German dialects are an essential part of the German language as such. Even though they have changed, adopted and developed over the course of history, they are still very much alive. In fact, many Germans are proud of their dialect and cultivate it in music, in schools and even on local news stations.
Did you know that there are only 3 main groups of German dialects = deutsche Mundarten / deutsche Dialekte?
1. Low German Dialects
It is spoken in Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen and the western Saxony-Anhalt. In addition, it includes East-Frisian Plattdeutsch.
2. Central German Dialects
These dialects are spoken in the Frankish area, including Luxemburg, in the Saarland area, in parts of Rhineland-Pfalz, Hessen, Baden-Wurttemberg and in the south-western part of North Rhine-Westphalia. In East Germany, it includes parts of Thuringia and the southern part of Saxony.
3. Upper German Dialects
This group of dialects includes Bavaria, Swabia and the Alsace, the north-western part of Baden-Wurttemberg, Southern Thuringia. Now, based on these 3 main dialect groups, there are about 26 larger sub dialects with thousands of variations. For example, the dialect spoken in Berlin is a mix between Central and Low German.
Listen to some samples here and have fun trying to understand!
Since there are no borders for dialects as for neighboring countries (i.e. the best examples are France, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands), they fluidly merge into each other including other surrounding countries. So, in the end you may hear many more dialect colorations.
You’re probably wondering why there are so many of them?
In order to answer that, we need to travel far back in history. It all started back at the time when we did not have countries but tribes in Europe. The first major changes occurred in the 9th and 10th century under Karl the Great, the 1st German Emperor. He spoke the Frankish tribe language and also united tribal duchies of Bavaria, Franconia, Lothringia, Swabia and Thuringia. As a consequence, these existing tribal dialects slowly adopted more of the Frankish.
During that time, the German-Roman language border was established. Another major language border, the Slavic-German at the Bohemian Forest, Elbe, Saale, Adria line had already been established in the 8th century. Slavic languages are e.g. Polish, Tchech and Bulgarian.
Later, in the Middle Age, Germany already included multiple larger tribes – the Alemannes, Bavarians, Franks, Friesen, Saxons and Thuringians. Each one of these tribes had their own language. However, the expansion in manufacturing, trading and most important the invention of the book printing led to a stronger mixing and unification of local dialects. The unified German language, as we know it today exists since about 1650. In addition, political changes put their mark on language/dialects. For example, it was popular to speak French in the upper classes during the 17th and 18th century, the period of the Absolutism/Feudalism.
The industrialization and later globalization have added more nuances to dialects: colloquial language, official language and denglich.
To be honest, it’s very much impossible to get into detail on everything historical that impacted the German dialects and as such the German language.
If you’d like to read more, click here. Many of the dialects are so heavy and so different from the official German (also called High or Standard German).
Even most Germans themselves can’t understand those heavy dialects. For example, if you a Bavarian and a Northern German speak with each other in dialect, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other at all.
Let’s see how much you understand in the video below!