German dialects history
German is a very diverse and rich language, that belongs to the West Germanic language family. It first appeared during the Middle Ages with what historical linguistics call the ‘High German consonant shift’, which refers to a change in the sound of specific vowels and subsequently creating a new language that developed several languages and dialects. To summarize the history of the German language, we can mention the three most important periods that shaped its development and standardization. The first period, known as the Old High German period, was predominantly spoken with a wide range of dialects and an extensive oral tradition and only a few written texts. Then, between 1050 and 1350 came the Middle High German period, during which the expansion of the German tribes beyond the eastern periphery of the Holy Roman Empire attained a significant geographical territory equivalent to modern-day countries like Austria, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania; provoking a considerable increase of the German speakers. This period was still undergoing linguistic changes, while it also began to use German instead of Latin for official purposes. The Modern German started being developed with the Early New High German period, dating from 1350 to 1650, by the German philologist Wilhelm Scherer. During this last period, where Gutenberg invented the press in 1440 and started the Printing Revolution, Luther’s vernacular translation of the Bible from Latin to German (in 1534) started the standardization in the written form of German and the displacement of Latin by German as the primary language in the German states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, but not lastly, it is only until the middle of the eighteenth century that a widely accepted standard of written German appeared because of its use for commerce and government by the Habsburg Empire. The standardization process continued with the Brothers Grimm and their creation of a dictionary, followed by the first Duden Handbook in 1872 with grammatical and orthographic rules. Nevertheless, many dialects derived from the German language were also developed and used across Central Europe and parts of Eastern Europe.
Now, you are probably wondering what is the real difference between a language and a dialect?
Language vs. dialect
According to linguistics, which refers to the scientific study of the language, numerous definitions of language have been suggested. One of them, proposed by the English phonetician Henry Sweet states: ‘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.' This definition seems vague to the non-linguistic expert, and might even be considered as the definition of dialect.
Then, where do the differences reside?
Dialects are considered a variety of language that indicates where a person comes from. They are also speech varieties that have their own grammatical and phonological rules, stylistic aspects and linguistic features, but that has not been officially recognized as a language. What makes a dialect acquire the status of language is the political and social reasons. Dialects evolve in a specific territory and make a language unique, this explains the regional differences and provide insight into the culture and identity of a region.
German has many dialects coming from within Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and they all have their specific accents, vocabulary, syntax and more!
How many German dialects exist?
German is diverse, so diverse that researchers and linguists have gathered 16 regional dialects groups that make up to around 250 dialects in Germany only! This variety is explained by all the former German tribes and villages that existed during the High German consonant shift and the migration period to the East. Here, we would like to give you an overview of the 6 most important and prominent German languages and dialects that are spoken nowadays: High German, Low German, Bavarian German, Upper Saxon Dialect, Austrian German, and Swiss German. Today, there is less of a distinction because Standard German is the political and social language spoken in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and thus they can understand each other despite some differences in pronunciation, the written form is the same.
However, when we only consider the spoken languages and dialects, this is where the differences in lexicon and syntax are more apparent.
As we mentioned earlier, Germany has numerous dialects, but we can distinguish 4 main groups: High German, Low German, Bavarian German also known as Bayerisch, and Upper Saxon dialect.
- Of these mentioned groups, High German is the most significant and prominent one because it gathers the dialect known as Hochdeutsch, which refers to Standard German —the most commonly spoken in Central Europe and two main subgroups: Central German and Upper German. Central German dialects are spoken in the southeastern Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and some parts of northeastern France and in Germany. While the Upper German dialects are spoken in southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland and Italy.
- Low German also known as Plattdeutch comes from the Northern part of Germany and the Netherlands, this dialect is the closest one to Hochdeutsch in terms of pronunciation, and it has the same written structure. Sadly, Low German is a disappearing dialect because fewer and fewer people speak it.
- Bavarian German is a southeastern dialect, which is similar to Standard German in its written form but differs strongly in the pronunciation of the vowels. In Bavaria, most people speak Bayerish and that explains why Standard German (Hochdeutsch) is referred to as the ‘written German’.
- The Upper Saxon dialect —Sächsisch, is primarily spoken in Saxony, a state located in the eastern region of Germany. Standard German has been heavily based on this dialect, particularly in its lexicon and grammar. This is due to it being used as the basis for the early developments in the standardization process of the German language during the Early New High German period when the standardization process started with Martin Luther and his translation of the Bible.
- Even if Standard German is the official language of Austria and is primarily used in education, official announcements and media, in 1951 the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture defined and published a new written standard for Austrian German, thus recognizing it as the official language of Austria. Thus, Austrian German has a unique vocabulary and also regional dialects such as Austro-Bavarian, which belongs to the Upper German group of High German dialects.
- Like its neighbouring German-speaking countries, Switzerland Standard Swiss German is merely used as a political and social language, while Swiss German —Sweizerdeutsch, gathers all the dialects that are widely spoken in Switzerland. The Swiss-German dialects belong to the High German subgroup and all derive from Old Allemmanic, which belong to a specific tribe from the ancient Germanic tribal confederation known as the Alamanni.
This is only a short summary of the many German dialects that exist in Central Europe nowadays, but some overseas dialects exist as well. These overseas dialects were primarily spoken by German speakers that settled in different parts of the world primarily during the colonies or communities, just to name a few: the Amana German in the state of Iowa, Brazilian German near the Rio Grande do Sul and Chilean German along the Lake Llanquihue. These different dialects have reproduced the German dialect of their original settlers and have also acquired new forms of lexicon according to each region.
German dialects and diversity
What is very important when considering learning a new language and particularly if you are considering German is taking into account the differences and nuances that exist within the language itself. No matter which dialect you want to speak, we strongly recommend starting by learning the Standard High German because it is the most spoken and used. Further down the line of your learning journey, you will be able to acquire the lexicon and pronunciation of the dialect that will be more useful to your needs. All the German-speaking countries have lots to offer in terms of professional opportunities and cultural wonders, their dialects are proof of their cultural differences and traditions. When learning a German dialect, it is helpful to know if you will require a specific dialect in addition to Standard German, because this will help you find a tutor or teacher that adapts to your needs and that will be able to challenge you and adapt to your learning style and rhythm.
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