I was warned about certain things, a lot of things actually, prior to my move to Germany. None of them prepared me for what I call Swedish Chef Syndrome.
I am a native English speaker from the New England region of the US. My own way of speaking is also heavily influenced, you know, by 20 years in California (we all say “you know” all the time). I can communicate with just about any other English speaker from anywhere. Some regions have more distinctive dialects than others, Caribbean and African nations, in particular. I’ve always managed to make do, though. I also had five years of Spanish while in school… so I’m mostly set in terms of getting around the Western Hemisphere, the former British Colonies and even Southern Europe where Spanish is close enough to Italian and Romanian that I can still function.
Then the German thing came up. I managed to get one University course and two adult education courses under my belt before the big move. I had a few native German speaking friends while in the US, so I could practice somewhat with them. Those courses and my friends all spoke High German or Hochdeutsch. High German is the standard German that is supposed to be universal among all German speakers.
Except that it is not.
Fortunately, most German speakers can understand High German. That is particularly true near large cities. But there are still many rural locations and even some more urbanized areas that are just more “traditional” and retain the dialect that has been native to their area for generations.
The area I live in is one of those. There is a regional dialect known as Eifelplatt (named for the region, The Eifel) which can vary strongly even between small villages. The dialect here, as with most of the Rhineland area is strongly influenced by French. The entire Rhineland area was French or under French dominion until about the mid-1850s and then on and off again up until modern times.
Many of the older folks here cannot actually understand High German. Living among them for about three years now, I’ve managed to either pick up the local dialect or otherwise somehow communicate with those whose accent is impenetrable to me. For a while, it was really making a mess of my German as these well meaning neighbors were trying to teach me German… their German.
I probably know four different words for one kind standard white bread roll. I slur my numbers as the locals do when they say “ich” instead of “ig” at the end of number words like fünfzig (fifty). The proper German is to say “funf zig” which is just the way it looks, which is what High German is meant to do. But here they say “funfzish.” Now when I to go to big city I say “funfzish” all the time and get that look that is typically reserved for what the city people to consider to be slow country folk. Ah well.
Slowly I’ve been able to consciously delineate between the dialect and the standard language. But even television has been a hindrance to a degree. My wife is into the Krimis (crime dramas). It seems like most of them come from Bavaria which has a very strong regional dialect, also. And that is where the Swedish Chef comes in.
For those of you that are around my age which is… well… a little older than the average dot-com millionaire, you’ll remember The Muppet Show and the Swedish Chef who used to run around saying “Bork! Bork! Bork!” all the time. That is what Bavarian sounds like to me, German with a bunch of “borks!” thrown in. Probably about 30% bork. And as you go south into Austria it just gets worse.
It is an improvement, though. Three years ago it all sounded like a garbled mush to me. With time and more study I’ll grow fluent (I consider myself only functional) and can possibly throw a few borks of my own in and even make the Bavarians think I’m a slow country folk rather than the big city feeling immigrant than I am.
So I raise an apfel (which is beer in the local dialect, as well as meaning apple the fruit) to you and wish you a good day! Bork! Bork! Bork!