The Viennese have constructed many walls against hostile contacts from the outside world. One asset in particular has proven itself a trusty weapon: the German language, that was forever condemned by American author Mark Twain with the words “Life is too short to learn German.” His stay in Vienna was brief, which was probably just as well, as we take things to another level here: The few brave souls who dare to face the core-language have, at some point, to face the local dialect, the Final Frontier.
Viennese is like a famous pop song that gets remixed and newly recorded so many times that the original version is barely recognizable.
Life’s Too Short to Learn Viennese
Germans surely have many flaws, one of which, it’s sad to say, is a lack of self-reflection: They aren’t even aware, for example, of the limits of their language. We Viennese have at least identified the problem and, as a solution, have added a soft and cozy layer of sweetness over a voice that, in its original form, sounds like a drill sergeant punishing his men to an extra hour of pushups. People from all over the world who move to Vienna and bravely take on the cold winds and gray skies of the city and the quirkiness of the local population soon find out that the months and years in German class are pretty much worthless once they hit the streets and try to order a Käsekrainer at their local Würstelstand.
Like Sisyphus, they’ve rolled that heavy rock called B-level German up a hill only to find out that there is an even bigger and sturdier boulder waiting for them on what they thought was the top. The Viennese dialect doesn’t only add page after page to an already packed vocabulary binder, it also overrides grammar rules as well as phonetics. “A”s turn into “O”s (“olles” instead of “alles”), sentences consist of two verbs instead of one (“Tust eh kochen?” instead of “Kochst du?”) and vowels are stretched out so long that your Melange might have gotten cold before you finish a sentence.
Once again, however, we can put at least part of the blame on the foreigners who keep invading our migrant city in the heart of Europe: After all, not only did they bring their (admittedly delicious) food and (also delicious) coffee with them, but they sneaked in words from their mother tongues and spliced them into the Viennese dialect. It might come as a shock to many locals, but some of our most common Viennese words actually are of foreign descent: Tschick (cigarette) originates from the French word chique (meaning chewing tobacco), Kukuruz (corn) comes from Slavic or Hungarian and the term Beisl (local restaurant) stems from the Yiddish word bajis (meaning house). And of course that Melange, which, like Trottoir (sidewalk) or Plafond (ceiling) I fear we have to credit to the French.
A Hassle Worth the Effort
If you are really struggling with all of that, here is some comforting news: The Viennese dialect has retreated noticeably in recent decades. It shares the fate of many dialects that suffer in a globalized world, where not only we can buy the same clothes from the same stores from Buenos Aires to Bangkok, but mispronounce them just as badly in the process.
Still, as dialects are an important part of any culture, they are worth treasuring – even if they can be a frustrating obstacle at first. Austrians, in particular, have been holding on to their dialects as Frodo to Mordor’s ring, to differentiate themselves from their big brother across that border to the north. The same can be said about the Irish and the Scots, as well as people from Latin America or Quebec who struggle for recognition on the world stage.
As with every other quirky attribute of the Viennese, there are at least two ways for newcomers to deal with this: Fight it and be forever miserable, or, indulge it and join the fun. The latter is hard to accomplish without at least understanding some basic Viennese, as the legendary Schmäh (our ironic local humor) is fueled by the dialect. In every situation of daily life, locals shoot out witty one-liners that always seem to hit the spot – and often a soft one.
This collateral damage is widely accepted and easy to get away with, as one can always say that it was just a joke and you (the victim) would be stuck up to not laugh about it. Translating the Schmäh to high German (or any other language) is, of course, impossible, and if you ask a Viennese to explain what just happened, he’ll just wave his hand and return to your polite, shallow conversation, while everyone else is still shaking with laughter.
However, it is absolutely possible to get by in Vienna without speaking a word of Viennese – but once you master the dialect, the world’s most livable city all of a sudden turns into a stage where everyone is a (marginally talented) stand-up comedian. Your waiter lets you wait for half an hour? Sit back and enjoy the show while he makes fun of other guests. The Bim driver shuts the door right in front of your nose? Have a giggle with the guy next to you who is shouting a hilarious insult his way (and the next Bim comes in five minutes anyway).
Viennese dialect is, for sure, a book with seven seals. But it is also one well worth cracking.
Don’t Call Me Sackerl, Oida!
There are your must-know Viennese words – and one site that tries to capture them all.
The Viennese are usually pretty laid back. They don’t expect you to master their dialect or learn their language – with one exception: Don’t you dare ask for a Tüte at a local supermarket. While many expressions allow a dual-linguism where you can either use the Viennese or German word (both Paradeiser and Tomate is fine), this one is serious business. There is only one reason for someone to say Tüte, and that is his being German – which is about the worst thing that can happen to you in Vienna.
Kaffee Instead of Kaffé
While this looks alike on paper, the pronunciation separates the Germans from the rest of the world: In Viennese, you roll out that “e” forever, while in German you (phonetically correctly) emphasize the “ff.” If you’ve ever had a coffee in Germany, you understand why we try to separate ourselves as much as possible from that so-called beverage and instead brew up our own elegant version.
A word so universal that Viennese actress Ewa Placzyńska created a video showing how one can master the dialect by using this one short word only. It became a viral hit with more than a million views. Go figure.
This Instagram account (and a book with the same name that was published this spring) is purely dedicated to collecting short snippets of everyday life, often delivered in heavy dialect. It works great as a crash course – and is founded and run by the author of these lines you are reading. So please excuse the shameless self-promotion.