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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

A balloon with the Bavarian saying:
A balloon with the Bavarian saying: "I mog di" (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works. 

Member comments

  1. My experience is that although Swiss german is even more unintelligible than the most extreme Bayerische dialect, I found in Switzerland that they all switched to Hochdeutsch when realising they were confronted with a non native. On the other hand, I’ve found Bayerische speakers less willing or able.

    A north German pal of mine tells me the story of trying to chat to some Bavarians in a cafe, and ended up commenting, ‘well, if you’re not going to speak Hochdeutsch, I’ll speak to you in Plattdeutsch’!

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GERMAN CULTURE

EXPLAINED: How to write a formal letter in Germany

When living in Germany, there are plenty of situations where you might have to send a formal letter or email. Here's how to compose one with confidence.

EXPLAINED: How to write a formal letter in Germany

Sending formal letters and emails is a necessary part of German life, whether you need to contact your bank manager to sort out your finances, hire the services of a lawyer or accountant, or deal with a bureaucratic problem such as a visa application. 

While these kinds of communication become second-nature in our mother tongue, it can be tricky to navigate the pleasantries and formalities in another language. Every culture has its own way of being polite in formal situations – and Germany is no exception.

Nevertheless, once you understand the basics of putting together a formal letter in Germany, you should be able to fire them off quickly and with ease.

So whether you’re writing to a real estate agent, lawyer or public official, here’s a step-by-step guide to composing a formal letter or email in German.

Greetings

First thing’s first: how do you open your letter in a way that sounds adequately respectful? Luckily, the options aren’t too wide here. In almost all cases, a formal letter will use one of the following:

  • Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren

Literally “dear ladies and gentlemen”. This is a good alternative to “dear sir or madam” or the English “to whom it may concern” if you do not know the name or gender of the person you are writing to. Though “sehr geehrte” can be roughly translated as dear, it’s a far more formal version of the casual and friendly “liebe” and can also mean “honoured” or “esteemed”. 

READ ALSO: Tip of the week: Everything you need to know about sending mail in Germany

  • Sehr geehrte(r) Frau / Herr / Dr, etc. 

This is the best option to use if you know the name of the person you are addressing.

Be aware that Germans address each other by their second names and titles in formal settings, so if you’re writing to a professor at university, you would say: “Sehr geehrte Prof. Flink” rather than “Sehr geehrte Greta”.

Another option for starting an official letter in a slightly less formal way would be to open with a simple “Guten Tag” (good day) followed by the name of the person you are writing to. This can be a good option for digital communications like emails where it doesn’t always feel right to use the most highfalutin language possible.

A woman writes an email on a laptop.

A woman writes an email on a laptop. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Franziska Gabbert

Forms of address

When writing a formal letter or email, be sure to use the polite “Sie” and “Ihnen” forms of “you”.

Germans love their academic titles and accolades, so it’s also a good idea to include these: Dr. and Prof. are the most common ones. 

Opening Sentence

One good thing to know about writing formally in German is that it’s perfectly okay to be brief and to the point. If your letter is intended for a simple purpose, like requesting a new tax number or cancelling a contract, you can simply start with the word “hiermit” (with this) or “mit diesem Schreiben” (with this letter) followed by the purpose of your letter.

For example:

Hiermit kündige ich meinen Vertrag mit sofortiger Wirkung. 

I hereby terminate my contract with immediate effect.

Mit diesem Schrieben möchte ich Ihnen mitteilen, dass… 

With this letter I would like to inform you that…

Another good way to open a formal letter is to simply tell them what you are writing about or who your letter is on behalf of.

Ich schreibe Ihnen bezüglich…

I am writing to you concerning… 

Ich schreibe Ihnen im Namens… 

Ich am writing to you on behalf of… 

Cover letters for job applications tend to be a slight exception to this rule. In this type of letter, you can afford to be more enthusiastic and expressive in your opening. A good catch-all is to discuss where you saw the application and indicate your excitement to be applying for the role:

Mit großem Interesse habe ich Ihre Anzeige gelesen und würde mich gerne um die Stelle als … bewerben.

I read your advertisement with great interest and would like to apply for the position of…

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: How to write the perfect cover letter in English

Body

Once you’ve introduced the purpose of your letter, you can generally follow similar rules to English-language formal letters – while also remembering your Sie and Ihnen, of course! 

Try to explain your situation or request clearly and concisely, but also include all relevant information, such as dates, reference numbers and necessary background. 

Remember that when making polite requests or expressing possibilities, the subjunctive – or Konjunktiv II as it’s known in German – is your friend.

This is when you use words like könnte (could), sollte (should), möchte (would like), wollte (wanted to), dürfte (might) when expressing imagined wishes or options. It’s a good way to make your letter sound more courteous and soften any requests you have, such as applying for a deadline extension with the tax office or requesting an additional loan. Just be careful not too sound unsure of yourself: confidence and directness are often appreciated in business or work situations. 

A man works on a desktop computer.

A man works on a desktop computer in an office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Hendrik Kuhlmann | Hendrik Kuhlmann

You should also take care to avoid words and phrases that sound more Umgangssprachlich – or  colloquial. Just as you wouldn’t call something “totally awesome” in a formal letter in your native tongue, phrases like “total geil” or “mega toll” will sound very out of place in a letter to your bank manager. 

In other cases, it will take a bit of Feingefühl – or sensitivity – to pick the more elegant or formal word for the context. One example would be using “bekommen” – rather than “kriegen” – as the more high-register form of “to get”. 

This may sound a bit daunting, but you’ll soon get used to the style – especially if you have a native speaker who can check over your letters afterwards and alert you to any strange choices of words. The rule of thumb here is that if it sounds too relaxed and conversational, it’s probably not suitable for formal prose. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Umgangssprache

Signing Off 

Just like with openings, there are multiple potential ways to sign off a formal letter or email in a polite way. 

However, there’s no need to over-complicate things. Sometimes a simple, generic phrase is the best way to keep it both pleasant and concise. 

The following tend to be good catch-all phrases that can be used in almost any context: 

Danke für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit.

Thank you for your attention.

Ich freue mich auf Ihre Rückmeldung. 

I’m looking forward to your reply.

Vielen Dank im Voraus für die Unterstützung.

Many thanks in advance for your support.

Für Fragen stehe ich Ihnen gerne zur Verfügung.

I’ll gladly answer any questions you have. 

Mixing and matching any of the above is a good way to conclude your letter before signing off with the following:

Mit freundlichen Grüßen
Yours sincerely / With kind regards

If you follow this structure carefully, composing a formal letter in German will soon become second-nature, just as it is in your native language.

And finally: don’t worry about making a few small errors at first. Even Germans make mistakes at times, and every letter you send is likely to be better than the last. 

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