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Some teachers (and their books) are used to emphasize that there are certain structures used in "written German". For instance, I was told that Präteritum is rather used in texts and not so common in verbal comunicacton, and the same case for indirekte Rede.

  1. How different are Spoken and Written German? Should they be learnt bearing these differences in mind?

  2. Does using Präteritum and phrases like "Er hat mir gesagt, er sei nicht geschwommen" by speaking sound strange?

  3. If the answer to the first question is "yes", then: which other characteristics are typically "written German".

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    From a grammatical point of view, you don't need to care about written German as long as you don't write a novel. - About preterit vs perfect in spoken language, it's pretty hard to tell when to use which. It's language feel. Sometimes it's perfectly fine to say "Er hat gesagt" and in other cases native will rather go with "Er sagte". You could write a novel about this ;) The big difference between spoken and written languages are basically word-choices and colloquial expressions. And of course dialects but I guess this is obvious.
    – Em1
    Jun 22, 2013 at 21:02
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    Answers to your questions may depend on your situation. If you married a German and moved there to live, you will emphasize spoken German and learning to negotiate social settings at the playground, the post office, in the super market... Listening (understanding) and speaking will be your priorities and you will care little about getting the grammar right always... especially if the natives themselves don't bother to. If, however, you have a professional interest, e.g., as a schoolteacher of German in your country, your aim is rule-compliant German so that you won't teach your [continued] Jun 23, 2013 at 6:15
  • [cont'd] students bad habits. But that just takes you back to the question, will your students be better served learning to speak "like the common man" or to speak "druckreif" (= fit to print) German. Modern language-teaching materials recognize this dilemma and set aside a portion to discuss such differences, offering both modes of expression with a note as to prevalence vs. "correctness" in written expression. You would do well as a teacher to let yourself be guided by the teacher's guide in such cases. Jun 23, 2013 at 6:20
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    @EugeneSeidel: this is all so nicely written up. It feels like it now only needs a copy & paste to give us a nice answer.
    – Takkat
    Jun 23, 2013 at 9:00
  • @Takkat Thanks, but I am waiting for a language teacher or someone professionally involved in textbook production or teacher education to weigh in with references (embarrassingly, I have none) and with the authority of experience. Jun 23, 2013 at 9:04

6 Answers 6

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  1. Written and spoken German are still the same language. The difference between them is less than the difference between registers of each. Constructions usually found in spoken language can also be found in written texts like correspondance (email, sms, chats), ads and others. Vice versa, constructions usally found in written language can also be found in spoken German like newscasts (probably not RTL2 though) or discussions. So, what part you should learn depends on what you want to achieve with it. Generally, one should learn to actively use high register spoken or low register written language and be able to passively understand low register spoken and high level written language. If you accomlished this, you can also try to actively use that parts.

  2. Präteritum mostly wouldn't sound strange except in groups with a very low language level (for example groups of people speaking German as a second language). Konjunktiv will be regarded as strange in more cases, although your example sentence is easy enough, that moste people will understand it.

  3. Correct usage of genitive if demanded by prepositions ("wegen des Autos" instead of "wegen dem Auto"); correct usage of local vs. temporal prepositions and conjunctions ("der Tag, als ich das Auto kaufte" instead of "der Tag, wo ich das Auto kaufte"); subordination of the conjunction "weil" ("weil ich Auto gefahren bin" instead of "weil ich bin Auto gefahren"); correct construction of possessive genitives ("Martins Auto" instead of "Dem Martin sein Auto"); … (By "correct" I mean grammatically correct as of today. The grammatical rules will change in the future and accomodate the influence of the spoken language.)

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    "spoken German like newscasts": What newsreaders read off their teleprompters is not "spoken German". "Generally, one should learn to actively use high register spoken or low register written language and be able to passively understand low register spoken and high level written language." What does that mean? "Präteritum mostly wouldn't sound strange except in groups with a very low language level (for example groups of people speaking German as a second language). Konjunktiv will be regarded as strange in more cases ... " It's a little more complex than that, I'm afraid. Jun 24, 2013 at 3:16
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    @EugeneSeidel Of course it's more complex. It's probably 80 Mio. people complex (at least for de_de).
    – Toscho
    Jun 24, 2013 at 6:30
  • "der Tag, an dem ich das Auto kaufte" would be the best alternative.
    – user568
    Jun 29, 2013 at 17:05
  • @StefanWalter This would be the most used alternative. It just doesn't illustrate my point.
    – Toscho
    Jun 30, 2013 at 20:19
  • der Tag des Autokaufes
    – john Smith
    Mar 16, 2014 at 19:05
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Concerning the use of Präteritum in spoken German: the Perfekt-construction is definitely used more often. It only happens rarely that Präteritum is used. Additionally, it seems that if someone uses Präteritum, he's more likely to be from northern Germany than from mid or south. I was born and raised in Kiel and my friends from Bavaria have remarked me saying e.g. "Er besuchte uns." instead of "Er hat uns besucht." and indicated they were used it from those northerners.

Use of Konjunktiv is definitely absent most of the time, and indicates a high level of sophistication. Thus only a few people will appreciate in it. If using it at all, most people use the Konjunktiv 2 with würde or hätte, instead of the analytical way – even where Konjunktiv 1 would be correct.

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  • Welcome to Stack Overflow! Please note you are answering a very old and already answered question. Aug 5, 2019 at 8:31
  • Willkommen bei German.SE. Bitte überlegen, ob Fragen-ferne Teile wie Bewertungen (find delight) oder Smilies entfallen können, ohne den Antwortgehalt zu verändern. Das Alter der Frage ist deutlich weniger wichtig als der Inhalt der Antwort (& ihre Form). Aug 5, 2019 at 14:14
  • @ShegitBrahm: "find delight" in dieser Antwort ist eher keine Bewertung, allenfalls eine blumige Art, auszudrücken, dass eine Entscheidung für etwas (hier: Einsatz des Konjunktiv) getroffen wird. Aug 5, 2019 at 16:55
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First, you will always have the bonus of being a foreigner if your used nuances of words or phrases don't perfectly fit, because it always depends on the situation (level of education, reservation, familiarity, region you are from, …), and that is a very complex topic. But the things you learn in school are a best-fit for most situations.

How different are Spoken and Written German? Should they be learnt bearing these differences in mind?

Written German sounds a bit stilted for certain phrases, as in English as well; e.g. you wouldn't reply to your neighbour "... with regards to your question ...", or "I am going to" but "I'm gonna" instead.

Does using Präteritum ... by speaking sound strange?

Yes, rather say "Ich habe gesehen" instead of "Ich sah" because the latter is usually perceived like the examples I mentioned above.

If the answer to the first question is "yes", then: which other characteristics are typically "written German".

Written German uses more official phrases in letters (e.g. Bezugnehmend auf), or poetic phrases in books (e.g. erwidern). Too much to be listed here.

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The question is very broad. Maybe it is even too broad to be answered here. Let me focus on the first question of the three questions that you asked. I also try to address the third question, but I think it is impossible to give a full answer there.

This is probably not a particularity of German, but spoken and written language actually differ a lot.

Toscho's answer is correct in stating that there is no strict logical distinction between potential utterances in written and spoken language -- as every spoken sentence could be written down and every written sentence could be spoken out loud. But if the terms spoken language and written language are supposed to denote different varieties of the language (as in your example of Präteritum and indirect speech), this is missing the point: It makes more sense to use the terms for prototypic examples of spoken and written language. Language used by news anchor persons on TV or of actors on stage are not prototypically spoken language, even though it is delivered orally.

I think it makes sense to say that protototypically written communication is what you find in newspapers and in books, fiction and non-fiction and prototypically spoken language is what people speak in their every-day communication.

When I say above that the difference is big, I am referring to these prototypical uses of written and spoken language.

I see two big sources of the difference:

First, there is a strong sociolinguistic factor: Writing is used only by a part of competent German speakers. Estimations go that one out of 7 Germans is a "functional illiterate". They do not write. Besides these, there are a lot of people who do not like writing and try to avoid participating in written discourse. And finally, there are some social filters you have to pass in order to participate in written public discourse as a sender. If you think of "written German" as the texts that appear in newspapers or books you are facing the language of a of highly educated, privileged class which also uses language and style as a means to demarcate their social status, in the sense of habitus. This social factor is one driver for the stylistic differences you mentioned already. Another huge factor is dialects, which are the standard in spoken language and the exception in written language. It is out of scope here describe the variety of dialectal language in German (this would take books).

Of course "written German" technically also includes utterances such as private text messages or letters. As they are particular kinds of texts, they have other specifics, especially text messages.

Second, spoken language is much more affected by what is studied by the linguistic discipline of pragmalinguistics: If language is just used as a tool, a lot of grammatical, logical or stylistic rules are ignored for gaining simplicity, if the functionality of the tool is not affected. Often, a message is delivered quite clearly, even if grammar rules are heavily broken. For instance, unfinished sentences, implicatures and irony are much more common in spoken language than in written language.

When it comes to the differences between written and spoken German, it is hard to provide a full list. I can only give some differences off the top of my head. Answering this question fully would require extensive empirical studies. If these studies do not yet exist these would be my working hypotheses for conducting them. Another source of potential differences is the set of phenomenons language conservative publicists are usually complaining about. Very often, these phenomenons root in oral communication and these publicists are effectively practicing what I called "demarcation of social status" before.

  1. The use of gender neutral language (for instance: using Kolleg:innen in order to address female, male and non-binary colleagues) is much more common in written than in spoken language. It is not the established standard for written communication, but it is used even (much) less frequently in spoken conversation.

  2. I would expect weil-subclauses with verb in second position to be much more frequent in spoken language than in written language. In spoken language you will hear something like this quite often:

Ich gehe nach Hause, weil mir ist kalt.

while in written language

Ich gehe nach Hause, weil mir kalt ist.

is probably more frequent.

  1. I would expect passive to be less common in spoken language than in written language.

  2. I would expect that incongruities in gender, number or case between distant particles are much more common in spoken language than in written language. In the following example sentence, Qualität is of feminine gender, so the possessive pronoun seinen is wrong, because it is masculine. What would be considered an "error" from a normative grammatical point of view, is pragmatically totally fine. The derivation could be introduced by the speaker having the proverb Alles hat seinen Preis in mind. In oral communication, the mismatch might probably go unnoticed both by the speaker and the audience, because the noun is distant from the pronoun and when arriving at the pronoun, focus of attention might have changed to something else already:

Aber die Qualität, von der immer alle reden, was ja auch völlig richtig ist, hat auch seinen Preis.

  1. I would expect modal particles such as halt, auch, ja, eben, doch, nun mal to be much more frequent in spoken language than in written language.
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It's not about written or spoken German. It's about different text types.

Maybe you know the concept of text types. The language people use to write scientific articles is different from the language you find in love romances. (In scientific articles there are almost no personal pronouns. Love romances use much more adjectives.) Also the manual for a vacuum cleaner is written in a very different style than a report of a sports event.

But not only the style is different. Some text types even can have their own grammar rules: The verb, that in German statements is always at position 2 of a sentence, moves to position 1 in jokes (»Geht ein Mann zum Arzt.«) And cooking recipes use a feature with the name »adhortativer Konjunktiv« which is hard to find in other contexts. (»Man nehme eine Priese Salz.«) Even when it is used in an non-cooking context (3 book titles: »Man nehme einen neuen Mann«, »Man nehme einen Geigerzähler«, »Man nehme einen Sonnenstrahl«) it always strongly refers to recipes.

But although the name of this feature is »text type« it applies not only to written language but also to spoken language. The way how native speakers build sentences is different when they sit at home on the couch and talk to their partners or when they stand at the lectern and deliver a keynote speech. The grammar of the sentences a person says who wants to sell you a life insurance is different from the grammar from someone asking for the way to the next train station.

Some text types are used in written language only, some others can be found only in spoken language. (A written text can always be read aloud and a spoken dialogue can of course be written down, but this possibility of transformation into the other system does not contradict the original division.) But the difference between written and spoken language is somethign that can't be overseen: One class is produced with hands and received with eyes while the other is produced with mouthes and received with ears. Because this difference is so obvious and clear, we tend to blame it for differences in grammar. In reality, however, different types of texts have different grammatical rules.


Q 1a: How different are Spoken and Written German?

As shown in the previous section, this question starts from a false premise. The difference is not in how language is produced or received, but in what it is about.

Q 1b: Should they be learnt bearing these differences in mind?

Yes. If you want to write love romances, read love romances and write your novel in a similar style. If you want to write cooking recipes, you better should write them similar to other existing cooking recipes. If you live and work in a German speaking country and you want to talk to your neighbors and collegues you should listen how they speak with each other and try to do it the same way.

Q 2: Does using Präteritum and phrases like "Er hat mir gesagt, er sei nicht geschwommen" by speaking sound strange?

This is not »Präteritum« (preterite). This is »Perfekt«:

Perfekt: Er hat mir gesagt, ...
Präteritum: Er sagte mir, ...

There are also some possibilities for the relative clause in colloquial speech:

..., er sei nicht geschwommen
..., er wäre nicht geschwommen
..., er ist nicht geschwommen
..., dass er nicht geschwommen sei
..., dass er nicht geschwommen wäre
..., dass er nicht geschwommen ist

You can find both preterite and perfect in the main clause in spoken German and all 6 variations of the relative clause. Some of them are considered to be wrong in written German, but this again is more a question of text types. If you are in a dark bar in a cheep district, surrounded by drunken hooligans, the version that is correct in written German can be terribly wrong when you say it there.

The Influence of Geography

The point is: It depends strongly on the geographic region where you say this sentence. Geographic differences is a topic on top of text types.

There are some invisible border lines across the German speaking area: The Benrath line, the Speyer line and some other different border lines. These lines are isoglosses. An isogloss is a border between variations of a language or between language features. And among many other features, these lines separate regions where people prefer preterite over perfect from regions where people prefer the other past tense.

The preterite region is in the south (mainly Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg) while the perfect region is north of these lines. So when you say that you didn't know something, you can say »Ich habe das nicht gewusst« in southern regions but »Ich wusste das nicht« in northern regions.

The regional differences are on top of text types, so you would expect that you find them also in written language, but there is another circumstance:

The Influence of Media

My grandfather lived in the south east of Austria and wrote books in Austrian Standard German and even in the local dialect. The Austrian crime fiction author Wolf Haas also writes his books in Austrian Standard German. When you read these books, you will notice that, when ever something from the past is reported, they use perfect, because this is the preferred past tense in southern regions (»ich bin gegangen, er hat geschlafen, ...«). But when you enter a book store, even in Austria, take any arbitrary book, open it and start reading, you will find preterite (»ich ging, er schlief, ...«) in 99.9% of all books you try.

Here is why:

Germany has 83 million residents (more than 70% of them living north of the preterite/perfect isogloss, in the preterite region), Austria has 8.9 million and Switzerland has 8.6, but only about 5 million of them speak German. Books printed in Germany are written in German Standard German and read in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. They use the preferred tense from northern regions, which is preterite (»Ich ging, er schlief, ...«).
If someone writes a book in Austrian Standard German or Swiss Standard German, it will not be accepted in the two other countries. So the best strategy to write books that you want to sell in the 85%-market Germany is to use German standard German. And this is why (with some really rare exceptions) authors form Austria and Switzerland also use preterite in their books. And so not only in (almost) all books preterite is the favored past tense, but also in magazines and newspapers. Even in those that are not supposed to be exported. And this is why you find preterite in almost all written texts.

Q 3: If the answer to the first question is "yes", then: which other characteristics are typically "written German".

As said before: There are characteristics that are typical for different text types and characteristics that are typical for geographic regions. I would not really nail it down to written vs. spoken.

I've talked about differences in text types a lot in the sections above. Geographic differences also find their way in written texts. Nobody who was socialized in Austria would use the noun »Joghurt« with a masculine article (»der Joghurt«) as it is usual in German. It's a neuter noun in Austria (and maybe also in Bavaria, i'm not sure about that): »das Joghurt«. And you will find das Joghurt also in Austrian newspapers and magazines that are produced for the Austrian market only. But when an Austrian author wants to talk about yogurt in a book that shall be sold in Germany too, the Author must write »der Joghurt«, even if the publisher is in Austria. This might let you think that the different gender is a matter of written and spoken German, but in fact it is just a matter of geography.

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  1. When learning German, the differences can be neglected. There are differences, but you have to get to an extremely advanced level of German for them to have any effect at all.
  2. There is no simple answer. The acceptability of these grammatical phenomena differs from region to region. The Konjunktiv I, for instance, is common in everyday language in Switzerland and Vorarlberg, but not muched used anywhere else, see indirekte Rede « atlas-alltagssprache.

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