When discussing the German language, it can sometimes be tempting to think of it purely in terms of its use within Germany, which is by far the largest German-speaking country in the world. When we think of German, Germany comes straight to mind, with its Oktoberfest, its famous curry sausages and its Glühwein. However, there are a total of six countries in Europe where German is an official language: Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. Moreover, in other countries such as Italy, Poland, Czech Republic or Hungary, German also plays a major role.
Indeed, German is more present than we think. It is estimated that it is the mother tongue of 100 million people and 80 million practice it as a second language. Approximately 16% of Europeans speak German and it is one of the official languages used in the institutions of the European Union, ranking among the 10 most spoken languages in the world. It is all the more interesting because German is a highly complex language, not only due to the difficulty of its syntactic structure (declinations, cases, verb conjugations, word genders), which is a headache for those who study it, but also by reason of the tremendous number of related dialects. Such dialects are classified into High German and Low German. While High German has about 16 variations, Low German has two varieties: Low Saxon and Low French. Today’s standard German is almost entirely derived from Low German. In addition to this complexity, there are also local dialect varieties such as the Hessian dialect spoken in the Frankfurt area or the Bavarian dialect characteristic of the Bavarian region.
Standard German is the variation to unite German speakers from all over the world! The best part about Standard German is that it does not demand perfection. Even if you have a foreign accent while speaking German, you will be understood by your fellow German speakers. No matter whether you roll your r’s or whether you encounter difficulties in pronouncing the German “ch”-sound, German speakers embrace diversity!
Although German speakers in both Germany and Austria will have no problem understanding somebody speaking standard German to a decent extent, it is essential to acknowledge that German spoken in Austria and Switzerland differs in many aspects.
The variation of German spoken in Austria is known as Austrian German, or Österreichisches Deutsch. Despite their differences, Austrian German and standard German are generally considered to be mutually intelligible, meaning a German will usually understand German spoken Austria, and vice versa.
Austrian German dates back to the 18th century and is a source of pride for people living in the country, many of whom like to use Austrian phrases and expressions, rather than standard German equivalents. Below, some Austrian German words and phrases are listed, along with their standard German counterparts and English translation.
Austrian German: Erdapfel
Standard German: Kartoffel
Translation into English: Potato
Austrian German: Paradeiser
Standard German: Tomate
Translation into English: Tomato
Austrian German: Faschiertes
Standard German: Hackfleisch
Translation into English: Ground beef
Austrian German: Sackerl
Standard German: Tüte
Translation into English: Bag
On the other hand, we have Swiss German (Schweizer Hochdeutsch), a standardised and official variant used in politics, education and the media in Switzerland, with its own linguistic rules. However, once again, there are local varieties. The inhabitants of Basel do not speak the same language as those of Zurich, or those of Zurich and the Canton of Valais.
In terms of vocabulary, one noticeable element of Swiss German is the borrowing of English words for technological innovations. While a new word is often coined for new technology in standard German, Swiss speakers often use a variation of the English word, albeit with significantly different pronunciation. Moreover, it is worth noting the influence of French, another official language in Switzerland.
Swiss German: Computer
Standard German: Rechner
Translation into English: Computer
Swiss German: Zmorge
Standard German: Frühstück
Translation into English: Breakfast
Swiss German: Trottoir
Standard German: Gehsteig
Translation into English: Pavement/sidewalk
Swiss German: Portmonnee
Standard German: Geldbeutel
Translation into English: Purse
Much like with Austrian German, Swiss German words are not always used, and sometimes standard German words and phrases will be used instead. In general, there is a city/rural divide, with cities having lost much of the Swiss vocabulary over time. Nevertheless, some standard German words, like Frühstück, are almost never used.
There are also many lexical or typographical differences between these countries. For example, the spelling “β” is not used in Swiss German but is replaced by “ss”. Therefore, if you correspond regularly with Swiss people, you will see that they say goodbye as follows: Mit freundlichen Grüssen. In addition, they do not usually use a punctuation mark after the greeting and most often start with a capital letter, while standard German speakers will use punctuation marks and most often start with a lowercase letter. Another difference in terms of typography is that in Switzerland a dot is used to mark the time (10.45), while two dots are used (10:45) in Germany. It may seem irrelevant but let’s remember that in the world of translation, the smallest detail makes all the difference. All these variations are not even the worst, as there are also differences between the genders of the articles. This is very important because, depending on the variety we are talking about, the article may change. Isn’t it hard enough to have to study genres by heart to change them according to variety? So, no one said it was easy! Let’s take a look at some examples:
|SWISS GERMAN||STANDARD GERMAN||ENGLISH|
|Das Email||Die E-Mail|
|Die Photo||Das Foto||Photography|
|Der Radio||Das Radio||Radio|
After this reflection, you will have a better idea of what characterises each German language variety. Although they are neighbouring countries and share many aspects, there are clear differences that make them unique. It is not only a matter of considering the various linguistic aspects that make the differences, but also of understanding the culture of each country. While the Austrians are more open, flexible and friendly, the Swiss have a more reserved and rigorous reputation in the business world, as do the Germans, who are considered highly productive and demanding. But, in the end, they all speak the same language.
Author: Diana Grasu – Translator
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