SimulTrans Localization Blog: SimulTips

Is German the Same Everywhere?

[fa icon="calendar"] June 7, 2018 / by Greg Hellmann

Is German the same everywhere

Definitely not. People in German-speaking countries (or any other country for that matter) are proud to talk differently than everyone else. Language is a people’s means to differentiate themselves from their (often bigger and sometimes condescending) neighbors. Every region, big or small, has its own dialects, sayings, idioms, sometimes even different grammar. And yet, it’s all German!

How does this affect your localization strategy?

In Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, German is the official language and first language of the majority of the population. It is first language to approximately 105 million people, and second language to about 80 million. 8 million native speakers live in Austria, and more than 73 percent of the Swiss people use German as their native language, next to French, Italian and Romansh. There are quite a few other regions and territories in Europe and the world where German is a co-official or minority language, such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Argentina, or Brazil.

Standard German, or Hochdeutsch, and this is what we’re talking about here, is spoken and understood in all German-speaking regions. It is the overarching system for all dialects, for everyday and colloquial language, for technical and youth language. To quote Wikipedia: “Standard German … is a pluricentric Dachsprache with three codified (or “standardized”) specific regional variants: German Standard German, Austrian Standard German, and Swiss Standard German.” It is being “used in formal contexts, and for communication between different dialect areas.” It is also used in your product documentation, manuals, instructions for use, most GUIs, and so on. All in all, technical standard texts won’t have to be heavily adapted for each of the German-speaking countries. Apart from some small details like “Grüße” vs. “Grüsse” in Swiss Standard German (which doesn’t use the sharp “ß”), it’s one version fits all.

You may call me Doktor Gruber

And yet, there are massive differences in the use of the three German standard versions. Those become important when trying to reach people with a certain message, say in advertising. Austrians and the Swiss are quite specific and demanding when it comes to communication of any sort. Many people aged 40+ won’t like to be addressed by their first name in an email for instance, or will expect to be called by their achieved title, Doctor or Magister. Young people have their own language anyways, and the coolness factor of some words is determined by how many Germans have caught on to a certain word.

One brilliant example is the Austrian word “leiwand”, which means cool (no, not Lewandowski). Back in the nineties, this term was all the rage, meanwhile the speakers from back then have grown up and the word has travelled quite a bit, so now it’s not so cool among youngsters anymore, but still very much in use. If you ever travel to Austria and think that something is really great you can impress the locals with your inside knowledge by saying: “Oida, des is leiwand!”

Bottom line: People in Austria and Switzerland want to be wooed in their own way of speaking, or they will ignore you. It would be ill-advised to handle your copy-writing or transcreation jobs for these countries “on the side” and hope that your German brand message will work out anyway. Cultural, historical, social, and political aspects are highly important. 

Different words for the same thing 

Words that are perfectly normal in one country might be perceived very differently in another. Let me give you an example: In Germany, Aprikose (English apricot) is a very normal and standard word for an orange-ish very sweet and delicious fruit. Not so in Austria. Here, people call this fruit Marille, and would think it very posh and out-of-place to use Aprikose. Another example is Tomate (English tomato), used by every German person to describe that red, juicy vegetable. Austrians use and understand that word of course, but prefer to call it Paradeiser, a term that will leave most Germans absolutely baffled. Austrians use Sackerl for Tüte (English bag), Obers for Schlagsahne (whipped cream), and Stiege for Treppe (stairs).

Swiss German, or Schweizerdeutsch, is home to all the different dialects spoken in Switzerland. It is not to be confused with Swiss Standard German, and not unified by an official body. In Swiss German, technical innovations for instance are often loanwords of the English original but pronounced quite differently. The standard language variant often finds a translation for new technical terms. In everyday language, Swiss German uses Trottoir for the standard version Gehweg (English sidewalk/pavement), Zmorge for Frühstück (breakfast), Rechner for Taschenrechner (calculator), Coiffeur for Frisör (hairdresser), and Velo for Fahrrad (bicycle).

Attitude matters

The way you phrase things is very important. The Swiss aren’t as pushy as Germans. For example, they use the subjunctive mood more often. They will also try to find a team solution rather than pointing out the culprit when things go wrong. Austrians are proud of their heritage and will react dismissively when compared to Germans in any form, or if people don’t even bother to treat them as an individual people in their own right. 

Takeaways 

For your message to stand out in every German language variant you should absolutely go the extra mile and have a professional translation services provider handle your content. Your brand and brand reputation will benefit greatly if you speak the language of your target audience. 

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Topics: Website Translation

Greg Hellmann

Written by Greg Hellmann

As Translation and MT Manager, Greg is responsible for in-house translation production and the Machine Translation program at SimulTrans. With over 10 years of experience in the localization industry, he's taking an active role in the management team to maintain and build the business, helping to win new customers and contracts. At SimulTrans, he pioneered the introduction and utilization of various MT technology into production workflows. Greg holds a university degree in Translation from the Technical University of Cologne and speaks three languages.