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German Dialects

Reflecting the history of the area in which it is spoken, German is a language of great regional diversity. The area we now call Austria, Germany, and Switzerland was once a bewildering jungle of separate kingdoms, principalities and duchies. So too, the German language; even today it remains a jumble of dialects and linguistic variations stretching from the Danish border to northern Italy (the region of Südtirol in German or Alto Adige in Italian).

Even though the driving distance between them is only 365 miles, the German spoken by a Berliner is worlds apart from the German spoken by a Bavarian in Munich. Swiss German, Schwyzerdütsch, is Chinese to the ears of someone from Düsseldorf. The regional dialects of Austria, a country no larger than Maine, are like dozens of different languages, making it difficult for a Viennese to understand an Innsbrucker. The only way any of these various German-speakers are able to communicate is through a relatively standardized form of German known as Hochdeutsch, or High German. The hoch in Hochdeutsch refers to a topographically higher region, relative to the lower (nieder) or flat (platt) regions of northern Germany. The term “High German” does not imply any superiority to “Low German”—the only differences are geographic and linguistic. Plattdeutsch or Niederdeutsch come from the low lands.

Ironically, in the last 10 to 15 years there has been a conscious effort to preserve local and regional dialects in the German-speaking world. Many news publications and works of poetry and literature have sprung up in dialect form. Even some dialects that had no real written form can now be seen in print. Singers and musical groups, from rock to traditional, have also released albums and songs in various German dialects. Many Austrians, Swiss, and Germans have a renewed pride in their own unique dialect. They see Hochdeutsch as useful and necessary, but they don’t want to see their own regional cultural identity fade into a uniform, boring sameness.