Word! The Language Column
I don’t get a word of it!

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

The German-speaking world is rich in dialects. They make for differences and diversity, in which Hasnain Kazim revels – even though he’s from the north of Germany and doesn't always get what southerners are saying to him.

By Hasnain Kazim

Dor, wo ik her kümm, snackt wi Platt (Where I’m from, we speak Low German). Well, wi don’t really, but farmers and grannies and gramps do. Generally older folks, at any rate. I don't know anyone my age – in other words, middle-aged – who speaks Low German in everyday life, let alone people younger than I am. That said, Plattdeutsch (or Platt for short) is widespread throughout Northern Germany, even though you’ll come across major differences of absolutely vital importance from one village to the next: in one village they say Koi for “cow”, in another Kau, and naturally each looks down on the Dösbaddel (dimwits) in the other village, de nix weet un nix köönt (who don’t know a thing and can’t do a thing).

It was Greek to me 

When I moved down to Heilbronn after college to work for the Heilbronner Stimme, the regional daily paper, the folks there in the capital of Baden-Württemberg spoke a language quite foreign to me: Schwäbisch. Old and young alike, workers and academics – in short, everyone spoke Swabian. Or at least lots of them. I was amazed. They weren’t ashamed of their dialect; on the contrary, they spoke it with the greatest self-assurance. Their attitude was: We can do anything – except High German!  Which was also the promotional slogan for the State of Baden-Württemberg. They were downright proud of their regional tongue: s'isch scho schee, s'isch dr Wahnsinn, wenn mir Schwäbisch schwätzet! (It’s so nice, it’s just awesome, to shoot the breeze in Swabian!)

It would be unthinkable up north to say, “Wi könnt allens blots keen Hoogdüütsch!” Dat geiht gaar nich! (“We can do anything – except High German!” No can do!) Why is that? It occurred to me that northerners are a bit ashamed of Low German, while Swabians confidently cultivate their dialect. One of my colleagues in the editorial office down in Heilbronn spoke such a heavy Swabian that I didn’t get a word of what he was saying. After every sentence I had to ask two or three times: “Wie bitte?” (Beg your pardon?) Eventually, it got so unpleasant that I simply pretended to understand him. “Oh, I see!” “Ha ha ha!” “Well, well.” “Yeah, um, sure.” Which worked most of the time. Except when it didn't, as I could tell from the look of pity and perplexity on his face. Thank God we already had e-mail and instant messaging back then so I could clear up any really important matters with him in writing.

In praise of subtle differences

So sometimes we Germans can’t even understand one another in our own country! Which is why I always praise people from Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony whenever I can actually understand what they’re saying. “You speak excellent German!” I say. No, just kidding. I only do that when they praise my German. 

I like dialects. I like being able to hear where – or by whom – someone was raised. Language always reveals something of one’s origins, both geographical and social. Like clothes. How boring it would be if we all wore uniforms.

Take our son, for example: although he’s never actually lived in Germany, he speaks High German – which he learned from us, of course – with a Viennese colouring. Over the years, since we live in Vienna, he has adopted lots of Austrian words and expressions into his everyday vocabulary. He says Haube instead of Mütze (cap), Bursche instead of Junge (boy), Sackerl instead of Tüte (bag), and Mist ("manure" or “crap”  in High German) to mean Müll (trash). And everything that’s really cool isn’t just geil, cool, krass, it’s urgeil, urcool, urkrass (i.e. super-cool)! The other day I even heard a boy say something was urcringe (super-cringeworthy). I think that’s urschön (super-fine)!

Dialect borders

I used to think everything from Würzburg on down – come to think of it, everything south of Hanover! – was Bavarian. That wasn’t quite as wide of the mark as you’d think, because Germanic linguists group the dialects of southeast Germany and Austria together as Bairisch (Bavarian). (Which doesn’t include the remarkable Hessian dialect, but that didn’t interest me at the time anyway). What’s the difference between Weanarisch (Viennese) and the Upper Austrian dialect? Between Franconian and the way they talk in the Bavarian Forest region? Was there any difference at all? I know, I was a philistine.
But I know better now. Now I can tell by their language whether someone’s from Vorarlberg or Carinthia, and I can very well tell Tyrolean croaking from Styrian barking. I can even hear the subtle differences within the state of Styria. People speak differently in Graz and Leoben. And I like – actually, love! - Viennese. I don’t know any other language in which one can be so charmingly malicious. Or so maliciously charming. You feel flattered, and only on second thought do you wonder: Hey, hang on, did that guy just insult me? 

“Köstlich”, not “lecker”

Some Austrians worry about the disappearance of their dialects. They blame German television, which a lot of them watch. German is eclipsing Austrian German on the Internet, too. You hear parents tell their kids: “That’s not how we say it in Austria!” For drängen (to press for or insist on) in German, they say urgieren in Austria. They don’t talk about zurückschicken (sending something back) or antworten (answering) an e-mail, but retournieren. They don’t have Fraktionen (parliamentary groups) in parliament, but Klubs, and their ministers aren’t vereidigt (sworn in), but angelobt. They don’t unterschreiben (sign) documents, they unterfertigen them. And many a delicious Austrian dish may be schmackhaft, köstlich, hervorragend, mundet sehr, but no one would call it lecker! Lecker – yuck! Such an awfully German German word!

I like all that stuff, all those differences. I appreciate the diversity and admire the subtleties. And I’m amused by all that quirkiness. I think it's right to cultivate languages and dialects. According to UNESCO, several varieties of German are endangered, including Alemannic, Bavarian, East Franconian, Rhine Franconian, West Frisian and Low German. We’ve got to save them! We must urgieren (insist)! Dorüm schall ik af sofort bloot noch Plattdüütsch snacken! Blots versteiht mi denn in Wien nüms mehr. Schaad! (Which is why I ought to speak only Low German from now on. But then no one in Vienna will understand me anymore. Bummer!) 

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.