Servus, Moin and Guten Tag

  • 2024-03-19
  • Lisa Priller-Gebhardt
  • Comment
Picture of a happy, dark-skinned young man greeting someone outside the university
© Getty Images/Olelole

International exchange students and researchers who come to Germany soon realise that there are widely different dialects spoken here. It takes time to immerse yourself in this strange sounding use of language and to assimilate a few scraps within your vocabulary. The effort is worthwhile, however, because using dialect increases your sense of belonging.

Anyone who learns German abroad and then come to Germany is fortunate if their university career or occupation leads them to Hannover. A Forsa survey reveals that it’s the place in Germany where the best High German is spoken. People there greet each other with ‘Guten Tag’. People in the North call out ‘Moin’ and in the South they say ‘Servus’. And each dialect has it’s own word for one and the same food item (in this case a bread roll): ‘Schrippe’ (Brandenburg), ‘Weck’ (Baden-Wuerttemberg), ‘Laabla’ (Franconia), ‘Semmel’ (Upper Bavaria) or ‘Brötchen‘(North Germany).

But what actually constitutes a dialect? A dialect is generally understood to be a language variant that has its own rules and is spoken in parallel to the standard language. There are now some 20 major dialect associations in Germany within the different language areas that arose due to consonant shifts. Three language areas can be distinguished from North to South: the Low German language area for instance has dialects like Schleswig, Northern Low Saxon and East Frisian. Dialects including Hessian, Thuringian and Upper Saxon are spoken in the Central German language area. And the Upper German language area features dialects such as Bavarian, Alemannic and Franconian. Dialect is not however just a German phenomenon, it’s also found in most other languages.

How to say hello in Germany

Those who make an effort reap increased empathy

The fact that a lot of dialect is spoken beyond major cities initially makes it difficult for people who visit Germany to establish fluent communication. Yet no matter whether you learn German for your career, studies or an exchange programme, it’s also expedient to confront the language variety of the region in which you’ll be staying. It forms a bridge in establishing contact with local residents. The very fact that someone has made the effort to introduce a few vernacular idioms into the conversation is rewarded as an endeavour and reaps increased empathy.

Dialects as a whole are currently becoming ever more popular. It may previously have been taboo to express yourself in a regional dialect, but young people in particular are now becoming more interested in their own dialect, since it also conveys a sense of belonging.

There is generally less dialect spoken in the major cities than in the countryside – where children frequently only learn High German at school. Many urban areas no longer speak dialect or permit High German words to enter their vocabulary. Spoken language in Munich accordingly sounds Munich-specific, which is significantly easier to understand than Bavarian.

Dialects Hotline: Franconian

Dialects Hotline: Franconian
Dialects Hotline: Franconian ©

Even Germans themselves have difficulty

Many people may even find it a consolation to know that it’s also not easy for Germans to speak standard language. This was highlighted in an amusing manner by one of Germany’s best-known commercials: not much standard language but a lot of dialect can be heard in Baden-Wuerttemberg – the federal state of car manufacturers and engineering skills. The slogan: ‘We’re capable of anything. Except High German’, triggered a wave of affection for the federal state and its people.

Are there dialects that are more popular than others? Telecommunications provider t-online together with opinion research institute Civey investigated the issue of where people have the most pleasant accent. They wanted to discover the city in which the most pleasing dialect is spoken. Munich and Hamburg were the frontrunners – it’s their dialect that people like listening to the most.


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