Before I came to Austria, I heard warnings from several people that the dialect would be strong, that I would struggle to understand anything. Most American universities teach a variation of High German from Berlin, which is quite different from Austrian German. But I actually had more exposure to Bavarian German: I lived near Munich with a host family for a month in high school, and when I worked as a translator for two young German boys, they spoke Bavarian German, which is quite close to Austrian German.
The problem is that it’s not quite the same as Bavarian: it’s like someone took that accent, intensified it, talked with a couple of marbles in their mouth, and then decided to cut out half the words. But don’t worry about it, it’s still technically German, ready set go!
My first day in Graz, I felt really proud of myself. I met my assigned buddy from my new university, and he took me on a tour of the city. I told him right away that I would prefer to speak in German instead of English, and he was happy to oblige. We walked all over the city, toured the campus, talked about our majors, and I had no problems aside from the occasional vocabulary question. He had a bit of an accent, sure, but it was hardly different from what I’d heard in Munich. I just had to convince my brain to flip on all my German switches for the next five months and I’d be golden.
Then we ran into one of my buddy’s friends. And I swear they started speaking another language. Except it wasn’t another language: THAT was Austrian. After their conversation ended my buddy told me that guess what, he’d been speaking super proper High German this whole time, except that’s not how people talk to each other unless they’re in an academic or formal setting. No, I would usually be hearing the unintelligible jibber-jabber he’d just used with his friend.
Oh. Well then.
Thanks to my pre-semester German course, where our teacher incorporated some slang and expressions every day, I’ve managed to adjust well enough to the dialect. But sometimes I still feel hopelessly lost, usually when another student uses common slang with a heavy accent.
For example, in class we went over this tiny dialogue:
“Ich bin heute müde / I’m tired today.”
“Ja, ich ohnehin auch / Yeah, me too.”
Except that nobody actually says that last part like that. They shorten the “ohnehin” into just “eh,” but then the collective Austrian public decided that the rest of the sentence was still too long so they say just “i e a.” Pronounced “ee ay ah” with complete sincerity, like three vowels is an acceptable substitute for a complete sentence.
Other times I understand the general meaning just fine but have to figure out from context what words are strictly Austrian. It took me a long time to realize that here, “net” is actually “nicht / not,” as opposed to “nett / nice.”
Overall the dialect has been a lot of fun; I smile whenever I hear words like “a bissell” instead of “ein bisschen” and “zwo” instead of “zwei.” I buy “Zwetschen, Marillen, and Paradeiser” in the supermarket instead of “Pflaume (plums), Aprikose (apricots), and Tomaten (tomatoes)”. I’m not sure how far I’ll get, but my goal when I return to the US is to be able to speak like a proper improper Austrian, marbles in my mouth and all. I think that would be really something to be proud of, although my professors might say otherwise!