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GERMAN LANGUAGE

EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

Standard German is called Hochdeutsch and is heard all over the country. But there are many regional dialects and other languages spoken in Germany.

A woman holds dictionary editions with different German dialects.
A woman holds dictionary editions with different German dialects. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

The wide-ranging dialects of Germany

There are believed to be as many as 250 dialects of German, with many tracing back to the languages of Germanic tribes.

In the north and around Berlin, many dialects have been displaced by the standard German language, however in the south, dialects are still prominent. This divide is thought to be due to the fact that the upper German south was a strongly rural region for a long time, becoming industrialised a lot later than its northern counterpart.

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

Rheinhessisch (from Rheinhessen) and Pfälzisch (from Rhineland-Palatinate) belong to a group of Rhine-Franconian dialects which are spoken across the western regions of Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Hesse, and even in the northeastern part of France. 

Bairisch – from Bavaria – is one of the most widely spoken dialects and is more easily understood by German speakers, partly due to its prominence. 

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: "I mog di" (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019.

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: “I mog di” (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Other dialects include Schwäbisch, Kölsch, Hamburgisch and Allgäuerisch.

READ ALSO: The complete guide to dialects in Germany

But how many people actually use their dialects on a daily basis?

According to a survey by the Institute for the German Language (IDS) in Mannheim, every second German claims to be able to speak a dialect. 

However, decline in dialects has been noted by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research. In 1991 the institute found that 41 percent of Germans in the former East almost always spoke in dialect. By 2008 this number had dropped to 33 percent. In the west, this figure fell from 28 to 24 percent. 

It is also a lot more common for older generations to speak in dialect, which is contributing to its decline.

While many dialects are gradually disappearing, a so-called Regiolekt (regional dialect), which is a combination of dialect and standard language, seems to be sticking around. This is a regional, colloquial language that still maintains the grammar of High German. For example, the word “ich”, which people in Hesse and some other regions pronounce as “isch”, has been integrated into standard German.

What about other languages?

Overall, around 67 percent of the population speaks at least one foreign language, with 27 percent mastering two.

The most common second language is English, with many Germans learning English in school, especially with the emergence of bilingual kindergartens and schools. A number of businesses and start-ups in Germany use English as a working language, and even universities offer many classes or degrees in English, which further encourages teaching of the language. 

READ ALSO: ‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like working at a Berlin tech startup

English is taught in schools in Germany.

English is taught in schools in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Marijan Murat

Learning French or Latin is also still a popular option in German high schools. If you’re living near the Western or Eastern borders, it isn’t uncommon for Dutch or Russian language classes to be offered (the latter being especially the case in former GDR or East German states). 

Due to the number of first and second-generation immigrants from Turkey, Turkish is also widely spoken in households across Germany.

Minority languages in Germany

Minority languages have long played an important part in German culture, with Germany being one of the first countries to sign the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from the Council of Europe in 1992, aiming to preserve minority cultures in modern Europe, encouraging tolerance and diversity.

The minority languages most present in Germany include Romani (0.8 percent of the population), Danish (0.06 percent of the population) and the Frisian languages, including North Frisian and West Frisian from Schleswig-Holstein and the North Frisian islands, and Saterland Frisian spoken in Lower Saxony.

The West Slavic languages of Upper and Lower Sorbian spoken in Saxony and Brandenburg, while mostly spoken by older generations, have been given the right to protection under the Brandenburg constitution.

Low German or Plattdeutsch is closely related to Frisian, and is also spoken mainly in Northern Germany. 

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

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

German grammar is notoriously difficult. But the diminutive form – used to express a smaller version of the noun - is surprisingly straightforward.

Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

Diminutives are forms of words that are used to express a smaller, younger or even cuter version of a noun. They are used a lot in German, so it’s definitely worth getting to know how they work.

In English, words often become diminutive by adding the suffix -let (e.g. drop becomes droplet, book becomes booklet). In German, the diminutive form (also called die Verkleinerungsform) is made by adding either -chen or -lein to the end of the word:

das Tier → das Tierchen

the animal → the little animal

der Stern → das Sternchen

the star → the little star

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to pick the right German language school for you

Nouns with a, o, and u change their vowel to ä, ö, and ü. The e at the end of the word is usually dropped.

die Katze → das Kätzchen

the cat → the kitten

die Torte → das Törtchen

the cake → the little cake

die Blume → das Blümchen

the flower → the little flower

A selection of little Törtchen on a table.

A selection of little Törtchen on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Catherine Waibel

The diminutive with -lein is used for words ending in -ch:

der Tisch → das Tischlein

the table →  the little table

das Buch → das Büchlein

the book → the little book

As you might have noticed, regardless of which gender the main noun is, the diminutive form is always neuter. See – told you it was simple!

Can you make any word a diminutive?

Pretty much. You can add the ending to any noun in German that is not itself a diminutive, e.g. Häschen (bunny) and Eichhörnchen (squirrel).

Common diminutives

There are many common German words that are diminutive, some of which you have probably been using without even realising it.

das Brötchen for example is the diminutive version of das Brot and means little bread.

das Mädchen, meaning girl, is actually a diminutive of the antiquated word die Magd meaning maid.

And lastly: Hallöchen! is a cute way to say hello there!

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