Flag of the Free State of Saxony (Federal state of the German Federal Republic)

Three-quarters two

Flag of the Free State of Saxony (Federal state of the German Federal Republic)
Flag of the Free State of Saxony

I got some odd looks today for using the local dialect’s way of phrasing the time.  But I don’t care for Standard German and don’t think I should be expected to use it.

I have to go back a few years first.  I started learning German in 2004.  Most of it I learned at the Goethe Institute in Jerusalem and on my visits to Germany.  I learned very quickly, and by the time I moved here in 2007, I spoke fluently, but with a bunch of mistakes.

Since then my accent has improved – Germans don’t immediately notice I’m a foreigner – and I’ve learned to make less obvious mistakes and to speak more naturally.  People often tell me how great my German is, but it’s my understanding that people are wrong in making language learning out to be some high intellectual achievement to be praised and awed at.

I’m pretty sure the reason I learned German so quickly is first, I grew up a bilingual (English+Hebrew,) giving me an unfair head-start on language-learning, and second, I managed to experience a lot of total immersion in a very short time by visiting Germany for weeks at a time and by hearing German-language music (yes, it was mainly Rammstein.  Excellent for learners, very clear singing!)

Anyway, I’ve tried to learn a few language since, and I’ve never been quite as successful as I was with German, although I’ve picked up useful learning habits.  (Pro-tip: just speak, even if you hardly know any words and grammar.  Speaking badly is the only way you will ever learn to speak well!)

High German, Upper Saxon

The situation with the standard language, in Germany as in most places in Europe, is this: there’s a more-or-less official standard language, and people are expected to use it in formal situations.  Every region – down to the town level – has its own variant of German, some dialects being close to Standard German (called Hochdeutsch, “high German”) and some very different from it.  There are also some new urban dialects created by contact with immigrant languages.

Schools teach Hochdeutsch as the One True German and penalize children for speaking German the way people actually speak it at home.  Adults are often judged, consciously or unconsciously, on their ability or inability to speak Standard German, with certain dialects having an especially bad reputation.

The basic reason people tend to use a standard language or language variety and consider it important is that it gives them access to a broader range of people to communicate with, because it’s not specific to one place.  This can be very important if you’re in politics, business, or academe – incidentally the areas where the standard language is most important.

The way I learned German is mainly by speaking and hearing it and trying to imitate what I heard.  I quickly forgot most of what I learned in German class and started operating on intuition.  After moving to Leipzig, I grew to really like the local dialect (a variety of Upper Saxon – the best variety, that is) and started consciously learning to speak it.

At some point, pretty early in my living here, I was already able to have complex discussions in Hochdeutsch, so long as they were about education, but for lack of practice, I was no good at casual conversation.  So I started applying myself to learning how people who live here talk in normal social situations, and this made my German even more Säcksch (that’s pronounced [zecksh] or [zeggsh], and it’s how we call Upper Saxon, which in Hochdeutsch they call Sächsisch, pronounced [zeck●sish]). 1

Dry Furdl!

Now, Säcksch is, if not the least-liked German dialect, then one of them, and it has a very recognizable accent which anyone who lives here for a while learns to love.  What’s more, it’s strongly associated with the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR), a.k.a “Communist East Germany”.

One noticable thing about Säcksch – together with many other variants of German – is the way we phrase the time.  8:15pm is fördl neun, pronounced approximately [fur●dl noyn], meaning ‘a quarter of nine’.  8:45 would be dreifördl neun, [dry●fur●dl noyn], ‘three-quarters nine’.

This is extremely confusing if you’re used to saying viertel nach acht and viertel vor neun, i.e.  ‘a quarter after eight’ and ‘a quarter before nine’, respectively, as in Hochdeutsch.  But it’s the way I’ve come to speak, without having to think about it, and I speak this way because it’s the most effective way for me to communicate with the people around me.  It signals my familiarity with the language and my control of its subtleties in a way that’s literally impossible in pure Standard German, simply because every native speaker has a bit of their own dialect.

But most of all, it’s the way I speak, and I’m not about to learn some sterile, artificial version of German on top of the one I already speak just to accommodate people who aren’t familiar with Säcksch.  Due to the dominance of Hochdeutsch, it’s not even really Säcksch anymore, just Hochdeutsch with bit of an accent and some occasional regional word.  Students who move to Leipzig for the low cost of living and nearly-free education should learn to speak the language here, and as for foreigners like me, learning to speak the way locals do is the most natural and reasonable thing we could do – even if native speakers think it’s funny.

Footnotes

  1. The pronunciation keys in the [skwer bra●kits] are supposed to be read as though they were American English.  This gives roughly the right pronunciation.  The ● thing means “syllable boundary”, and the stressed syllable is bolded.  If that last sentence is “all Greek to you”, don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter. []

5 thoughts on “Three-quarters two”

  1. This is a really fun post, Michael. I find the politics around language usage fascinating. Your post reminded me of a great book I read recently called “You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity” by Robert Lane Greene. He’s a journalist, not a linguist, and talks about how history, politics, race, economics and power shapes language usage around the world. I’m with you on embracing regional language variations and the richness of everyday speech. That’s the living, creative language of people.

  2. One more thing: I’m glad that I know a little German, enough to get the time example you use. I love fordl neun and dreifordl neun. So efficient and fun to say. Is there a difference between Hochdeutsch and Sacksch for the half hour?

    1. No, both use the “halb neun” format (for those who aren’t familiar: 8:30 is expressed as “half nine”.)
      But I think there’s some regional variation involved in how often people use a half-hour as a reference point, i.e. say things like “fünf vor halb neun” (five before half nine, meaning 8:25.) That format is common here, and you can even use (drei)viertel as a reference point, i.e. “fünf vor dreiviertel neun” for 8:40.