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Do Austrians speak Austrian?

Or do they speak German? As a language coach for German in the US, I frequently get questions along these lines. In this post, I will share some insights on the topic and try to clear up a few misconceptions.


Austrian Parliament in Vienna, Austria
Austrian Parliament in Vienna, Austria

Before I dive into more detail: Austrians speak German.


However, …


The Austrian Dictionary


On my bookshelf, there is a red and white hardcover book with the title Österreichisches Wörterbuch. In English, that means Austrian Dictionary. Scribbled inside the cover is my son’s name because he is the dictionary’s original owner. He got it when he started middle school in Austria.


So, Austrians have their own dictionary and students use it in school as a source of reference. It's currently in its 44th edition. The first edition was published in 1951. The Austrian Dictionary has a more than 70-year history and is constantly updated.


That indicates that there is an “Austrian language”, right? Why else would there be a need for such a reference book? Let’s have a closer look at that.


The German-speaking countries

German-speaking countries flags

Austria is one of four German-speaking countries in Europe. In his book Die Stellung der deutschen Sprache in der Welt (in English: The position of the German language in the world) the German socio-linguist Ulrich Ammon defines the German-speaking countries as countries where German is the official language and the first language (or mother tongue) of most of the population (cf. Ammon, 2015: 155). That is true for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.


In addition, there are other countries where German has official status, such as Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, or Namibia. However, in these countries most of the population either has a different first language or German has official status on a regional level only. As a result, they are not considered “German-speaking countries” based on the definition above.


German is a very important language in Europe. In the European Union, it is the language with the largest number of native speakers. That means that in the EU, more people speak German than French, Italien, or Spanish. Altogether, German has about 100 million native speakers.


German as Austria’s national language


In Austria, German is not just the official language. It's the Republic’s “Staatssprache” (state or national language), a status that is even written in the Federal Constitutional Law, the centerpiece of the Austrian Constitution. On a regional level, Austria has three other official languages, namely Croatian, Slovenian, and Hungarian.


Now, before I continue, I need to address two terms that are important in this context: “standard” and “non-standard” language varieties. If you are familiar with these terms, you can move right down to “Standard Varieties of German”.


Language varieties


Languages, especially large ones, such as English, Spanish, or German, usually have numerous varieties. These are special forms of the language spoken by groups of people based on region, occupation, age, etc.


The different varieties of a language can be put into two large categories: standard varieties and non-standard varieties.


Standard variety: the norm


A standard variety is considered the norm in a particular area or country and accepted as such. We often see a connection between country or state and standard variety. In the US, the standard variety of English is Standard American English. If we go to the north, to Canada, there is Standard Canadian English. Then there is British English, and so on.

Codification:

Standard varieties are codified. There are grammar books that specify the grammar rules and there are dictionaries that list (much of) the vocabulary along with the correct and accepted spelling. Frequently, dictionaries also include the standard pronunciation of words.


Education:

The formal education system plays a major role in promoting the standard variety. Schools teach the standard variety and students are expected to learn it - and it’s not always easy. Just think of all the spelling tests you took or essays you wrote in school. The red pen marks signaled where you didn’t follow the rules. Many red pen marks meant a bad grade. Not following the rules is often penalized.


Writing:

The standard is something we are expected to use in writing. There are a few exceptions to that, such as literary or artistic forms of writing. An example for that would be a poem. Breaking the standard rules is also widely accepted in newer electronic forms, such as text messages.


Proficiency:

Knowing or not knowing the standard variety of a language has little to do with intelligence. It’s primarily a matter of whether a person has had access to education and support in learning. The truth is that most of us never become fully proficient in the standard variety. That’s why we're all quite dependent on reference books (or websites), spellcheckers, and other correction tools.


Non-standard varieties


Non-standard varieties are not codified. Even though they have a grammar and vocabulary system with rules, there are no rule books. They are not supported and documented in the same way as standard varieties are.


Non-standard varieties live on through person-to-person transfer in everyday life. It’s how people speak in their families, circle of friends, sports clubs, neighborhoods, etc. – often in more informal and intimate settings. Non-standard varieties tend to give us a feeling of belonging.


A word that is commonly used instead of non-standard varieties is dialects. Some dialects are very different from the standard and can make mutual understanding difficult. Others have only minor differences.


Many people switch skillfully between the standard and non-standard varieties of their language, depending on what the situation requires. That is especially true in Austria, where many people speak a regional dialect with their friends and family but use more formal language in professional settings. Which brings us back to German…


Standard varieties of German


German is a pluricentric language, just like English. That means that there is not just one accepted and correct standard variety. German has three main standard varieties:

· German Standard German

· Austrian Standard German

· Swiss Standard German


Austrian German is not a dialect of German. It’s not an incorrect form. It’s a standard variety of equal value, as is Swiss German.


Going forward, I will focus on the Austrian and German varieties.


How different is Austrian from German German?


That depends on the perspective. A teacher working abroad teaching German as a Foreign Language may say they are minimal. They are insignificant for non-native speakers and can therefore be neglected. Most native speakers will tell you that it only takes a few syllables to recognize a speaker of the other variety. That would indicate that there are considerable differences.


Let's look at a few key areas:


Number of speakers


German German is by far the larger variety. Austria has about 8 million native speakers, whereas Germany has about 80 million.


Vocabulary


The majority of words are the same in both standard varieties. Special Austrian terms make up about 3 to 4% of the overall vocabulary of Austrian German, as mentioned by the Austrian linguist Rudolf de Cillia in this video on Austrian German in the EU (video is in German).


In what areas can we find the 3 to 4% of differences? Apart from the area of administrative language, we can find quite a few of them in areas of everyday living, such as food or items around the house. There are many nouns, but also verbs, idioms, and phrases.


One example for a phrase is: “Es geht sich nicht aus.” Austrians use this phrase frequently when something won’t work because there is not enough time or not enough space. The phrase is not commonly used in Germany.


Protocol No. 10

Words, idioms, and phrases widely used in the Austrian variety are referred to “Austriazismen” (Austriacisms).


There is also an interesting story about that topic, as the above mentioned video explains. When Austria joined the EU in 1995, an additional protocol was agreed on. Protocol No. 10 contains 23 words from Austrian German that must be used parallel to the German German terms in EU documents. Interestingly, these words are all food-related. Here are a few examples:

Austrian German

German German

American English

Erdäpfel

Kartoffeln

potatoes

Faschiertes

Hackfleisch

ground meat

Kohlsprossen

Rosenkohl

Brussel sprouts

Kren

Meerrettich

horseradish

Marillen

Aprikosen

apricots

Obers

Sahne

cream

Paradeiser

Tomaten

tomatoes

Topfen

Quark

a product not readily available in the US; similar to cottage cheese or ricotta.

Clearly, these nouns capture only a small fraction of the lexical differences. It's also important to note that they are not used exclusively. Some Austrians use "Tomaten" and not "Paradeiser" for tomatoes or "Kartoffeln" and not "Erdäpfel" for potatoes. In addition, some Austrian words may be used beyond the borders of Austria.


Pronunciation and stress


There are differences in pronunciation, stress, and overall speech melody. That's also why native speakers from each variety can usually recognize one another quickly.


For example, the German word for math is “Mathematik”. Austrians stress the third syllable (Mathematik) and Germans the last syllable (Mathematik).


Another example is the pronunciation of the letter “s” in front of a vowel. Germans use a voiced “s”, which sounds like an English “z”. Austrians generally don’t voice the “s”.


Grammar


There are some grammatical differences, but they are only minor. From the learner’s perspective, all the challenging aspects of German grammar – the case system, the verb conjugations, the syntax of statements and questions, the gender and plural of nouns, the adjective endings – are the same in the Austrian and the German Standard. So, there is no way around them.


What is the better German?


That's a question I’ve heard many times in my work as a university lecturer and language coach. It’s a valid question - and it’s pretty easy to answer.


Differences between the German Standard variety and the Austrian Standard variety are not a matter of better or worse, or right or wrong. They are simply slightly different variations of a language.


Can Germans and Austrians understand each other without problems?


Germans who speak the German Standard and Austrians who speak the Austrian Standard won’t have any big issues understanding each other. However, because of the differences on the vocabulary level, it is possible that there are instances of incomprehension or minor misunderstandings.



Because of television and the internet, Austrians’ exposure to the German Standard variety can be quite high. A considerable amount of TV shows and movies shown in Austria are from Germany or in German German. Furthermore, many Germans come to work or study in Austria. And of course, there is migration from Austria to Germany as well. So, there is mutual exposure, influence, and exchange.


What’s more, language and political borders often coincide but they don’t always overlap 100%. Language borders tend to be more fluid. A particular word or phrase, such as the common Austrian greeting “Grüß Gott” instead of the common German greeting “Guten Tag”, doesn’t make a hard stop at the Austrian-German border, right past Salzburg. Migration, the media, and cross-border cooperation carry words and other language elements into areas where they are first new, then slowly become accepted, and finally, turn into a fixed part of local speech.


Why can it be hard to understand Austrians?


Making the move from the classroom to the real world is challenging in all foreign languages.


Classroom versus "real world"


Language teachers/trainers usually stick very closely to the standard variety when they speak with their students. They also adjust their pace to their students’ needs. They frequently repeat and rephrase. There are various reasons why you may experience difficulties and "language shock" when you first encounter a foreign language in its local setting.


Regional dialects


There are regional dialects all throughout the German-speaking countries and that can make it hard for visitors to understand native speakers, from both Austria and Germany. Dialects can even pose a problem for native speakers of German who travel from one region to another.


In Germany, people in Berlin tend to sound quite different from people in Frankfurt. Someone from Hamburg speaks differently from someone born in or around Munich. In Austria, people in Vienna speak differently from people in Salzburg or Innsbruck. And if you go into the mountains of Tyrol or Vorarlberg, you may have a really hard time understanding anything at all.


There's a good chance that you will hit some language barriers the first time you put your language skills to the test in a German-speaking country. Simply ask people to slow down and repeat what they said (Your teacher/trainer can practice the right phrases with you). Most people will make an effort to adjust how they speak so you can understand them.


What does all that mean for learning German?


As you are reading this, you may be thinking about taking a German class, or you may be preparing for a trip to Austria. Maybe you regularly do business within the German-speaking countries and would like to understand your business partners better. Or maybe you just streamed “The Empress” and got curious about Austria. Here are a few important things to remember:


Your teacher/trainer


What matters most for a positive experience with foreign-language learning is the professionalism of your teacher/trainer, not whether your teacher/trainer is from Germany, Austria, or somewhere else altogether. Experienced teacher/trainers can also usually point out any differences that may be relevant for you. Personally, I have taught many students who have gone on to live, study, and do business in Germany and Austria.


That said, it is possible that you, as a learner, prefer one variety over the other for personal or professional reasons. Maybe you are preparing for a particular assignment, such as a move to Austria. Then it may make sense to work with a teacher/trainer from there, as they will be able to give you valuable cultural insights and a better understanding of how people communicate.


Most importantly: If you take classes with an experienced, professional Austrian teacher/trainer, you will be fine in Germany. If you take classes with an experienced, professional German teacher/trainer, you will be fine in Austria. Once you visit a region frequently or move there, you will soon get used to how people speak. After a little while, you will even acquire some of the special features unique to the variety spoken there.


What is “Hochdeutsch”?


Two terms that sometimes come up when talking about varieties of German are “Hochdeutsch” and “Umgangssprache”. "Hochdeutsch" (High German) is another term for the standard, the correct and normed variety used in writing and formal situations. "Umgangssprache" is a rather vague term that means conversational or colloquial speech. It is less formal than the standard variety but usually closer to the standard than a dialect.


When you take a foreign language class, you usually start with elements of the standard variety ("Hochsprache" or high language) - standard vocabulary, grammar rules, and pronunciation. As you advance, your teacher/trainer may incorporate more authentic materials, such as films or audio clips of real-life conversations. Authentic materials like that usually contain more informal and colloquial elements ("Umgangssprache").


Challenges beyond language


When we talk about challenges in communication, we often focus on the linguistic aspects. No doubt, for learners of a foreign language, linguistic elements such as grammar and vocabulary are big hurdles. But communication problems can also be the result of cultural differences.


The German-speaking countries have distinct cultures and different predominant communication styles. One example would be the level of directness. Germans tend to be much more direct than Austrians. Austrians, on the other hand, have a tendency to skirt around the issues and voice opinions less directly.


As misunderstandings are not always rooted in linguistic differences, make sure to work with a teacher/trainer who is knowledgeable in the intercultural aspects of language learning and can give you the insights you need to communicate successfully.






Sources:

Ammon, U. 2015. Die Stellung der deutschen Sprache in der Welt. Berlin, München, Boston: De Gruyter.

Pabst, C. M., Fussy, H., & Steiner, U. 2022. Österreichisches Wörterbuch (44. Auflage). Wien: ÖBV.


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