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I recently visited a major manufacturer of electrical equipment in Berlin. Among engineers and technicians I frequently heard "oder wat?", with 'wat' being pronounced the same as one would pronounce Watt in German (as in the unit of measure). I wasn't sure if it was a play on words given that Watt is used frequently in that environment, but after googling a bit it seems like "oder wat" and "oder Watt" return a few tens of thousands of results (with the former being more popular) as a synonym for "oder was".

I was wondering if this is an expression limited to a geographic area in particular? I know that "oder was" is quite strong to begin with (i.e. not something you would/should use at work or in a formal context); so is this simply dialectical use and therefore "OK" (note the quotes), or does it have any added meaning/emphasis? I was also curious if it would be seen as a marker of someone of a blue-collar socioeconomic background?

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    I don't have enough evidential background beside my personal experience, therefore only as a comment: It is used very much in the Ruhrgebiet area in the west of Germany. It's mainly used in situations where colloquial language is okay, though, but in those situations I have heard it across a wide demographic range from people at the age of 10 up to around 60. – PattaFeuFeu Jan 22 '16 at 21:25
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As others have already stated, it has nothing to do with James Watt or the SI-unit Watt. It is merely a dialectal pronunciation of was.

Historically, this difference derives from the High German Consonant Shift. Proto-Germanic had a plosive sound /t/ at the end of the words which would turn into es, das and was. This sound shifted in High German to become /s/. The shift has been dated to around 600 AD according to Wikipedia. Since the shift only affected High German, other Germanic languages such as English (it, what), Dutch (het, het, wat) or Swedish (det, -(e)t, vad).

Therefore, wat should be the usual dialectal Form in the northern part of Germany, Luxemburg and Belgium while was should be the usual dialectal form in the southern part of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy and France; both of them separated by the St. Goar line. (Only areas where German is spoken as a minority language for Italy/Belgium/France.) However, a map from the Atlas der deutschen Alltagssprache shows how far northwards the southern form has reached to date:

enter image description here

You can still see the St. Goar line in the very West but it has disappeared when leaving the Rhine area eastwards. However, when speaking their traditional dialects, people North of the St. Goar line will always use wat.

The Atlas der deutschen Alltagssprache is a survey-based attempt to research the colloquial use of German across the German-speaking area. It does not attempt to capture only dialects or only standard German but rather the language actually spoken — often a mixture between ‘pure’ dialect and ‘pure’ colloquial standard German. (Thanks to Chirlu for reminding me to point that out.)


‡: It’s not entirely correct to say that was is Upper German while wat is Low German. Low German is usually defined as northwards of the Benrath line which separates the pronunciations of to make (maken in the North, machen in the South) and Upper German (sometimes unclearly called High German) usually as southwards of the Speyer line which separates the pronunciations of apple (Appel in the North, Apfel in the South). The St. Goar line separating was and wat is in-between these two, in the area usually called Central German. It does separate a number of dialects from each other, most notably the group of Rhine Franconian from Moselle Franconian.

All Low German dialects will use wat and all Upper German ones was, though.

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German has a large number of dialects and of regional variants loosely based on the dialects of a larger area. One of the fundamental differences between these dialects is whether they participated in the High German consonant shift or not. Part of that shift was that words such as wat and dat became was and das. This map shows the approximate distribution of the variants:

map showing the dat/das line (St. Goar line)
(map by Slomox, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Although standard German uses was and das, people from the northern half of Germany may occasionally say wat and dat instead. It is completely unrelated to the SI unit Watt, which was named after James Watt.

I don’t share your perception that oder was is “quite strong”, if you mean strong language. It may be unsuitable for formal texts but that is purely for stylistic reasons.

  • Ah, thanks. Sometimes I wish I could turn back time and study linguistics :) Regarding my perception of "oder was" being rather strong, at least that's what I remember my (Austrian) teachers telling us. Thinking about it, I guess it can be used quite matter-of-factly (i.e. "if not that, what then?"), but, like "or what?", it can also be used rather strongly, maybe not quite rudely, but pretty strong. If I put it at the end of a normal question it definitely seems to add a snarky undertone. – user19407 Jan 23 '16 at 11:10
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You are indeed right, "oder wat" is a synonym to "oder was". It is just an even more colloquial term for it, you would not use any of them in written German. You can literally translate it to "or what" in english, the usage is the same.

Its usage is not limited to an engineering background tho, its has no relation to the pysical unit "Watt".

I don't have reliable information about the geographic or demographic use of it, but in my experience it is most common around middle-aged people. I don't think I have ever heard younger people use that term. Maybe someone else has more detailed information about his topic.

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