How the German language differed between East and West

Many terms used in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) fell out of use after German reunification, but some can still be heard in former East Germany today. A new book seeks to help west Germans brush up on their GDR lingo.

How the German language differed between East and West
A family of ducks in Düsseldorf in June. Photo: DPA

One surefire way to tell whether somebody is an east or west German is to ask them what noise a duck makes. West Germans will typically say quak, quak, while east Germans will say nak nak nak

As far as the latter are concerned, it’s frogs that go quak, not ducks. The sound nak nak actually comes from a well-known children’s TV character in GDR, Schnatterinchen the duck. These two variants are still being passed down by parents to their children today. 

A new book published by Duden about language in the GDR – fitting given the upcoming 30th anniversary of German reunification on October 3rd – is more concerned with other aspects of everyday speech. 

In her book Mit der Schwalbe zur Datsche – so sprach der Osten (roughly translated as ‘From the moped to the summer cottage – this is how East Germans spoke’), author Antje Baumann explains 50 terms used in the German Democratic Republic. 

The list ranges from Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (anti-facist protective wall), the East German term to refer to the Berlin Wall, to the widely spread phenomenon of the Westpaket (a care package sent by West Germans to the East).

Unique meanings

The word Datsche seen in the book’s title is one of the many GDR words that came from the Russian language (datscha is the Russian term for a small summerhouse). 

The word Schwalbe refers not just to any moped, rather to a very popular two-wheeled model manufactured in the Simson factory in Suhl. 

READ ALSO: Here's a little known East German vehicle that's actually amazing

The word Kindertag (children’s day) also sets east Germans apart from their western counterparts: “if you think that children’s day takes place in September, you didn’t live in the GDR,” the author says. “Unlike in the West, children’s day was always a big deal in the East: every child knew that June 1st would be a day off school spent singing songs, exchanging gifts and going to parties.”

Animal noises aren't the only language points that East and West Germans disagree on. Photo: DPA

Language of the state

Baumann also explains who Bausoldaten (construction soldiers) were: between 1964 and 1989, around 15,000 young men refused to take up military service, an offence which was punishable by prison. Instead, they were forced to build military facilities and kept separate from the other soldiers. 

The SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) saw these men as “hostile enemy forces” and made it deliberately difficult for them to find a job or gain a university place. They could be recognised by the spades pinned on their epaulettes.

An Eingabe (which translates literally as petition) was a means of complaint in the GDR: the 1961 constitution granted everyone the right to offer information, complaints or suggestions to the authorities.  

The GDR’s polytechnische Unterricht (polytechnical teaching) policy was based on the Soviet-influenced “Law on the Socialist Development of Schools” which came into force in 1959 and regulated children’s educational careers from kindergarten to starting work. 

The polytechnic high school (POS) with ten-year groups became the default school for all children in the GDR. The aim was to ensure every child developed a “well rounded, educated and socialist personality”.

Popular culture

Freikörperkultur (nudism) was a welcome breath of fresh air for GDR citizens: “Not everybody went swimming naked, as the stereotype often suggests. But despite the initial resistance of the GDR government, nude bathing soon became very popular. In other places such as the Soviet Union, however, you could be arrested for it.”

Nudism as a practice is, of course, older than the GDR, originating from the Lebensreform (life reform) movement in the 19th century. 

Other staples of GDR vocabulary include Intershop and Kaufhalle, with the first being a shop that sold western goods in exchange for foreign currencies, and the second being the East German word for the supermarket.

READ ALSO: 10 surprising uses of English in former East Germany

“However, it was only a supermarket in the sense that the building looked the same: the range of goods on offer differed significantly from the west, they were almost devoid of advertising and prices remained stable.”

Jugendweihe (youth consecration) and Poliklinik (polyclinic) were also key terms in the GDR. The former is a secular coming of age ceremony held as an alternative to church confirmations, while the latter refers to a medical practice home to both GPs and specialist doctors who worked in the same building in order to share the rather expensive medical equipment. 

East Germans have long since learned to say Plastik (plastic) instead of Plast or Plaste. The sociolinguistic explanation for this is that the minority or underprivileged group (in this case those from the East) will always end up having to learn both their language variant and the variant of the dominant group. In the GDR, many things were made out of plastic – even some cars. 

And finally, the Westpaket: up to 25 million care packages were sent to East Germany each year. These packages, usually filled with goods such as coffee, chocolate, pantyhose and cosmetics, were of great economic significance to the GDR government and therefore monitored very closely.

“Books and newspapers, as well as sound and image equipment, were strictly forbidden.” The thorough controls at the border meant that packages could take up to six weeks to arrive.

Translation by Eve Bennett.

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The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

Once you've learned the basics of German, listening to podcasts is one of the best ways of increasing vocabulary and speeding up comprehension. Here are some of the best podcasts out there for German learners.

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German


Coffee Break German

Coffee Break German aims to take you through the basics of German in a casual lesson-like format. It is extremely easy to listen to. Each 20-minute episode acts as a mini-lesson, where German native Thomas teaches Mark Pendleton, the founder and CEO of Coffee Break Languages, the basics.

All phrases are broken down into individual words. After new phrases are introduced the listeners are encouraged to repeat them back to practise pronunciation.

The advantage of listening to this podcast is that the learner, Mark, begins at the same level as you. He is also a former high school French and Spanish teacher. He often asks for clarification of certain phrases, and it can feel as if he is asking the very questions you want answered.

You can also stream the podcast directly from the provider’s website, where they sell a supplementary package from the Coffee Break German Academy, which offers additional audio content, video flashcards and comprehensive lesson notes

German Pod 101

German Pod 101 aims to teach you all about the German language, from the basics in conversations and comprehension to the intricacies of German culture. German Pod 101 offers various levels for your German learning and starts with Absolute Beginner.

The hosts are made up of one German native and one American expat living in Germany, in order to provide you with true authentic language, but also explanations about the comparisons and contrasts with English. This podcast will, hopefully, get you speaking German from day one.

Their website offers more information and the option to create an account to access more learning materials.

Learn German by Podcast

This is a great podcast if you don’t have any previous knowledge of German. The hosts guide you through a series of scenarios in each episode and introduce you to new vocabulary based on the role-plays. Within just a few episodes, you will learn how to talk about your family, order something in a restaurant and discuss evening plans. Each phrase is uttered clearly and repeated several times, along with translations.


Learn German by Podcast provides the podcasts for free but any accompanying lesson guides must be purchased from their website. These guides include episode transcripts and some grammar tips. 


Easy German

This podcast takes the form of a casual conversation between hosts Manuel and Cari, who chat in a fairly free-form manner about aspects of their daily lives. Sometimes they invite guests onto the podcast, and they often talk about issues particularly interesting to expats, such as: “How do Germans see themselves?”. Targeted at young adults, the podcasters bring out a new episode very three or four days.

News in Slow German

This is a fantastic podcast to improve your German listening skills. What’s more, it helps you stay informed about the news in several different levels of fluency.

The speakers are extremely clear and aim to make the podcast enjoyable to listen to. For the first part of each episode the hosts talk about a current big news story, then the second part usually features a socially relevant topic. 

A new episode comes out once a week and subscriptions are available which unlock new learning tools.

SBS German

This podcast is somewhat interesting as it is run by an Australian broadcaster for the German-speaking community down under. Perhaps because ethnic Germans in Australia have become somewhat rusty in their mother tongue, the language is relatively simple but still has a completely natural feel.

There is a lot of news here, with regular pieces on German current affairs but also quite a bit of content looking at what ties Germany and Australia together. This lies somewhere between intermediate and advanced.

A woman puts on headphones in Gadebusch, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Photo: dpa | Jens Büttner


Auf Deutsche gesagt

This is another great podcast for people who have a high level of German. The host, Robin Meinert, talks in a completely natural way but still manages to keep it clear and comprehensible.

This podcast also explores a whole range of topics that are interesting to internationals in Germany, such as a recent episode on whether the band Rammstein are xenophobic. In other words, the podcast doesn’t just help you learn the language, it also gives you really good insights into what Germans think about a wide range of topics.


Bayern 2 present their podcast Sozusagen! for all those who are interested in the German language. This isn’t specifically directed at language learners and is likely to be just as interesting to Germans and foreigners because it talks about changes in the language like the debate over gender-sensitive nouns. Each episode explores a different linguistic question, from a discussion on German dialects to an analysis of political linguistics in Germany.