How to Navigate Different German Dialects

When you study German in an academic setting, you typically study Standard German, or Standarddeutsch – the language variety used in the media, politics, and education. But just like any other language, German has many dialects that vary by region.

In this article, we will explore the diverse German language and how to navigate its different dialects.

What is a dialect?

Essentially, a dialect is a language form that is peculiar to a specific region or social group. The lexicon and grammar of a dialect usually contain some different words and rules.

German dialects are the traditional local varieties distinguished from Standard German.

Dialects are helpful for mastering a language

Familiarity with different dialects of a language allows you to hack the language at a cultural level, which is the best way to take your language skills from beginner/intermediate to advanced.

Think of learning a dialect as taking a cultural dive into linguistic nuances, mastering new, unique vocabulary and grammar structures.

Map of German Dialects

So, what are the larger dialect groups we believe to be important for a German learner to know about?

The Berlin Dialect (Berlinerisch)

The Berlin Dialect is the dialect spoken in and around Berlin, Germany’s capital city.

Colognian (Kölsch)

Another city dialect is Colognian, spoken by around 250,000 people in Cologne.

The Bavarian Dialect (Bairisch)

The Bavarian Dialect is widely described as a language in its own right. Bairisch is mostly spoken in parts of Bavaria and most of Austria.

Swiss German (Schwiizerdütsch)

Swiss German is spoken in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, as well as in some Alpine communities in Northern Italy bordering Switzerland. The dialects heard in Liechtenstein and Austrian Vorarlberg are also grouped with Swiss German.

Austrian German (Österreichisches Deutsch)

Austrian German is the variety of Standard German written and spoken in Austria, primarily used in the media and in formal situations. However, in less formal situations, Austrians tend to speak – but rarely write – the Bavarian and Alemannic dialects.

Upper Saxon (Sächsisch)

Upper Saxon is an East Central German dialect mostly spoken in the German state of Saxony and the adjacent areas. Interestingly, Standard German, especially its lexicon and grammar, has been heavily based on the Upper Saxon dialect. As of now, it’s mostly become extinct, having been replaced by a new regiolect known as Obersächsische Umgangssprache.

Low German (Low Saxon)

Low German or Low Saxon is a West Germanic language variety spoken mainly in northern Germany and the northeastern part of the Netherlands. To a lesser extent, it is also spoken in the German diaspora worldwide.

Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch)

Pennsylvania Dutch is a variety of West Central German spoken by the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and other descendants of German immigrants in the US and Canada. There are over 300,000 native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch in the above-mentioned countries.

People in Berlin

Photo by Ann Buht

Example Phonology Table: The Berlin Dialect

In the following section, we will look at the examples and alterations from Standard German found in the language variety spoken in and around Germany’s capital city – the Berlin Dialect.

DialectDialect FeaturesExamples (Dialect → Standard German)
Berlinerischpf is pronounced f at the beginning of wordsFeife → Pfeife
Berlinerischg is pronounced j at the beginning of syllables and wordsjeil → geil
Berlinerischr is pronounced in the back of the throat, similar to gargling 
Berlinerischthe diphthongs au and ei are pronounced oo and ee respectivelyooch → auch ; deener → deiner
Berlinerischg is pronounced ch at the end of wordsvierzich → vierzig
Berlinerischt is omitted at the end of wordsnich → nicht

You may also want to read more about the secrets to German pronunciation.

Unique vocabulary for each dialect

Let’s now explore the different vocabulary examples from each of the language varieties discussed in this article.

DialectUnique vocabularyEquivalent in Standard German and English
BerlinerischMoin moin!Morgen! – Morning!
BerlinerischAbendbrotdas Abendessen – dinner
Berlinerischdie Stulledas Butterbrot – bread and butter, snack
Berlinerischkieken / kuckensehen – to see, to look
Berlinerischder Schlachterder Fleischer – butcher
Kölschdaheimzu Hause – home
Kölschnet / nitnicht – no, not
Kölschgell?nicht wahr? – really? isn’t it?
Kölschder Metzgerder Fleischer – butcher
Kölschdas Rotkrautder Rotkohl – red cabbage
Bairischdie Semmeldas Brötchen – bread roll
Bairischalleweilimmer – always
Bairischargsehr – very
Bairischder Bubder Junge – boy
Bairischder Erdapfeldie Kartoffel – potato
Bairischdie Gassedie Straße – street
Bairischschauensehen – to see
SchwiizerdütschGrüeziHallo! – Hello!
SchwiizerdütschProscht / PröschtliProst! – Cheers!
SchwiizerdütschMerci vilmalVielen Dank! – Thank you very much!
SchwiizerdütschÄbägenau – right, exactly
Österreichisches DeutschGrüß Gott / ServusHallo! – Hello!
Österreichisches Deutschdas Sackerldie Tüte – shopping bag
Österreichisches Deutschdas Jausenbrotdas Butterbrot – bread and butter, snack
Österreichisches Deutschder TopfenQuark – curd
Österreichisches Deutschdas Deka10 Gramm – 10 g
Österreichisches Deutschheuerdieses Jahr – this year
Österreichisches Deutschdas Bussider Kuss – peck
Sächsischbäseböse – angry
Sächsischdie Biehnedie Bühne – stage
SächsischBabbaPapa – daddy
Sächsischdie Schwasterdie Schwester – sister
Sächsischschlachtschlecht – bad
Low SaxonWillkamenWillkommen! – Welcome!
Low SaxonMoinHallo! – Hello!
Low SaxonAdjüüsGood-bye!
Low SaxonHülp!Hilfe! – Help!
Pennsilfaanisch Deitschbaremlichfurchtbar – terrible
Pennsilfaanisch Deitschbopplidas Baby – baby
Pennsilfaanisch Deitschhungerichhungrig – hungry
Pennsilfaanisch Deitschkaesder Käse – cheese
Pennsilfaanisch Deitschgrankkrank – sick

The Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

Photo by Jonathan Goerke

Unusual grammar rules in certain dialects

DialectUnusual Grammar RulesExample and English Translation
Berlinerisch and Low SaxonThe accusative and dative case can be used interchangeablyfür mich – für mir (for me)
Berlinerisch and Low SaxonPlural nouns can be formed with -sdie Mutter (Standard German) – die Mutters (mothers)
KölschFor certain verbs, different past participles can be usedgedacht (Standard German) – gedenkt (thought); gewinkt (Standard German) – gewunken (waved)
BairischThe gender of some nouns is different from what can be learned in Standard Germandie Butter (Standard German) – der Butter (butter)
BairischThe past tense is typically expressed through the present perfect tensehatte (Standard German) – hat gehabt (has had)
BairischSome plural forms differ from Standard Germandie Wagen (Standard German) – die Wägen (cars)

Final Words

As you may have noticed, German dialects can be largely divided into high and low dialects. It must be added that there are many more German dialects than we have discussed in this article, focusing on larger, widely used language varieties.

Within any dialect, there are certain changes in speech, vocabulary, and grammar. Learning about them will also help you improve your Standard German by analyzing and comparing the linguistic nuances.

Grow your vocabulary with Lingvist

To make the most of your experience with dialects, we encourage you to grow your German vocabulary with Lingvist first.

Sign up for our German course today to build up your vocabulary skills on the go or at home!

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