When you travel abroad, you may find that the language you learned in school is not exactly the same as the version people speak around you. Elliot Douglas, who is currently on our English Language Assistants programme, explains how a local dialect showed him a different side to Germany.
'Unn?' asked the ticket collector. I gave him the polite, blank smile that is universal when meeting the potentially dangerous, and waited for some elaboration on his monosyllable.
'O leck,' he continued, realising I was either an idiot or a foreigner. 'Isch brauche Ihre Fahrscheen.'
Somewhere in this, I guessed that probably he wanted my ticket (Fahrschein in Standard German), translating what he said as: 'Oh goodness. I need your ticket.' I offered it to him with my most winning grin, hoping for no more questions. After a cursory glance, he nodded and produced a noise that seemed to contain all the vowels of the alphabet: 'Eyyooa.'
Even those of you well-acquainted with German might have difficulty deciphering this conversation. My first few weeks as a language assistant in Germany were defined by such confusing interactions. This is because I am spending my year abroad in one of Germany’s smallest and least-known Bundesländer (federal state), Saarland. I was naturally a little apprehensive before arriving at a place that had a reputation throughout Germany as being quite insular, and where the people speak an almost incomprehensible dialect. But after several months here, I can confirm that Saarland has more to offer than people might think. The dialect, however, still takes some getting used to.
Called 'Platt' by the locals, the Saarländisch dialect varies strikingly from town to town, but it is easy to pick up on a few common features. Nestled in the south-west of Germany and bordering both France and Luxembourg, Saarland was not officially part of the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, until 1957. Its complex history – sometimes French, sometimes German, and sometimes almost independent, including having its own currency at one point – separates it from the Rheinfränkisch dialect spoken just north in Rhineland-Palatinate, the Moselfränkisch spoken a few miles over the border in France, and the Luxembourgish language spoken to the west. A delightful mix of the three, with a suitable amount of its own peculiarities thrown in, Saarländisch differs from Standard German in terms of grammar, accent and vocabulary.
Saarländisch can apply a different word order from Standard German. In Standard German, the word order in 'One could have done that' would be 'Das hätte man tun können' In Saarländisch, this would be reversed to 'Das hättma kenne mache' (the sentence includes a different word choice for 'do' – 'mache' instead of 'tun').
There is also a French influence is some turns of phrase. For example, in Standard German, to say you are cold, one would say 'Mir ist kalt' (To me, it is cold). Instead, the Saarlander says 'Isch hann kald' – literally 'I have cold.' This phrase is a direct translation from the French equivalent – 'J’ai froid.'
Even if a Saarlander used entirely standard grammar, their accent still might mean you would ask them to repeat themselves a few times.
Complex enough to confuse Germans from neighbouring states, Saarländisch is defined by the shortening of vowel sounds and the flattening of consonant sounds. This is how 'Ja' (yes) can become 'Jo' (or in extreme cases 'Eyoah', as with the ticket collector on my train), and 'Nein' (no) becomes 'Nee.'
The tricky 'ch' in words like 'ich' (I) and 'möchten' (want) that gives German its characteristic sound, and which I have spent years attempting to perfect, is rendered redundant and replaced with a soft 'sch'. A simple German sentence like 'Ich möchte Schneewittchen schauen' (I want to watch Snow White) becomes in the mouth of a Saarlander: 'Isschh mösschte Sschneewittssschen sschauen.'
Similarly, the 't' at the end of words becomes a soft 'd'. Therefore the phrase 'so gut' (so good/good enough) becomes 'sau gudd' – an unofficial motto of Saarland.
Dialect words also take a great deal of influence from French. 'Allez' is commonly heard as parents rush along their children – meaning 'let's go' in French. Even local places have different names in dialect – the capital, Saarbrücken, for example, is called Saarbrigge by its inhabitants. But where Saarland’s dialect words really stand out is in their brevity. A standard conversation between two acquaintances greeting each other, which I have overheard on multiple occasions, would go as follows:
'Jo, scho weit.'
Literally, this translates as the not very illuminating 'And?' 'Yes. Self?' 'Yes, so far.' But to a Saarlander, the above dialogue can speak volumes. The question 'Unn?' can mean anything from 'How are you/your family/your job today?' to 'Has anything improved/got worse concerning our last conversation?' To a Saarlander, the meaning is entirely clear through context.
Trying to become a Saarlander
My attempts to understand the dialect have got better through four months of osmosis and necessity, but it is still a rare occasion when I actually try to speak it. Through habit, I now instinctively would answer a yes/no question with a short 'Jo' or 'Nee.' What has amazed me is that, in doing so, I have never earned a dirty look or a telling off. If I think of the equivalent in my area of Scotland, the few English people in my high school were labelled 'pretentious' if they dared slip in an 'Aye' or any other Scots slang into general conversation. They were excluded by their accent, and for them to try to take on ours would have been an insult. Here, however, people seem consistently pleased at any attempt of anyone to speak in dialect.
Whenever I unconsciously speak with the 'sch'-ing consonants of the Saarlander, teachers at my school will encourage me. If I throw in an 'O leck' (equivalent to 'Oh goodness me') during a lesson, my students will laugh and smile – I grant you, perhaps mocking me, but nevertheless gratified by my attempt to join in.
Largely, Saarland does not fit in with my traditional perception of Germany. Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, where the accents are just as impenetrable, are let off on account of their Oktoberfests, Lederhosen and myriad other ways that they define German-ness. In the north, people might eschew German culture in favour of European ideals, but their perfect Standard German is the envy of all. Here, in the middle, Saarland remains a bizarre island of a linguistic and cultural anonymity – and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Find out how to apply to be an English language assistant.
Elliot Douglas is a student of German and English at the University of St Andrews. Read more on his blog.