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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Five reasons foreigners should move to Nuremberg

With the exception of workers who get a job offer from one of the region's bigger firms, Nuremberg may not be on the radar for many foreigners. But Bavaria's second largest city has more to offer than it gets credit for, writes Paul Krantz.

Five reasons foreigners should move to Nuremberg

Known internationally for the Nuremberg Trials, and to a lesser extent for its cultural offerings such as its Christmas Market or springtime Volksfest, Nuremberg attracts a lot of international tourists each year.

Nuremberg is the unofficial capital of Franconia, which is a region in the north of Bavaria. Incorporated into Bavaria in the 19th century under Napoleon, Franconia is not an official German state, but it is characterised by its own cultural and linguistic heritage. In fact, if you talk too much about Bavaria in Nuremberg, there’s a decent chance that a local will correct you: “Here is Franconia!”

Nuremberg is home to a rather large community of foreigners – many of whom are employed by Adidas, Puma or Siemens. But, with the exception of prospective employees for these companies, it remains largely overlooked as a destination to move to as a foreign resident.

Here are five reasons why life in Nuremberg is a good choice for foreigners.

1. A clean and green city

Just outside the city centre, you can find vast swaths of forest and farmland. Running through the centre of Nuremberg is the Pegnitz river, with city parks and grassy fields lining the side of the river almost all the way through the city.

Which is to say that Nuremberg is a very green city, and compared to larger cities like Munich or Frankfurt, even its urban centre is very clean. 

In the spring, summer and fall, Nuremberg is a great hub for a number of outdoor sports. All around the city, you can find walking and biking trails along the Pegnitz or beyond. Also on the river, or in a nearby lake, you can paddle around in a canoe, kayak or SUP board.

Just east of the city centre, the Pegnitz widens out into Wöhrder See, which has a couple sandy beaches where locals sunbathe on summer weekends and evenings.

About an hour to the north (by car or train) is Fränkische Schweiz (Franconian Switzerland), so-named for its forested hills with rugged rock outcroppings, which offers ample opportunities for hiking and rock climbing.

Wöhrder See

Wöhrder See has a couple sandy beaches where city residents can sun bathe or swim without leaving Nuremberg’s centre. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

2. Not too big and not too small

With a population of a little over 500,000, Nuremberg is Germany’s 14th largest city. 

The city certainly will feel small to those coming from Berlin, or major world cities with populations in the millions, but it’s a big hub compared to the other villages in the region.

Despite its population, its relatively compact old town centre, and surrounding neighbourhoods, make the city easy to navigate and very walkable.

As opposed to Berlin, where moving across the city always seems to take 45 minutes, in Nuremberg you can walk across the old-town city centre in about 15 minutes. What’s more is the journey is likely to be a pleasant one, with pedestrian bridges and views of old German style architecture along the way.

Even commutes to the outside neighbourhoods are regularly managed in 15 to 20 minutes by U-Bahn, tram or bus.

Nuremberg is small enough for residents to avoid hours lost to long daily commutes, but big enough to offer all of the allures of modern urban living, including a vibrant nightlife and cultural offerings.

3. Relatively low cost and higher pay

The federal state of Bavaria is known for offering higher salaries than the rest of Germany, due in part to a number of tech companies and international firms with high-paying jobs, and this is true also in Nuremberg.

READ ALSO: Which Bavaria-based companies regularly hire English speakers?

But as opposed to Munich, which is also known for having a higher cost of living, rent in Nuremberg can be quite reasonable, all things considered. 

For €700 per month you can still find a one or two room apartment in Nuremberg’s charming old town or one of the popular neighbourhoods nearby. (Or even cheaper a little bit further out.)

Other living expenses are comparable to the surrounding regions. A cup of coffee or a glass of beer goes for around €3.5 and a Döner kebab is about €6.

Nuremberg volksfest

Nuremberg’s Volksfest attracts thousands to celebrate the beginning of spring with litres of beer, local foods and carnival rides. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

4. Easy access to the rest of Europe

If you look at a map of Europe, Nuremberg appears to be pretty much exactly in the middle. In fact, the nearby city of Erlangen (just 20 kilometres to the north) is the German city that is furthest from the sea – whereas cities to the north are closer to the North Sea and cities to the south are closer to the Mediterranean.

Nuremberg’s central location gives it the advantage of being a great launch point for a quick trip to locations across Europe.

You can take regional trains to the east and hit the Czech border in just a couple hours, for instance, or you can take an ICE train north for 3 hours to Berlin. Alternatively, taking the same ICE line to the south, you can reach Munich in an hour, and from there, Nightjet trains can take you across Europe in every direction.

Nuremberg also has its own airport that flies directly to destinations across Europe, and even some in North Africa or beyond. Being a relatively small airport is NUE’s charm, as it can be reached from the central train station in 20 minutes, and you can make it through security without battling long lines.

5. A sizeable international community

Nuremberg is home to an extensive community of foreign residents, even if it is obviously smaller than those found in Berlin or Munich.

For those with kids, Nuremberg and the surrounding area has a number of international schools, such as Franconian International School (FIS). For higher education, it is home to a handful of science and tech universities, most notably Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, which attracts scholars from around the world. 

For social activities, there are groups of foreigners that organise weekly meet-ups around activities like sports, board games, or just drinks at the bar. 

The number of international workers and residents means that, compared to other German cities of a similar size, you can generally navigate your day to day interactions in English without much issue. 

That said, learning German will certainly help you to better integrate in Franconia. By the way, the Franconian accent is distinct, so even those who have studied German a bit may take a little while to get used to the local way of speaking.