Atlas of everyday German usage
“Brötchen” (bun) or “Schrippe” (bread roll)?

Previously the “Brötchen” in Schleswig-Holstein was reported as “Rundstück”.
Previously the “Brötchen” in Schleswig-Holstein was reported as “Rundstück”. | © knipseline /

A team of researchers from Salzburg and Liège have been mapping everyday German usage since 2003 and show vividly how the use of language varies and changes from region to region.

If you go to a bakery in Berlin and order “zwei Brötchen” (two buns), you have dropped your first clanger. Although the term Brötchen is used in textbooks for teaching German, the small, round baked goods made from wheat flour go by very different names in everyday life. In the Berlin area, they are called Schrippe. In southern Germany, they are called Semmel, and in the region round Stuttgart Weck or Weck(er)le. The Atlas zur deutschen Alltagssprache (i.e., Atlas of Everyday German Usage) (AdA) lists eleven terms for the item on a map and marks them in different colours in each area of distribution.

“Schmotziger Donnerstag” or “Weiberfastnacht”?

Screenshot of the online survey: What is the Thursday before Rose Monday called in German? Screenshot of the online survey: What is the Thursday before Rose Monday called in German? | © To find out where which terms and expressions are used, the researchers carry out every year an online survey. In 2014, for example, they want to know what the Thursday before Rose Monday is called in German. In the survey, a few already known expressions are listed such as Weiberfastnacht, Fettdonnerstag, Schmotziger Donnerstag and Faisse Dunnschdig. In addition, participants can enter whether in their region another term is used or whether there is no special name for this day. Approximately 500 places in Germany, Austria, German-speaking Switzerland, South Tyrol, eastern Belgium and Luxemburg have been surveyed up to now.

“We’ve been doing this once a year since 2003 and are always amazed at how clear the structures are that emerge on the maps”, says Stephan Elspaß of the University of Salzburg. He launched the project together with his colleague Robert Möller of the University of Liège; now up to 10,000 people are taking part in each annual survey. The target groups are not language experts or linguists, but “quite normal” people: “We ask really quite pragmatic questions – what expressions are used or heard in everyday life. At the baker or the supermarket, for example”, explains Elspaß. The questions are about customary local language usage in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation and certain grammatical forms.

Significant regional differences

Several pronunciation variants Several pronunciation variants | © Two examples: after the comparative in German comes als (Markus ist größer als Thomas – Markus is taller than Thomas). This is the current grammatical norm in the written language. In everyday life, however, there are significant regional differences: although als remains the most frequent usage, the variant wie is predominant in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. In these regions people like to say: Markus ist größer wie Thomas. In addition, the variants als wie and occasionally (in Switzerland) wan are common in certain regions.

For the term ich (i.e., I), participants in the survey reported no less than seven pronunciation variants. Northern Germans say ich, southern German i, Berliners ik, people from Dresden and Mainz isch and in other regions there were occasional cases of ech, esch and ek.

Everyday language: between standard usage and dialect

By everyday language, the researchers understand everything that is part of everyday communication: private conversations with friends or conversations at work or in a shop. Depending on the region, the everyday language can be more or less close to the standard language or to a dialect. When two people meet who come from regions whose language is strongly stamped by dialect, their communication can sometimes be less than perfect. “Differences in vocabulary and grammar and peculiarities of pronunciation can lead to difficulties”, says Elspaß. “Sometimes the listener can’t tell where one word ends and another begins.”

The researchers, however, are interested not only in an overview of regional variants in vocabulary: “We want to represent the diversity of the German language and explore possible tendencies of language development”, says Elspaß. The foundation for this is the Wortatlas der deutschen Umgangssprachen (i.e., Word Atlas of Everyday German) by Jürgen Eichhoff, which published research results about everyday German usage in the 1970s and 80s. “Comparison with Eichhoff’s findings enable us to draw conclusions about changes in language use in the last few decades”, says Elspaß.

“Brötchen” (bun) or “Schrippe” (bread roll)? “Brötchen” (bun) or “Schrippe” (bread roll)? | © For example, by comparing maps, the researchers can see how the spread of certain terms has changed in the course of time. If previously people in Schleswig-Holstein reported the use of the term Rundstück (meaning a bun or bread roll; literally, round piece), today there is hardly a single case of it. Instead, today the word Brötchen has established itself in the region. Political borders can also influence the distribution of certain variants: Eichhoff’s maps still record the use of Schlachter or Schlächter (both words for butcher; literally, slaughterer) in northern Germany. Later the word Fleischer prevailed as the job title in the GDR. “On the maps, you can still recognize quite clearly the outlines of the old border”, says Elspaß.

Language in transition

One thing is clear: the German language and so the everyday language is constantly changing. Variants from the south come to prevail in the north and vice versa. This includes, for example, the leave-taking expression tschüss (bye!). Previously common only in the north, the expression has worked its way south – and is now also used in Austria. So in this sense: tschüss!