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I know that "gewesen" is used in simple past, which I believe is used more for formal writing. I've heard people (in southern Germany) use "gewesen" in conversation and am unsure why people wouldn't say "war". When should "gewesen" be used in spoken german instead of "war"?

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Quite some of southern German dialects (Swiss German included) traditionally don't even know the simple past (Präteritum). In these dialects, everything that occurred in the past is expressed in perfect tense - So, instead of

Ich war in Berlin

my dialect has to use

Ich bin in Berlin gewesen (I bin in Berlin gwä/gsi)

Naturally, your preference in the choice of tenses in your native dialect also bleeds into your usage of the "Hochsprache".

Wikipedia says:

Das Perfekt wird hier grundsätzlich als Ersatz für das Präteritum verwendet. Die Grenze dieses Sprachphänomens lässt sich dabei teilweise sehr exakt bestimmen; sie folgt teilweise der Mainlinie und verläuft von Hof im Osten bis nach Aachen im Westen. Diese Entwicklung ist im Süden des deutschen Sprachraums bereits im 16./17. Jahrhundert eingetreten und wird unter anderem auf den Ausfall des /e/ (Apokope) am Ende der Präteritumformen regulärer Verben zurückgeführt: Eindeutiger als er sagt und er sagte erschien die Form er hat gesagt.

On the other hand, present perfect is preferred over the simple past for colloquial conversation generally all over Germany. Generally said, the choice of (past) tenses in German is much less rigid in colloquial speech as it is, for example, in English.

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  • What is the sentence in parentheses in your second example? – Gigili Oct 9 '17 at 17:47
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    @Gigili that would be the way Swabians or Swiss people actually pronounce it. – Chieron Oct 9 '17 at 17:50
  • Well, Swabians would rather say "I bee z Berlee gwäa". (The preposition z(u) may be replaced by standard German "in" (but pronounced like "en") by individual users). – Christian Geiselmann Oct 10 '17 at 14:11
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Often "gewesen" is used to describe your position at a past time or participation at an event. Example: "Ich bin gestern auf der Party gewesen." - "I was at the party yesterday." Or: "Bist du schon einmal in Berlin gewesen?" - "Have you been to Berlin?" Usually it is interchangeable with "war" but it is used for diversification. It is used in Northern Germany (Hamburg) too in our everyday language.

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