Standard German (German: Standarddeutsch, colloquially also Hochdeutsch) is the standard variety of the German language used as a written language, in formal contexts, and for communication between different dialect areas. Since German is a pluricentric language, there are different varieties of Standard German.
Standard German originated not as a traditional dialect of a specific region, but as a written language, developed over a process of several hundred years, in which writers tried to write in a way that was understood in the largest area. Until about 1800, Standard German was almost entirely a written language. In this time, people in Northern Germany, who mainly spoke Low Saxon dialects very different from Standard German, learned it as a foreign language. However, later the Northern pronunciation (of Standard German) was considered standard and spread southward; in some regions (such as around Hanover) the local dialect has completely died out with the exception of small communities of Low German speakers. It is thus the spread of Standard German as a language taught at school that defines the German Sprachraum, i.e. a political decision rather than a direct consequence of dialect geography, allowing areas with dialects of very limited mutual comprehensibility to participate in the same cultural sphere albeit used mainly in informal situations or at home and also including dialect literature, and more recently a resurgence of German dialects in mass media.
In German linguistics, only the traditional regional varieties of German are called dialects, not the different varieties of standard German. The latter are known as Umgangssprachen and in the territory of Germany began to replace the traditional dialects beginning in the nineteenth century. They constitute a mixture of old dialectal elements with Standard German.
In German, Standard German is often called Hochdeutsch, a somewhat misleading term since it collides with the linguistic term High German. Hoch ("high") in the term for the standard language refers to "high" in a cultural or educational sense, while in the linguistic term it simply refers to the geography of the German speaking regions in Central Europe; High German of the southern uplands and the Alps (including Austria, Switzerland and parts of northern Italy as well as southern Germany) contrasting with Low German spoken in the lowlands stretching towards the North Sea. To avoid this confusion, some refer to Standard German as Standarddeutsch ("standard German"), deutsche Standardsprache ("German standard language"), or if the context of the German language is clear, simply Standardsprache ("standard language"). Traditionally, though, the language spoken in the high mountainous areas of southern Germany is referred to as Oberdeutsch ("Upper German"), while Hochdeutsch remains the common term for the standard language.
Standard German differs regionally. The most accepted distinction is between different national varieties of standard German: Austrian Standard German, Germany Standard German and Swiss Standard German. Additionally, there are linguists who think that there are different varieties of standard German within Germany. Linguistic research of the different varieties of standard German has for the most part only begun in the 1990s, and especially in Austria and Switzerland. During the existence of the German Democratic Republic, there were occasional studies about whether there were differences between the standard varieties of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic. The German federal state of Bavaria has promoted language diversity in the past in an effort to preserve its unique culture.
The different varieties of standard German (Austrian, Swiss, and Germany Standard) differ only in a few features, especially in vocabulary and pronunciation, but even in some instances of grammar and orthography. In the written language, it may be hard or even impossible to tell what variety of standard German has been used, though in the spoken language, the different varieties of standard German are easily recognized by most speakers.
The variation of the standard German varieties must not be confused with the variation of the local German dialects. Even though the standard German varieties are to a certain degree influenced by the local dialects, they are very distinct. All varieties of standard German are based on the common tradition of the written German language, whereas the local dialects have their own historical roots that go further back than the unification of the written language and in the case of Low German belong to a different language entirely.
Continuum between standard German and German dialects
In most regions, the speakers use a continuum of mixtures from more dialectical varieties to more standard varieties according to situation. However, there are two exceptions:
- In Northern Germany, there is no such continuum between the local indigenous languages and dialects of Low German ("Plattdeutsch") varieties and standard German, because its origin is Old Saxon, not Old High German. Low German speakers only constitute a small, but growing minority.
- In German-speaking Switzerland, there is no such continuum between the Swiss German varieties and Swiss Standard German, and the use of standard German is almost entirely restricted to the written language. Therefore, this situation has been called a medial diglossia. Standard German is rarely spoken, and even then the accent and vocabulary is very much Swiss, except for instance when speaking with people who do not understand the Swiss German dialects at all, and it is expected to be used in school. Standard German has, however, left a clear imprint on the contemporary variants of Swiss German, regional expressions and vocabulary having been replaced with material assimilated from the standard language. Of all the German-speaking countries Switzerland has however retained its ability to use dialect in everyday situations, also a commonplace phenomenon in southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Alsace, and South Tyrol. The fairly common aspect of dialect use in Swiss media (both radio, internet, and television), which ranges from uncommon to rare in the media of Austria, Germany, East Belgium, South Tyrol and Liechtenstein, makes Switzerland a special case.
Although Luxembourgish is no longer considered a German dialect today but a language, the situation can be compared to that of Switzerland. Standard German is also taught in schools in Luxembourg and close to 90% of the population can speak it.
Pronunciation of Standard German was first prescribed in 1898 in the Deutsche Bühnenaussprache of Theodor Siebs – originally intended only for the field of theatre and movies (Bühne = stage). In Siebs' pronunciation, the phoneme /r/ was given a pronunciation of [r], while regional variants are permissible in contemporary Standard German. In many ways the pronunciation is derived from the Low German pronunciation, for example, the written suffix "-ig" is given the pronunciation identical to "-ich," which is contrary to common usage in southern parts of the German dialect continuum that pronounce it like "-ik" or western ones that pronounce it like "-isch." Modern pronunciation differs in some aspects from Siebs' description and the current state is commonly recorded in the Duden series (volume 4: Das Aussprachewörterbuch – The Pronunciation Dictionary).
A first standardization, although non-prescriptive, of Early Modern High German was introduced by the Luther Bible of 1534. In consequence, the written language of the chancery of Saxony-Wittenberg rose in importance in the course of the 17th century, and the 1665 revision of the Zürich Bible abandoned its Alemannic idiom in favour of this standard.
The First Orthographical Conference () was called in 1876 by the government of Prussia. Since Prussia was by far the largest state in the German Empire, its regulations also influenced spelling elsewhere.
Konrad Duden published the first edition of his dictionary, later simply known as the Duden, in 1880. The first spelling reform, based on Duden's work, came into effect in 1901. The orthographical standards predating 1901 are now known as "classical orthography" (Klassische deutsche Rechtschreibung), while the conventions in effect from 1901 to 1998 are summarized as "old orthography" (Alte deutsche Rechtschreibung). A failed attempt at another reform dates to 1944, delayed on the order of Hitler and not taken back up after the end of the World War II. In the following decades German spelling was essentially decided de facto by the editors of the Duden dictionaries. After the war, this tradition was followed with two different centers: Mannheim in West Germany and Leipzig in East Germany. By the early 1950s, a few other publishing houses had begun to attack the Duden monopoly in the West by putting out their own dictionaries, which did not always hold to the "official" spellings prescribed by Duden. In response, the Ministers of Culture of the federal states in West Germany officially declared the Duden spellings to be binding as of November 1955.
The 1996 spelling reform was based on an international agreement signed by the governments of the German-speaking countries Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland; but acceptance of the reform was limited. While, as of 2004, most German print media follow the reform, some newspapers, such as Die Zeit, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Süddeutsche Zeitung, created their own in-house orthographies.
In 2006, there was a final revision of the spelling reform because there were disagreements like capitalizing or separating German words. Also revised were the rules governing punctuation marks.
- Ulrich Ammon, Hans Bickel, Jakob Ebner, et al.: Variantenwörterbuch des Deutschen. Die Standardsprache in Österreich, der Schweiz und Deutschland sowie in Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Ostbelgien und Südtirol. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2004.
- Europeans and their Languages – Eurobarometer, p. 13