Sunday, August 7, 2022

Language & Phrasebook in Germany

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The official language in Germany is German (Deutsch). The standard form of German is called “Hochdeutsch“. It is understood by everyone and spoken by almost all Germans. However, each region has its own dialects, which can be a problem even for those who speak German well, even for native speakers. This is mostly only observed in the south and in rural areas in the north and east. Dialect is still an important element of local identity in Bavaria, Saxony, South Westphalia and Hesse, Württemberg and Baden. Generally speaking, the Main River separates northern Germany from southern Germany, both in terms of dialects and local culture.

Her or you?
Politeness is important in German and you should generally address other unfamiliar people with the formal and polite form of “Sie”. The informal version of “Du” is “you” and can be used if you are already very familiar with each other or if the person is a child. Nowadays, young people under 30 can use “you” between complete strangers, except in certain professional contexts. Note that the endings of verbs also change depending on how you use them.

All Germans learn English at school, so you should be able to get by with English in most places. Many Germans claim to speak it quite well, although the general population is certainly not as advanced as in the Netherlands or the Nordic countries. A significant number of people also speak French. In some parts of eastern Germany, a small Slavic community of 50,000 people also speaks Sorbian. Many people who grew up in former communist East Germany have learned Russian. Increasingly, other foreign languages such as Spanish and Italian are also found. Due to the economic crisis in most southern European countries, there are relatively many new immigrants from these countries in the university towns.

Germany has experienced high levels of immigration over the last 50 years and many cities have large communities of Turks, Italians and Poles (among many others) who speak their ancestors’ mother tongue as well as German. Germany is now the second most popular immigration destination in the world after the USA.

Germans tend to be direct and often reply in English with short answers. Since it is polite to reply with “Bitte” when someone thanks you, in German this can be translated literally as “bitte” instead of “bitte sehr” or “gern geschehen”.

Since language skills are a measure of social status, it can be difficult to convince many Germans to speak to you in German if they know you are a native English speaker. Saying that you are a non-English speaker (even if you pretend to be one) can help get around this. That is, Germans who are really fluent and confident in English usually have no problem speaking German with you.

Telling time

While many Germans use the 24-hour format for times, they often use 12-hour times in conversations. There is no real suffix like “am” or “pm”, although you can add “vormittags” (before noon) and “nachmittags” (after noon) if the context does not allow it. A significant difference is the convention for “half past”, where English people would say “half (past) seven” at 7:30, while Germans say “halb acht”. The way of saying 7:15 or 7:45 is a kind of shibboleth for many dialects, and even some Germans don’t understand the form they didn’t grow up with. One way is to follow the English logic to “quarter past x” by making 7:15 appear as “quarter past seven” and 7:45 as “quarter to eight”. In other places, the time is given by the partial distance to the next hour: “quarter past eight” means 7:15, “half past seven” 7:30 and “three quarters past eight” 7:45. People who use the latter system usually don’t know (but like) the former. People who use the former system tend to shoot blanks when confronted with the latter. But it is always “half past seven” and never “half past seven”.

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