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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why Oktoberfest is one of Germany’s worst beer festivals

The world-renowned Oktoberfest is returning to Germany after a two-year pandemic break. But one Bavarian local says pricey beers and rowdy mobs make it a special kind of hell - and there are much better festivals out there.

People drink beer at Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019.
People drink beer at Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

A couple of weeks ago, we learned that Oktoberfest would finally return to Munich after two years of pandemic-related cancellations. Cue wild celebrations in the capital of Bavaria, with many clinking of comically large beer glasses and rhythmic swaying to AC/DC. Well, sort of. Let’s be honest, Germans rarely go wild, unless there’s a World Cup on or someone receives a particularly large tax rebate. Of course, Oktoberfest is one of those sanctioned moments of German delirium, and by all accounts organisers expect 2022 to be a very big year for lovers of Lederhosen, Wurst and, most importantly, beer.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Oktoberfest to return in 2022 after pandemic pause 

Of the handful of things people know about Germany, Oktoberfest is usually chief among them. Such is the pull of Germany’s largest and oldest beer festival. Although many people know of it, few know its background. Originally conceived as a one-off celebration for the wedding of Ludwig I of Bavaria to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810, it continued to be celebrated to this day – which essentially makes it the longest running wedding reception in history. Though the Bavarian monarchy is now defunct, they have left in their stead something people from around the world can enjoy, as long as they can book a table.

Revellers enjoy the Oktoberfest atmosphere in September 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Ultimately, this is one of the major downsides of Oktoberfest. It’s really busy, and with it being cancelled for two years, it’s likely to be all the more busy as revellers flock to enjoy its return. Despite the vast majority being happy to dust off their Trachten (traditional costumes) come September, I know plenty who will be gritting their teeth for the onslaught of drunken visitors to Munich. While the bright lights of the Wiesn, as it is also known, will be front and centre in people’s minds, many Münchner will also remember the vomit-filled bins and mass public urination that always accompanies festivities.

READ ALSO: Oktoberfest in numbers: A look at Germany’s multi-billion euro business

Look past Oktoberfest to find local gems

Moreover, and this is where I usually have to speak in hushed tones, the Oktoberfest is probably one of the worst events of its type in the whole country, let alone Bavaria. Sure it has the scale and the brand awareness, but when has that ever been a good thing? Frankly, if I were to choose to go to any beer festival in Germany, Oktoberfest would be way down the list of options. The truth is, every city, town and village in Germany has something similar happening at some point in the year. In some places, it can be as many as three times annually. They aren’t as big and maybe they don’t have all the fairground attractions, but they will definitely have the beer and food. In certain places, such as Franconia, they offer far more than Oktoberfest ever could.

Take one of my favourite festivals, Erlangen Bergkirchweih. Most people outside Germany don’t even know it exists, but it is easily one of the most glorious of events. Situated on a small hill just outside the nondescript city of Erlangen, Bergkirchweih has all the same attractions as Oktoberfest, but with one vital difference: Franconian beer. Sure Augustiner get’s all the attention, but there are ten breweries in the Nürnbergerland alone that could handily match Munich’s favourite beer. 

Gingerbread hearts say "greetings from the Erlangen Bergkirchweih" in 2019.

Gingerbread hearts say “greetings from the Erlangen Bergkirchweih” in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

What makes Erlangen Bergkirchweih so special? Well, the beer obviously, but the location is equal to any Maß. Many local breweries have their own little caves calved into the hill, originally used to store beer, but during Bergkirchweih they become little bars all of their own. Honestly, sitting under a canopy of elms, chestnuts and oaks, sunlight flitting down through the branches as you sup on an ice-cold Festbier, there’s really nothing like it. 

No one I’ve taken there has ever had a bad time, many of them don’t talk for an hour or so as they take in the surroundings and marvel at the prices, another benefit of not being at Oktoberfest. When my brother first saw it, he was silent for a very long time. Worried he wasn’t enjoying it, I asked if everything was OK. He looked at me, practically misty eyed and said simply: “It’s like a Grimm’s fairytale!”. 

Even if you can’t make your way to Bergkirchweih, should you find yourself travelling through Bavaria in the summer, look out for any signs that there might be a Dorffest or Volksfest in your vicinity. Hell, even a Jazzfest will do. They’re basically the same thing, except with added zoot. My advice would be to take the chance and check it out. Sure, you might end up in a tent full of farmers with hands like frying pans, but I guarantee it will be 10 times the experience of the plastic, overpriced, overly busy Oktoberfest. 

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works. 

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