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Varieties of German

With more than 120 million people speaking German in 8 countries of the world, it is hardly surprising that the actual usage of German language varies. Like English, German is a pluricentric language with three main centres of usage: Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Switzerland is a case of its own, with its local dialects of the vernacular ‘Switzertütsch’ (Swiss German) being unintelligble even to Germans and Austrians. The relation between the vernacular ‘Switzertütsch’ and standard German is one of diglossia.
For this reason, the following abstract does not include German as used in Switzerland.

Benrath line and ‘Weißwurst’ equator

If judged by linguistic features rather than by national affiliation there are two major regions of German usage: High German and Low German which are separated by an isogloss called Benrath line (marked red on the map below).

Low German (used all regions north of Benrath line) did not take part in the second vowel change in 7th and 8th century A.D. The second vowel change affected esp. German consonants (plosives and occlusives) p, t and k which were transformed to pf/f, ts/s and ch.

Low German often shares more characteristics with Dutch and English.
Below you can find some examples:

to sit
to make
Low German (Platt)

‘I know that’ in Dutch, German and Berlin dialect:

Dat weet ik.
Das weiß ich.
Low German
(Berlin dialect)
Det wet ik.

There is another isogloss in German usage, even though it is by far less drastic than Benrath line. It is known as Main line as it largely follows Main river and often referred to as ‘Weißwurst’ equator. (Weißwurst is a kind of sausage typical for Bavaria)
Between Main line and Benrath line Middle German is used, south of Main line in Bavaria and Austria High German is prevalent. Both usages (Middle and High German) have taken part in the second vowel change and share many characteristics.

High German as used in Bavaria and Austria is very melodious and pleasant to the ear. There are few grammar variations. Some vocabulary (culinary mostly) is unique to Bavaria and Austria.

When Austria entered the European Union it was a matter of national pride to insist on a unique Austrian language being recognized by EU officials. The attempt failed as the differences between standard German in Austria and the German used in Germany south of Benrath line are largely neglectable. The result of the ensuing discussion was a list of some 80 words, most of them referring to food, cooking ingredients and plants.
The differences between the national standards of German are often exaggerated.

What is standard German?

Historically and linguistically, standard German is a mixture of Middle German and High German (i.e. most Austrian dialects). It did not develop out of one regional dialect but was artificially created by poets, philosophers and scholars.

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