “Mittelfranken” (central Franconia), but “mittelfränkisch” is the linguists' name of the dialects of the region South of Cologne (Köln) which happens to be in the center of the whole area they - and only they - call “fränkisch”.

There is one historic name that has become popular, albeit only in a small region. Linguists call a large group of dialects in South-West Germany and Switzerland “Alemannic” (“alemannisch”) and qualify by adding “highest”, “high”, “low”, etc. In a very small part of this region, to wit in the High Alemannic region in Germany around Waldshut, Lörrach, and Freiburg, people call their own dialect “alemannisch” although this is not a name in today's geography. This usage is probably a consequence of the work of the poet Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) who published very popular poems in this dialect under the title “Alemannische Gedichte”, thus introducing the term.

Another distinction between geography and linguistics is made in Bavaria: As the province of Bavaria comprises also regions where Franconian (fränkisch) and Swabian (schwäbisch) is spoken, and the Bavarian dialect extends over the borders of Bavaria, is has become customary to use the spelling “bairisch” for the dialect and the culture, and “bayerisch” for the political entity. The word is, of course, the same with the y being a fairly recent (19th c.) spelling change, but the distinction is often useful.

How can German dialects be grouped in families of more closely related dialects?

In what way do German dialects differ from standard German?

How is the orthography for writing German dialects defined?

Are there dialect samples on the Net?

What literature deals with varieties of German?

© Helmut Richter      published here 2003-08-22; last update 2004-01-30
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