German is a very rich and diverse language, and forms part of the West Germanic language family. The language first appeared during the Early Middle Ages with what linguists referred to as the ‘High German consonant shift’. This shift was a change in the way particular vowels were sounded, creating a new language which then gave rise to several other languages and dialects.

To briefly summarise the German language’s history, we will refer to the three most crucial periods that helped to shape its growth and standardisation.

  1. The initial period, the Old High German period, was mainly spoken with a number of different dialects and was characterised by a wide-ranging oral tradition with very few written texts.
  2. The Middle High German period followed between 1050 and 1350. During this period, the German tribes expanded and incorporated a substantial geographical territory equivalent to modern-day countries like Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, bringing about a massive increase in the number of German speakers. A number of linguistic changes were also still taking place and German started to replace Latin as the language used for official purposes.
  3. During the Early New High German period, which spanned between 1350 and 1650, Wilhelm Scherer, the German philologist, started developing Modern German. Many important historical events occurred during this period – in 1440, Gutenberg invented the printing press, which kicked off the Printing Revolution and Martin Luther translated the Bible from ancient Greek and Hebrew into German in 1534. This started the standardisation of written German, as well as the displacement of Latin as the principal language in the German states which were part of the Holy Roman Empire.

However, it was only during the middle of the 1700s that a standard of written German became widely accepted, because of its use in government and commerce by the Habsburg Empire. The Brothers Grimm continued the process of standardisation, by creating a dictionary, which was succeeded (in 1872) by the first Duden Handbook with orthographic and grammatical rules.

Notwithstanding, many different dialects of German developed and continued to be used in parts of Eastern Europe and across Central Europe.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what is the difference between a dialect and a language?

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Language and Dialect

Linguists, people who make a scientific study of a language, have suggested quite a number of definitions of language. Henry Sweet, an English language scholar and phonetician, asserted:

“Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.”

To someone, who is not a linguistic expert, this may come across as vague and may even appear to be referring to a dialect.

What Are the Differences?

A dialect can be considered to be a variance to the standard form of usage of a particular language, which may indicate where someone comes from. A dialect is also a speech pattern, which has its own phonological and grammatical rules, linguistic features and stylistic aspects, but has not been officially recognised as a language.

What causes a dialect to gain the status of a language are the social and political reasons. Dialects develop in a specific area or region and cause a language to be unique. This helps to explain the regional differences and provides insight into the identity and culture of a particular region.

There are many different dialects of German, originating in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, each having its own specific accent, syntax, vocabulary, etc.

german words
Written German ans spoken German differ in certain regions. - Source Unsplash

How Many German Dialects Are There?

The German language is so diverse that linguists and researchers have uncovered 16 regional dialectical groups that make up about 250 dialects, within the boundaries of Germany alone!

This diversity makes sense, when one considers all the former German villages and tribes that existed during the migration period to the East and the High German consonant shift.

Today, we present an overview of the 6 predominant German dialects and languages which are spoken nowadays: Low German, High German, Upper Saxon Dialect, Bavarian German, Swiss German and Austrian German.

Today, the distinction is far less, because Standard German is the social and political language utilised in Germany, Switzerland and Austria and, therefore, people can understand each other. Although there are a few differences in pronunciation, the written form remains the same.

However, when only dialects and spoken languages are considered, the differences in syntax and lexicon become increasingly apparent.

So, although six were mentioned previously, we will now turn a spotlight on the four main groups: Low German, High German, Upper Saxon Dialect and Bavarian German, also called Bayerisch.

  • Of the abovementioned groups, High German is the most prominent and significant one, because it draws together the Hochdeutsch dialect, that refers to Standard German spoken most commonly in Central Europe, and two important sub-groups, Upper German and Central German. The Central German vernaculars are spoken in Luxembourg, Belgium, the south-eastern Netherlands, in some parts of north-eastern France and, of course, in Germany. At the same time, the Upper German vernaculars are spoken in southern Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, as well as in Italy.
  • Low German, which is also referred to as Plattedeutsch, is encountered in the northern part of Germany and the Netherlands. This dialect is the one which is closest to Hochdeutsch, in terms of pronunciation, and has the same written structure. Lower German is, sadly, a disappearing variety of German, as fewer and fewer people are speaking it.
  • The south-eastern dialect is called Bavarian German. Its written form closely resembles Standard German, but it differs significantly where the pronunciation of the vowels is concerned. Because most people in Bavaria speak Bayerisch, they refer to Standard German (Hochdeutsch) as ‘written German’.
  • The Upper Saxon dialect (Sächsisch) is employed primarily in Saxony, a territory situated in the eastern part of Germany. Standard German is heavily based on this dialect, in that it was used as the foundation for the initial developments in the standardisation process of German, during the Early New High German period, when Martin Luther translated the Bible.
  • Although Standard German is Austria’s official language and is used chiefly in education, the media and official announcements, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture announced a new written standard for Austrian German, in 1951, thereby recognising it as Austria’s official language. Austrian German, thus, has a distinctive vocabulary, as well as regional vernaculars, such as Austro-Bavarian, belonging to the Upper German group of High German vernaculars.
  • As in the neighbouring German-speaking lands, Standard German is used purely as a social and political language in Switzerland, while Swiss German (Sweizerdeutsch) is a melting pot of all the different widely-spoken dialects in Switzerland. The Swiss-German vernaculars all fit into the High German sub-group and all originated from Old Alemannic, which belonged to a particular tribe from a confederation of German tribes, called the Alemanni.
swiss german road signs
Which German dialect would you like to learn? - source: Pexels

You may again be thinking: how many German dialects are there?

The above is but a brief summary of the many German dialects which exist in present-day Central Europe, with some dialects existing on other continents as well. German settlers took the language along into the parts of the world that were colonised by Germany. So, the dialects which developed include: Chilean German along Lake Llanquihue, Brazilian German in Rio Grande do Sul and Amana German in the US state of Iowa.

Each dialect has taken on the dialect of the original settlers, which has also led to the development of a lexicon which is specific to a particular region.

German Diversity and Dialects

It is very important, when you consider learning a new language like German, to take note of the nuances and differences which exist within the language itself.

All of the German-speaking countries have a lot to offer, in terms of cultural wonders and professional opportunities. Their different dialects of German are proof of their traditions and cultural differences. When you decide to learn German, it will be good to acquire a particular dialect, in addition to a knowledge of Standard German, as this will aid you in your search for a teacher or tutor, who will be able to address your needs directly and focus on issues that will impact on your immediate learning. No time will be wasted on aspects which may not be of immediate concern and, so your tutor will have the opportunity to adapt to your rhythm and learning style.

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Trevor

Career teacher turned writer. Passionate about family, running, and the great outdoors.