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Kartoffel, Herföpfel or Erdapfel?

August 29, 2018

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Ever wondered about the difference between German, Swiss German and Austrian German? One of our in-house team's main language pairs is German to English. We work with texts from Switzerland, Germany and Austria and have come to recognise that each variant has its own quirks that makes it entirely unique!

German dialects

German, like English, has many dialects (some estimate as many as 250!) that can be so different that even other German-speakers don’t understand them. There is some dispute as to whether these dialects actually constitute separate languages. Plattdeutsch or Low German, for example, is very different from standard German and is considered a separate language altogether. You can even buy mini dictionaries for the different German dialects to help you navigate the regional differences! Luckily for us translators, each country where German is an official language has a standard variant and these tend to be relatively similar.

Why are there so many differences?

The differences in the varieties of German depend on various factors, including the native languages that were spoken in the area before German arrived or developed and bordering countries/language communities. For example, the dialects of Swiss German that are spoken along the Swiss French border are heavily influenced by French (as you will be able to see in the table below).

Pluricentric languages

We’re used to hearing differences between American English and British English: wrench vs spanner, hood vs bonnet, bangs vs fringe (hair) and so on, but these differences exist in other languages too. One language with several standard versions, e.g. Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese, is called a pluricentric language. Each standard version may have grammatical variations as well as slightly different vocabulary and/or pronunciation. The term ‘umbrella language’ in German is Dachsprache (“roof language”) and can be used to describe any pluricentric language but has a particularly clever double meaning when applied to the German language as Dach happens to be a combination of the language codes for Germany (D), Austria (A) and Switzerland (CH)!

Take a look at the following table for differences in some common German nouns between the three variants.

Standard German

Swiss German

Austrian German

English

Bürgersteig

Trottoir

Gehsteig

pavement

Federmäppchen

Etui

Federpennal 

pencil case

Eis

Glace

Eis

ice cream

Krankenhaus

Spital

Spital

hospital

Pfannkuchen

Omelette

Palatschinke

pancake

Kartoffel

Herföpfel

Erdapfel

potato

Fahrrad

Velo

Radl

bike



Berni Freitag

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