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Old 10-22-2019, 12:07 PM
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Can somoeone explain High and Low German?


Note: I don't speak German of any kind.

As a kid, I was told that High German was practically a different language than Low German, but now I never hear that. There seems to be only one German language.

What is the truth? Are HG and LG that different that speakers of one can't understand the other? Did the difference erode in the last 50 years? What do people in modern Germany do?

What are the differences like? Pronunciation or wholly different words? Is there any on-line places to hear the difference? because I have the darndest time deciphering pronunciation keys, such as "ˈʔap͡fəl".

I read wikipedia about all the dialects. In this context, are dialects the same or different than HG v LG?

Is that what was going on in the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds? It wasn't just accents, but dialects the SS guy was recognizing? (Do actual German speakers get a lot more subtle things out of that scene that I would ?)
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Old 10-22-2019, 12:14 PM
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See if this article from Britannica is more enlightening.

Long story short, High and Low in this context refer to altitude. High German originated as a dialect of the mountain folk, Low German originated near the coast. You could very loosely think of it as the difference between British English and Scottish English, with the reversal being that in Germany, the mountain folk "won out" by having their dialect become the "standard" dialect. If you take German as a foreign language, you'll be studying High German mostly.
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Old 10-22-2019, 12:29 PM
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The Menonites came to Mexico from Germany in the 1940's. They speak low German. The men speak Spanish in order to do business here. I don't know if the women speak Spanish, because they don't speak to outsiders.

Since they are farmers, they must have come from the low lands. Hence, speak low German.
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Old 10-22-2019, 01:23 PM
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Originally Posted by KneadToKnow View Post
See if this article from Britannica is more enlightening.

Long story short, High and Low in this context refer to altitude. High German originated as a dialect of the mountain folk, Low German originated near the coast. You could very loosely think of it as the difference between British English and Scottish English, with the reversal being that in Germany, the mountain folk "won out" by having their dialect become the "standard" dialect. If you take German as a foreign language, you'll be studying High German mostly.
I heard that the Lutheran Bible was highly influential in standardizing the (High) German language. There are many German dialects; "standard" German today (sans funny accent, etc) is similar to what is spoken in Hannover.

Due to consonant shifts and such, "High" and "Low" German sound rather different.
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Old 10-22-2019, 01:28 PM
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It should be noted that the notion High and Low German speakers can't understand each other is definitely untrue. They are mutually intelligible; the analogy to most English dialects versus a really sharp Scottish slang is a fairly good one.

Much Low German spoken by people who speak it exclusively today is not spoken in Germany, but in the Mennonite diaspora. Low German speakers actually in Germany usually know High German at least fairly well.
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Old 10-22-2019, 01:32 PM
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Languages like German, Italian, and maybe Filipino are taught in schools in a standardized form usually based on the dominant dialect (High German dialects, Tuscan, and Tagalog). People will speak some form of this to ease communication, but with closer peers it may be incomprehensible. English generally doesn't recognize dialects as separate languages (except Scots is usually considered independent, and different from Scottish English), but you might find some impossible to understand 95% of the words.
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Old 10-22-2019, 02:01 PM
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Originally Posted by KneadToKnow View Post
You could very loosely think of it as the difference between British English and Scottish English
You mean English English and Scottish English - 'British' includes both.


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Originally Posted by harmonicamoon View Post
Since they are farmers, they must have come from the low lands. Hence, speak low German.
Eh? You get farms in mountain areas.


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the analogy to most English dialects versus a really sharp Scottish slang is a fairly good one.
To nitpick, slang isn't the same as dialect, you're really talking about Scottish dialects (there are several) here.
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Old 10-22-2019, 02:32 PM
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The Menonites came to Mexico from Germany in the 1940's. They speak low German. The men speak Spanish in order to do business here. I don't know if the women speak Spanish, because they don't speak to outsiders.

Since they are farmers, they must have come from the low lands. Hence, speak low German.
I speak a little High German and to me, the Low German spoken by the Mennonite people in Northern Mexico is completely incomprehensible.

Of course for a native German speaker it might be different, but to me it sounds like a completely separate language. Even Dutch sounds more familiar to my ears.
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Old 10-22-2019, 02:40 PM
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Is that what was going on in the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds? It wasn't just accents, but dialects the SS guy was recognizing? (Do actual German speakers get a lot more subtle things out of that scene that I would ?)
I don't know, but I think it could easily have been just accents, not dialects. In Britain you could have a group of people from Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Birmingham. Even if they were speaking entirely standard English, other British people would be able to tell them apart easily. They might be army officers or doctors and they would probably (nowadays) retain a local accent.

I would expect the accents of Frankfurt, Munich etc to be similarly distinct when people are speaking standard German. The point of course being that the SS guy could tell that someone wasn't a native speaker.
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Old 10-22-2019, 03:07 PM
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NB: High and Low isn't the only dialectical divide in German. Schwabish/Swabian is almost a different language in SW Germany, but it's part of High German.
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Old 10-22-2019, 03:13 PM
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You mean English English and Scottish English - 'British' includes both.
I stand corrected.
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Old 10-22-2019, 04:13 PM
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What do people in modern Germany do?
We all understand Standard German, which is (as the name implies) the standardised variant of the language in which books are printed, films and TV shows are shot (unless it's a book, film or show which specifically makes a point of using dialect), and which is what they'll teach you when you study German as a foreign language. But alongside Standard German, we speak a regional or local dialect of it; very roughly, the dialects of the north of Germany are called Low German, and those of the southern part High German (this is a simplified grouping; within each of these two groups, vast differences exist, but as a rough rule of thumb you can categorise German dialects along these two lines).

How much any given local dialect differs from Standard German depends not only on the dialect in question but also the individual speaker. Some people have very thick dialects which make it difficult for listeners from other regions to understand. Others speak in a manner which differs little from Standard German; in those cases, the dialect is more of an underlying tone in the way words are pronounced and which does not make it difficult to understand (even though it is, usually, still possible to tell on this basis, roughly, which part of Germany the speaker comes from). As a general rule, you'd use whatever dialect you grew up with to talk to close family, childhood friends, or simply people from the same region as you; whereas you'd make an effort (consciously or not) to speak Standard German (or a less thick version of your dialect - it's really a spectrum between speaking dialect and speaking Standard German, not a binary yes/no issue) to people from other regions of Germany. The more official and business-y the context and situation, the more your language would migrate away from dialect and towards Standard German. Incidentally, I remember reading a story that in Baden-Württemberg - a region of Germany known for both its thick dialects and its economic wealth -, there was, a few years ago, a local craze among white-collar workers to take Standard German lessons to get rid of their accents.
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Old 10-22-2019, 05:30 PM
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We all understand Standard German, which is (as the name implies) the standardised variant of the language in which books are printed, films and TV shows are shot (unless it's a book, film or show which specifically makes a point of using dialect), and which is what they'll teach you when you study German as a foreign language. ....
In Britain there seems to be a policy or at least desire to reflect the diversity of accents in the nation among TV newsreaders and reporters, which is great. I assume its mainly accents, but fairly closely following standard English rather than dialectic newsreading.

Does a similar thing occur in Germany or other accent-rich countries?

Australia has negligible regional diversity of accent, apart from a bush-rural broader accent and a sharper standard-educated-city divide, and you only get the broader accent with reporters interviewing farmers before lapsing into normal speak for 'Back to the studio'.
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Old 10-22-2019, 08:11 PM
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How much does the German spoken in Switzerland differ from High German?
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Old 10-22-2019, 09:08 PM
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There is no precise division between two varieties of language being just dialects of one language and being two different languages. Suppose that two communities of a single language were separated from each other with no communication between them (which is unlikely today but once was more common). Let them evolve by themselves for 73.082 years. Then it's very unlikely that the two will become different languages. They will only be slightly different dialects. Let them evolve by themselves for 7,308.2 years. Then they almost certainly will be considerably different languages. So where is the point that they change from being just dialects of a single language to different languages? There isn't any such point. The division between languages and dialects (for which the common term "varieties" is often used) is arbitrary.
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Old 10-23-2019, 12:48 AM
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The old saying is that "a language is a dialect with an army". The notion of nations with a binding common cultural identity requires a standardised language, especially as the industrial age developed. France and Italy have had similar variations in dialect with a national push towards a standardised national language.

A post above mentioned broadcasting in Britain. When radio started and private experiments were subsumed into the BBC, it was consciously decided to standardise on one, "King's English" accent. Regional accents and dialects weren't banished entirely, though mostly heard in a diluted form. They were virtually never heard among the staff announcers and presenters. (This is also a matter of class differences).

There was some loosening of practice during WW2, but it wasn't until commercial TV was set up in the 1950s, on the basis of regional franchises, that there was a move towards welcoming such differences. But you'll still hear grumpy complaints about particular presenters' accents as being "wrong" (they daren't quite say "common"), with glottal stops and the like.

In Germany, there were particular postwar reasons for public policy to celebrate local and regional, rather than a standardised national, identity. As part of that, their public broadcasters are regionally-based.

Last edited by PatrickLondon; 10-23-2019 at 12:51 AM.
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Old 10-23-2019, 03:56 AM
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How much does the German spoken in Switzerland differ from High German?
It is a variety of High German. But if you mean vs. standard German, the answer is "quite a lot." Compare with Swiss French, which is mostly intelligible with France French beyond some very specific vocabulary.
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Old 10-23-2019, 04:51 AM
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It is a variety of High German. But if you mean vs. standard German, the answer is "quite a lot." Compare with Swiss French, which is mostly intelligible with France French beyond some very specific vocabulary.
That's right. As a (North-West) German, Swiss German to me is as intelligible or rather unintelligible as Dutch, that means I can catch one or the other word or phrase, but not even approximately follow the meaning of a conversation in either Swiss German or Dutch, although one is considered a German dialect and the other a whole different language. Speakers of Plattdeutsch of my region (low German, the variant Sauerländer Platt in my neck of the woods. It's a dying dialect, my grandmother still spoke it, but it started dying out in the generation of my parents) OTOH are usually able to tell a lot of Dutch and even hold basic conversations with Dutch speakers.
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Old 10-23-2019, 05:59 AM
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Just as a cross-reference re Plattdeutsch: while studying (standard High) German at school, I went to stay with a family in Hamburg, and watched TV play in the local Plattdeutsch. Because of the sentence intonation, I realised I could understand it by thinking it was people from Newcastle-upon-Tyne trying to speak German - must be a shared/inherited influence from Danish.
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Old 10-23-2019, 08:11 AM
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There is an interesting dialectic continuum in Scotland; is there something similar connecting High and Low German?
"Scottish Standard English is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with focused broad Scots at the other."
In other words, you can start at Caithness and travel to Edinburgh with the language shifting only gradually along the way. But Scots is considered a separate language — though within the English branch (sibling to a Frisian branch) of Western Germanic — while Scottish Standard English is a dialect of English.

In one taxonomy, the English branch of Anglo-Frisian is shown with three languages: English, Scots and Angloromani (Rummaness):
"An example of a phrase in Angloromani is: The mush was jalling down the drom with his gry ('The man was walking down the road with his horse')."
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Old 10-23-2019, 11:00 AM
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And "mush" has been adopted into (at least London) English as a way of addressing another man, usually with some hostility. If someone says "Listen, mush..."you'd better listen.
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Old 10-23-2019, 11:45 AM
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I just wanted to say,. thanks for all the replies. It's helping.

I'm pretty good with English accents, but I wish I had such a fluency in other languages so I could hear their accents. I'm fascinated by the concept of someone speaking, say, German with a Southern American accent, or a French accent. I'll never be able to hear it, of course, but I wish I could.
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Old 10-23-2019, 12:25 PM
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I just wanted to say,. thanks for all the replies. It's helping.

I'm pretty good with English accents, but I wish I had such a fluency in other languages so I could hear their accents. I'm fascinated by the concept of someone speaking, say, German with a Southern American accent, or a French accent. I'll never be able to hear it, of course, but I wish I could.
Here is a humorous video from one of my favorite youtubers Trixie (DontTrustTheRabbit) demonstrating 12 different German dialects. She's really quite good at it. Can you hear the differences?

And here's a classic sketch from Peter Frankenfeld reading the weather forecast in the dialects of the regions/cities he's pointing at.
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Old 10-23-2019, 12:27 PM
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In the 1980s we hosted a German exchange student who had come to America from Hamburg. I asked him this question once, and he laughed and said, "There is no 'high German' and 'low German.' There is only German and Bavarian." He drew out the second syllable of Bavarian comically (Ba-VAAAAH-rian.)

He was a little bit mischievous (by German standards) and may have been making a joke.

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Old 10-23-2019, 12:41 PM
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In the 1980s we hosted a German exchange student who had come to America from Hamburg. I asked him this question once, and he laughed and said, "There is no 'high German' and 'low German.' There is only German and Bavarian." He drew out the second syllable of Bavarian comically (Ba-VAAAAH-rian.)

He was a little bit mischievous (by German standards) and may have been making a joke.
Must've been a joke, because that's objectively untrue. I live smack dab in the middle of Germany, and only casually counting I get at least seven different major dialects spoken in a 100 km radius around here. And that's only really major dialects. Where I live, in a mountainous region, virtually every valley/village differs a bit in accent and vocabulary.
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Old 10-23-2019, 01:04 PM
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The Menonites came to Mexico from Germany in the 1940's. They speak low German. The men speak Spanish in order to do business here. I don't know if the women speak Spanish, because they don't speak to outsiders.

Since they are farmers, they must have come from the low lands. Hence, speak low German.
I come from a Mennonite background. I can state without reservation that the vast majority of Mennonites who emigrated to North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s were farmers. And, depending on their point of origin, they spoke either low or high German.

My ancestors originally came from Switzerland and spoke what we called 'Schweizer Deutsch' (Swiss German), which I believe is a dialect of high German. As has been mentioned, other groups spoke 'Plattdeutsch' (low German); these folks originally came from NW Germany or the Netherlands. So the German speakers in my home community spoke high German; the German speakers in the Mennonite community 20 miles away spoke low German.

Both of these dialects are dying out, at least around my home town.
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Old 10-23-2019, 01:28 PM
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"Scottish Standard English is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with focused broad Scots at the other."
In other words, you can start at Caithness and travel to Edinburgh with the language shifting only gradually along the way.
I don't think the second sentence really works as a paraphrasing of the first one. The first sentence isn't referring to geography at all. The point is, whether you're in Edinburgh or whether you're in Caithness, you will encounter people speaking broad Scots such that outsiders might not be able to understand, and you will encounter people speaking standard Scots English. And as Schnitte described above with regard to Germany, people will vary the degree of dialect/standardness according to who they are speaking to.

As it happens, I think the standard Scots English will be very similar in Caithness and Edinburgh, but the broad Scots dialect in each place will be quite different. The accents are completely different.

Although I do champion the Scots language, I'm not sure the low/high German analogy works that well; I don't think the differences in grammar between a broad Scots dialect and standard English are as great as the differences between different German dialects, even ones which are both eg high German. It also seems to me that people higher up social and educational scales are more likely to use dialect in Germany than they would anywhere in Britain.

Apologies if I've misinterpreted your point, Septimus.
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Old 10-23-2019, 02:32 PM
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In Britain there seems to be a policy or at least desire to reflect the diversity of accents in the nation among TV newsreaders and reporters, which is great. I assume its mainly accents, but fairly closely following standard English rather than dialectic newsreading.

Does a similar thing occur in Germany or other accent-rich countries?
Not so much, at least not the way you describe. There are regional TV stations which produce TV shows using their dialect just to make a point and to preserve "linguistic diversity". Sometimes one of these shows will even be successful nationally - even though in those cases, the "dialect" spoken on the show is often watered down to make it intelligible to audiences from other parts of the country; it would be more Standard German with some local pronunciation flavour thrown in rather than authentic dialect.

But these are cases where the use of dialect is part of the concept of the show. Newsreaders on a serious and reputable nationwide news programme would be expected to speak Standard German.
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Old 10-23-2019, 05:30 PM
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Hochdeutsch is often used to describe Standarddeutsch, aka “official” German. Which did not so much arise in the mountains, but from codifying German used in literature etc. The highland Germans are disambiguated with “Hochdeutsche Mundarten” in that case.
When I spent a lot of time in Germany, I could easily tell if someone was from Swabia, Bayern or Austria, I could also easily track Kölsch and Plattdeutsch. Speech identified origin for those with a broad accent.

Last edited by Isosleepy; 10-23-2019 at 05:33 PM.
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Old 10-23-2019, 06:46 PM
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Here is a humorous video from one of my favorite youtubers Trixie (DontTrustTheRabbit) demonstrating 12 different German dialects. She's really quite good at it. Can you hear the differences?

And here's a classic sketch from Peter Frankenfeld reading the weather forecast in the dialects of the regions/cities he's pointing at.
Thank you!

In the girl's video, I can hear some of the differences by reading the words and how I "expect" them to sound. But two comments: she is way too fast! No time to digest if you aren't a German speaker. And she should really be saying (nearly, at least) the same thing in each dialect, so people like me can learn the differences.

The weather guy was just too subtle for me.

I read that when they finally allowed Hogan's Heroes on German TV, each character had a different accent to emphasize their character. Like Inglourious Basterds, I wish I could experience that as it was meant.
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Old 10-23-2019, 09:15 PM
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What I was told was that the main characteristic that separates low from high German is that in the latter certain stops changed to fricatives or affricates (a stop-fricative) in certain phonetic contexts. As an example, I word that started out like pepper changed to Pfeffer, the first consonant an affricate and the second a fricative. Similarly a word like fut changed to fuss, book to Buch and so on. The change went even further for Swiss in which the words for cheese and cook are Kchase and kchochen. Of course, these are hardly the only differences only the ones that characterize whether a German dialect or a Germanic language is low or high. English, Dutch, Frisian, low German are low and high German and Swiss are high.

Incidentally a native German colleague of mine spent a year in Zurich and it took that year before he could understand Swiss.
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