When learning German, you’ll notice that native speakers say some words that might not be in your textbook. That’s because spoken vs. written German can have significant differences.
Depending on the region, the formality of the situation, and the group’s age, you can recognise many variations in speaking patterns in the German language.
In addition to standard Hochdeutsch, there are also Swiss, Austrian, Bavarian, Upper Saxon, Low German, and Pennsylvania “Dutch” dialects. Luckily, you only need to learn standard German, and there are four primary differences between written and spoken forms.
First is the phonetic difference, or how a word is spelled compared to how you speak it. The second difference you’ll encounter is abbreviations, and Germans love abbreviations and use them in everyday language and conversation.
Then, I’ll show you German filler words that don’t have a particular translatable meaning but improve your speaking fluency substantially. Finally, I’ll introduce you to German slang and colloquial phrases that differentiate spoken language and written German.
Most German textbooks don’t teach you these intricacies of speaking the language, but they’re absolutely essential for learning the spoken language.
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4 Main Differences Between Spoken vs. Written German
#1 German Phonetics
Compared to English, German has a considerably more uniform phonetic system. German words nearly always sound the way they're written, and the tones tend to be coherent for any spelling. Typically, the only exceptions are foreign terms in other languages like French or English.
But if German pronunciation is so straightforward, why are the words so challenging to understand when you're learning German and listening to a native speaker?
If you’re used to speaking English, you may have trouble identifying the German vowels, consonants, and letter combination sounds in the beginning. These vowel and consonant combinations are called diphthongs.
Let’s look at the most common letter combinations and their pronunciations.
|g (at end)||k||Weg – ‘vayk’||away|
|h||silent||Gehen – ‘gay-en’||to go|
|qu||kv||Quiz – ‘kviz’||quiz|
|s||sch||Student – ‘schtu-dent’||student|
|v||f||Vater – ‘fah-ter’||father|
|th||t||Theater – ‘tay-ah-ter’||theater|
|w||v||Warum – ‘va-room’||why|
|z||ts||Zeit – ‘tsait’||time|
Another difference you’ll notice about spoken German compared to written German is that the ‘e’ is often dropped from the first-person singular verb.
- Written: Ich habe Zeit. (I have time.)
- Spoken: Ich hab Zeit. (I have time.)
This aspect of the spoken language is known as “swallowing the vowel.”
- Written: Ich gehe zur Arbeit. (I go to work.)
- Spoken: Ich geh zur Arbeit. (I go to work.)
Sometimes, Germans also drop the ‘e’ in the first-person plural when speaking.
- Written: Wir sehen dich. (We see you.)
- Spoken: Wir sehn dich. (We see you.)
These examples apply to standard high German, but other local dialects, like the Swiss dialect, have different pronunciations. When pronouncing German words, you only need to learn the standard rules. Germans from other regions will still understand you perfectly if you speak standard German, even if they speak a different dialect.
#2 Abbreviations and Shortened Words In German
In written German, you’ve probably encountered abbreviations, acronyms, and merged words that bring your reading to a halt. When you see an abbreviation, you should read it aloud just as you pronounce the entire word.
These abbreviations could be due to the German language having so many long words or simply an efficient and practical shortcut. Either way, your fluency will improve once you learn how to pronounce the abbreviations below.
|d.h.||das heißt||‘das-hiyst’||That means|
|usw.||und so weiter||‘unt-so-weye-ter’||And so on|
Germans also use abbreviations for measurements, country names, companies, broadcasting stations, newspapers, universities, organizations, and political parties.
Acronyms are like abbreviations, but you pronounce them as words.
|DaF||Deutsch als Fremdsprache||‘dahf’||German as a foreign language|
|NATO||NATO||‘nah-to’||North Atlantic Treaty Organization|
|TÜV||Technischer Überwachungsverein||‘tioov’||German department of motor vehicles|
|UFO||UFO||‘ooo-fo’||Unidentified Flying Object|
Other German nouns are shortened in spoken colloquial language. During a casual conversation, you might hear the following written words spoken differently.
These words are called syllabic abbreviations or Silbenkurzwörter. By taking the first letters of longer words, Germans have created new, shorter words.
These are just a few German abbreviations that make the language more convenient and fun to speak. Now you know them, they won't sound strange when you speak German with natives!
#3 German Filler Words
Another difference between written and spoken German is the presence of filler words.
Filler words are words that don’t serve an essential purpose in the sentence. Instead, these terms add emphasis and character to a sentence.
In English we also have these words, known as modal particles, that help express tone, such as “like,” “just,” or “so.”
Although filler words may seem insignificant, they serve a critical purpose when getting your point across. You can also add politeness to your requests with these words to avoid sounding rude.
|doch||after all, on the contrary (contradiction)|
|mal||add before a command to sound friendlier|
A few examples will help you understand how to use filler words in conversational sentences.
- Example 1: Äh, was soll ich dazu sagen? (Uh, what should I say?)
- Example 2: Also, gehen wir bald? (So, are we going soon?)
- Example 3: Es ist doch nicht so gut. (It’s not so good after all.)
- Example 4: Ich kann halt nicht warten. (I just can’t wait.)
- Example 5: Komm mal her. (Come over here.)
- Example 6: Das ist schon komisch. (That is pretty strange.)
- Example 7: Tja, das ist schade. (Well, that’s a shame.)
Filler words give your spoken German a better flow so that you don’t talk like a robot. Most importantly, these words help you sound more fluent, allowing native speakers to feel more comfortable having informal conversations with you.
But remember to reserve filler words for casual encounters and avoid using them in written texts or formal situations.
#4 Slang & Colloquial Phrases
German slang can vary between regions, but there are many frequently used phrases many Germans use universally. After you learn these colloquial German words and phrases, you’ll be turning heads, impressing native speakers with your fluency.
|auf jeden Fall||‘ouf-yay-den-fall’||definitely|
|Bock haben||‘bawk-hah-bin’||feel like|
|geil||‘gai-el’||cool, nice, great|
|jein||‘yain’||yes and no|
|Quasi||‘kvah-zee’||in a way|
|sozusagen||‘so-tsu-sahg-en’||so to speak|
|stimmt’s?||‘schtimtz’||is that right?|
When you’re ready to wrap up the conversation, say goodbye with a mach’s gut (have a good one).
Spoken German Conversation With Colloquialisms
The slang word, Alter, is typically only used among teens and young adults.
- Example: Alter, was geht? (Dude, what’s up?)
You can use auf jeden Fall enthusiastically to say, “absolutely.” This phrase pairs well with Bock haben.
- Example: Auf jeden Fall haben wir Bock zum Konzert zu gehen. (We definitely feel like going to the concert.)
Depending on how the evening unfolds, it could be der Hammer or bescheuert.
- Example: Die Musik war bescheuert, aber das Essen war der Hammer. (The music was awful, but the food was amazing.)
You can express your reactions using colloquial words like geil, krass, and wahnsinnig.
- Example: Krass! Ich habe gehȍrt, das Hotel war geil, stimmmt’s? (Incredible! I heard the hotel was nice. Is that right?)
One of the funniest ways to answer a question in German is with jein, which means yes and no.
- Example: Jein, das Zimmer war schon groß, aber das Personal war quasi unfreundlich. (Yes and no. The room was large, but the staff was kind of unfriendly.
Using quasi and sozusagen are two ways to say, “kind of.”
- Example: Wahnsinnig! Naja, zumindest war der Abend kein totalverlust. (Crazy! Well, at least the evening wasn’t a total loss.)
While it’s unnecessary to use slang words in every sentence, adding a few here and there can help your spoken German sound less rigid and more natural.
Depending on the group you are with, and where you are in Germany, you may hear some slang terms more than others.
Final Thoughts On Spoken German
I hope you enjoyed learning about the subtle nuances of spoken vs. written German. Once you can spot the differences, understanding spoken German becomes considerably easier.
The written language tends to be more formal and more appropriate in academic or professional settings. On the other hand, spoken German between friends or during casual situations can sound very different.
When speaking German informally, it’s common to use shortcuts like dropping the final ‘e,’ using abbreviations, or combining words.
Using these shortcuts and filler words makes your speaking more expressive and helps others understand the emotions behind your words.
If you want to sound more fluent, try introducing some slang and colloquial expressions into your sentences.
And look out for them in your German conversations or when you watch German movies or German TV shows. They'll soon become second nature as you immerse yourself in German. Before you know it, you'll also understand regional dialects too.
Until next time, mach’s gut!