Although the German-speaking areas of Europe--counting only Germany in the borders of 1937 (470662 sq.km), Austria (83850 sq.km), Switzerland (all; 41293 sq.km), Liechtenstein (157 sq.km)--are but a fraction of the territory of the U.S. (9363353 sq.km), the linguistic diversity of the German language is immensely greater than the variants of American English. Dialects abound. When I entered the teachers' prep school at Ochsenhausen in 1941, I noticed to my amazement that among my class of 25--all from Württemberg--there were 20 distinctly different subdialects of Schwäbisch, Niederalemannisch and Fränkisch spoken! The regional, and often even local, variants differ from each other and from High German in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary to an extent that can make communication increasingly difficult the farther the dialect areas are apart.
That's when High German (Hochdeutsch) comes to the rescue, the "standard language"--equivalent of the "Queen's English"--the principal vehicle of the media, of literature, religion, education and commerce. Most German-speakers grow up "bilingually" -- with the dialect of their region and High German.
If you know some German and don't understand a dialect speaker, s/he will usually shift toward High German (= still colored by regionalisms but more of less approximating what you might have learned in school or at home).
It would do the dialects a great injustice to look at them as "bad" or "corrupted" German. After all, they have seniority: they are linked to the historic tribal sub-structure of the German- speaking people(s) who settled in central Europe and in England (Anglo-Saxons) during the "Völkerwanderung" (migration of nations) around 500 A.D. The major tribes, from N to S, were: the Frisians (Friesen), the Saxons (Sachsen), the Franks (Franken), the Thuringians (Thüringer), the Alemanni (Alemannen) and the Bavarians (Bayern). Each of these tribes developed its own dialect and subdialects. In the course of history, dynastic territorial actions--war, marriage, or inheritance--altered the political borders of the original tribes, but seldom did these acquisitions/losses affect the ethno-linguistic deliniations of the tribes. In the southern part of the German-speaking area, e.g., the Alemanni had settled in what today is: Alsace, Baden, Württemberg, western Bavaria, western Austria, Liechtenstein and two thirds of Switzerland. They formed the duchy (Herzogtum) of Schwaben. Even after 1500 years, the overarching Alemannic dialect base still makes it possible for people in these areas to communicate in their respective subdialects. The visitor in Augsburg--30 miles from München--will be surprised to hear the folks there speak "schwäbisch" rather than "bayerisch," and in Nürnberg and Würzburg it isn't "bayerisch" either, it is "fränkisch" you hear, yet Bavaria is Germany's biggest "Land." The Alemanni in Alsace speak "elsässisch," an Alemannic subdialect, and French. I suppose it is a bit hard for Austrians to swallow the linguistic designation "südbayerisch" (south Bavarian) for their dialects. But let's not forget: most of Austria was settled by Bavarians well over 1000 years ago, hence the legitimacy of the designation.
These examples want to drive home a point: political and ethno-linguistic borders must not necessarily coincide. In the course of history the latter have shown more permanence than the former. The accompanying map of German dialects around 1930 (grayscale 251kb or in color 137KB- better viewed when printed out) illustrates these incongruences. The map is based on the one by Theo van Dorp in Adolf Bach's Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, 9th ed. (Wiesbaden: VMA-Verlag, n.d.), 102. It affords an overview of the three large dialect bands spanning German-speaking Central Europe with each, in turn, showing sub- groups of dialects. From North to South:
I. NIEDERDEUTSCH (Plattdeutsch, Low German)
1. Friesisch (Frisian), 2. Niederfränkisch (Low Franconian),
3. Niedersächsisch (Low Saxon).
II. MITTELDEUTSCH (Middle German)
1. Fränkisch (Franconian): a. Mittelfränkisch (Middle Franconian), Ripuarisch (Ripuarian), Moselfränkisch (Moselle-Franconian); b. Rheinfränkisch (Rhine Franconian).
2. Thüringisch (Thuringian). 3. Obersächsisch (Upper Saxon),
4. Schlesisch (Silesian).
III. OBERDEUTSCH (Upper German, s.t. confused with High German)
1. Ober-Fränkisch (Upper Franconian): a. Süd-Fränkisch (South Franconian, b. Ostfränkisch (East Franconian).
2. Alemannisch (Alemannic): a. Schwäbisch (Swabian), b. Niederalemannisch (Low Alemannic), c. Upper Alemannic.
3. Bayerisch (Bavarian): a. Nord-, b. Mittel-, c. Süd-Bayer isch (North, Middle, South Bavarian).
A phenomenon called "Second or Old High German Soundshift" (Zweite oder Althochdeutsche Lautverschiebung) between the 5th and 9th centuries created the three big dialect bands. It affected especially the consonants p, t, k. In the Upper German area they were shifted, depending on position within a given word, as follows: p to pf, ff; t to s, ss, z, tz; k to ch. Middle German participated to a somewhat lesser degree: a Frankfurter likes his "äppelwoi" (Apple wine), not "Apfelwei(n)." The line separating Upper and Middle German is also referred to as the "Appel/Apfel" line. Low German (including Anglo-Saxon) was not affected by the soundshift at all. The line between Low and Middle German is called the "maken/machen" line. The Low German band of this map shows less differentiation than the Middle and Upper bands, but Mecklenburg, West- and East Pomerania, Brandenburg and East Prussia certainly also have dialect variants of their own. Along the Ruhr River you hear "Westfaelisch", 50 km east of there it is "Ostfaelisch," then Elb-Ostfaelisch. It is a colorful mosaic, that "small" German-speaking area!
In our next Newsletter we will explore commonalities between English (Anglo Saxon) and German. And we will see how the sound- shift rules affected the changes from West Germanic to the German of today.
In spite of dire predictions, regional differences and dialects are not disappearing.
German, like nearly everything else, isn't quite what it used to be.
Earlier this century, according to linguists, there were nearly four dozen distinct dialects of the language in use, and that was before the fine points of local variation were taken into account. In the course of the half century since the end of the Second World War, however, dialects have come under pressure from a variety of social, cultural, economic and technological changes. Greater mobility and demographic shifts have been the downfall of some local dialects, but in general they have proven more durable than might have been expected.
The state of German's dialects was the topic of discussion among the more than 500 linguists from 26 nations who turned out recently (March 12-14) for the Institute for the German Language's annual meeting, held this year in Mannheim (Baden-Württemberg). Developments such as the expansion of the mass media and the opening of higher educa- tion to all members of society have indeed spurred tremendous changes in the verbal habits of German-speakers, a number of the conference participants agreed, but dialect has nonetheless managed to hold on in large parts of the German-speaking world and a uniform version of German is unlikely to develop. While some local Mundarten have become extinct, linguists have seen a development among young people toward Verkehrsdialekte (cross-regional speech patterns) spoken across regional borders, as well as a general tendency to employ forms of colloquial German that incorporate dialect elements. Peter Wiesinger, a Vienna-based specialist in the German language, noted that this development is also tied to the relative "prestige" of dialects. Residents of northeastern Germany, he says, are less likely to use dialect than residents of western and southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For example, 95 percent of Switzerland's German-speakers use dialect, Wiesinger said, while in southern Brandenburg only 14 percent of the population speak the local dialect.
Gerhard Stickel, director of the Institute for the German Language, argues that dialect has won a new prestige as many German-speakers carefully pepper High German with words and expressions from dialect. Even among intellectuals and members of the urban middle class, he observes, there is a noticeable trend toward making use of dialects for the "earthy" flavor it imparts to language.
The Week in Germany March 22, 1996
Return to German Americana Page.