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European Roots of German-American Dialects

This map shows the geographic distribution of German dialects in the first half of the twentieth century. Low German dialects are spoken in the green areas, and High German dialects are spoken in the brown areas. High German dialects are subdivided into Central (light brown) and Upper (dark brown) German dialects.

“Rollovers” on this map indicate where German dialects spoken in the United States originate. When you roll your mouse across the map, links to sound clips will appear. To listen to a clip, simply click on the link.

The Low German (Niederdeutsch) dialect area extended historically from the eastern Netherlands, across northern Germany into northern Poland and the Russian enclave around the city of Kaliningrad (Königsberg). Much of this territory was part of the kingdom of Prussia (Preußen). Today, there are few German speakers east of the German-Polish border. The major division within Low German is an East-West one. East Low German dialects include Pomeranian (Pommersch), the eastern (Ost) variety of which are widely spoken in Wisconsin. Examples of West Low German dialects include North Low Saxon (Nordniedersächsisch), Westphalian (Westfälisch), and Eastphalian (Ostfälisch).

The linguistic border (isogloss) that divides Low from High German dialects is known as the Benrath Line (named for a small community, now part of Düsseldorf, located near the line). High German dialects, south of the Benrath Line, show at least some effects of what is known as the Second (or High German) Consonant Shift (Zweite Lautverschiebung)

The various red lines running across the map are some of the numerous other isoglosses for sound and word differences that distinguish German dialects from one another.

The large High German area is divided into Central (Mittel) and Upper (Ober) German dialects. The east-west isogloss dividing Central and Upper German is known as the Speyer (or Germersheim) Line. Much of the southeastern Upper German area includes Bavarian-Austrian dialects (Bairisch-Österreichisch). In the southwest, the major dialect area is Alemannic (Alemannisch), which includes most Swiss German dialects, Swabian (Schwäbisch), and Alsatian (Elsässisch).

Straddling the Upper, Central, and Low German areas are dialects known as Franconian (Fränkisch). Pennsylvania Dutch is a form of Palatine German (Pfälzisch), which is located in the Rhenish-Franconian (Rheinfränkisch) area. The Luxembourgish language is linguistically Moselle Franconian (Moselfränkisch), while modern Dutch is historically descended from Low Franconian (Niederfränkisch).

map from: dtv-Atlas Deutsche Sprache, W. König,
H.-J. Paul (graphics). © 2004. Repr. by permission
of Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag

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Last Updated: October 27, 2010