Transcript S1E7: The Duden

Here is the transcript of S1E7: The Duden. You can read more about this episode on the episode web page.

This transcript has been edited for readability.


LG = Luke Green
MG = Manfred Glauninger


LG: When we need to look up a word in English, there are many different dictionaries that we can turn to. Oxford, Cambridge, Collins, Merriam-Webster, the list goes on. For German, there is also a number of different resources we can use, but there is one that is arguably more important than all the rest – the Duden. In fact, if someone has to look something up, you’re often likely to hear them say they’re going to check it specifically in the Duden than simply in the Wörterbuch, the dictionary. What is the Duden? Why is the Duden so important and highly regarded in the German-speaking world? And how does it deal with the variation that you find within German? That’s what we’re talking about today. And before we get into it, this episode isn’t sponsored by anyone. It is not intended to be an advertisement for the Duden, nor for any other resources that are mentioned. Any opinions you hear in this episode are the opinions of that speaker only. Also, listen to the end of this episode to hear some of my favourite words that were taken out of the Duden last year. So that’s enough intro stuff, let’s crack on with the show.

[Theme music]

This is Yellow of the Egg. The podcast where German is the word of the day every day. I’m Luke Green and this is episode seven, The Duden.

[Theme music]

MG: Well, it’s the most important, I guess, dictionary in the German-speaking world. It has a range of different dictionaries, orthography, grammar, etymology, synonyms, and so on and so on. And it has a very very important online- a website, which is used by millions of users every day. And you can say the Duden is, really, it’s the most important dictionary of the German language.

LG: Manfred Glauninger is a sociolinguist from the German department at the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He is also the head of the Austrian committee of the Duden, which is an advisory board of experts who are consulted in matters regarding which words are included in the Duden.

MG: Well, a dictionary has to decide, yeah, what word is included and what word is not included. As a linguist I say it’s a very very big problem to decide standard and non-standard because in the language use, and in everyday language use of the people, you can’t cut a sharp line. But as a dictionary, you have to decide. And so the Duden board, or the editors’ board, they decide in the end which stuff gets into the Duden and which is not included.

LG: Like many of the dictionaries we use today, the Duden collects information about how language is used from corpora, which are large collections of texts where you can see which words are being used by speakers of a language, how they are being used, how frequently they occur, and so on.

MG: And the Duden has software programmes running through these corpora day and night. And if there are any words, any new words, in the press, in the media, or wherever in these corpora, then they are marked. And the decision if new words will come into the Duden is made by the editorial board in Germany. So I think maybe three, four times a year, they come together, and based on the material, on the corpus material, they have discussions, should we put it into the Duden in the next edition or should we not.

LG: This is at least how it is done nowadays, with the help of modern technology that we can use to collect and analyse massive amounts of data relatively quickly and easily before the final decisions are made by humans. But the Duden goes back to the 19th century when the very first version was compiled, and so there were no large electronic corpora to use. Let’s go back to where it all began, to the person who started it all – and who gave the Duden its name.

MG: It’s named after a teacher, or a school master, a headmaster, in the 19th century, Konrad Duden, who was interested in orthography in these days, and who made the first Duden dictionary in 1880 in Germany. And so the dictionary is named after Konrad Duden.

LG: Konrad Duden called his dictionary the Vollständiges Orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, the ‘Complete Orthographical Dictionary of the German Language’. This dictionary went on to form the basis for standardised spelling in German for the first time. It came shortly after the German Empire was established at the beginning of the 1870s. This new German empire was the result of the unification of Germany from 39 individual sovereign states to one single state. Because the German Empire was now one state…

MG: …there was an interest to unify the orthography of German, you know. And Duden was first in place, I think, and he became really very soon the most important man, the player, in this game of orthography. And in 1900, 1901, 1902, there was a conference for orthography of German where all the German-speaking countries were at this conference, and they decided to base the orthography of Germany on Duden’s rules, on Duden’s dictionary.

LG: It was only after Duden’s death in 1911 that the new editions of his dictionary actually carried the name Duden in the title. And to this day, the Duden has remained the main reference work for all things concerning not only German spelling, but also grammar, pronunciation, pretty much every aspect of language where you have rules to stick to. Even if the Duden is not intended to be a purely prescriptive resource…

MG: …it’s perceived as the authority for the German language. For the, as the people think, for the right usage of the German, of the correct usage of the German language.

LG: Resources that have a prescriptive nature are used to regulate language use. They tell us what is considered correct, accurate, and grammatical. But in order for this to be possible, there has to be some kind of model that this is based on. As with many languages, German is highly varied, and you will hear many accents and dialects of German depending on the region you’re in, the people you talk to or the context you find yourself in.

MG: The Duden is a dictionary of standard language. The Duden is not interested to look at a dialect. It’s interested in standard German. But that’s not as simple as it may look like. First of all, the standard German is divided within different varieties: Austrian standard German, German standard German, Switzerland standard German. That’s the first thing. And the second problem is that you can’t draw a sharp line between standard and non-standard. You know, colloquial language. It’s fuzzy, sometimes it tends to get near to the standard, sometimes it gets near to dialect. So the Duden represents standard German, but it includes sometimes colloquial words and dialectal words. But that’s the- the exception.

LG: Where there are words in the Duden that are not considered standard German, they are marked as being colloquial, or as being dialectal. For instance, if you look up the word Goschen, which means ‘mouth’, you will see that it is marked with the labels landschaftlich salopp, meistens abwertend, which means ‘regional, casual, and mostly derogatory’. Whereas if you look up Mund, which also means ‘mouth’, you don’t get any of these extra labels. This allows us to assume that if there are no extra labels, the word is standard, and if there are these extra labels, we are dealing with some kind of variant, maybe something that is regionally specific. But how do we decide what belongs to standard German? What even is standard German?

MG: Yeah, that’s the question. You know, as a linguist in science there are no definitions which are not questionable, you know? Every definition in science is from a specific perspective, from a specific background, and so is standard language. You can define it as the variety which is used in public, which is used at school, for instance. This is one definition for standard language. But you can also have the definition that standard language is what is used in specific situations out of school or out of science and so on. There are different definitions and the Duden, I think, is very fixed on the written usage, written language in texts of the media, in texts of laws, and so on. So I think mainly the idea of standard language which is represented by the Duden is the written language in specific domains.

LG: And not only is the Duden largely based on written language, but for a long time it was very Germany-centric. To the point where even today, words that belong to the German standard are generally not marked, but words that belong to the Austrian or the Swiss standard, for example, are marked as being Austrian or Swiss. If you take the German words for ‘bread roll’, you can see this. If you go onto the online Duden and look up Brötchen, which as a term is much more common in Germany, you will see that this word does not have any extra labels concerning where it’s used. But if you look up Semmel, which belongs to the Austrian standard, it is labelled besonders österreichisch, bayrisch, so ‘especially Austrian, Bavarian’.

MG: German German is not marked. That’s an interesting thing. Ok, if there is a word or a phrase which is definitely only in Germany, only in Germany used, then it would be marked. But there are not as many words only used in Germany as you may think. That’s the reality. Because, you know, we are living in the European Union. Austria and Germany, for instance, they are cooperated in economic and in other domains very very close. We have the media, we have the internet. So German German is in Austria every- at every place, and every- every day Austrians perceive German German. And they use it also. So there are few words or phrases only in Germany used. But if there might be such a word, it would be marked in the Duden. Germany, only Germany. Austrian standard German is marked in the Duden with the marker ‘Austrian’, ‘Austrian standard German’. And so is Swiss standard German.

LG: So even though Austria and Switzerland have their own standard varieties, they still receive this extra marking that you are much less likely to see with words belonging to the German German standard. And these markings, however small, carry a lot of weight and can make all the difference. Especially since the Duden has such a high status as being the authority in all things German language. As an example of this, there was a young boy in Switzerland who failed a school entrance exam because he used three words that the teacher considered non-standard, and so they were counted as three mistakes. These words were Güggel, meaning ‘chicken’, hockt, meaning ‘sits’, and Schopf, meaning ‘shed’. The boy’s father took the latest edition of the Duden and showed the teacher that the words were listed as Swiss, but that there was no marking that the words were non-standard. Because the Duden is considered such an authority, even down to such small markings, the teacher reversed the decision and the boy passed the exam. Still, even though technically these words are not marked as being non-standard, in the eyes of the layperson, the fact that they are marked as Swiss at all is a sign that they do not belong to the one standard variety of German, if there even is such a thing. The fact that standard Austrian and standard Swiss words are marked, but standard German German words are not, might not sound important, but it has the effect that people believe that German German is the main variety, and that words and phrases belonging to Austrian and Swiss German are simply dialectal.

MG: Definitely. Only linguists, this is my opinion, I saw it and I see it in my linguistic work for years. Only linguists make the difference between different standard varieties. People, the people who are speaking German, don’t make this difference. If they perceive a word as Austrian in the Duden, 99%, 99% would think this is dialectal. That’s a fact.

LG: And this isn’t just German German speakers’ view of Austrian expressions. These extra labels and the idea that German German is the main variety also contribute to how Austrian German speakers view their own varieties.

MG: I would say that the Austrians think that Austrian German is dialect. The people, the speakers, think the specific Austrian German is dialect. They don’t think of standard German, you know. That’s a problem, and for decades some linguists and some politics have tried to establish Austrian standard German. And it’s established within the discourse of linguistics and the discourse of politics and so on, but it’s not established in the mind of the speakers. They don’t know anything about Austrian standard German. They confuse it, there’s a fuzziness between standard and dialect and German standard and so on and so on. So Austrians think that the specific Austrian German is their dialect.

LG: And not only are the words and phrases marked as being regionally specific if they come from the Austrian or Swiss standard, there are even whole works in the Duden collection that are dedicated to Austrian and Swiss German.

MG: We have in Switzerland, and also in Austria, a specific volume of the Duden. Austrian standard and Swiss standard. It’s the Austrian Duden: Wie sagt man in Österreich?.

LG: Examples of words that are included in this specifically Austrian Duden are Karfiol, ‘cauliflower’, which would be Blumenkohl in other regions, or Paradeiser, ‘tomato’, an Austrian word for Tomate. In fact, there are some words included in this book, like Laberl, which is an Austrian word for Laibchen, a burger or a patty, that cannot even be found in the regular Duden at all, in this case in the online Duden. They’re not even included with a marking saying that they’re specifically Austrian, or colloquial, or anything. And again, there isn’t one work specifically for the German German standard, there isn’t a Wie sagt man in Deutschland. Why not though? Well, because still today, German German is the face of the German language. It’s the variety that sort of stands for German in general.

MG: Yeah, of course. That’s one of the most discussed problems in linguistics. German represents the German language in the perception of the world, in the perception of the German-speaking peoples, too. And of course, the Austrian know they speak a different German, and they are also proud of their different German. But as I mentioned before, they think it’s a dialect. And if the discussion goes to standard German, then most people, first thing they are thinking about is Germany. Germany represents the German language.

LG: It can’t do much to boost confidence in the legitimacy of your own language variety if you speak Austrian or Swiss German, and then the dictionary that is considered the main authority of your language is so centred on Germany. That’s not to say the Duden is the only dictionary available in places outside of Germany, though.

MG: In Austria we also have the Austrian dictionary, Österreichisches Wörterbuch. And of course, the Austrian dictionary, if you look at its history, it’s the official dictionary of Austrian standard German. It was built up in the 1950s as a symbol for Austrian national identity. You know, after World War II there was nation-building in Austria, Austria has to build a nation, Austrian nation, in a distance from Germany, of course. And so they made the Austrian dictionary as a symbol for that national identity.

LG: And this Österreichisches Wörterbuch is going fairly strong and is very widely distributed. For example…

MG: If you go to school you have to, you get an Austrian dictionary. For free, it’s interesting, you get it for free in school.

LG: In fact, the Österreichisches Wörterbuch forms the official basis for definitions and spelling in Austria. And in the event that there is a conflict between the Duden and the Austrian dictionary, for instance with regards to a definition, the Austrian dictionary has precedence in Austria. After the Second World War, the Duden had no legal basis at all in Austria. But even despite all this, despite the fact that the Austrian dictionary is distributed in schools for free, despite the fact that it’s a dictionary that presents Austrian standard German, despite the fact that it’s the official authority for Austrian German, it’s still just not the Duden.

MG: Until today the Duden is more important, and it has more prestige, even in the eyes of the Austrian speakers, than the Austrian dictionary. And the other problem is, the Austrian dictionary is not online, and that, I think, is the most important problem. They have a- some kind of a CD, I think, if you buy the dictionary you get a CD, and you can get online and so on. But it’s not user-friendly, you know. And so the fact is, I would say, 99% of the Austrians, if they have any questions, they go online on the Duden. They don’t use the Austrian dictionary.

LG: Despite its issues, the Duden is an incredibly successful and prestigious resource that is used all around the German-speaking world. And even though there’s room for improvement in terms of how different standard varieties, or even different varieties in general, are treated in the Duden, things are going in the right direction. And there’s increasingly more representation for varieties that are not simply German German.

MG: Yeah, since, I think, thirty, forty years, it’s very balanced. And they try to be fair with the Austrian standard German, for instance. They ask us every year, they send us a list of new words, should they get into the Duden or should they not, are they Austrian-specific or are they not, and we discuss it in our committee. And they listen [to] what we say. So I think it’s- Nowadays it’s really fair. Swiss standard German and Austrian standard German are very well represented in the Duden nowadays.

LG: And not only that. We can’t forget that German is not only spoken in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but is also the official language in a number of other countries, too.

MG: Yeah, you know, German is also official language in the east parts of Belgium. It is official language in South Tirol, in the south- Italy part of Tirol. Of course, it’s official language in Liechtenstein. And if there’s any words or phrases coming from these places, they will be represented in the Duden, too. Liechtenstein, for example, the Swiss board deals with Liechtenstein, you know, it’s included, Liechtenstein and Switzerland is, for the- for the board, for the advisory board, included in Switzerland. And South Tirol we are dealing, in Austria, we are dealing with South Tirol, too. If there are any words, German words, used in South Tirol, the Austrian German committee will deal with these words and we’d say to the Duden in Germany, “include this word as a specific word or phrase of South Tirol”.

LG: Of course, we have dictionaries in English, and we have dictionaries that are more prestigious than others, and many resources that document words and expressions from different varieties of English. But do we have anything quite like the Duden for English?

MG: I don’t think so because, OK, the Oxford English Dictionary is a very very important dictionary, as you know. But I think it doesn’t have the status like the Duden, because the English-speaking world is so huge. There are so many different cultures and peoples talking in English, speaking English. So I think there’s no way that one source, one dictionary, for the English language can play the role as the Duden plays in the German-speaking world. I think there’s, from this side, there is no comparable dictionary source.

[Music - drums]

LG: There are always new words entering the Duden. At the same time though, with each edition, there are always words that are removed, usually because they fall out of practice or are not considered relevant enough to be kept in the latest edition. Here’s a selection of five of my favourite words that were removed from the Duden in 2020.

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Number 5, a word that I can barely pronounce: Wolfsrachen. This is an old word for a ‘cleft palate’. It literally means ‘wolf’s pharynx’ or ‘wolf’s jaw’. So if you had a cleft palate, you had the jaw of a wolf. Nowadays you’d probably just hear the term Kieferspalte, so a ‘jaw cleft’.

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Number 4: Grillenhaftigkeit. This means ‘freakishness’ or ‘whimiscalness’. If something is grillenhaft, it’s ‘capricious’ or ‘freakish’. It comes from the word Grille, which can mean a cricket or a maggot, but can also mean 'whimsy' or 'fancy'. Interestingly, the English word maggot also has the meaning of ‘fancy’ or ‘whimsy’, although this is used only very rarely.

[Music effect]

Number 3: Saugrob. Usually used to describe surfaces or fabrics, it literally translates as ‘pig rough’, and means ‘very rough’.

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Number 2: Hochzeitsbitter. This is a wedding inviter. The reason I like this is because it sounds like you’re bitter about a wedding.

[Music effect]

Number 1: Mannbar. Literally manable. This is an adjective. And when it refers to male people, it means they are sexually mature. They are able to be men. But it can also refer to female people, and in this case, it means that they are marriageable, so they are able to be married, or they are able to conceive children. Just let that sink in. If a woman is able to get married and/or have children, she is mannbar, she is ‘manable’. I wonder why this word fell out of practice.

[Theme music]

LG: Thank you so much to Manfred Glauninger for joining me for this episode. You can find out more about him and his work by going to the podcast website,, and going to the page for this episode. You’ll also be able to find the transcript for this episode there as well.

As always, you can get in touch with me via Instagram @YOTEPodcast, Y-O-T-E-Podcast, or by email at, and I would be absolutely delighted if you could take just a couple of moments to leave a little review and a 5-star rating to show your appreciation for this podcast. That would help me out a lot. And please spread the word. Tell your friends, tell your colleagues, tell your neighbours. That would really really really help.

So with all that being said, thank you so much for listening, and until next time, machts es gut, servus aus Wien.

[Theme music]

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