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German outside Germany

When we think about the German language, we often think that this mainly includes German from Germany. However, the German language has a long history that has evolved with time into a variety of German languages and German dialects. The Austrian language or Austrian German is only one of them.

If you are considering learning German, knowing these differences and nuances will help you choose wisely which German tutor or course you will mostly need to acquire the language that you need to achieve your goals: whether it is to study, work or have a pure passion for languages.

German speakers

The world counts around 135 million German speakers worldwide, making German a very useful language to learn, more precisely because it is the second most spoken Germanic language after English. Another useful fact is that German is the official language of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg.

 

Austria’s population counts up to 8.9 million, which means that it represents around 7 per cent of the German-speaking population.

Austria, a country with lots to offer

Austria is located in Central Europe on the Eastern Alps and is bordered by Germany and Switzerland, other German-speaking countries.

As a past European power with the Habsburg Empire in the 16th century, Austria served as the heart of the Habsburg Monarchy –a notorious and influential royal dynasty in history. It has since participated in several European historical events, like World War I and II, and is part of the European Union since 1995.

Austria has made a rich and broad cultural contribution, most notably in the field of music with numerous famous composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Franz Liszt and even the modern renowned singer Conchita Wurst. But also in other fields, such as science and philosophy with the Austrian School a school of economics and the Vienna circle a Logical Empiricism group, literature with authors like Stephan Zweig, art, architecture, cinema and theatre just to mention a few.

 

But then, you are probably wondering what are the differences between the German from Germany and Austria?

Although the German language spoken in Central Europe has similar characteristics, historical events have shaped the German languages we speak in Central Europe today and all the dialects that are also part of it.

 

A little of history….

 

The German language belongs to the West Germanic language with English and Dutch, but underwent a series of periods that shaped and created the Standard German language we know today.

Another important characteristic of the German language is that it is a pluricentric language, which means that it has numerous interacting standard forms according to the different countries where it evolved, such ad Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Meaning that the German language is as diverse and fascinating as these different countries and cultures where it is spoken and used.

Just to give you an overview, the German language went through different periods that established the structures of the language we know today. During each period, different aspects of the German language were set.

The first period started in the Middle Ages with the ‘High German consonant shift’, also known as the Old High German period, during this period a sound change happened in Central Europe that other West Germanic languages did not experience, such as Old English. This happened in the centre of what is known as Germany nowadays.

This period was predominantly spoken with a wide range of dialects and an extensive oral tradition and only a few written texts such as the Abrogans —an Old High German glossary are a testimony to this period.

Following the Old High German period came the Middle High German period between 1050 and 1350.
During which the expansion of the German tribes beyond the eastern periphery of the Holy Roman Empire attained a significant geographical territory equivalent to modern-day countries like Austria, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania; provoking a considerable increase in the German speakers beyond the current borders of Germany.

This period was still undergoing linguistic changes in the spoken and written form in the different geographical areas. This is an early explanation of the slight differences in vocabulary and grammar we encounter within the German language nowadays, particularly in Austria.

belvedere palace
Belvedere Palace in Vienna, former home of the ruling Habsburg dynasty, Photo credits: Daniel Plan on Unsplash

Later, the Modern German language started being developed with the Early New High German period, dating from 1350-1650 by the German philologist Wilhelm Scherer. During this important period, where Gutenberg invented the press in 1440 and started the Printing Revolution, Luther’s vernacular translation of the Bible from Latin to German (in 1534) started the standardization in the written form of German and the displacement of Latin by German as the primary language in the German states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire.

However, it is only until the middle of the eighteenth century that a widely accepted standard of written German appeared because of its use for commerce and government by the Habsburg Empire, which started in Austria but included the Central and Eastern parts of Europe. The standardization process continued with the Brothers Grimm and their creation of a dictionary, followed by the first Duden Handbook in 1872 with grammatical and orthographic rules, which you must be familiar with if you have studied German or will be soon.

Standard German has grammatical and orthographical rules that were established during the standardization period, but being a pluricentric language as mentioned earlier, the German language also has versions of Austrian German or Swiss German.

Austrian German, a variety of the German languages

Despite the standardization of German and the establishment of a Standard German, several varieties of German are still spoken and written today. Austrian German is only one of them.
Even if Standard German is the official language of Austria and is primarily used in education, official announcements and media, in 1951 the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture defined and published a new written standard for Austrian German, thus recognizing it as the official language of Austria.

What makes Austrian German different, and in which context is it useful to know it?

Speaking broadly about Austrian German, this does not only include the Standard German language but also other German dialects and languages of this geographical region.

For instance, Standard Austrian German includes Austro-Bavarian, a local dialect that belongs to the Upper German group. German dialects that belong to this group are mainly spoken in the southern German-speaking area, which includes nowadays southern Germany, Austria and North-Eastern parts of Switzerland. The Austro-Bavarian dialect is a particular dialect that is mostly spoken in Austria and the southern parts of Germany, like Bavaria, therefore the name ‘Bavarian’, which refers to this state of Germany.

Within this broader dialect, several subgroups of this dialect are spoken for a specific geographical region, like in the northern parts of the State of Salzburg, or Vienna. When you have advanced knowledge of the German language and the German dialects, the differences are clearly noticeable from country to country and from region to region, the differences go from different kinds of pronunciation and phonetics to even deeper differences in vocabulary and grammar.

Why learn Austrian German?

It is often believed that knowing a standard version of a language is enough to thrive or enjoy a certain culture, and this is a very good start. Nonetheless, showing interest and even learning the German languages or dialects of a specific country like Austria can be very rewarding.

Especially when studying and living there, this opens the doors to more opportunities, friendships and understanding of the Austrian culture and history. It can be helpful when you want to meet people that are located in Austria and also if you are looking to increase your personal knowledge of the German languages.

Frequently, this is most useful if you are looking to enhance your knowledge of the German languages and also if you have a long-term project that takes place in Austria.

The best way to learn Austrian German and its dialects are to either live in the region where your project will be located, or another great way to start learning these differences —when you are not able to move to Austria—, within the German language is to find a tutor that is located in this area and that can help you with your learning journey through online courses or tutoring.

Austria is a country that has a lot to offer with its cultural, economical and natural environment. Learning German and Austrian German is the best way to get acquainted and immerse yourself in Austria’s history and context, but also a nice place to start learning the Standard German language if your goal is to focus on the most spoken and written form of German.

concert hall vienna
The Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. Source Unsplash
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