About the German Language and its Dialects

waving German flag-1.fw  “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” (Mark Twain)

In his essay, The Awful German Language, Mark Twain complains, tongue in cheek, about the challenges of learning German because  words are so very long. To illustrate his point, he cites the following examples:

 Freundschaftsbezeigungen – Friendship demonstrations

 Dilettantenaufdringlichkeiten – Independence declarations

 Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen – General States Representative Meetings

The fact is that German allows stringing words together, it would seem ad infinitum, judging by this next entry:

Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft – “Association for Subordinate Officials of the Head Office Management of the Danube Steamboat Electrical Services”.

Most likely, you will not find this word in the dictionary. However, you will find Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung in the Duden German dictionary. It is 36 characters long and it means “motor vehicle liability insurance”.

English medical terms must follow this Teutonic trend, judging by the length of this term: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, 45 characters long. This word you will find in Merriam Webster, along with this definition: “a pneumoconiosis caused by inhalation of very fine silicate or quartz dust”.

In Wales there is a place called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

German is not the only language that allows gluing words together. There are a large number of agglutinative languages, i.e.; languages that use agglutination extensively. Merriam Webster defines agglutination as the formation of derivational or inflectional words by putting together constituents of which each expresses a single definite meaning”.

When I was learning Russian, I found that, much to my frustration, I was unable to find some words in the dictionary.Russian is also an agglutinative language. Then I learned that I had to first, identify the root and then begin by looking up that term in the dictionary.

As Mark Twain pointed out, German words are not the only ones that pose a challenge. Sentence construction has its own intricacies. We used to joke that if you came across a long sentence, you would be in suspense for a while waiting to find out what happened. This is because, in German, the conjugated verb is in the second position while the other verb, the action verb, is almost always found at the end of the sentence.   This complexity in sentence construction is compounded by what Mark Twain referred to as the “German system of piling jumbled compounds together”.   Yes, we do that in English also, particularly in technical writing. Refer to our blog “Writing and designing for translation” for a few examples in English.   James Joyce, the famous Irish writer and the also famous French writer, Marcel Proust, among others, have composed notable and notably long sentences. However, it is quite possible that none of them match the achievement of the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. The opening sentence to his work “Ja” is 477 words long. Imagine a sentence that extends over the span of approximately 2 pages!   Of course, there are many things to be said about the language of Goethe. It is a musical language, given the large number of beautiful German operas that have been written throughout centuries that continue to enjoy. It is a scientific language that has expressed and documented some of the world’s most important scientific discoveries. And what will be equally interesting to the readers of this blog, it is the second most used language in the internet, according to the January 2015 issue of “Usage Statistics of Content Languages for Websites” http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/all)

Therefore, if you are considering translating your website, you may want to include German as one of the languages. You also might be interested to know that there are a number of German dialects that present communication challenges.

Currently, we are able to look back at approximately 1250 years of history of the German language. The first occurrence of written German appears to have been, approximately, in the year 750. In 768, Charlemagne was crowned king of the Franks; his empire included almost all of France, Northern Italy, what is today Austria and all the Germanic territory – the Allemannians, as well as the Bavarians and Saxons. The languages of these regions were: Franconian, Bavarian and Saxon.

After the era of Charlemagne, his Empire was divided several times, until the Eastern region became the German Empire. A single German language evolved in this community for purposes of disseminating information. However, the spoken languages still retain their regional characteristics.
Bavarians, for example, speak a dialect that Germans from Northern regions like Schleswig-Holstein, have trouble understanding. Even people from neighbor provinces sometime struggle to understand each other.

For instance, people from the North and South sometimes cannot understand each other’s accents. People in Bavaria, the largest and most southern province, speak a dialect that Germans from the Northern regions, such as Schleswig-Holstein, find difficult to understand. Sometimes even people from neighboring provinces have difficulty understanding each other.

Dialectical differences are often the result of geography. Dialects have developed over history and adapted to the special needs of each region. For instance, the dialect of the coastal communities incorporate many nautical expressions, while people in the Alpine regions developed their own vocabulary. However, German dialects exist only in the spoken language and not in the written language, which makes it difficult to trace their history, since, in general, there is very little written evidence of the first occurrence of a German dialect.

As with other languages, accents influence the opinion that we form of people and German is not different. For example, people from the Upper Palatinate, one of the seven administrative regions of Bavaria, have a strong accent that others find not so friendly. Germans from Saxony, a region roughly located between Berlin and Prague, speak with an accent that sounds different to people from other regions of Germany. However, increased access to education and the ability to travel are reducing these differences and helping to standardize the language.

Differences are even greater among countries where German is spoken, such as Austria and Switzerland. Austrians wonder why Germans speak such a funny language and Germans wonder the same about them. For example, when Austrians talk about their wardrobe, they call it Kasten a word that to Germans means box. Germans call their wardrobe Schrank. In Austria, a doll is Docke, which means absolutely nothing to a German. The word for doll in German is Puppe.

As the European Union continues to grow, the ability to communicate across countries with different languages will become increasingly important. German children learn at least one foreign language in school and many German citizens are bilingual or multilingual. English is a second language in Germany. Most German children speak at least some English and they use American expressions, such as cool, kids, beach, band or body. The trend continues into adulthood, when English words are commonly used in business. Terms like clustering and Unique Selling Proposition, among others, have become part of the language.

Fortunately, there is a solution for common understanding in the written language: Hochdeutsch, or High German, which is synonymous with standard German. It is used in school books, for example. More often than not, you may expect that your translation bureau will offer this option for written translations.