Germans get swept off their feet when they hear the dialect spoken in Bavaria. Almost every fourth German has their heart skip a beat when listening to the softer-sounding variety of German, but they cringe when the Saxonian or Rhineland Palatinate dialect is within earshot.
German dialects usually only play a minor role in German class because the standard German (Hochdeutsch) is taught.
For many Germans, though, a dialect is the first language they grow up speaking, something that they live and breathe. The further south you go in Germany, the more likely you are to find colourful variations of the German you learn in German class. But there are also dialects spoken in the north of Germany.
Germans communicate with other Germans from others parts of Germany in standard German. It’s your first choice in a business setting when speaking from the mind is important. But speaking from the heart means bubbling in your local dialect.
The dialect that is spoken in my home town is the Saarland dialect which is spoken in Saarland in the south west of Germany, and we’re going to take it as an example for the many ways to speak and pronounce German.
- About standard German and pronunciation,
- Where to find German dialects,
- What they mean to Germans,
- How they can cause misunderstandings, and finally
- The secrets of an example dialect (the Saarland dialect).
Get a glimpse of what you might expect when going to Germany (they all speak standard German too, I promise).
Also don’t forget to take my dialect quiz here. Will you be able to tell where the speakers are from?
German dialect examples
Surely, Germans from one part of Germany will understand Germans from the other part of Germany, right?
I’ll let you decide. Here are some German dialect example for you.
My friend from Bavaria was so nice to record herself saying the following sentence:
Das kann ich nicht. Tut mir leid (Sind wir wieder gut). I can’t do it. I’m sorry.
Here in standard German:
“The German language”
What does “the German language” even mean, if there are so many more elegant ways to articulate yourself when speaking German?
No standard pronunciation in German
If you’re worried about your pronunciation in German, don’t worry about it any longer. If you haven’t realised it yet, I can tell you this:
There is no standard pronunciation in German.
German managed to have a standardised written version of the so-called standard German, but the pronunciation (and use of words) widely differs depending on the region in Germany. Even the speakers on the news of northern channels sound slightly different to their southern comrades.
German dialects are more than German slang
Before 1871, in those turbulent times when Germany hadn’t been Germany but several loosely connected Germanic tribes killing each other in hazardous bloodbaths, the uniting link between them was a more or less similar language, High German dialects, out of which standard German has evolved.
Otto von Bismarck might have pushed on the unification of Germany towards the end of the 1800s, but many local customs, German accents, and dialects have survived until now and are still being cultivated. German dialects are more than just German slang, they are living history.
Map of German dialects
Linguists believe that there are still about 250 distinctive German dialects.
Here’s a map of the German dialects:
German dialects cause misunderstandings
Speaking a dialect is believed to make you smarter, with all the benefits of speaking a foreign language. But you can easily find yourself in those silly but hilarious situations where the vocabulary of standard German and the local dialect just don’t match.
To hold vs. to lift
When I lived in Munich, I went out with a friend from Günzburg (west side of Bavaria) for some serious shopping. When she was working her way through the bargain bin, she kept on holding up things my way and telling me to LIFT them:
“Kannst du das mal HEBEN?”
(Can you please LIFT that?)
Super confused but being a good a friend I did what I was told and started to lift them up, and up and up again. Maybe she meant for me to find whether it was heavy or something?
Little did I know that in her dialect to lift actually doesn’t mean to lift but to HOLD!
I don’t think I’d ever seen my friend laugh so hard until then (with me, of course) while I was staring at her in disbelief.
To lift vs. to last
A day before my friend’s wedding reception in Mannheim, we inspected the room they had hired for the big night. While decorating it, I was in charge of setting up the candles, but I voiced my concerns about the size of the candles that seemed way too small to last the entire night.
Her response was:
“Das stimmt. Wir brauchen andere. Die HEBEN nicht lange.“
(That’s right; we need different ones, they won’t LIFT long).
Not knowing the local dialect, I was pretty inclined to start my lifting game again, but a flash of genius simply made me get some bigger candles that would LAST a little longer.
Funny enough, the German word for ‘to last’ actually translates to ‘to hold longer’ (länger halten) in standard German.
Heben (to lift) and halten (to hold) seem to be tricky ones for Germans depending on where you’re from.
In my dialect we use some hilarious and confusing words and structures too (you’ll find them further down). I must admit, it’s still not easy for me to suppress them when speaking standard German.
What German dialects mean to Germans
The dialect I grew up speaking is the one spoken in Saarland, the smallest state in Germany in the southwest close to France and Luxembourg.
I’m able to burst out some funny-sounding sentences in that dialect called Saarländisch but that’s about it. How it actually works, I have no idea.
The dialect is your first language
The local dialect might be the first language you speak, even before standard German, but it’s neither taught in school nor would you seriously write in it. Where it does come up is in comedy.
Once you switch on the TV or the radio, you get a glimpse of what standard German sounds like. You read books written in standard German, you know how to write in standard German, while you’re still thinking in your own dialect.
Embarrassing standard German
That might be the reason Germans sometimes find it hard to switch to speaking standard German when they only ever get to speak their local dialect. It can make you feel a little silly like you’re being snooty, arrogant, and snobby. Like you’re backstabbing your friends (and culture).
On the other hand, not switching to standard German when it’s appropriate has the potential to irritate others.
Speaking German doesn’t only embarrass language learners; it’s the same for Germans sometimes.
An Example: Saarländisch
All this talk about dialects, how about we have a look at the dialect I grew up speaking? In Saarland we speak in a distinctive accent and use a lot of words that you only find in Saarland (and France and Luxembourg).
Did you understand everything? Nope? You’re probably not alone.
The Saarland region
Every German dialect is tied to a certain region. The region I grew up in is called Saarland.
Saarland is the smallest federal state in Germany (apart from the city state of Bremen), only has about 1 million inhabitants and is located here:
Can’t see it? It’s the blue dot to the left. I’ll zoom in for you:
It surprisingly looks a little bit like the friendly elephant of the most popular German kids’ show Die Sendung mit der Maus (which is co-produced by Saarländischer Rundfunk, the public radio and television broadcaster of Saarland)
But Saarland even had their own kids cartoon throughout the 70s and 80s, the Saarloodris. They were used as commercial separators on TV by Saarländischer Rundfunk:
Didn’t understand anything? It’s because they are singing in Saarländisch! Beautiful, isn’t it?
Not only do we have little cartoon characters from back then, but the Saarland region now also has their on emojis, the Saarmojis. It’s now super easy to express yourself in Saarländisch even without knowing any Saarländisch at all!
For example you could opt for one of our most famous landmarks in Saarland to show you’re in the know:
Or you could use alternative smileys, the Lyoner-Smileys, since Saarländers love eating their good ol’ Bologna sausages called Lyoner:
I know you’re totally hooked, how could anyone resist those lovely sausages? But now moving right along to something more serious…
Is Saarland actually German?
I’m super German, so much that sometimes I’m being complimented on my fantastic German. “Thank you”, I think when it happens, “It only took me three decades to become that good.”
Surprisingly, the compliments don’t come from foreigners but from other Germans because they seem to think that people living in Saarland must not be from Germany.
But Saarland is indeed part of Germany.
And it has been since 1957, this time continuously.
Before rejoining Germany, the Saar region was ping-ponged back and forth between Germany and France during and in between the two World Wars, and was also independent right after WWII. But the people, Saarländers, have always had strong ties to the other Germanic tribes and remained German-speaking, no matter whether Germany or France happened to administer the region.
And here is a fun fact: my grandparents made it through six currencies in their lifetime without moving once:
- Mark (until 1923)
- French Franc (1920-1935)
- Reichsmark (1935-1947)
- Saar-Mark (June – Nov 1947)
- French Franc (Nov 1947 – 1959)
- Deutsche Mark (1959-2002)
- Euro (2002 – current)
Even though we’re part of Germany, we Saarländers would totally agree that we’re the most French of all Germans.
What is Saarland like?
There are numerous ways to make your way into Saarland and one of my favourites is taking the train. Even if you happen to be on an ICE, Germany’s fasted train, the closer you get to Saarland, the slower the trains will get. It certainly indicates how life is lived in Saarland.
It’s not that time has stopped but it certainly goes by slower than you’d expect it coming from a bigger city. After all, Saarland is located in the outskirts of Germany in the German countryside.
It’s a retreat from a hectic city life.
Apart from a de-stressed nature, Saarländers tend to gravitate less to sticking to rules compared to Germans from other parts of Germany.
Sights you don’t want to miss are certainly the Saarschleife (the bend of the river Saar):
Having been an industrial and mining region, Saarland offers a beautiful and down to earth industrial heritage called Völklinger Hütte (Völklingen Ironsworks), now a UNESCO Word heritage site and former ironwork factory that was operating from 1873 to 1986:
On the other side, you’ll also find an amazing amount of Michelin star awarded chefs in this tiny piece of land (currently 6):
As you might expect in the countryside, you’ll come across many amateur chefs as well, called der Schwenker. The word der Schwenker is not only used for the meat that is sizzling on the BBQ but also the BBQ itself. And now guess what the activity is called? As a hint read this word backwards: neknewhcs.
Distinctive features of Saarländisch
Speaking of language, there are two dialects in Saarland, the Moselle Franconian dialect in the northwest and the Rhine Franconian dialect in the south east.
The two separate dialects in Saarland are not caused by the river Saar that meanders through the West part of this beautiful piece of land but are dictated by the different pronunciation of the word das (the).
Saarländers, the people, refer to the linguistic division as the Das-Dat-Grenze (das-dat-isogloss). The southern part pronounces the word similar to the standardised standard German das, while northern Saarland prefers to say dat.
The French administration of the region has left positive marks on the Saarland dialect with several French words and structures turned into a hilarious Saarland version.
- Saarländers don’t walk on the sidewalk (Fußgängerweg) but on the “Trottoir”, (pronounced “Trottva”),
- Get out their “Portemonnaie” (pronounced “Portmonnä”), and
- Tell everyone that they HAVE cold (Isch hann kalt) instead of they ARE cold (Mir ist kalt), similar to the French construction J’ai froid.
The French language has had a less great impact on the German spoken in the region than it has had the other way. Parts of the French dialect up until about 30 kilometers into France is easily understandable by Saarländers and almost sounds like a copy of the Saarland dialect.
1. Holen is better than nehmen
Holen (to go get something), here we go again! For the words we add to the German language, we got rid of one special verb: nehmen (to take).
The Saarland dialect, no matter if Rhine or Moselle Franconian, simply uses holen (to get/fetch) exclusively instead, which can cause some confusion among non-Saarländers.
Consequently, Saarländers don’t take the bus, they go and get the bus:
Isch hol’ de Bus. (Ich nehme den Bus)
They also don’t take their medicine, they go and get their medicine:
Isch hol’ die Tabletten. (Ich nehme die Tabletten)
They don’t commit suicide, they go and get their suicide:
Ich hol’ mir das Leben. (Ich nehme mir das Leben)
2. Es Claudia
We also add another little word that makes the Saarland dialect so distinctive. A little rude sounding to other Germans, Saarländers don’t blink an eye when referring to a woman using ‘it’ (not only a girl or baby), even together with her name:
Es (Et) Claudia lo hinnen.
It Claudia over there.
3. Less cases and the love for the ‘sch’ sound
Similar to other parts of Germany, the genitive case is almost non-existent and every now and again we get rid of the accusative as well (it’s paradise, I know!).
Also make sure to get rid of every single ‘ch’ sound like in ich and pronounce it like ‘sch’ instead
Instead of saying
Ich mache die Tür des Autos auf. Das habe ich dir doch gesagt.
Saarländers will say
Isch mach de Dür vom Audo uff. Das (Dat) hann isch da doch gesaaht.
die Freck – the cold, the flu
dabba – fast
es Kannel – rain gutter
gugg emool do – look there
lehne – to borrow, to lend
joo – yes
nee / nää – no
hä? – excuse me? (when you didn’t understood)
fawas? – what for?
Unn? – What’s up? / How are you?
Grumbeere – potatoes
die Flemm hann – don’t feeling like doing something
Please also don’t forget to take my dialect quiz here. Will you be able to tell where the speakers are from?
Are you able to tell the differences between standard German and a German dialect? Do you even have a favourite one? Let me know in the comments.