To Bavaria with love, infused with dialect for language nerds

Odeonsplatz in Munich

Read by Brenda

Will they notice I’m a foreigner? This is the one thing you ask yourself in a new country when you’re trying to learn the language. What a thrill it would be to be mistaken for a native!

As praiseworthy as this goal is, it’s a bit like shooting for the moon, except the target is much smaller and you don’t have as much technology to help you out. Even if you can manage to get the pronunciation right, there’s all that grammar to trip you up. German can be particularly tricky because there are 16 different ways to say the word “the” – SIXTEEN. But after many years, I can proudly say that if the conversation is short I can usually get away with people thinking I’m German. Bavarian, even.

This is no mean feat for someone born in Ohio. After all, my daughters were born in Munich and even they don’t sound Bavarian.

But how can it be that I have more of a local accent than they do? A closer look at the history of the country and my personal history explains how this could happen.

Germany has a wealth of regional dialects. In their extreme forms, they can be almost unintelligible to someone from a different region. It was for good reason that a little-known decision was taken in postwar Germany to meld these dialects into one common German language. From 1949 on, it was forbidden to teach in dialect in schools; only the language we know as “High German” was permitted. This was increasingly considered to be universal German, a language pretty much created by Martin Luther with his famous translation of the Bible. It provided a common basis and contributed to breaking down the barriers between the different regions that had existed for many centuries.

The economic growth and increased mobility that Germany has enjoyed since the 1950s have played their role, too. In the 1940s and 1950s, the economy was much more local and the Bavarian dialect was still the lingua franca of Munich. The city is Germany’s Silicon Valley with many large high-tech companies and global conglomerates – but thankfully with more beer, mountains, and castles and a lot less traffic than California. It attracts talent not just from other parts of Germany but from around the world. Just one example is Siemens, one of the bulwarks of the Munich economy, which relocated to Munich from former East Germany in the 1960s.

The impact of this on the language was significant and has created a city/country divide. In Bavaria’s capital of Munich, it has become rare to hear someone speak the Bavarian dialect since there are so many people from elsewhere. Since dialects have been on an overall decline for a long time, it is uncommon for anyone under the age of 40 who grew up in Munich to even speak with an accent. Smaller towns and villages have fewer folks from out of town – let alone from out of the country. With few outside influences, they can maintain their local way of speaking.

Schools are officially required to teach in High German only. But if the teacher and students are all local, well, then, we don’t have to be all that strict then, do we?

Getting back to my daughters, they learned German from their father. He is a dyed-in-the-wool Bavarian but went to university in Constance, in the province of Baden-Württemberg. They speak a different dialect there and the students came from all over Germany. When they weren’t swimming in nearby Lake Constance, they amused themselves by comparing regional names for everyday objects like bread or pretzel. Such an environment encourages you to drop your regional dialect – fast. My kids also learned German at preschool from other kids whose parents came from different parts of Germany.

This pretty much describes the exact opposite of my own German learning experience in a microcosmic Bavarian environment. For the first five years, my husband and I lived right next door to his parents, who are bona fide Bavarians, never having studied or lived anywhere else. They also grew up in pre-war Munich, before the influx of international companies.

When I arrived, my German was rudimentary and Spanish was my foreign language of choice. A year in Spain made my r’s roll easily and liltingly off my tongue.

What, the Bavarians roll their r’s, too? Count me in! Between the careful tutelage of my mother-in-law, the occasional remark from my father-in-law, and detailed grammatical explanations from my husband, I plunged in full speed ahead. Braun is brrrraun and rot is rrrrrot. Rrrrrright!

At a party in Cologne in central Germany, as I was chattering away, the woman I was talking to suddenly got a serious look, leaned towards me and and peered at me inquisitively.

Sag mal,” she said. “What’s the deal? Are you Bavarian or American?”

I was struck by how accurately she was able to analyze my accent and hesitated for a moment.

“Well, maybe both!?” I said.

My daughter was told by a fellow student in Berlin that she, too, spoke some Bavarian. No, I don’t, she protested, with her Munich attitude of looking slightly askance at dialect speakers. Yes, you do, came the retort, followed by a concise list of which words marked her as a Bavarian: Schmarrn, radeln,  mach’ma and Semmel, meaning nonsense, to ride a bike, let’s do it, and the regional word for bread roll.

She may not roll her r’s, but for me, coming from a country of 330 million people who pretty much talk alike, I am secretly glad there is a regional stamp on her language, even if it’s ever so slight. It’s much more fun.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Brenda Arnold – Odeonsplatz with Residenz (L), Feldherrenhalle (center) and Theatinerkirche (R)

Also interesting:
Are you sure that’s what that sign means?
Linguistic sleight of hand – bilingualism at any cost
Quit the tomfoolery – I’m sure I don’t know you

4 thoughts on “To Bavaria with love, infused with dialect for language nerds

  1. Mrs Sylvia Clare says:

    lovely as usual brenda- so well observed – many of our regional accents are like foreign languages to us too

    • Expat chatter says:

      Thank you, Sylvia! I have had some run-ins with dialects from the UK, too – and they didn’t end well! I think I was once insulted by a waiter in Scotland, but I only surmised this by the body language and intervention of the head waiter (not that I understood anything he said, either, but he seemed apologetic!)

  2. Erik says:

    What a wonderful article! After you replied to my blog on Germany on Medium, I discovered this great site you’ve built.

    I love the German dialects and so much fun to learn.

    And I read you are from Ohio. I’m originally from Connecticut, but I consider Ohio my second home state as I spent a lot of time there over the years visiting my (now deceased) uncle who was a math prof at OSU. I have so many fond memories of my time there.

    • Expat chatter says:

      Thank you so much, Erik, so glad you enjoyed the article!
      Ohio gets a lot of hard knocks, but it’s a beautiful state. And regarding OSU – I think about half of my graduating class went there, as it’s only about 2 and a half hours from my hometown. Small world!

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