Germany’s Dialect Iron Curtain.

Last December, Philip Oltermann in the Guardian reported on the dialect situation in Germany:

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an invisible border running through Germany continues to resist all efforts to make the country truly whole again. However, this dividing line is not about attitudes to democracy, refugees or Russia, but something more elementary: how to tell the time.

In the northern half of the old West Germany, from Flensburg in the north down to Heidelberg in the south, people use the expression viertel nach zehn (“quarter past ten”) if their clock reads 10.15. Yet in a tract of land that covers the old socialist GDR as well as parts of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the same time would be described as viertel elf or “quarter eleven”.

With so much potential for failed meet-ups and missed appointments, one would have expected one variant to trump the other over time. But a group of linguists who spent two years analysing a large data set have been surprised to find the opposite is true: not only are some vernacular expressions proving surprisingly sticky, but if anything their use is realigning along the old iron curtain.

For an article in the science journal PLOS ONE, published on Wednesday, Adrian Leeman, Curdin Derungs and Stephan Elspass compared metadata provided by more than 770,000 people in Germany, Austria and Switzerland who had taken part in an online language quiz, with language surveys dating back to the 1970s.

On the one hand they found that German, Europe’s most widely spoken mother tongue and often described as its most diverse, is becoming more standardised, especially north of the River Main. Local expressions for non-professional football playing, such as pöhlen in Westphalia or bäbbeln in Saxony are slowly being replaced by the generic term bolzen, in what linguists call “regional levelling”.

Yet the old east-west border is proving an unexpected bulwark against linguistic change, especially when it comes to food. West of the former Berlin Wall, Germans call a pancake a Pfannkuchen; on the eastern side, they emphatically tuck into Eierkuchen or “egg cakes”. As if to deliberately spread confusion, east Germans use the word Pfannkuchen to describe a doughnut, which is called a Krapfen in the south-west, and a Berliner in the north-west.

More examples, and some striking dialect maps, at the link; here’s the article by Leemann, Derungs, and Elspaß.


  1. David Marjanović says

    “Dialect” is not the term I’d use there; indeed, east of the Iron Curtain, there’s not much left of any dialects from what I’ve seen, there’s just a Saxon and a Prussian accent.

    It’s not surprising that vocabulary differences like these are realigning, however. The quote mentions Baden-Württemberg – when Baden and Württemberg were united within West Germany a few years after WWII, their former boundary started to become a vocabulary boundary.

    The Viennese, too, say viertel elf. The rest of the country doesn’t understand them.

    Local expressions for non-professional football playing

    Not all locations ever had one. I’ve never encountered one in Austria, and know bolzen or at least Bolzplatz only from reading.

    …OK, there’s kicken, but it has a more restricted usage; it would never be used to designate a football field.

  2. By the way, the Kennedy/Berliner foofaraw was covered at LH back in 2005.

  3. AJP Crown says

    In 2012 Philip Oltermann wrote a book called Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters that I read then and thought was good though I can’t remember very much – I probably bought it because he’s a Hamburger – and now I see he’s written several others as well as being an occasional LRB contributor.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Krapfen in the south-west

    Also southeast. Never has a hole, but always has a filling, usually jam.

  5. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Krapfen in the south-west

    Also southeast. Never has a hole, but always has a filling, usually jam.

    Also in Italian, but I think a cream filling is more common in Italy.

  6. AJP Crown says

    Giacomo Ponzetto, it’s called Krapfen in Italian? Or do you mean there are similar doughnuts in Italy? (There are Berliner-type doughnuts with strawberry jam in England & Norway. The ones I grew up with were from a German bakery in London.)

  7. AJP Crown says

    Wow. They do. Who knew. Well, Giacomo, obviously.

  8. I’ll be damned.

  9. it’s called Krapfen in Italian?

    They seem to be called Krapfen just in the ex-Austrian parts of Italy (South Tyrol, Friuli, Veneto), which isn’t that surprising. In most of Italy bombolone is the typical term for a cream/jam filled doughnut.

  10. AJP Crown says

    I’d probably ask for a bombolone.

  11. PlasticPaddy says
  12. Andrej Bjelaković says

    Ah, so it was Krapfen that gave us the Serbian krofna and the Croatian krafna.

  13. AJP Crown says

    a German army detachment under the command of Sepp von Prum
    ‘Sepp von Krapfen’, surely.

  14. Trond Engen says

    In Non-High Germania you don’t order Krapfen, you ask for a crap.

    Norw. berlinerbolle. I loved them as a boy. I still do, but now I also hate getting jam all over the place and becoming sticky in places I didn’t know had any role in eating..

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    The OstFriesen have a different word. I remember a similar word oliebolletjes in Dutch (not to be confused with the bar snack bitterbolletjes).

  16. AJP Crown says

    if their clock reads 10.15 [in] a tract of land that covers the old socialist GDR as well as parts of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the time would be described as viertel elf or “quarter eleven”.
    I wonder what they call 10:45.

  17. January First-of-May says

    I wonder what they call 10:45.

    It’s dreiviertel elf “three quarters eleven”, I believe; or, at least, this is the form I recognize from multiple previous LH threads that variously touched on the subject. (I don’t actually understand that much German.)

    In Russian, 10:15 is usually четверть одиннадцатого “quarter of eleventh” (note the ordinal number), while 10:45 is almost always без четверти одиннадцать “without quarter eleven”; however, *три четверти одиннадцатого “*three quarters of eleventh”, while sounding very weird, would probably be uniformly interpreted as 10:45.

    Old Russian, like Latin (and I don’t recall what else), consistently used forms along the lines of “half Xth” to mean “X-0.5”; the only remaining trace of this in modern Russian numerals is полтора “1.5” (and forms immediately based on it), which is no longer transparent (indeed as a child I folk-etymologized it as **пол-т(о)ра “3/2”), but “half Xth” (now slightly differently formed) does (still?) mean “X-0.5” in time measures.

  18. Interesting — if I knew, I’d forgotten that полтора was from *роlъ vъtora (“half of the second”). Vasmer adduces Old Russian полъ друга, полъ третья, полъ шеста.

  19. For context, the discussion of Russian time measures is not complete without some non-quarter based measures of an hour. There are three ordinary ways to express hour-minute time in Russian is “N hours, M minutes” (where N can follow either period of 12 or 24, the latter one being formal or requiring some special circumstances), M can be any number 1 to 60; or “M minutes of (N+1)th”, in this case M as well be a number from 1 to 60, but the more one gets past 30, the more probable is construction “without P [minutes] (N+1)”, obviously P+M=60. In this sense, quarters and halves follow the regular pattern.

    Ooof. That was a boring comment. “Без четверти три четверти – обе стрелки вместе. Который час?” — Three quarters without a quarter, both hands together, what time is it?

  20. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    I also don’t perceive any difference between a krapfen and a bombolone. However, as far as I can tell krapfen is a common name for it throughout Italy, no longer confined to former Habsburg domains. For instance, here is a recipe from a major brand of baking supplies. Here’s another claiming (very dubiously) that a krapfen has a filling and a bombolone doesn’t.

    Also, I had no idea there was a 10:15 divide in Germany (I don’t speak German), but there is an identical one in Spain, where that’s un quart d’onze in Catalan and las diez y cuarto in Spanish.

  21. David Marjanović says

    It’s dreiviertel elf “three quarters eleven”

    Yes, except in the many places where it’s viertel vor elf.

    I once told the story here of the Viennese telling a group of people from all over Austria to meet again at viertel zwei (13:15); most others interpreted that as viertel nach zwei (14:15), except the Tyroleans, who thought it meant viertel vor zwei (13:45). Fortunately the confusion became manifest immediately and not at 13:15.

    Also, 14:15 can be viertel über zwei, but I think this is purely dialectal and hasn’t made it into any standard usage. Its geographic distribution is scattered, almost delocalized.


    Polish półpierwsza “12:30”, literally “half-first”.

  22. Austrian usage is also common in Croatia. Though as a Dalmatian I found it weird, and prefer either the official way of telling the time “deset i petnaest”, or the italian /venetian “deset i kvarat” for 10.15

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    Half five, D.O.? (Except the hands are not really together then, that was at 05:27:16.363636…. assuming zero width and absolute precision).

    Danish has ni, kvart over ni, halv ti, kvart i ti and so on. More precision is rarely needed except for catching trains and buses — but to [minutter] i ti is the old pattern, or ni otteoghalvtres in schedules or for reading off digital clocks. I’m sure there were funky old styles but I never encountered them.

  24. Jen in Edinburgh says

    But do you have the ‘ti over halv ti’ sums around the half hour?

  25. David Marjanović says

    zehn nach halb zehn “9:40”
    zehn vor halb zehn “9:20”

  26. Trond Engen says


    fem over ti
    ti over ti
    kvart over ti
    ti på halv elleve
    fem på halv elleve
    halv elleve
    fem over halv elleve
    ti over halv elleve
    kvart på elleve
    ti på elleve
    fem på elleve

    Bergen and the adjacent region has kvart i rather than kvart på, but the system is the same all over.

  27. Lars, I don’t know the answer, I just know the riddle.

  28. January First-of-May says

    Looking it up, the answer is 8:45 (well, really 8:43:38 and a bit, I suppose), which was my second guess (my first was 6:30).

  29. Lars Mathiesen says

    But do you have the ‘ti over halv ti’ sums around the half hour?

    When I lærte klokken we did, but for reading out a complete time I don’t think I produce that any more. If talking to someone who presumably knows the time to within half an hour or so, at a bus stop for instance, I might say fem i halv instead of femogtyve over.

  30. This Berliner/krapfen/jelly donut reminds me that in my family it was called a ‘Bismarck’. My Dad worked in large commercial bakery and I thought that’s what it was called there. But he was raised in small town in Saskatchewan called Langenburg where most residents were German speakers. Could ‘Bismarck’ have been a Nineteenth Century term used by the grandparents?

  31. PlasticPaddy says
    Looks more like what we would call a chocolate Swiss roll…

  32. But if you take the buiskitroulade link you will see that it is a jelly roll.

  33. Saskatchewan’s Langenburg was named after Langenburg, Baden-Wurttemberg.

    In the mid-1880s, Prince Hohenlohe Von Langenburg visited what would become western Canada (probably on a hunting trip) and when he returned home recommended emigration to Canada as being better than the U. S. A few families did.

    Langenburg is on the Federal Yellowhead Highway, which is called Kaiser William Avenue in town. (A north-south Provincial highway is called Broad Street in town.)

    Circumstantial evidence, but if I were a betting man . . .

    So, can anyone find evidence for a Berliner being called a Bismarck in the 19th C.?

  34. It occurs to me — is there a location in Germany where the Dialect Iron Curtain intersects the White Sausage Equator?

    I fear that some kind of linguistic singularity or black hole may exist there.

  35. David Marjanović says

    is there a location in Germany where the Dialect Iron Curtain intersects the White Sausage Equator?

    Yes – where they both meet the Czech border.

  36. I recall Bismarck as one of the options at Dunkin Donuts in 1980s Western Massachusetts. I think chocolate icing was involved.

  37. Lars Mathiesen says

    Jelly rolls are simply roulader here, also if the jelly is replaced with (white) buttercream. The Bismarckeiche looks like a chocolate buttercream ‘jelly roll’ with extra everything, like a Yule Log/Bûche de Noël, presumably a Bismarck simplex would be any sponge cake roulade (with a sweet filling).

  38. Finländare says

    They seem to be called Krapfen just in the ex-Austrian parts of Italy (South Tyrol, Friuli, Veneto), which isn’t that surprising. In most of Italy bombolone is the typical term for a cream/jam filled doughnut.

    And just when you thought you could let out a sigh of relief, having entered il Mezzogiorno and craving for bombolone, you find yourself confronted by a plateful of familiar-sounding graffe in Naples…

  39. Apparently the bismarck (as a filled doughnut) is standard for some; I came across a recipe headed PACZKI (POLISH BISMARCKS). I am much more likely to encounter mention of pą,czki than of bismarcks, but I had heard of them, in literature anyway. I also spotted the designation of a particular pastry-bag tip as a “Bismarck tip,” for injecting filling.

  40. My father thinks that his grandfather (a native Yiddish speaker from Bobruisk) called a jelly doughnut a “jelly Bismark,” but it’s been a long time since Poppy died, and he is not positive about it.

  41. The same thing happens in Hungary and northern parts of Croatia, where German viertel was simply borrowed as frtalj. Frtalj 5 = 4:15. People from the coast often don’t understand it.

    Beside it, there’s expression “half three” = 2:30, which is used in a bit wider area

  42. David Marjanović says


    Metathesis of consonant syllabicity! i’m impressed.

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