Schwäbische Schande: Dialect shaming in German

Is this a fashion statement? or just a bumpkin?
Is this a fashion statement? or just a bumpkin?

Shame plays a significant role in language. Everyone uses a language, and a society can distinguish insiders and outsiders according to arbitrary linguistic criteria. For example, one can declare that the person who says, “I’m not,” to be educated and sophisticated, but the one who says, “I ain’t,” to be provincial and backwards. What if we made a rule to say that “I ain’t” is correct? The rule is arbitrary, but it creates real divisions by shaming those who say the latter.

Germany teaches a standard literary dialect called Hochdeutsch, or “High German,” to all its citizens, while at the same time includes a dizzying number of dialects, some of which remain incomprehensible to fellow-citizens. Germany follows a strong national agenda, with the idea that Germany should be unified and so works to level differences among its citizens. One sees that the purveyors of High German shame speakers of dialects.

Before I go further, let me explain my focus on German. I do not critique Germany because of any dislike of German culture. The mechanism that I will lay out here applies to many countries, including France, the UK, and even the US. The example I found happens to come from Germany and to link with my personal experience.

In this interview you can hear the TV presenter set up the interviewee, actress Katrin Bauerfeind, for this trap. At 6:17 the interviewer announces, “One can’t hear it, but Katrin Bauerfeind is Swabian! Did you really train away your accent?”

She jokes at the expense of her native Schwäbisch or Swabian dialect, spoken in the South of Germany around Stuttgart. She answers, “Yes. I had to. Up until age 21 I spoke with the worst Swabian accent because I come from the East Alps region…I believe it’s the broadest Swabian that one can speak.” She did not show any pride at bilingualism or the ability to speak a unique variety of German. Her pride came at getting rid of the traces of this dialect, although she displays her proficiency in this dialect as she quotes her grandmother in Swabian a little later in the interview.

Coincidentally, I saw this dynamic around this specific dialect multiple times.

My first trip to Germany I spent at a good friend’s place, outside of Stuttgart. His family all spoke the local Swabian dialect. Because of circumstances, I spent a good amount of time with my his grandmother, who spoke this vernacular almost exclusively. Soon enough, her Swabian made distinct impressions on my German, and I got to see first-hand how other German-speakers reacted to it.

My friend and I went to a disco in Stuttgart one night. “Would you like to dance?” I asked one girl. She rejected me completely nonchalantly; she barely even looked at me. I talked to my friend about it. “What did you say?” he asked. I told him. “Ahh! You sound like a farmer, uneducated! Don’t ask her like that. Ask next time in Hochdeutsch.”

Even in the capital of this region, citizens looked down on the local dialect.

When I traveled North to friends near Köln, the impressions were even starker. “Do you have to keep talking like this?” my friend said with a frown. Some gentler people would make excuses for me. “I see. It was your first experience that made an impression.”

No one except my friend’s grandmother congratulated me on speaking multiple German dialects. For everyone else my Swabian was either a joke or annoying.

We need to make the world safe for regional dialects. If we are judging dialects as annoying or uneducated, how can we ever think that languages will stop dying? How can we hope languages will survive while we allow the attitudes that kill them off?

What do you think of regional dialects? Do some sound sweet? grating? Do you judge others by their dialect? How so?

Photo credit: monkoflight via / CC BY-NC-SA


17 thoughts on “Schwäbische Schande: Dialect shaming in German

  1. Rachel

    I went with my parents to see the movie “Eddie the Eagle” today and afterwards, my mother said, “It was a good movie, but it was so strange to hear Hugh Jackman with that accent.” Obviously the character was American and it was based on a true story, but it’s very rare to hear an Australian actor act with an Australian accent in a film – any major film that comes out with an Australian actor is always accompanied by media about how said actor “lost his accent” for the film. The only film I can think of off-hand where an actress was allowed to keep her accent is “Grease”. Even the film “Australia” which came out a few years ago featured a bewildering array of RP accents.

    I was going to talk about German accents, but I’ve been sidetracked by Australian accents for the moment. Even though the rest of the world seems to regard Australian accents as the “shame dialect”, in Australia, it’s the broader accents which are preferred. Let me explain. Adelaide, where I live, is known for having the “mildest” Australian accent (we have a number of unusual features which makes it sound closer to RP than other regions). Adelaideans are preferred for call centres and embassies and so on because foreigners find us easier to understand. And yet, in Australian media, Adelaide accents are almost non-existent. Even a former Prime Minister changed her accent to a much broader, eastern states accent. (I’m talking about Julia Gillard, who was actually from Adelaide but sounded like she was from Sydney). In a climate that’s inclining towards being a republic, Adelaide accents are apparently too English for taste. (This is just guessing the reason, though).

    About German accents/dialects, though… At school, we were told a lot “sprechen kein Dialekt” – most of the kids spoke dialect at home but it wasn’t allowed at school (although Swiss kids got spelling consideration). But most of the kids in my class were from southern areas – Swiss, Austrian, Swabian, et c. – and my Yr 11-12 teacher was also Schwaebisch. She always spoke Hochdeutsch to us (including the Schwaebisch student) but when another teacher came in who was Schwaebisch, they spoke dialect to each other and then apologised to us about it. I have a couple of family friends who are also Schwaebisch, including one who used to pay me to speak to her children when I was a teenager because she didn’t want them to pick up her dialect, just learn Hochdeutsch which she couldn’t speak.

    My father learnt his German in Austria, and when he could speak it, always had a pretty thick Austrian/Baorisch accent. Because of that, as well as having been in Austria for several months when I was 8 and for having only southern classmates, I ended up with a pretty southern accent by the time I finished school – it was commented on a lot, including by the examiners during my Year 12 exams. I just shrugged it off at the time – I was pretty pleased to speak with a regional accent rather than like a foreigner – but there was a definite air of disapproval to the observation. My final research had been about expat/colony communities (I compared two German communities in the US and the local one where I live) and had necessarily strayed into the topic of dialects – the examiners asked me what I thought of Pennsylvania German (“Pennsilfaanischdeitsch”-“Pennsilfaanischdeutsch?”-“Nee, PennsilfaanischdEItsch”) and I said, “Oh, ich dachte dass es wie Schwaebisch klingt.” They giggled at that – “Oh, she [the other examiner] is from Swabia.”

    Actually, in the waiting room before we went into the exam, I was talking to one of my classmates and a teacher overheard us and scolded us, “Don’t say ‘nee’, say ‘nein’! You can’t say ‘nee’ in the exam, that’s dialect!” After Year 12 I decided I wanted to learn Baorisch since I thought it sounded utterly awesome, but couldn’t find anyone who was willing to teach me, either in real life or online – it was always the same response – “Learn Hochdeutsch, don’t learn Dialekt”. As it is now, I don’t speak German much anymore, and the last time I did, I was told, “You speak German well, even if you have an Australian accent.” I wish I could go back to “Oh, you have such a southern accent!”

    I’m going on a bit again, but there’s one more language I want to talk about (you can guess what). Gaelic has a couple of regional dialects, although a lot were lost during the Clearances. There are a couple of dialects still in Scotland, though; broadly-speaking, three: Lewis, Islands, and Mainland. Although Gaelic doesn’t really have a standard form, the Islands accent is usually preferred because that’s where the university is – you’re often corrected if you pronounce “-amh” with a Lewis accent (“oo”, not “av”) or “-rd” with a Mainland accent (“borsht”, not “bort”). Canada, of course, has its own accent – they pronounce L as W, for example, which was part of one Mainland accent which isn’t spoken anymore; they also have retained all the older spellings. Australian/Kiwi speakers will tend to use the Lewis “-amh”, but we have our own way of pronouncing “-eibh” which is constantly corrected by Scottish speakers – not to mention a handful of unique words we use and more than a handful of spelling differences (our spelling is halfway between Canada and Scotland). ANZ Gaelic is more likely to just be perceived as “wrong” than “dialect”, probably because there’s basically zero awareness of it.

    Regional dialects in English, since you ask – well, the more I think about it, the more it’s dialects I can’t stand and accents I love. For example – love the Highlands accent (grammatically standard English but with a thick second-language accent), but Glasgow (Scots is sometimes considered a separate language) grates. Can’t handle a Dublin accent for too long, but I can listen to a Galway accent all day. Welsh Valleys accents are pretty cool, in my opinion. Sydney accents and Queensland accents get on my nerves, but I can handle a Melbourne accent better. Kiwi/Auckland accents amuse me slightly, but I don’t mind them; Southlands I like. I can’t really take a West Country accent seriously, but a thick Cornwall accent gives me warm fuzzies (too much time in the Cornish-accented mid-north of my state as a child, probably). I used to be prepared to disregard all North American accents off-hand, but I’m learning to be more discriminating – Texan accents I don’t mind (probably because they’re slow enough for me to understand), but LA and Arkansas are both right out (because I couldn’t understand what was being said to me, probably). Pennsylvania English (or whatever it’s called) was a bit cute to listen to. Oh, and South African accents…

    Do I judge others by their dialect? Probably. I joke sometimes that “I’m not racist, I’m accentist”. It’s definitely something I need to deal with. I’m more inclined to like a South African or a Scot immediately than an American, purely based on the accent, and… well, clearly that’s not right. When someone says “yez” or “brang”, my first thought is still “oh, go back to school!” rather than “isn’t it pretty cool, actually, that Australian English has its own grammatical features?” On the other hand, there are some dialects I will hold up and actively support. I’m never going to spell certain Gaelic words the Scottish way, or swap from Australian terminology for them. I’ll always defend my right to say that I usedn’t to do something, rather than that I didn’t used to, and if you’re gang somewhere, and haven’t gone, that’s perfectly fine with me.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Rachel

    Speaking of Australian being the “shame accent” – here’s a completely unforgiveable clip from The Last Leg where Josh Widdicombe gets stuck into Adam about his accent: In a country with as many regional accents as the UK as, you’d think they might be a little more open-minded – then again, it was only a generation ago that a regional accent on television was scandalous. Josh is from Devon but has completely erased his accent in favour of a pan-southern-England one. At least Dara and his Irish accent was there to stick up for Adam… (Dara’s comment was because Irish and Australian residents in the UK can vote on the Brexit matter, even if they’re not citizens – and there are enough of them to substantially swing a vote, particularly since Australians can’t compute not voting).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We pronounce it both ways in the US. I was surprised the empenthetic “r” didn’t appear “the data-r on…”. A good friend of mine in seminary was Australian, and doing the reading in chapel he said, “Alleluia-r, alleluia-r, alleluia,” we all busted up laughing. We evidently shamed him enough because he paused long between words the next time.


  3. The same kind of discrimination happens in the Japanese language. I understand and can speak two Kansai dialects (Osaka-ben and Kyoto-ben) from the west of Japan, and since Osaka-ben was specially present during my learning process, traces of it can be heard in my everyday speech (in both the cadence and a number of words I use often).

    As the Japanese are generally not used to meeting foreigners who speak their language well, it shocks and amuses them a lot that I speak with such a strong western accent. However, I’ve also realized they give me a kind of carte-blanche on that regard that they don’t give actual natives. Osaka and Kyoto-ben have a strong presence on TV and radio because the region is the cradle of Japanese comedy, but outside that world, in Tokyo it’s badly seen to speak it in the workplace because it’s seen as aggressive or ignorant. And let’s not go into people with northern accents, like Hokkaido, Sendai or Niigata–they get shamed even worse for being from the agricultural prefectures, and so have to work even harder at erasing their accent to fit in the workplace. It’s truly disgraceful, particularly considering the enormous variety of dialects that exist in this language.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Being from the North and living in the South of Germany, I have been ridiculed for my (slight) Northern Accent and yelled at for sometimes not being able to understand my South German neighbours, colleagues or clients immediately. So, my relationship with speakers of South German dialects is complicated at best. However, I recently met someone who sometimes speaks a funny mix of Bavarian and Yiddisch (he is from a conservative Jewish/Bavarian background), and we are having a lot of fun teaching each other words and phrases.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So the Southerners are shaming you, then. That’s a pity. Often, they want you to understand, but they don’t want to put forth the effort to teach you. Let me know where to take the course on Bavarian or Swabian and I’ll take it! (BTW I don’t know if you got to see the link I posted in the “Related links,” but here’s one on learning Schwytzerdytsch in Zurich:

      I loved learning Swabian, but I get fewer problems because I’m American and not some “Preusse”, as they say down there. Except on occasion I got some problems when I was in the North…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I lived in Fribourg/Switzerland, a language school offered classes to prepare students for “le diplome du Schwytzertütsch”. At that time, I was still struggling with French, so I did not bother with Swiss German.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Schwäbische Schande: Dialect shaming in German — Loving Language | yieldingtothewind

  6. Gosh, this is a really complex topic you’ve picked here… I speak Bavarian myself, and I love my Dialect. I speak it to family and friends of my region, but not to “outsiders”. It’s very much an “in-group” thing.

    I don’t think Bavarians (or Swabians, for that matter) are ‘ashamed’ of their dialects as such, quite the contrary, but speaking it to the appropriate people in the appropriate context, that’s what separates the wheat from the chaff. This is where social intelligence comes in. It’s a bit like using swearwords 😉

    When people speak their dialect in inappropriate contexts, yes, they will probably be judged as either socially inept or uneducated, because an educated person can seamlessly switch between their dialect and Hochdeutsch.

    As an aside, the UK used to be quite hostile to its regional accents, but this started changing about 20 years ago, and now TV and radio presenters use their native accents rather than resorting to “BBC English” or RP (Received Pronunciation).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that Bavarians and Swabians have to be careful to not use their dialect in certain circumstances is a fascinating social construct. If someone from Hamburg understands someone from Munich, why not just speak Bayrisch? If they don’t understand a word, why not just explain it, or reserve Hochdeutsch for only those words? That’s what the Bavarians did when I went to their parties. (Hochdeutsch appears more rarely the more beer Bavarians drink, I noticed 🙂 )

      It seems that it is helpful for a country of so many dialects to educate their people on a common language, but the prestige and “appropriateness” are arbitrary. In Switzerland, French, German, and Italian are all allowed in any context, but out of courtesy, one speaks the language that the others can understand. It’s less prestige and more practical. French people don’t think of German as “uneducated,” or vice-versa. But Berliners see Bayrisch as uneducated. The fact that, as you say, the English changed shows how arbitrary this designation can be. Why do we set things up this way?


      1. Hmmm… I think you’re onto something there re. amount of alcohol imbibed and amount of dialect spoken – there’s a positive correlation for sure 🙂

        Someone from Hamburg would not usually understand someone from Munich if they spoke dialect, unless they’d had significant exposure to Bayerisch before. Making them struggle through it wouldn’t be a good experience for anyone.

        P.S. I just found the Bavarian Wikipedia!

        Liked by 1 person

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