Austrians don’t speak German, they speak Austrian

One might ask oneself what I might have to say about handling language during a semester abroad, after all I am spending it in a German-speaking country. The answer to this question? There’s much to say about this.

On the one hand, of course, English is also a topic for me, especially when dealing with other Erasmus students. On the other hand, I am also confronted with the fact that people in Austria speak a different standard language than in Germany or Switzerland. I realized this the first time I went to a supermarket and wanted to shop. I searched in vain for “Kartoffeln”, “Tomaten”, “Aubergine” or “Quark”. But I met “Erdäpfel”, “Paradeiser”, “Melanzani” and “Topfen” and at the cash desk they asked me if I needed a “Sackerl”, not a “Tüte”. However stereotypical it may sound, it is the truth.

The Austrians have many expressions and words in their standard language that I, as a Swiss-German speaker, can partly derive and understand, but would call them dialect words. Yes, I also say “Härdöpfle” instead of “Kartoffeln”, but only if I speak dialect while in a supermarket or on a menu in a restaurant one would probably never find this expression in Switzerland. But it is different here in Vienna.

How important these linguistic variations in regard to standard German are to Austrians became clear to me a few days ago. I was sitting in a café with a friend (a born Viennese) and she suddenly said she had found an article online explaining Austrian words that Germans don’t understand. Of course, we made a quiz out of it. I also said to her that I would certainly be able to do it reasonably well. But when she asked me, grinning broadly, what terms like “Kukuruz”, “Gelse”, “Hackn” or “butterwach” meant, I had to withdraw my previous statement. All these expressions are used in everyday life, not when dialect is spoken. No, these words have established themselves in the Austrian standard.

After I had failed this quiz, we had a general conversation about the language in Austria. It quickly became clear to me that the whole thing was also a very sensitive topic for her. For example, she said: “In Austria people speak Austrian, not German”. This insistence on the distinction from German, which is spoken in Germany, has, in any case, something to do with the history of the two countries, she said. I can confirm this from what I have heard so far about the relationship between Austria and Germany or between Austrians and Germans. It is noticeable that many people living in Austria want to distance themselves clearly from Germany. And to a large extent, it seems to me, it happens through differences in the language. For the people who live in Austria, this is an important part of their identity. And this also keeps them upright in the eyes of tourists or foreigners.

It quickly became clear to me that I would have to adapt if I didn’t want to be looked at sceptically every time. For me, this means asking for a “Sackerl” or greeting people with “Grüss Gott” instead of “Guten Tag”. And if something is right for me or it’s true, I say “das basst”.

I find it incredibly interesting how diverse the German language is. I’ve also noticed for myself how good it is to be able to speak in my first language, especially when I’m at university all day and sit together with my roommates in the evening and speak standard German all the time. That’s why I’m already looking forward to going to a coffeehouse with my friend, because then she’ll be confronted with Swiss German words and will have to explain them to me. We will see how easy it will get for her.

By the way, for those who are interested in the meaning of the terms I was asked about, here’s the resolution:

Kukuruz = corn

Gnat = mosquito

Hackn = work

Butterwach = stoned

Leonora Schulthess

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