Is this German!? A patchwork of dialects mirrors Germany’s colourful history


When we moved to England, one of our first experiences with local dialects was Liverpudlian. Our life in Britain has been an exploration of local lingo ever since, with various moments of embarrassment (“You are Scottish, aren’t you?” – “I am a Geordie!” … “You don’t hear that I am a Londoner!?” - “Sorry, should I?”). The UK isn’t alone with this patchwork of language, though. Germany offers the same experience, driven by historical developments that didn’t need immigration to shake up local culture and heritage.

All around the globe, German culture is often conflated with the idea of huge beer glasses, leather pants, Oktoberfest and funny dancing. If you missed the dancing part, you really should find out about it – your life can’t be complete without having seen a proper “Schuhplattler”. Which isn’t German, by the way, but strictly Bavarian, as are Oktoberfest and Lederhosen.

Schuhplattler, (with explanations in a Bavarian dialect)

Travelling the East of Germany, you will run into Saxonian and Thuringian accents – soft, mumbling singsong that doesn’t sound like the "proper" German you might have heard in American movies. In the West, on the other hand, you’ll meet Hessian and Palatine dialects which are fast, jolly and a bit sluggish. Further to the North German can sound posh and prestigious (like in Hamburg) or surprisingly close to English along the Frisian coast – where the German dialects are closely related to Dutch. By the way, the word "moin" in the blog picture means Morning, as in Good Morning. The regions around the River Rhine sport their very own “Rheinländisch”, with the city of Cologne claiming to be a beacon of local culture: “Kölsch” is the name of the local language and music as well as the local beer.

A special status among German dialects is reserved for “Berlinerisch”, spoken in the German capital: Cheeky, fast and a wee bit rude. To be fair, Berlin as a proper metropolis is a wild mix of languages anyway.

The cleanest, most pure German is allegedly spoken around the city of Hanover in the very middle of the nation. Interestingly this city is also the origin of the British Royals: Queen Victoria was a member of the House of Hanover.

German dialects are indeed a strong part of the national heritage. All of them can trace their roots back to the very beginnings of Germany as a nation, when Germanic tribes ruled over the lands that later turned into the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The long years of Germany being a splintered empire of hundreds of small states, ruled by local kings, noblemen and even knights, had a surprisingly small influence on the spoken language – probably because the written language of courts, government and administration was soon unified across borders. Local language remained a matter of the common people, not their rulers.

Roughly 100 million people speak German as their first language – 82 million of them actually living in Germany. Austria and Switzerland share most of the other German speakers among each other, but both countries feature very own versions of the language, down to the rules of the written language. Smaller pockets of German native speakers in Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Poland and others all have their own dialects, which makes for intriguing diversity. Even Yiddish, lingua franca for European Jews in the early 20th century, was originally a German dialect, mixed with words from Hebrew and other European languages.

As diverse as the German language may be, English still has a wider range of versatility: Due to the times of the Empire, English is being spoken all over the world, and the American dominance in the second half of the 20th century has promoted it even further. More Chinese people speak English than Americans, and this of course is a global phenomenon. English as world language has seen many changes and influences, and even many native speakers appear to be rather careless with their own mother tongue.

That is unlikely to happen with German speakers. Maintaining the language is seen as an important task of so high a priority that a conference of three governments – Germany, Austria and Switzerland – agreed on an orthography reform in 1996, a change that was in the aftermath pushed into German schools by ministerial order. The first proper standardisation of the written language started with Martin Luther’s bible translation in 1522. This German version of the holy scriptures was printed and spread all over Germany, setting unified standards of how to write words and punctuation. Up to that moment everybody wrote just the way they wanted, with weak standards only introduced by scholars and administrative officials. For today’s German, this is nearly unbelievable: The language wardens of the Konrad Duden dictionary take care of unified rules that are binding for written language. If ever in doubt on how to spell a German word (or if you are in an argument at the scrabble table) check here: https://www.duden.de/

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