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High German and Low German

How do Saarlanders and Saxons speak? How many dialects are there? Linguist Stephan Elspaß explains peculiarities of the German language.

Inka Schmeling, 27.11.2022
Stephan Elspaß is a linguist at the University of Salzburg.
Stephan Elspaß is a linguist at the University of Salzburg. © privat

Stephan Elspaß, a linguist at the University of Salzburg, is co-editor of the Atlas zur deutschen Alltagssprache (Atlas of Everyday German, The interactive atlas collects information about dialects in the German-speaking world and shows how different they are.

Mr Elspaß, how many German dialects are there?
No one can say exactly. In the past, every village spoke its own dialect. Today there are more inter-regional varieties. And even those who don't speak dialect have regional differences in their High German; we talk of "regional accents" and "regiolects".

There is no such thing as standard German.
Stephan Elspaß, linguist

What are these regional differences?
On the one hand, there are phonetic features, a certain accent in High German. And then there's the vocabulary. From both you can pretty well tell where someone comes from - there is no such thing as standard German.

Where are the regional differences greater: between North and South or between East and West?
Between north and south. There’s a border that we linguists call the "Main Line" – it’s also commonly known as the "White Sausage Equator” (Weißwurstäquator). It runs, as the name suggests, roughly along the Main River, and from the mouth of the Main bends slightly to the southwest in the west. This line roughly corresponds to the border between Prussia's historical sphere of influence in the north and the states to the south of it. And it still represents an important border of language and mentality today.

And between East and West...
... the differences are less great. Take, for example, the dialects in Saxony and Saarland, both of which are central German dialects. In many respects they are very similar.

The Institute for the German Language has determined that in Saxony and Saarland, in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, in Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia, dialect is still spoken most frequently. Why is that?
The reason is that the Central and Southern German dialects are High German dialects and therefore have more similarities with the written language of High German. The Low German written language, on the other hand, has perished. In the north, therefore, the pressure to adapt was much greater. If the dialect is not cultivated, it’s gone within three generations.

Are new dialects also emerging?
The so-called "Kiezdeutsch" is often described as a new variant, although not a dialect. It’s made up of features of several languages that are in contact with each other. For example, the lack of articles and prepositions in Turkish gives rise to sentences like "Are you coming station?” (“Kommst du Bahnhof?”). Young people with a German language background also like to say this. It’s clearly an urban phenomenon.