From Plattdeutsch to Hochdeutsch: A guide to German dialects & accents
Hochdeutsch, Plattdeutsch, Berlinerisch and Badisch - you’ve probably heard these terms thrown around in conversations about German dialects, but what exactly do they describe? With 50 percent of Germans claiming to speak a dialect, they are an important part of the country’s history and modern society. Here’s how to recognise and better understand them!
Difference between language, dialect and accent
Distinguishing the difference between a language, an accent and a dialect is relatively simple. In one language there can be many accents and even more locally specific dialects. English can be a helpful example since it is understood by so many and used in very different ways in the countries where it is spoken.
For example, within the United Kingdom the common language, English, is spoken with English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents, and within each of these accents there are thousands of dialects. In an accent, the pronunciation of a common language changes, but when dialect is introduced, grammar and vocabulary also become more localised.
Hochdeutsch: What is High German?
So how does this map onto the German language? Simply put, if you learnt German in a language course, Hochdeutsch is what you speak. Hochdeutsch can be a contentious term since it is often used in lieu of the term “accent-free German” but, of course, there is no such thing as accent-free; it is just that this accent has been decided as the standard.
You can think of Hochdeutsch as standard in the sense that everyone can understand it, regardless of where in the German-speaking world they are from, rather than standard in the sense that it is the “correct” way to speak German. Hochdeutsch is used in formal settings in Germany, such as schools or government. But a trip to any Bürgeramt will prove that this is true only on paper.
High German vs Low German
So, Hochdeutsch is the German that everyone understands, the Austrians and Swiss included. However, in addition to Hochdeutsch, within Germany there are three broad dialects which cover from the north to the south and are used across multiple federal states: Niederdeutsch (Low German), Mitteldeutsch (Middle German) and Oberdeutsch (Upper German).
Niederdeutsch and Plattdeutsch (Low German)
The first thing to clarify is that the “low” in Low German does not pertain to class or informality, nor is it connected to geographical location. Low German is called as such because it is used in northern Germany, which has a low, flat landscape. You can expect to hear Niederdeutsch between Osnabrück and Berlin and anywhere further north of these cities.
But Niederdeutsch is not alone up north, as another well-known dialect, Plattdeutsch, is used in the most northern parts of the country, around Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Bremen and Lower Saxony. The dialect is spoken right up to the border with the Netherlands, and is characterised primarily by its pronunciation, particularly its hard “P” sounds like “Appel” rather than “Apfel” (apple) or “Peerd” instead of “Pferd” (horse).
Mitteldeutsch (Middle German)
The area where Mitteldeutsch is spoken is outlined by the Benrath line in the north and the Speyer line in the south. These linguistic, geographic boundaries - also known as isoglosses - divide up the country based on its history relating to the consonant shift, a linguistic change which likely took place between the third and fifth centuries. How a local pronounces a word like “Apfel” or “Tür” can be a good indicator of where in Germany they are from, since these words demonstrate the German consonant shift, but across the Mitteldeutsch territory pronounciations can also vary greatly, anything from "Appel" to "Abble".
Oberdeutsch (Upper German)
Oberdeutsch or Upper German is not a superior form of German, but rather the dialect spoken in the higher lands of the country i.e. down south where it is mountainous instead of flat. For learners of Hochdeutsch, Oberdeutsch can include some of the hardest accents to master and understand, perhaps the most daunting of these is the Bavarian dialect.
How many German dialects are there?
It is difficult to put an exact figure on it but in Germany there are around 20 different dialects, and according to a survey by the Institüt für Deutsche Sprache, 50 percent of Germans say that they speak a regional dialect.
German dialect map
On this map, you can see just how many German dialects there are dotted around the country!
Image credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Vlaemink / Wikimedia Commons
Dialects of German
Now we’re getting even more specific. These German dialects fit into the above groups of Niederdeutsch, Mitteldeutsch and Oberdeutsch but also have an even more localised vocabulary and in some areas a so-called “metrolect”, spoken in and around just one city. Of the 20 or more dialects found across the country, here’s a taster of five!
Berlin dialect (Berlinerisch)
Berlinerisch is spoken in Berlin and in parts of neighbouring Brandenburg. The main changes that you will notice in Berlinerisch is the swapping of vowels and “G" for “J”. “Ich” also becomes a harder “Icke”. All this turns a sentence like, “Na gut, ich werde das kaufen” (Okay, well, I will buy that) into “Na, jut. Icke werd’ ditt koofen”.
As mentioned above, dialect changes not just vocabulary but also grammar, and Berlinerisch offers a good example of this when it mixes up the past tense and turns “Ich war da” (I was there) into “Ich bin da gewesen” (I have been there).
Hessian dialect (Hessisch)
Hessian is of course specific to the federal state of Hesse. One characteristic of Hessian is its tendency to mumble and smoosh words together - making it something of a nightmare for language learners. “Haben wir” becomes “Hammer” and “Glaube ich” becomes “Glaubch” (pronounced glaub-sch)
One of the regional specialities of Hessen is Apfelwein (apple wine) and you can hear the Hessian dialect and consonant shift when a local orders the drink, “Mer bestelle jetzt son Äbbelwoi Bembelsche” (“Wir bestellen jetzt einen Apfelwein Bembel” or “We are ordering a clay jug of apple wine”)
Saxonian dialect (Sächsisch)
In contrast the the Hessians squashing their words together into shorter ones, Saxons like to draw their words out; “fertig” takes longer to finish and becomes “fertsch”. If you’re ordering the best slice of a regional speciality, the Freiberger Eierschecke cheesecake, like a local you will draw your words out too “Die muss ah scheen loofsch sin” (“Die muss auch sehr schön laufig sein” or “Make it really runny please!”).
The Saxons like to keep things informal so there is more du-zing and less sie-zing. If you are feeling formal however “Können Sie vielleicht...” becomes “Gönnse vleisch...”, which mashed together can be pronounced like “Gänsefleisch” (goose meat) in Hochdeutsch.
“Gänsevleisch mir eene Eierschegge geben bitte und die muss ah scheen loofsch sin!”
Baden dialect (Badisch)
Baden-Württemberg has both Badisch and Schwabisch populations, and accents for both.
There is a clue in the name when it comes to one of the most famous characteristics of the Badisch dialect, the “isch” sound. In Badisch, “es ist” become “isch”, “du bist” become “bisch” and “du warst”, “warsch”. Badisch is spoken from deep in Baden-Württemberg at the border with Switzerland and France, all the way up to Heidelberg. Unsurprisingly then, it is also peppered with nods to French vocabulary like “Salli” as “Hallo” from the French “Salut”.
If there was anything more impressive to prove your advanced German it is mastering a tongue twister. But better yet, a tongue twister in a strong dialect, an area where Badisch delivers. It’s pretty easy…
“Schelle Sie nit an sellere Schell. Selle Schell schellt nit. Schelle Sie lieber an sellere Schell. Selle Schell schellt” also known as “Läuten Sie nicht an dieser Klinger. Diese Klingel funktioniert nicht. Klingeln Sie lieber an dieser Klingel. Diese Klingel funktioniert” (“Please don’t ring this bell, this bell doesn’t work. Please ring this bell instead, this bell works”).
Bavarian dialect (Bairisch)
Last but not least, maybe the most infamous German dialect for language learners - Bairisch.
The Bavarian dialect has some things in common with Austrian dialects, especially when it comes to the ingredients of traditional foods. “Erdäpfel” for “Kartoffel” (potato) or “Schwammerl” for “Pilze” (mushrooms) are some common examples.
Like Berlinerisch, the Bavarian dialect also has its own version of “Ich”, which becomes the simpler “I” but is pronounced “ee”. Other pronouns change too, one of the trickiest examples, which might be known to FC Bayern fans, “wir” (we) becomes “mia”, confusingly alike to “mir” (myself / me) in Hochdeutsch.
Finally, people in Bavaria love to drop in the “O” and “oa” sounds. “Mein Mann” (my husband) becomes “Mei Mo” and “daheim” (at home) becomes “dahoam”.
And the list goes on! Has your German been influenced by the local dialect of your new home yet? Let us know in the comments? As they say in Berlin: Tschüssikowski!
Thumb image credit: Mo Photography Berlin / Shutterstock.com