Language

   Although there are small communities in Austria that claim Croatian, Hungarian, and especially Slovenian as their mother tongue, the preeminent language of the country is German. Behind that simple statement, however, lurks a very complex history that continues to stir up scholarly and public debate. Until the AustroPrussian War (1866), which nullified political ties of Habsburg rulers to German lands beyond its dynastic territories, most of the people living in what today is the Austrian national state regarded themselves as “German,” not only linguistically but ethnically and culturally. They recognized that they did not speak like residents of Hamburg, Cologne, or Berlin, but they accepted these differences as part of what it meant to be a German, regardless of the political boundaries that separated them.
   The reconfiguration of Austria as a national state after World War I made the issue of national language genuinely problematic; the question of whether “Austrian” and “German” are truly separate tongues is still raised, both on political and cultural grounds. The cause of treating “Austrian” as a language in its own right made considerable headway after the country’s Nazi interlude (1938–1945), when many people, some for moral reasons, some for quite sinister ones, tried to disassociate themselves from all German connections, linguistic ones included.
   Scholars today generally reject these arguments outright or qualify them to the point of meaninglessness. Specific Austrianisms exist, but not enough of them to constitute an independent language. Austrians, therefore, speak “German,” though a variant of the language heavily colored by two widely acknowledged dialectical variants: Alemannic in the Vorarlberg and in parts of the Tyrol and Bavarian, found throughout the entire country, but dominant in Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, Upper Austria, Lower Austria, and the Burgenland. These dialectal strains have nevertheless influenced the pronunciation, vocabulary, word formation patterns, and even grammar of Austrian speech, making it difficult for many North Germans to understand, at least on first hearing. Intonations do not fall on the same elements in words—for example, Austrians accent the last syllable in the word for coffee, Germans the first; Austrians form diminutives quite differently than their linguistic relatives to the north; and the Blumenkohl (cauliflower) that Germans put on their plates is Karfiol when Austrians eat it. The articles of nouns are not identical either, particularly in foreign borrowings.
   These differences are hardly fixed in stone, as standard North German patterns intrude more and more on local Austrian ones. The onetime Austrian salutation “Servus”(“your servant”), either in greeting or farewell, has all but surrendered to the German “tschüss” (“so long”). German will probably never be a unitary language, but its speakers have enough in common to recognize that they truly share a tongue. Regionalisms continue, however, to be a problem, especially for non-native speakers of German.. In 1994, three Austrian federal ministries inaugurated a program (OSD) that would train students and certify them as competent in everyday usage and comprehension of Austrian dialect forms. These courses are available at specific locations in several European countries and in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States.
   See also Wienerisch.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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