You are reading a blog about the diversity of the German language. We want to tell you about the linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies in Austria, Germany and Switzerland and clear up the issue of whether there is just one correct form of German. Our view is that for every readership or audience of a particular age, at a particular time, at a particular place, there is a language that particularly appeals to them. Today, we would like to answer a few fundamental questions.
1. Why should not all German be the same?
Because German is a pluricentric language. A particular standard has become established in each of what are referred to as the three full centres of the German language, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. People often call this phenomenon standard diversity. In practice this means that standard German, known as “high German”, varies from one DACH country to the next in terms of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
2. Does that mean that Germans, Austrians and the Swiss don’t actually understand each other?
They understand each other because the differences in the standard language in the three countries can really only be detected, particularly in written texts, by a trained eye. But we can all hear the national idiosyncrasies in the spoken forms immediately. The best way of comparing is to listen to the professional newsreaders of the public broadcasting companies. Where, if not in the main evening news broadcasts, could it be of greater importance to use an accepted standard form of German which can be easily understood? Here are three short excerpts from the broadcasting companies of the three countries – SRF, ARD and ORF each talking about the same subject. Try the same exercise in English by comparing the language used on CNN and BBC and you’ll see what we mean.
3. What differences are there between written texts from Austria, Switzerland and Germany?
Texts from German-speaking Switzerland can quickly be identified because they no longer use the funny shaped letter that for a non German speaker at first glance looks like a capital B with a tail. That letter ( ß ) has not been used in written texts in Switzerland since the 1970s. Otherwise there are what are referred to as Germanisms, Austrianisms and Helvetisms, which are clues to attributing a text to the right country within the DACH region. These are words, expressions and conventions that are only used in the particular country. A lot of the classic examples come from cooking (what the Germans call Feldsalat (lamb’s lettuce) is known in Austria as Vogerlsalat and in Switzerland as Nüsslisalat – which a German German speaker might be forgiven for mistaking as something to do with nuts), from administration (the Germans call their Commercial Code the Handelsgesetzbuch HGB, the Austrians the Unternehmensgesetzbuch UGB, and the Swiss the Obligationenrecht OR), but also from everyday business life (in Germany an offer is called an Angebot, in Austria an Anbot and in Switzerland an Offerte). The differences are often to be found in the detail, are extremely diversified and, on top of that, often determined by culture.
4. Are people irritated by texts that do not use the typical form of German for a particular country?
Yes. Especially appellative texts, in other words those that are meant to appeal to us directly, should be written in the German spoken locally. This is the only way the people the text is written for are going to feel that their identity is being taken seriously and only then are they going to react positively. Two examples from advertising demonstrate this particularly well. Since 2008 Red Bull has been advertising the product Simply Cola in the entire DACH region with the slogan “Das Cola von Red Bull” (“The Cola from Red Bull”) using the neutral definite article “das”. This initially led to considerable irritation in Germany as the people there tend to use the feminine article for the drink – in other words “die Cola”. Swiss supermarket chain Coop was heavily criticised by the population in the summer of 2012 when the chain launched a campaign for the opening of the BBQ season with the question “Chame das grille?” (“Can you barbecue it?”), the problem this time being the verb. The ad did not appeal to parts of German-speaking Switzerland because the local variant for barbecue is not the shorter “grillen” but the longer “grillieren“.
5. Can you write German texts so that they are well accepted in all three DACH countries?
Yes, providing the aim is purely informative. If I read operating instructions for a radio alarm clock, I don’t expect them to have replaced all the ß with ss just because I am Swiss. After all, the Americans know that, unlike them, the British write colour with a u and the British are not irritated if an American friend wants to go to the movies and not the cinema. In the case of appellative texts however, that are supposed to speak to us directly and encourage us to act, we have to find a balance in the German-speaking area: if the intended readership can be defined and limited geographically (e.g. a newsletter to all Swiss customers), you will have the greatest appellative impact with a text which has been precisely crafted to suit the relevant use of language in a particular place (e.g. Swiss High German). The larger the geographical area, the fewer regionalisms and local cultural aspects we can use for phrasing and picture language. If we want to reach everyone in the entire DACH region, we have to find universal phrasing and pictures to convey our message. A similar concept in English would be to write for an international readership avoiding overly British or American phrasing.
What are your experiences with the standard diversity of the German language? Is it worth writing different text versions for the different regions of the language area? Or is your approach more to write texts to cover all DACH countries?