German Dialects: A Beginner’s Guide [With Videos]
German is a diverse language, and many different German dialects exist throughout the German-speaking world. Some of these dialects are so different that even native speakers struggle to understand each other.
If you’ve studied German online or in an academic setting, you probably studied Standard German (Standarddeutsch). It is a standardised variety of German used in formal contexts and which the great majority of German speakers understand.
Some might call Standarddeutsch the “official” or “correct” version of the German language. But really there’s no such thing as a correct or incorrect dialect.
People talk how they talk, and any judgement about whose speech is “better” reflects political and cultural power dynamics more than any deeper truth about the language itself.
In this article, we will explore:
Table of contents
- Background Check: Why Are There Many German Dialects?
- High German vs. Low German
- Berlin German – Berlinerisch
- Upper Saxon – Sächsich
- Austro-Bavarian – Boarisch
- Alemannic German Dialects and Swiss German
- Pennsylvania Dutch
- Let’s Wrap It Up With a Challenge
There’s far more detail than I could include in a short post like this, I will give you a general overview of the different accents and dialects of German.
Background Check: Why Are There Many German Dialects?
German’s diversity should be no surprise given the fractured history of German-speaking areas.
Germany itself didn’t exist as a unified state until the late 19th century. Before that, the area we now call “Germany” was a hodgepodge of dukedoms and city-states with ever-shifting borders.
From an old Germanic language that originated in northern Europe, Deutsch splintered into many different German accents and dialects.
Nowadays, German is an official language in six countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Belgium. It also is a legally-recognised minority language in several more nations and territories.
The word Deutsch itself comes from an old word thiud meaning “people” or “nation”. The deutsche Sprache, then, was the “people’s language”, so-called to distinguish it from the language of the church and officialdom: Latin.
So let’s have a look at some of the major variations in how people from different regions speak German.
High German vs. Low German
German dialects can be divided into two main groups: “high” and “low” German.
These are geographical terms: people in the low-lying plains of northern Germany speak Low German (Plattdeutsch), the inhabitants of the more mountainous south speak while High German (Hochdeutsch).
We can also divide High German further into Central German (Mitteldeutsch) and Upper German (Oberdeutsch).
Standard German is based on High German. Originally, the spread of High German as a “standard” form of the language was due to the widespread influence of the Luther Bible, Martin Luther’s 16th-century translation of the Bible into his native Saxon dialect.
For this reason, the terms Hochdeutsch and Standarddeutsch are often used interchangeably.
As you travel from north to south, the spoken language changes gradually, with few abrupt shifts. This means that the divide between Low, Central and Upper German isn’t clear-cut.
However, the boundary between Low and Central German is traditionally considered the “Benrath line”. This line runs from Benrath, in the west, to Frankfurt an der Oder, in the east.
North of this line, people say maken (“to make”), with a hard “k” sound like in English, while to the south they say machen, where the “ch” is a raspy sound from the back of the throat.
Similarly, the border between Central and Upper German is taken to be the “Speyer Line”. It runs from Alsace in France through the city of Speyer and into Bohemia in the Czech Republic.
The German word for “apple” is Appel north of Speyer and Apfel below it.
Low German, High German, and English
Did you notice how in both of those examples, the northern version of the word is the one that’s more similar to English? That’s because Low German is more closely related to English than High German is.
All three come from proto-Germanic, an ancient German language spoken around 2,000 years ago in north-central Europe. Proto-Germanic is the ancestor of all modern Germanic languages, including English, Dutch, the Scandinavian languages, and of course German itself.
Over the course of the first millenium A.D., southern Germanic speakers started to change how they pronounced certain consonants, such as the “k” in maken. Linguists call this the High German consonant shift.
Low German didn’t go through this change, and neither did the dialects that became English or Dutch.
Here’s a video of someone speaking Plattdeutsch. (He speaks Standard German at the beginning, then switches to Low German at 0:15.)
A well-known Low German word is moin, which means “hello” (and, in some places, “goodbye”.)
Let’s look at some specific examples of other German accents and dialects.
Berlin German – Berlinerisch
Berlin has its own distinctive dialect, although some say it’s dying out. This video compares some sentences in Standard German and Berlinerisch.
Notable features of Berlinerisch include pronouncing “ch” as “k”, and the hard “g” as a “j”. You can hear both throughout the video, for example ich as “ick(e)” and, at 0:48, gut as “jut”.
Berlinerisch also doesn’t distinguish between the accusative and dative cases.
Upper Saxon – Sächsich
Upper Saxon is a Mitteldeutsch dialect from the eastern state of Saxony. It’s closely related to the neighbouring Thuringian dialect. It is different from “Low Saxon”, another name for Plattdeutsch.
Upper Saxon differs from Standard German in many of its vowel sounds. You would pronounce Bühne (“stage”) as “Biine” in Saxony, böse (“wicked”) as “beese”, and Schwester (“sister”) as Schwaster.
The pronunciation of the letters “o” and “u” is also distinctive. To speakers of other German dialects, it sounds more like the Standard German “ö” and “ü”.
Here’s a video of a man speaking with a very strong sächsich accent. Can you understand him?
Austro-Bavarian – Boarisch
Bavaria is the largest Bundesland (state) of Germany. It’s in the southeast and borders Austria.
Bavarians and Austrians speak a dialect that’s very different from Standard German. Non-Bavarian Germans often find Bavarian people hard to understand!
Austro-Bavarian is not one dialect, but several. It can be broadly divided into northern, central and southern varieties. Some general features of Austro-Bavarian include:
- Pronouncing “r” as an alveolar trill (the “rolled r”, also found in Spanish).
- Pronouncing “a” as “o” – so for example Wasser (“water) sounds like Wosser.
- Many, many other vowel differences. For example, other Germans call the Bavarian dialect Bairisch, but Bavarians call it Boarisch.
- Vocabulary differences, such as I (pronounced “ee”) instead of ich.
This video gives a lot more information about the differences between Austro-Bavarian and standard German.
A German greeting used in Austria and Bavaria is servus. This is Latin for “servant”, and its use to mean “hello” originated as a Latin phrase meaning “at your service”.
Alemannic German Dialects and Swiss German
The Allemanic (Alemannisch) group of High German dialects is spoken by about ten million people, mainly in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The name Allemanic comes from the Allemani, an ancient German tribal confederation. You might recognise this as the root of the name for Germany in several languages, e.g. Allemagne in French and Alemania in Spanish.
The Allemanic varieties spoken in Switzerland are called Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch). This video demonstrates some of the differences between Swiss German and the German of Germany.
As discussed in the video, Swiss German has differences in vocabulary as well as pronunciation. Some of the differences are influenced by French. For example, what Germans call a Fahrrad (“bicycle”), Swiss people call a Velo, like the French word vélo.
One major pronunciation difference you can hear in the video is in the name of the dialect itself, which the woman from Zurich pronounces as Schwizerdütsch.
Swiss German vs. Schriftdeutsch
Swiss German is quite different from Schriftdeutsch, the Swiss variety of Standard German.
Schriftdeutsch is the official written language in German-speaking Switzerland (and neighbouring Liechtenstein), and it’s used in books, newspapers, official documents and on signs.
Most German Swiss can speak fluent Schriftdeutsch, although in everyday situations they speak in their local dialect and use Schriftdeutsch for writing.
Most German people can’t understand Swiss German, but they can understand Schriftdeutsch. In Switzerland, Schriftdeutsch is usually only spoken in specific formal situations. You would hear it on the news or for government business, or when a local speaks to someone from another German-speaking country.
German isn’t only spoken in Europe.
People of German ancestry can be found all around the world. In many cases, they’ve retained and evolved the language of their immigrant ancestors.
For example, did you know that there’s a dialect called Barossa German that’s spoken by a small number of people in Australia?
Perhaps the most famous of these international varieties is Pennsylvania Dutch.
Despite the name, this language is German, not Dutch. It’s spoken by the descendants of German speakers who migrated to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Those German migrants primarily came from areas like the Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, which nowadays are part of south-western Germany. Pennsylvania Dutch is closely related to the German dialects of those regions.
The “Dutch” comes from deitsch, a cognate of Deutsch and the way those original settlers would have referred to themselves.
While often associated with the Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch is spoken by around 300,000 people of various religious persuasions in the Midwestern U.S., and in Ontario, Canada. Here’s what it sounds like.
As we’ve seen, the distinction between a “language” and a “dialect” is often arbitrary.
If German people can’t understand Swiss German, should Swiss German be considered a separate language rather than a dialect? And if the “language” we call German is actually several separate languages, how do you divide it up neatly when the boundaries between different dialects are often so blurry?
So let’s look at Yiddish. It’s considered a language in its own right, not just a dialect, but it’s closely related to High German.
Yiddish is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews. It fuses a High German base with influence from Hebrew, Aramaic, and the Slavic languages.
Yiddish’s use saw a massive decline in the 20th century as the vast majority of Holocaust victims were Yiddish speakers, from which the language has never fully recovered. Still, by one estimate, there are around 600,000 Yiddish speakers in the world today, mostly in the U.S. and Israel.
Here’s what Yiddish sounds like. As a student of German I can understand a surprising amount of it, despite never having studied Yiddish for a second:
Let’s Wrap It Up With a Challenge
There’s a lot more that could be said about the enormous diversity of all the different dialects of German. The above is only a brief overview.
If you fancy a challenge, why not try this video which repeats the same sentence in Hochdeutsch and then twelve different German dialects. Can you understand every repetition? Can you spot all the differences?
If you want to learn one of these dialects specifically, you might want to look for an online language tutor to help you!