their dialects

Dialects in popular culture

Many artists are using their dialects against the trend.  Photo: Diana Lundin © iStockphoto Many artists are using their dialects against the trend.  Photo: Diana Lundin © iStockphotoDialects are old-fashioned and make people sound ignorant. If you want to achieve anything in life you have to speak High German. That is at least the prevailing attitude these days. But it’s different on the arts and culture scene, where dialects are not just a sign of authenticity but also a source of comic relief.

“Dkia miaset jeda Morga aufd Woid”. That is how it sounds when a Swabian from rural Kohlstetten tells you that the cows have to be brought out to pasture every morning – “die Kühe müssen jeden Morgen auf die Weide”. Naturally, someone still learning German would struggle to understand it, but so would someone from Berlin. Schwäbisch (Swabian) is one of many German dialects – a spoken version of German with a distinct regional flavor. The pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary in Schwäbisch are so different that many northern Germans wouldn’t understand it.

Everyone used to speak in dialect

Dialects can reveal where a person comes from, and some dialects even change from village to village. But they can also be a polarizing factor. They bind us and separate us, and can be seen as charming, but they also potentially imply a lack of higher education. Some people are proud of their dialect while others hide it.

Donato Plögert from Berlin sings his song in dialect.  Photo: © M. PlögertAccording to a survey conducted by the Institute for German Language in 2009, sixty percent of Germans speak a dialect and most of them are in southern Germany.

There was of course a time when everyone spoke in dialect, be it Franconian, Hessian or Bavarian. Communication between them was patchy at best, and it wasn’t until a standardized version of the language was introduced that interregional understanding really improved. At this point, with the help of urbanization, upward social mobility, higher education and the media, High German is actually doing a pretty good job of supplanting the dialects that make up this rich linguistic fabric.

Songs in “Berlinish”

Many cabaret artists, musicians and authors are using their dialects to try and stem the tide of High German – some of them with great success, and not solely in their own region. When Donato Plögert sings his “new Berlin songs”, every German can understand him. “Berlinish” is seen as charming and even a bit cheeky, and that typical Berlin “twang” is adored around the country. For six years now Plögert has been singing in dialect, but he doesn’t speak his dialect in everyday life. “I wasn’t allowed to as a kid,” he says. As an artist, the Berlin dialect is a way for him to “make light of touchy social issues”. His songs tell of demented grandmothers, youth crime at school or gay couples from next door. Plögert thinks the dialect gives his songs heart – and humor. “In dialect you speak faster and the words are sharper.” That is good for the punch lines.

Cabaret in Saxon

Cabaret artist Uwe Steimle feels that dialects are good comedy.  Photo: © PR AgenturDresden actor and cabaret artist Uwe Steimle feels that dialects are good comedy. “Dialects themselves are funny,” he says. “They don’t take themselves too seriously.” But humor is only one reason why his cabaret character Günther Zieschong speaks Saxon. Steimle is a heart and soul Saxon, and the dialect is part of his personality. It gives him a sense of home and belonging. “People who speak High German don’t want to be acknowledged,” thinks Steimle, who feels the standardized version of German is frigid and even aloof. Dialects are authentic. “The language comes from your gut,” he says. “I can express things just like people say them.”

The fact that the singsong nature of Saxon is disparaged doesn’t seem to bother him. In surveys, Saxon is always near the bottom of the dialect popularity scale. Many Germans still associate it with the Saxon leadership of the communist DDR government and the problems of the former East. Steimle is attempting to combat this – in Saxon. “With my dialect I am basically trying to come to terms with our DDR past,” he says, and his audiences are surprisingly positive.

Bavarian theater

“When a person speaks with a regional flavor it comes across as authentic,” says theater director Christian Stückl, who himself speaks Bavarian. “You get more of a vibe from that person.” Stückl manages the Munich Volkstheater where they perform classics from Goethe, Kleist and Shakespeare – but not in Bavarian. “Those works already possess their own dialect,” he says. On the other hand, he has noticed that audiences feel a closer affinity to the characters when Bavarian is spoken on stage, as is often the case in rural theaters where stories from the region are performed in dialect.

Steimle: “With my dialect I am basically trying to come to terms with our DDR past.” Photo: © PR AgenturFor this reason, Stückl puts together dialectic shows for a surprisingly demanding public – not Kleist or Goethe, but definitely “high-end literature that we perform in Bavarian.” At the moment they are playing the comedy piece “Der Brandner Kaspar und das ewig' Leben”. For Stückl, dialect and comedy go hand in hand. “It is the liveliest version of a language, the way people talk,” he says. “And out of that comes the comedy.” For five years now “der Brandner Kaspar” has been filling the theater and every year the piece brings four times more people than a High-German version, he explains, and from all generations.

Katja Hanke
is a linguist and freelance journalist.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2010

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