German language varies by region

Guest blog by Lisa Kirchmair, Marketing Specialist at Argos Multilingual

There is no doubt that German is one of the most important languages worldwide: around 95 million German native speakers make it the 11th most-spoken language around the globe. It is the most widely spoken native language within the European Union and the official language of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

An interesting fact is that German is also spoken outside of Europe by certain communities in Africa (Namibia, South Africa) and South America (Brazil).

However, there is one crucial point that should be taken into account when it comes to German: German does not equal German – meaning that the language differs a lot among the various regions.

An abundance of German dialects

German has many regional variations, resulting in a broad number of dialects. Let’s take Tyrol, a region in the western part of Austria, as an example: Located in the middle of the Alps, Tyrol is a region made up of valleys and mountains, creating a geographical separation that has allowed the language to evolve freely. As a result, people may speak very differently in two places that are located only an hour apart.

Most regional dialects differ quite drastically from what is known as Standard German, both in words and grammar. This creates a curious situation where two German speakers may struggle to understand each other when talking in different dialects.

Significant grammatical changes

Grammatical differences include the use of past tenses. In most regions in Germany where people use Standard German, yesterday’s activities would be described using the simple past tense, whereas in Austria, people would be more likely to use the present perfect tense:

  • Germany: Gestern ging ich ins Kino.
    Austria: Gestern bin ich ins ins Kino gegangen.
    English: Yesterday, I went to the cinema.

Another difference applies to the use of articles. Those who want to learn German often find it difficult that this language uses three different genders for nouns: masculine, feminine and neutral. To further complicate things, those genders can also vary among the different German countries. For instance, “butter” is masculine in many parts of Austria (der Butter) but feminine in Germany (die Butter); an “e-mail” in Switzerland and Austria is neutral (das E-Mail), but in Germany it is feminine (die E-Mail).

Swiss German and its special words

Besides grammar, there may be huge differences in vocabulary – particularly in Switzerland. This stems from the strong influence of the French language:

  • Switzerland: Trottoir
    Standard German: Gehsteig
    English: Sidewalk
  • Switzerland: Billet
    Standard German: Ticket
    English: Ticket
  • Switzerland: Coiffeur
    Standard German: Frisör
    English: Hairdresser
  • Switzerland: Velo
    Standard German: Fahrrad
    English: Bicycle

Another notable phenomenon in Switzerland is the existence of so-called Helvetisms, meaning the country’s linguistic characteristics in phonology, grammar and orthography. Helvetisms are part of Swiss Standard German, which differs from Standard German.

More about orthography and typography

Other interesting linguistic differences between Germany, Austria and Switzerland can be found in the typography:

• In Germany and Austria, there is an additional letter in the alphabet: the letter “ß,” which is pronounced the same as “s”, just a little bit harder. In Switzerland, this letter is not used and “ss” is written instead.

• Some words can be spelled differently – “low-cut dress,” for instance, has three different versions: “Dekolleté”, “Dekolletee” and “Décolleté” (the latter being the most common spelling in Switzerland).

• In Swiss German, quotation marks are rendered like they are in France («…»), while Germany and Austria use a different format („…“).

• Compared to its neighboring countries where time is written with a colon (11:30), Switzerland uses a period (11.30).

• Large numbers in Switzerland are typically written as 45’000,50, while in Germany, that number would be written as 45.000,50 or 45 000,50.

German is seen as one of the most difficult languages to learn – and from the above-mentioned examples, you can see why. Thus, when translating into German, many regional differences must be taken into consideration in order to address people in each region appropriately.


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