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The sound of home – the German dialect revival

Not all Germans speak Standard German. Especially in the countryside, but also in towns and cities, the way people speak may differ enormously from the German heard on the country’s main news channels, in terms of intonation as well as in vocabulary and grammar.

There was a time when speaking such dialects was considered provincial, old-fashioned and uneducated – a practice reserved for country bumpkins and old ladies. Fewer and fewer people wanted to own up to their regional dialect. But now, dialects are experiencing a revival, and are being taught and used in the media and in music.

Wi sünd de Mallbüddels ut Bremen-Noord* (‘We are the sick kids from northern Bremen’), goes the rap song by De fofftig Penns, an electronic hip-hop band from Bremen, who sing in their regional idiom ‘Plattdeutsch’ (Low German). The musicians are on a mission to show that dialects are cool. And they are not alone. The Rude Poets from the Rhineland rap in Cologne dialect. And reggae singer Ronny Trettmann’s first single in Saxon dialect went straight into the charts after its release. Showing one’s regional and linguistic identity has become fashionable again.

Even a simple word like ‘bread roll’ (Brötchen in Standard German) shows the variety of the German language. What would you like? A Weckle (Swabian), a Luffe (Braunschweig dialect), a Schrippe (Berlin dialect), a Rundstück (Hamburg dialect) or a Semmel (Bavarian)? There are about 20 different German dialects plus countless regional variants. Some 60 % of Germans now speak a dialect to a greater or lesser extent. There is a clear North-South divide, however – most speakers of dialects live in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.

För uns Sproch: dialects in the classroom

People across Germany are starting to see their dialect as a type of cultural heritage to be cultivated and communicated in kindergartens, schools, universities – and in language schools like the Akademie för uns kölsche Sproch (‘Academy for our Cologne language’) in Cologne. Every year, around 300 students come here to study for their ‘school certificate in Cologne dialect’. The students include both people who have recently moved to the city and natives of Cologne who have never learned their own dialect properly. What unites them is the wish to make themselves better understood in their home region.

Indeed, everyday life in the Rhineland may be beset with pitfalls for those unfamiliar with the dialect. People who are not native speakers of German have the greatest problems. While he was studying in Cologne, Hamid Boukheraz from Morocco did some casual work for a roofing contractor who was a real Cologne lad. ‘Dat nit!’ (‘Not that one!’), he shouted when Hamid brought him the wrong hammer. Hamid thought a ‘Datnit’ was a special kind of tool and spent a long time rooting around desperately in the tool box.

Dialects and regional identity

Linguists believe there is another reason for the revival of German dialects, apart from the wish to communicate better. Dialects can both unite people and distinguish them from others. Globalisation is making the world more uniform and simultaneously more confusing. Growing numbers of people live far from their countries of origin. That would appear to reinforce the need for regional allegiance, the warm feeling of belonging and professing one’s own identity.

Dialect adds a personal flavour. ‘Hob di liab’ sounds better than ‘Ich liebe dich’ (I love you) to many a lovesick Bavarian teenager. The dialect version is often shorter than the same sentence in Standard German, which makes dialect a popular choice for texting and emails. The trend towards regionalism is reflected in the media, too. More and more radio and television presenters speak a hybrid form of dialect and Standard German. And Germany’s favourite police thriller series Tatort (’Crime Scene’) is one of several TV programmes to make a special feature of regional accents.

Dialects are booming

The French film Bienvenue Chez les Chtis (‘Welcome to the Sticks’) was a surprise hit in 2008 and triggered a wave of enthusiasm for the long-derided northern French accent. International linguists speak of a general boom in dialects throughout Europe. But in many other countries outside Europe, too, there are signs of renewed interest in the local vernacular.

Of course, not all dialects sound good. Bavarian is the most popular and internationally best-known German dialect, while Saxon is the one that is regularly voted the least-loved. It contains a speech sound () that causes a lot of confusion. Arig Gaffer from Sudan thought it meant ‘No’ and was frequently annoyed at receiving answers in Dresden that were obviously wrong – until she understood that it meant quite the opposite, ‘Yes’.

Swabian dialect often fares poorly in comparison, too. The confusing elements here are the many diminutives formed by adding ‘le’ (Bähnle, Gläsle – little train, small glass or ‘wee dram’) and the frequent use of the ‘sh’ sound. Kyrellos Boutros from Egypt worked as a waiter in the Stuttgart area while he was studying. It took him quite a while to figure out what his colleague said to him in passing: ‘Die Sauce ischt scho druf’ (Die Sauce ist schon drauf, or ‘the sauce has already been added’).

To the discussion on dialects in the group "Deutsch als FremdSprache" (German)


Author: Maren Bekker

Blog by  Hannah Schieferle (German only)

December 2011

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Pablo David Velez Ortiz
10 January 2012

When I arrived to Germany, specifically to Reutlingen in Baden- Würtenmberg, where I studied, I was very worry because I could not understand what the people was talking at the bus or on the streets, and later I knew it was the local dialect. It is really hard to understand, but fortunately the Hoch Deutsche is most everywhere spoken.

Jim Lacey
5 January 2012

When I spent a year at the University of Bern, I picked up quite a bit of Bärndeutsch and while doing research in Munich I learned some Bayrisch. Flirting is much easier in dialect! At a Weinkeller in München I was explaining I was an American doing research. On the perifiry of the table was a fellow, a bit under the weather who said, "Du bist kein Amerikoner. I decided to go along with him and said, "Du ast Recht--i bin Schauspieler!" He has a wonderful to story to tell about an actor who pretended to be an Americaqn!

5 January 2012

Great article! I was born in Frankfurt am Main and left for the US when I was 6. My dialect, stayed with me. I took German language in college and was constantly corrected for my pronunciation of words or peculiar expressions. It is good to know my "Oma Deutsch" and Frankfurter Dialekt have finally gained some support.

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