So I have been living in Germany for several months at this point, particularly in the state of Bavaria, learning German along with some of its Southern variants. But, I have encountered something which did not quite sound like German, nor any of its variants I know about. Upon doing some bits of reading up, it turns out that this is a separate language that is rather unintelligible with German. You may now have known about it from reading the title, so let’s dive in!
Apart from some dialects of German spoken in certain regions of the state, it turns out that millions of Bavarian residents speak a West Germanic language known as Bavarian, or Bairisch, or Boarisch. While known for its use in some parts of Bavaria, Bavarian is also spoken in most parts of Austria, southern Czechia, and western Hungary, and even as far as Tyrol in Italy. This language is also spoken outside of Europe, particularly in some areas of Brazil, Peru, the United States, and Canada.
A language spoken by around 14 million people, Bavarian is split into three main dialects. Northern Bavarian, also known as Nordboarisch, is spoken primarily in the Upper Palatinate, as well as adjacent areas like Upper Franconia, Bayreuth, Saxony, and Upper and Lower Bavaria. Central Bavarian, or Mittelbairisch, is the dialect mainly spoken in Austria and Bavaria, or the areas straddling the main rivers Isar and Danube. While Viennese German, spoken in Vienna, Austria, is considered to be a subset of the Central Bavarian dialect, the German spoken in the Bavarian capital city of Munich is primarily Standard German. Lastly, we have Southern Bavarian, or Südbairisch, which is primarily spoken in the region of Tyrol in Austria and Italy, and Carinthia in Upper Styria, Austria.
Each dialect has their own special flair that could distinguish them from the other Bavarian dialects. For instance, Southern Bavarian preserved some characteristics of the Old Bavarian language from the Middle High German period, due to its relative geographical isolation in the Alpine region. This distinction could be made down to a smaller scale, as the accents of Carinthia, Tyrol, and Styria could supposedly be distinguished. For Central Bavarian, there is an east-west divide along the border between the Bavarian stem duchy and the later Duchy of Austria.
But for now, let us consider Bavarian as a whole language. How does it coexist with German, especially in Germany?
Standard German is the language of instruction in both Germany and Austria, and so younger speakers from strong Bavarian language backgrounds could speak German with a noticeable accent. With no instruction of reading and writing in the Bavarian language, there is no true set standard for its orthography. However, this does not stop the production of various Bavarian language media, literature, and songs. Even the official FC Bayern Munich website has a Bavarian language version.
The sounds of the Bavarian language range from dialect to dialect, and even from region to region, but it does, like other Germanic languages, have a lot of vowel sounds. Around a dozen distinguishable ones, in fact. Additionally, in some dialects, these vowels could be distinguished by nasality, tenseness, and length. Its consonant sounds are still quite similar to those in Standard German, though in dialects like that in South Tyrol, realise /k/ as an affricate [k͡x] word-initially and before /m, n, l, r/, a feature which is an extension of a linguistic event known as the High German consonant shift.
Bavarian and German have some differences in between them when it comes to grammar. While both have these noun cases, much like several other Germanic languages (and their Germanic roots), the way these cases are expressed differs. In German, while the article is the most well-known for being declined by case, gender, and number, certain noun patterns are also declined accordingly. Most of them occur in masculine nouns (like der Student, des Studenten), but some plural nouns may also have such declensions (like singular nominative der Berg, plural nominative die Berge, plural dative den Bergen). In Bavarian, however, save for a few exceptions, nouns are not inflected for case. Instead, case inflection only occurs for the article attached to the noun.
One unique characteristic for Bavarian verbs is the feature of a certain mood called the optative. This is a mood that conveys a speaker’s hopes, or wishes regarding a certain action. While it does sound quite similar to the subjunctive mood in some languages, the subjunctive and optative moods are distinct in Bavarian, with different conjugations for each mood. The optative can also be found in languages like Albanian, Armenian, and Kazakh.
While this has been an introductory dive into the Bavarian language in general, we might explore a bit more into the specific dialects in future coverage, especially Viennese German, something that seems really interesting for those interested in the regional variants of German.