Tag Archives: German

Code-switching and Bavarian

The other day, when I went to my Frauengymnastikkurs (Women’s Fitness class), the other women who arrived before me were chatting about when their babies were born. It took me about a minute to figure out what they were discussing, however, because they were speaking a mixture of Hochdeutsch and Boarisch. In other words, they were code-switching between German and Bavarian.

What does code-switching mean? It’s a phenomenon that occurs when someone is fluent in more than one language; basically, someone who speaks two languages or more will switch between the languages as appropriate. As a person who is fluent in German, French and English, I code-switch all the time. When I’m shopping with my children, I’ll speak to them in English but once I am in a situation where I need to talk to a German, I switch to using the German language. Sometimes if I need to tell Rosebud something, I use both German and English, switching back and forth between the languages because I don’t want to alienate a German speaker who may not understand English. Here at home, we mostly speak English but we throw in German words and expressions because there’s either not a good English translation or we simply can’t think of the English word. For some reason, we say “Wasserkocher” instead of “Electric kettle”, maybe because “Wasserkocher” (“Water cooker”) is more fun to say. Truthfully, code-switching is not even something I think about doing, for the code-switching simply happens.

One of the women in my Women’s Fitness class mostly speaks Bavarian, and although I miss some of the vocabulary she uses, I’ve been living here in Bavaria long enough that I’m generally familiar with the dialect to understand the gist of the conversation but only sometimes. Other times, I’m completely at a loss. I, however, can’t speak Bavarian at all. I haven’t even really tried (apart from using simple words like “pfiati”, which means “bye bye”). I think that if I were to try speaking Boarisch, my friends would probably tease me and be highly amused, although if they were to ply me with a beer or glass of Grüner Veltliner, perhaps I’d be more willing to give it a go. Most of the Bavarians born and raised here who I’ve encountered will either speak to me in a mixture of German and Bavarian, or they will immediately switch to standard German once they realize that I’m not a native speaker.

One of my neighbors always speaks a mixture of Bavarian and standard German to me (there’s that code-switching again!). I suspect her usage of both with me is partially generational, in that I’m sure she grew up only speaking Bavarian at home, but a mix of Bavarian and standard German at school. When we first moved in to our house back in February 2009, I couldn’t understand her at all, apart from one or two words here and there. But as I’ve listened to Bavarian and have talked with my neighbor and others while out and about, I’ve become a little more adept at understanding individual words and overall ideas when the Bavarian words are used.

Here are a few examples: the German word “gut” becomes “guat” in Bavarian. One interesting Bavarian word is “Bua” which means “Junge” in standard German, and “boy” in English. I think it’s fascinating that “Bua” sounds a lot like “boy”. From my perspective as a non-native speaker, Bavarian sort of sounds like German with a strong shift in the vowels with consonant-dropping along with its own set of vocabulary. Bavarian also feels a little less formal to me than standard German, maybe because it’s especially used between family members who would otherwise speak standard German when they’re with non-Bavarians. Some other phrases: “i mog di” means “ich mag dich” in standard German, or, “I like/love you”. Another expression I hear all the time is “gell?” which means “nicht wahr?” or “right?”. If you want to sound like a local, or at least make the locals smile when they know you’re not a native, you can always toss in a “gell?” at the end of your conversation.

One American friend of mine, who is married to a German and lives in the northern part of Germany, said that she and her husband both have difficulty understanding Bavarians. Germans from other parts of Germany have told me the same thing and, in fact, often say something like, “Bavarian is like a different language”.

I really am fascinated by how people switch back and forth between Bavarian and German, just as I do between German and English (or French and English, when in a French-speaking situation). I suppose it’s a bit different, because for Bavarians, they have grown up as native speakers of both their local Bavarian dialect and standard German whereas in my case, I’m fluent in German but not a native speaker.

Amusingly, I found this tongue-in-cheek web page claiming to give German-speakers a list of important “Business” Bavarian phrases: http://www.lankuttis.net/bavarian.html
For the translation of “Schmarrn” (“nonsense” or something a bit stronger than that, if you catch my drift) the German phrase given is “da bin ich anderer Meinung” (“I’ve got a different opinion” or “I don’t agree”). Schmarrn, by the way, is a pretty common expression here in Bavaria. It’s not a word I heard much, if at all, when I was an exchange student up in Köln.

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Bonjour, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

In the middle of July, my French friends Claire and Estelle came to visit Rosebud and me. They are both Mathematics teachers, and visited me in Indianapolis in 2006. We could never have predicted that Claire and Estelle would be visiting us in Bavaria in 2009! Claire and Estelle were camping near our house here in Bavaria, and then during the day we took several outings together. Our first trip was to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and then on to Walchensee/Kochel.

Since my camera was kaputt by this stage, Claire offered to send me a CD of photos from the trip. I found a letter from Claire in my mailbox today, and she included the picture CD. I selected some of the photographs from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to share. It’s truly a picturesque little town. I think that when we think of Bavaria, the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen epitomizes the style and look of those charming Bavarian homes with their murals painted on the walls.

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I especially love this house.
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It has many typical Bavarian features, such as the cross-timbered beams, the overhanging roof, the geranium flower boxes and the shutters on the windows. The sign says that it’s the “country home Kuchler” (Landhaus Kuchler) and that you can rent it for your vacation (Ferienwohnung). The shape of this house, however, is unique for a Bavarian home. Most of the homes in our area tend to be quite large and rectangular, as they’re intended for several families to live in. The house in this picture is much smaller and the layout looks different from the typical Bavarian country house. I don’t know about you, but I think it is a very cute home and would be wonderful to rent for a summer or winter vacation in Garmisch.

Here’s one of the tributaries flowing through Garmisch. I never cease to be amazed by the startling clarity and blueness of the water here.
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This home, actually a building used for a business, shows the artistry that is evident in the murals.
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Here’s another image showing an aspect of a mural:
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The woman, dressed in the traditional Tracht – Dirndl costume, is saying (I believe):
“Was thuast di’ so braucha
und hupfst uma dum?
I’ wirkl di’ dengerscht,
um Kagerl rum.”

I honestly can’t say what that means, for it is in the Baierisch dialect, and probably a local one at that. The lettering is based on the old Fraktur style. The first two lines probably ask something like “What do you need that you’re hopping around?” I think the third line has to do with being hungry, and the last one? I have no idea. And my guesses here could be completely wrong! I am getting better at figuring out Baierisch, but it vastly differs from standard German. One of my neighbors, an older woman who loves talking with Rosebud, uses a lot of Baierisch when she talks with me. I’m gradually figuring out some of the expressions but mostly have to fill in the blanks from contextual clues.

Rosebud going for a stroll in Garmisch!
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Garmisch-Partenkirchen is at the foot of the Alps, as you can see in this image.
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Possibly, Austria is visible in this picture! One reason tourists go to Garmisch is to visit the Zugspitze, which is the tallest peak in Germany. I haven’t yet gone to the top of the Zugspitze, but I hope to do so by next summer. As you can imagine, Garmisch is filled with tourists all year long, because you can ski during the winter months and hike the rest of the year.

While with my friends Claire and Estelle, I spoke French the entire time. I think that Rosebud was curious that suddenly her mama was saying something completely different, that was neither English or German.

Mama and Rosebud in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Mama and Rosebud in Garmisch-Partenkirchen


My friend Mia suggested I speak to Rosebud in French for a few hours each day, and I might just do that so she is exposed to all three languages. Anyway, I really enjoyed speaking French. At first, I felt a bit rusty and had difficulty finding the right words. But after a few hours, I was speaking as fluently in French as ever. When we went to this restaurant (in the picture), I had troubles switching back to German and even spoke a little French with the server without realizing I was doing so. It’s a pretty normal thing to happen when you speak several languages, but I am always amused by this phenomenon. In a strange way, it gives you an insight as to how the brain – or my brain, anyway – processes language and turns on a “switch” somehow to access either French, English or German, depending on what situation I am in.

Du versus Sie: the usage of You in German

German has several forms of the pronoun “you”. The “du” form is the singular informal you, and the “Sie” form is the formal you. I think that for us North Americans, it might sometimes feel awkward for us to use “Sie” as we tend to be more casual. If I am not paying attention, I sometimes accidentally use the “du” form.

Perhaps using “du” for an English speaker feels more natural because we just have the one form of “you” in English (formal and informal, singular and plural).

When I was an exchange student in Köln back in 1994-1995, I addressed my school friends and other people my age using “du” and “ihr” (“ihr” being the informal you – kind of like y’all), my host families as “du” and “ihr” and everyone else as “Sie”. I was always a little surprised when my German friends’ parents were also included in the formal “Sie” category, but I knew that it was respectful to address older people as “Sie”.

I was more surprised that my German host mother always addressed her very good friend as “Sie”. When I asked her about it, she said that even though they had known each other for years, using “Sie” with each other was a sign of respect for her friend.

I think that the rules have relaxed since then. Our friend Rafael in Mannheim, who is our age, tells me that nearly everyone in his age group and younger uses “du” with each other (we are in our early thirties, in case anyone is wondering!). And indeed, I have definitely found this to be true.

In 2006, during the World Cup, I was in Hamburg with a group of German students. When my students were in their classes during the day, I spent much of the time with the other teachers at the school. Nearly all of them addressed each other using the informal “du”. One notable except was an older teacher, close to retirement age, who still insisted on using “Sie” with everyone. I asked him about it and he sighed a little, and told me he uses it as a sign of respect toward his colleagues. He said he wished the usage would continue but that he felt things are changing toward a more casual usage.

When I go into stores here, of course the formal “Sie” form is used between the clerk and me; the same goes for people I meet while on walks with Rosebud and for other people I don’t know. Rosebud, of course, is always addressed as “du” because she is a baby! And she will learn quickly that adults and possibly much older kids will be addressed using “Sie”.

I expected the “Sie” rule to hold true with our neighbors as well.
We live in a rowhouse; there are two other homes/families in our building. The other two families have children who are about our age, hence my expectation to use the formal “Sie”. Naturally I began our conversation with “Sie”. It’s always a safe bet to use “Sie”. I have been pleasantly surprised that soon after our initial meeting with both neighbors, we were accepted right away and we were “geduzt” fairly quickly into our conversation. (German has these two cool verbs: “duzen” – to call someone by the informal “du”, that is, to address someone informally; and “siezen” – to address someone with the formal “Sie”).

Although I like the respect shown when I’m addressed as “Sie”, it does please me that our neighbors feel comfortable addressing us with the “du/ihr” forms. Certainly they respect us (and have complimented me on my excellent German!), but I feel like the “du” usage means that we are accepted as good neighbors. I suppose, however, the blueberry muffins and black bottom cupcakes* I brought to the neighbors helped spread feelings of good will toward us, too!

For the Easter holiday, we will be traveling to Köln, where we will visit my German host families. I am really looking forward to it. Both of my German mothers only have sons, so when I came to them as an exchange student, they were thrilled to finally get their daughter. In one of the families, all three of the sons are married and have their own children but right now, they’re all living abroad (in the US and China). In the other family, neither of the sons are married. So you can imagine that both families are quite excited we’ll be visiting them for Easter. They can’t wait to meet their new “Enkelin”, Miss Rosebud. I’m glad that Rosebud will have German “grandparents”.

*Speaking of baked goods, my German oven has a convection oven feature in addition to the standard over/under heating element. I am gradually learning that the convection oven takes less time when baking. We’re also at an altitude of 682 meters (2238 feet). It’s not quite high enough to be considered high altitude for baking purposes, but close enough. One tip I’ve read is to reduce the leavening a little so I will be experimenting with my recipes. Do I have any taste-testers out there? 😉