If you’re here to delve into the realm of German dialects, you probably have some burning questions. What exactly is Hoch Deutsch? How many dialects does the German language encompass? And while we’re at it, what truly defines a dialect? Before we plunge into the depths of everything you desire to know about German dialects, let’s clarify a few fundamental concepts.
Differentiating Dialects and Accents
In English, accents pertain to the pronunciation of a language. They encompass both how you articulate your native tongue (like British versus American English) and how your mother tongue influences your pronunciation in another language. On the other hand, dialects go beyond pronunciation variations, encompassing disparities in grammar and vocabulary. While speakers of different dialects within a language can generally understand each other, it might require some effort.
English, in particular, needs a stronger sense of dialects since most varieties are fairly similar. However, there are a few examples worth noting. For instance, what do you call a round, flat, and sweet baked item— a cookie or a biscuit? Or what about elongated slices of fried potatoes— fries, chips, or something else entirely? If you amplify these subtle differences, you can understand what dialects are like in German.
Understanding the German Language and Hoch Deutsch
The concept of Hoch Deutsch can be perplexing for language learners. It is often used interchangeably with Standard German, though it also refers to a dialect group within the German language (more on this later). Standard German is the outcome of standardizing the German language. It is often portrayed as the “correct” form of German, devoid of dialect influences. However, both attributes can be questioned from a linguistic standpoint.
It is worth noting that no governing body in Germany imposes rigid rules for German grammar and pronunciation, like the role played by the Académie française in French. Instead, the Duden dictionary is often consulted as an authoritative reference. Nevertheless, the Duden editors themselves claim that they merely describe the language rather than create it. While public officials and civil servants, including teachers, are expected to adhere to the official Hoch Deutsch defined by government regulations, these rules are not enforced on the general public.
But Is Hoch Deutsch the “Correct” German?
Not exactly. Standard languages are not inherently more logical or consistent than dialects. In fact, quite the opposite can be true, as dialect speakers are generally less concerned with adhering to “correct” language and tend to exhibit more grammatical regularity in their speech.
Even standardized pronunciation is based on arbitrary rules of “correctness,” which do not always align with the written form. For instance, the “dialect-free” pronunciation of the number “vierzig” (forty) is [virzich], with a short [i] and [ch] at the end. However, certain dialects pronounce it more closely to its spelling, with a long [i] and a [g] at the end. Considering this, it would be narrow-minded to claim that Standard German is more correct than other dialects.
The primary advantage of Hoch Deutsch lies in its ability to facilitate communication among speakers of different dialects across Germany. Prior to the late Middle Ages, Latin served as the lingua franca while various dialects were spoken colloquially by the general public. The significant differences between these dialects became apparent with the advent of the printing press and Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. For literature to be widely circulated, a unified German dialect that could be understood anywhere had to be established. In this sense, it is more accurate to regard Standard German as a lingua franca rather than the “true German.”
Variety of German Dialects in Germany
In general, German dialects can be categorized into High German (Hoch Deutsch) and Low German (Nieder Deutsch) vernaculars. However, it is important to note that the terms “high” and “low” do not denote quality or superiority, but rather refer to the dialects spoken in the mountainous South and the flat North German states.
German dialects differ from one another based on the extent to which they were influenced by the High German consonant shift. This sound shift, which occurred between the 6th and 8th centuries, primarily impacted the consonants [p], [t], and [k]. While this may sound rather theoretical, let’s take a look at a few examples to illustrate:
- As a result of the consonant shift, [p] transformed into [pf] or [f]. For instance, the word “appel” became “Apfel,” and “schip” evolved into “Schiff.”
- The consonant [t] changed to [s] or [ts] (similar to the contemporary German [z]). Consequently, speakers in Northern Germany continue to say “dat,” “wat,” and “Water,” as they did prior to the shift, while those in the South say “das,” “was,” and “Wasser.”
- The [k] sound shifted to the fricative [ch], hence “ik” became “ich” and “maken” turned into “machen.”
Low German, spoken in the flat regions of the country (from which English originates, as evident from the examples), was largely unaffected by this shift. However, the dialects of the higher regions, which are now classified as High German, were impacted to varying degrees. High German can be further divided into Middle German and Upper German dialects.
Examples of Low, Middle, and Upper German Dialects
Low German includes vernaculars spoken in the northern regions, such as Schleswig, Holsatian, and Ostfriesian dialects. It also encompasses more centrally-located dialects like Brandenburgisch and Limburgish. Interestingly, Limburgish is spoken in both the Dutch and Belgian provinces of Limburg. A fun fact worth noting is that Low German is more closely related to Dutch than it is to Standard German!
Middle German dialects are found in areas such as Cologne (Ripuarian) and Hessen (Hessian). Other varieties can be heard in Eastern regions such as Erfurt (Thuringian), Dresden (Upper Saxon), and Bautzen (Silesian-Lusation also known as Upper Saxon dialect). Berlin, situated in the heart of the Middle German dialect area, has a metrolect— a mixed city-dialect composed of different vernaculars.
Upper German is spoken in the region extending from Franconia across Austria and Switzerland. Prominent dialects in this group include Bavarian (East Upper German), Alemannic (West High German), and Franconian (North High German). There’s also a version of German spoken here that’s known as Swiss German. Although Swiss German looks the same as the other versions of Upper German on paper, there’s a distinct pronunciation difference between Swiss German and, for example, Alemannic.
Determining the Number of German Dialects
Pinpointing the exact number of dialects encompassed within the broader categories of Low, Middle, and Upper German across communities of German speakers can be challenging. Political criteria come into play alongside linguistic considerations. Furthermore, apart from Germany and its neighboring regions, standard German dialect enclaves exist in countries like Poland, Slovenia, and Ukraine. How should we approach dialects like Luxembourgish? Should we classify examples such as Plautdietsch (Mennonite Low German) in Central and South America or Pennsylvania Dutch and Texas German in the US as German dialects or independent languages? Do different German accents qualify as a spoken language or are we only counting the Central German dialects used by German speakers? There’s no real right or wrong answer here.
While these questions may complicate matters, they emphasize the fact that language is a living entity that undergoes constant change. German is no exception! The presence of dialects adds depth and intrigue to the learning and speaking experience. While mastering Hoch Deutsch is crucial when learning German, delving into another dialect will only enrich your language journey.