With about 132 million speakers worldwide, German is the 12th most spoken language in the world and the most spoken language in the European Union. There are about 100 million native speakers – most of them from Germany (~83 million), Austria (~9 million) and Switzerland (~6 million) but also from parts of Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium and even Namibia.
If you are or want to become a part of the other 32 million, chances are you have come across some varieties or at least some nuance of the German language. Most likely, you are learning Hochdeutsch (literally ‘High German’), i.e. the standard version of German. But what actually makes this version ‘standard’? What other kinds of German are even out there and what are the differences between them? Specifically, how do Swiss, Austrian and High German compare? And finally, what does all of this mean for your German learning ambitions? Let’s find out!
What is High German and what makes it ‘standard’?
Most people will answer this question by telling you that High German is simply what people speak in Germany. That’s a bit of a simplified version of the truth, though.
For some background, it’s important to know that written German is more or less the same in all German speaking countries and regions. Granted, there are some different words being used for specific things in different parts of the German speaking world. But in general, it’s one and the same language and when you see a German text, you wouldn’t normally be able to tell where the author comes from (unless it contains some of the expressions from the list below).
Now with that in mind, you could describe High German as the spoken version of written German – you just say the words in the same way they’re written (given the rules of how you pronounce things in German). For instance, the German word ‘Ich’ is pronounced as ‘Ich’ in High German. Most Austrians, on the other hand, will simply say ‘I’.
An interesting (but more extreme) analogy is the relationship between Spanish and Portuguese – while the languages are very similar in written form, Spanish is actually pronounced in the way that it is written. Portuguese, on the other hand, is not.
The second aspect that makes High German ‘standard’ is the fact that it is the mother tongue of the vast majority of German speakers. It’s estimated that about 70 out of the 100 million German native speakers speak High German as their native language. Because these 70 million are mostly Germans (not Austrians or Swiss), ‘High German’ is sometimes considered ‘German German’.
Finally, another reason why High German is considered to be standard German is simply because people behave like it is. Just like your money is not intrinsically valuable but only because everyone believes that it is, High German is not intrinsically the ‘right’ or ‘best’ version of German. It’s simply the standard because people say it’s standard. This effect is reinforced over time, of course. Kids in Swiss and Austrian schools are often urged to speak ‘High German’ in class (or at least when giving a presentation) and moderators or politicians on Austrian or Swiss TV mostly try (and often fail) to speak High German. This reinforces the concept of High German being standard and – to see it positively – ensures that all German speakers have a common language they can communicate in.
So to summarize, the following is what makes High German the standard version of German:
- It’s the spoken version of written German
- The majority of German speakers only speak High German
- It has historically become the standard that all German speakers have to understand, which reinforces the concept
To make things a bit more confusing, there’s some slight nuance even within High German and people often say that the real standard High German is only spoken in the German city of Hannover. For all practical purposes, however, this nuance is very much negligible.
What other kinds of German are out there?
Now there’s a bunch of variations of High German – some call themselves dialects, some accents and some are so close that they still qualify as High German. For the purpose of this article, we want to compare 3 major strands of the German language against each other: High German vs. Swiss German vs. Austrian German.
Readers who know the German language and culture well will rightfully point out that there is no such thing as one Swiss German or one Austrian German. Within German-speaking Switzerland, there’s a lot of variations of Swiss German: people in Zurich speak Zürichdeutsch or ‘Züridüütsch’, whereas people in Bern speak Berndeutsch or ‘Bärndütsch’. Similarly, there’s not one version of Austrian German: people in Salzburg speak quite differently from people in Vienna.
As with many other things, languages don’t necessarily stop at the border, either. When you go to Vorarlberg in the very West of Austria, you may think that you’re already in Switzerland because people speak very similarly. When you go to Bavaria in the very South of Germany, you’ll find it hard to distinguish the accent from the one just across the border in Austria.
For the sake of simplicity, though, let’s consider the 3 main buckets of the German language: Swiss, Austrian and High German. Just how different are they, really? Let’s start answering this question by looking at how well speakers of one can understand the other.
- High German is understood (though not always spoken) by all German speakers
- Austrian German is understood very well by the Swiss and mostly well by Germans
- Swiss German is understood quite well by (most) Austrians but oftentimes not understood well by Germans
As you can imagine, these differences in language are often a reason for ridicule or even dispute. Some people in Switzerland take offense if Germans or Austrians don’t even try to learn Swiss German. Germans, on the other hand, often don’t understand just how different Swiss German is and that it’s not actually that easy for all Swiss Germans to speak High German. A German friend used to think that Swiss German was easy to understand until he figured out that what he thought was Swiss German was just a Swiss person trying to speak High German.
As with all differences, these differences in speaking German are sometimes celebrated and considered fun and sometimes used to point out (exaggerated) differences between people. Generally speaking, though, the common language does connect Switzerland, Austria and Germany to a high extent and makes them feel quite homogenous.
Now let’s get a bit more specific and look at the key differences: High German vs. Swiss German vs. Austrian German.
High German vs. Swiss German vs. Austrian German – what are the differences?
1 – The same words are pronounced differently
This is the classic. The Swiss and the Austrians simply pronounce some words differently than they write them (again, beware of the generalization). As mentioned earlier ‘Ich’ becomes ‘I’ in Austria. ‘Meister’ becomes ‘Meischter’ and ‘Eichkatze’ becomes ‘Oachkatzl’. Similarly, in Switzerland ‘Zürich’ becomes ‘Züri’ and ‘Bern’ becomes ‘Bärn’.
The Swiss often (but not always) emphasize the first syllable of a word, where Germans emphasize the last. For instance, German car brand BMW is pronounced BMW in High German but BMW in Swiss German.
There are some rules to these peculiarities but they are way too dependent on the specific accent to be listed here. The truth of the matter is that you will only learn all of these by being exposed to them – by hearing them and by trying to imitate them.
2 – Different words are used for the same thing
The second big difference in our comparison of High German vs. Swiss German vs. Austrian German: different words are used for the exact same thing. You’ll have noticed that if you have ever entered such a word into a dictionary and received multiple German equivalents with the addition ‘schweiz.’ or ‘ österr.’ (see on the right for an example).
To help you navigate these differences, we have put together a list of the 100 most common expressions that have different words in Swiss, Austrian and High German below. We have also added an understandability index – if the index is high, it means that all German speakers will most likely understand all words. If it’s low, then it’s an expression that leads to real confusion.
A couple of interesting facts to note about the list:
- Out of the 100 expressions, the High German one is the same as the Austrian one 24 times and the same as the Swiss one also 24 times. However, the Austrian and the Swiss one are the same only 9 times. So while it often occurs that Austrians or Swiss just use the High German expression, it rarely occurs that Austrians and Swiss use the same expression.
- Quite a few Swiss German expressions are dervived from French. This makes a ton of sense, given that French is one of Switzerland’s 4 official languages.
- Not all words are always used in the indicated way – it often depends on the situation and on the person whether they use the High German expression or their native Austrian or Swiss expression. For instance, almost all Austrians would only say ‘Gehsteig’ (for sidewalk) but many Austrians never use the (very Austrian) term ‘hackeln’ but the High German term ‘arbeiten’ (for work).
- The Swiss and Austrian versions of the words often have different pronounciations depending on where in the country you are. Therefore, while the writing in the list below is somewhat standard, there’s often alternative ways of writing (and pronouncing) them.
|Abendbrot||Abendessen||Nachtessen / Z'nacht||Medium||dinner|
|Abitur||Matura||Matura||High||high school exam|
|Alster||Radler||Panache||Low||shandy (beer with Sprite)|
|Anlieger||Anrainer||Anstösser||Low||neighbor / abutter|
|Auf Wiedersehen||Auf Wiederschauen||Uf Wiederluege / Adieu||Medium||goodbye|
|ausgehen||ausgehen||in den Ausgang gehen||High||to go out (at night)|
|drücken||drücken||stossen||Medium||to push (a door)|
|EC Karte / Debitkarte||Bankomatkarte||Bankkarte / EC / Maestrokarte||Medium||debit card|
|Einbahnstraße||Einbahn||Einbahn||High||one way street|
|erhalten / bekommen||ausfassen||kriegen||Medium||to receive|
|Erkältung||Verkühlung||Verkältung||Medium||cold (as in to have a cold)|
|erzählen||erzählen||verzellen||High||to tell (a story)|
|Fahrrad||Radl / Fahrrad||Velo||Medium||bicycle|
|Frikadelle||Fleischlaibchen||Frikadelle||Medium||burger / patty|
|Führerschein||Führerschein||Führerausweis / Fahrausweis||High||driver's licence|
|Guten Tag||Grüß Gott||Grüezi||Medium||Good morning / Good afternoon|
|heftig||zach||heftig||Low||severe / intense|
|hübsch||fesch||hübsch||Medium||good looking / jaunty|
|Junge||Bub / Bursche||Bub||High||boy|
|kicken||Fußball spielen||tschutten||Low||to play soccer|
|Kleines Bier||Kleines Bier||Stange||Low||0.33l of beer|
|Kneipe||Beisl||Beiz||Low||pub / bar|
|Lappen||Fetzen||Lumpen||Low||cloth / rag|
|Matsch / Schlamm||Gatsch||Matsch / Schlamm||Low||mud|
|ohnehin||eh||sowieso / eh||Medium||anyway / in any case|
|Pommes||Pommes||Pommes frites||High||french fries|
|Reifen||Reifen||Pneu (pronounced pnö)||Medium||tyre|
|Reisebus||Bus||Car||Low||coach (tour bus)|
|Schaffner||Schaffner||Conducteur||Medium||train ticket controller|
|schlecht gelaunt||grantig||schlecht gelaunt||Low||grumpy|
|Schornstein||Kamin||Cheminée (pronounced Schminee)||Low||chimney|
|sich ausruhen||sich ausrasten||sich ausruhen||Low||to rest|
|sich verabreden||ausmachen||abmachen||Medium||to agree to meet|
|stilllegen / auflösen||auflassen||auflösen||Low||to decommission / abandon|
|süß / niedlich||lieb||härzig||Medium||cute|
|umziehen||siedeln||zügeln||Low||to move (apartments)|
|vereidigen||angeloben||vereidigen||Medium||to swear in|
|Vesper||Jause||Z'nüni (morning) / Z'vieri (afternoon)||Low||snack / small meal|
|Wiener Würstchen||Frankfurter Würstle||Wienerli||Low||frankfurter|
3 – Other differences
While differences in pronounciation as well as the above list are the most (relevant) differences of High German vs. Swiss German vs. Austrian German, there are a couple of others. To start with, sentence construction is sometimes a bit different in Swiss German. For instance, when saying ‘Nice to have you’, Germans and Austrians say ‘Schön, dass du hier bist’, whereas the Swiss say ‘Schön, bist du hier’.
Next, there are some idioms that are specific to each of the three that the others wouldn’t necessarily use.
Also, the Swiss don’t use the letter ‘ß’ (pronounced like ‘s’), which is used quite a lot by Germans and Austrians (e.g. the word ‘street’ would be ‘Straße’ in High German but ‘Strasse’ in Swiss German).
Both Swiss and Austrians almost never use the simple past in spoken language but only past perfect. For instance, they would never say ‘Ich ging zur Schule’ (literally ‘I went to school’) but only ‘Ich bin zur Schule gegangen’.
What does all of this mean for me?
So what’s the bottom line of all this if you’re learning German or wanting to start? Consider these 3 suggestions:
- Unless you’re planning to move to Switzerland or Austria, learn High German: Everyone will understand you and you have the largest group of people to communicate with. It’ll also be easier to learn because written and spoken language are very similar. Plus, you don’t need to make any additional choices like which Austrian or Swiss dialect you want to learn. You can always try to add a specific accent or dialect later.
- Don’t get discouraged if you learn German but have a hard time understanding Swiss or Austrian people: As you have now learned, even Germans have these issues. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing well or not making any progress, it just means you’re not used to a specific way of speaking. If you learn American English and suddenly find yourself in Newcastle, you might not understand much, either. To get started, stick to High German speakers for your practice.
- If you really want to fit in, it’s good to know the accent: If you have decided to spend the rest of your life in a certain place, do try to learn the specific language or accent. While you need some courage to just try it out at the risk of being ridiculed, people generally appreciate it a lot if you try. And once you succeed, you’ll really start feeling like home. American ski racer Tim Jitloff, for instance, is pulling off a fantastic Bavarian accent and has thereby become a somewhat iconic figure for many Bavarians and Austrians. What’s important is that you choose a learning strategy that gets you speaking.
If you have made personal experiences with the contrast of High German vs. Swiss German vs. Austrian German or if you are looking for some further advice, do let us know in the comments.
Bis dann, servus und uf wiederluege!
Feeling inspired to learn German? Looking for a risk-free environment to practice your accent? We’re Sbique, an on-demand language learning platform that enables you to learn with native speakers – at any time, from anywhere.
Interested in teaching German? Reach out to us and become part of our community of teaching native speakers.