German dialects

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A map of the West Germanic dialect continuum circa 1945.

Although many German dialects exist, when people speak of the German language today, they are likely thinking of 'standard' German (sometimes known as Hochdeutsch, or Standarddeutsch [1]), the official language of Germany, Austria, and some neighbouring areas. Collectively, these varieties of German form one of the world's major languages (ranked tenth by number of speakers), spoken natively (as of 2000) by more than 100 million people, only 80% of whom actually live in Germany [2].

Standard German has largely replaced the use of dialect in northern Germany, where the original Low German dialects have declined rapidly. However, in other parts of Germany, dialects remain very important. Many families tend to speak one of several regional, not mutually intelligible, dialects among themselves at home. Only when they begin elementary school are children in German-speaking countries required to learn the official language.

Dialect Divisions

The German language is part of a dialect continuum of continental West Germanic which includes the dialects of Dutch. However, despite mutual intelligibility between neighbouring Dutch and German dialects on the border, it is not customary to include the Dutch dialects in a description of German dialects, except where this is pertinent to discussions of cross-border linguistic phenomena. That this is a hot political topic which engenders strong feelings can be seen from this article's Talk page. Leaving aside political considerations, Dutch dialects were historically an extension of the German Dialect continuum. Out of consideration for political boundaries, Dutch dialects are thus treated separately later in this article.

There are twenty-seven regional dialect families within the language area of Modern German, including some local dialects restricted to single villages. The regional dialect families may be considered different languages since they are often not mutually intelligible. The main division in German dialects is between Low German and High German. The latter grouping of dialects underwent an additional sound change around AD 500 known as the Second or (High) German Consonant Shift that other West-Germanic dialects and languages (including Low German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Frisian and English) did not. Modern Standard German (or Hochdeutsch) derives largely from High German dialects.

The following table illustrates the effect of the Second Consonant Shift (shifts of initial, medial and final p, t, k):

High German Low German English Dutch
p Pfeife Piep pipe pijp
Apfel Auppel apple appel
Schaf Schoop sheep schaap
t Zeit Tiet tide tijd
setzen setten sit zetten
groß groot great groot
k Kalb Kaulf calf kalf
machen moken make maken
Dach Dack thatch dak

Note: Initial /k/ only shifted in the extreme southern dialects (e.g. Swiss German Kchriesi ‘cherry’, cf. German Kirsche).

The main dialect groups of German are:

  • High German Hochdeutsch
    • Bavarian Bayerisch (including North, Middle and South Bavarian)
    • Alemannic Alemannisch (including Lower Alemannic, High Alemannic, Highest Alemannic and Swabian)
    • East Franconian Ostfränkisch
    • Rhine Franconian Rheinfränkisch
    • Middle Franconian Mittelfränkisch (including Moselle Franconian, Ripuarian and Low Franconian)
    • Hessian Hessisch (including Central Hessian, East Hessian and North Hessian)
    • Thuringian Thüringisch
    • Saxon Sächsisch (or Upper Saxon; including North Upper Saxon and South Markish)
  • Low German Niederdeutsch
    • Westphalian Westfälisch
    • Eastphalian Ostfälisch
    • North Low German Nordniederdeutsch
    • Brandenburgish Brandenburgisch
    • Mecklenburgish-Vorpommernish Mecklenburgisch-Vorpommersch
    • Middlepommernish Mittelpommersch

After World War II Germany ceded territory in the east to Poland, Russia, and the Czech Republic. As a result, three dialects have since largely been lost: Lower Prussian Niederpreußisch (a dialect of Low German), High Prussian Hochpreußisch and Silesian Schlesisch (both High German)

There are several other dialects of German in communities living outside of Germany. For example, Yiddish—spoken by many Jewish communities around the world—is essentially a dialect of German, though with many Hebrew words added to it. The German language has also been partially retained in some former German colonies like Namibia. The Pennsylvania Dutch language in the United States is also a dialect of German.

Standardization of German

Official German began to be standardised in the late nineteenth century after the different regions were finally united politically under the German emperor (German Kaiser). The spoken version of official High German was a compromise that drew heavily on the dialects in the middle of what is now Germany (especially around Hanover) to minimise the amount of adaptation needed for the most people.

Standard German has been successful at encouraging a national identity in Germany and fostering inter-regional communications. However, native speakers can still usually instantly detect from what region a person comes from when he speaks standard German, since many people do not lose all the traces of their original dialect. TV stations in Germany, Austria and Belgium still broadcast some programs in local dialect.

The West Germanic dialect continuum

From the point of view of historical comparative linguistics, the various local Dutch dialects in the Netherlands are part of the same West Germanic dialect continuum as the regional Germanic dialects in what is today Germany. There are at least a half dozen or so local regional dialects within the Dutch-speaking part of the Netherlands (some linguists divide them into more than a dozen). Especially in the last two centuries, this region developed as separate politically from Germany and thus it developed its own standardized "official" language, called Dutch. But note the following clarification:

"Some Dutch dialects show marked correspondences to neighbouring German dialects. For example Venlo dialect has more features in common with the German dialect of Krefeld (which is close to Venlo) than, for example, the dialect of the Zaan area. Yet Venlo dialect is still Dutch […] The demarcation between Dutch and German dialects is made on the basis of the standard language spoken in the region concerned. Venlo dialect is regarded as Dutch because the inhabitants of Venlo use Dutch in school and in "official" situations; the language of Krefeld on the other hand is treated as a German dialect because Standard German is the overarching national language there."[3]

This linguistic classification of Dutch dialects and German dialects as belonging to the same continuum is not intended to dispute that official Dutch and official German are different languages.

West Germanic dialects to modern "standard" German

The grammar of modern standard German (and its many underlying dialects) grew out of Middle High German in the Middle Ages, which in turn grew out of Old High German (Mittel Deutsch) in the Dark Ages. Historically, high meant areas that are in the mountainous regions (southern Germany, for example) as apposed to geographically lower-lying areas around the North Sea.[4] For example, Netherlands (Niederländer in standard German) means low lands, and regional dialects in those areas are often styled as low Germanic dialects.

Until around the fifteenth century, Latin was the prevailing written language, and the Germanic dialects over the portion of the Holy Roman Empire that now constitute modern-day Germany (and some surrounding countries) were considered vernacular, the language of common people. Few written records of any Germanic dialects remain from that period except very early (and illegal at the time) translations of the Bible.

Martin Luther created a revolution by translating the Catholic church's official Latin Bible into a dialect of vernacular German; this initially-banned book was very successful, and written German eventually overtook written Latin for most literature of the region, culminating in the standardization of an official version of German by around 1900.

Active word-building capacity and German vocabulary

Although English is a Germanic language, it now differs from the German dialects in its extremely large vocabulary expanded from many different languages such as French, Latin or Spanish. Translators trying to render German into English may find a dozen English synonyms of only subtle (if any) difference in meaning, as compared to a single word in German. This has made translating the works of e.g. Martin Heidegger or Sigmund Freud particularly difficult: any two translations may contain almost completely different terminology in English. Thus, scholars are encouraged to attempt to read such thinkers in the original German if at all possible. In fact, English nowadays sports a huge unabridged dictionary, but German does not have need for an unabridged dictionary of comparable size, due to its relatively smaller vocabulary and to its active word-building capacity.

Most vocabulary in German is in fact built up by compounding two or more of the core words together. The meaning of such words is generally obvious to children as they acquire language, and they do not need to look up words in a dictionary nearly as often as English-speaking children do. For example, in English we have the term "glove", but in German it is called Handschuh ("hand shoe"). If children already know the words Hand and Schuh, they don't have to be taught what Handschuh means the first time they hear it. Building on this, in English we have the term "glove compartment" in reference to cars. In German, that is Handschuhfach ("hand shoe box"), and in the context of a car it is immediately clear in meaning, whereas English speaking children must first learn the Latin-derived word "compartment" before "glove compartment" makes any sense.

Another example is the word "superficial" in English: many English speaking children must explicitly be told its meaning at first. But the German equivalent of "superficial" is oberflächlich ("over" and "flatly"), and its obvious meaning to Germans is "skimming (over) the surface".

In mathematics, English speakers must learn arcane terms like "apex", whereas German speakers encounter Spitze ("peak", the same word used for "mountaintop"). This reliance on building larger or broader concepts out of its core words has made German a more elegant language for learning of mathematics than English, as little latinized vocabulary need be learned when reading about mathematics in German.

Relative ease of learning German for native English speakers

German is considered by many to be one of the more accessible foreign languages for native speakers of English to learn. This is due not only to the similarities of core words in the two languages (due to their common Germanic roots), but also to German's reliance on compound words built from simple ones. To an English speaker, Spanish or another Romance language might seem easier initially because it has shorter words and a more familiar word order and sentence structure, but Spanish has a much larger "different" vocabulary which English speakers must learn. German, on the other hand, builds most of its extended words from its core words, so acquisition of sufficient German vocabulary by English speakers can occur much faster than for many other foreign languages. The comparative regularity of German spelling also makes learning the written language easier.

Studies show that more than one hundred of the (500 or so) core words of English and German are still close enough to be considered cognates, which are words that are so similar that they are very easy for English speakers to remember. Examples of cognates are hand (German Hand), and water (German wasser), which though pronounced differently, are still recognizably similar. Almost one hundred additional core words are false cognates (looking or sounding alike but with strikingly different meanings); false cognates also are easy to remember once a learner has made the embarrassing mistake of misusing what appears to be a cognate. False cognate examples include English gift (German Gift, meaning poison), and English mist (German mist, meaning manure).

Testimonials of American soldiers serving in Germany in World War II showed that American soldiers were able to pick up substantial amounts of German in only a few months without any formal training, just by hearing a lot of it spoken in real-world situations. This may well be a consequence of the close similarity of the core words of the two languages.


  1. "Deutscher Wortschatz" © 1998-2007. All rights reserved.. University of Leipzig (2007). Retrieved on 2007-05-08.
  2. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2000. World Almanac Books (November 2000). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
  3. History of the Dutch Language. Dept. of Dutch Studies, University of Vienna (see 20th century on dialects) (2005). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
  4. German Language Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007. © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. (2007). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.