The landlocked Central European country of Austria (officially, the Republic of Austria) is home to a unique mixture of languages. It is home to almost nine million people, many of whom speak the country’s official language, German. Many Austrians also speak one or more Austro-Bavarian dialects, as we explore in detail below.
Almost all of Austria’s population – 98% – speaks German, making it a practical lingua franca, as well as the country’s official language. In addition to German, Austria is home to around seven million speakers of Austro-Bavarian, a group of Upper German languages that are spoken across the country, with the exception of the federal-state of Vorarlberg and some areas of Tyrol’s Reutte District. In those locations, residents use an Alemannic dialect instead. Austria is home to around 300,000 Alemannic speakers in total.
German and Austro-Bavarian have influenced each other over the centuries but are not the same language. While the majority of Austrians speak both tongues, translation services are still required for everything from marketing documents to legal paperwork.
In this article, we’ll look at language in Austria in detail, from where the different languages are spoken to the reasons behind the country’s linguistic makeup to minority and foreign tongues.
The Official Languages of Austria
An examination of the official languages of Austria doesn’t take too long. Technically, the country only has one: German. However, Austria is also home to two significant (though unofficial) languages: Austro-Bavarian and Alemmanic. As such, no discussion of the language of Austria would be complete without discussion of all three.
What language is spoken in Austria? In official terms it is German. The German spoken in Austria differs from Standard German, having been influenced by Austro-Bavarian. However, the two languages (Austrian and Standard German, that is) are mutually intelligible. Largely, anyway. It’s fair to say that regional accents come into play in some parts of Austria when it comes to mutual intelligibility.
The German spoken in Vienna, Austria’s capital city, is a good example of this. The German spoken there has plenty about it that can prove puzzling to those who speak Standard German, from the accent to some of the vocabulary.
Such considerations are important for those providing German to English translation services in relation to German in Austria – and vice versa with this language pairing. While a Standard German-speaker might be able to muddle through, a native Austrian German speaker will stand a much better chance of producing an accurate, high-quality translation.
As the official Austrian language, German is used by the government, the mainstream media and educational establishments across the country, from primary schools through to universities.
Austria’s linguistic history is tied in with its political history, as is the case with so many countries. Part of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, Austria then became part of the German Confederation. It later became part of the German Republic, after the end of World War I, when the monarchy broke up.
Since then, Austria has worked hard to build up a distinct definition of itself and its people. Austrians may officially speak German, but the majority of its people identify as Austrian rather than German, with 91.1% of the population identifying as ethnic Austrian.
With 13 million speakers in total, Austro-Bavarian can be heard in the German state of Bavaria, in Switzerland, in Italy and in Hungary, as well as in Austria. In Austria, it has over seven million speakers.
The language originated with the Bavarii, a Germanic tribe with a duchy that spread from modern-day Bavaria to parts of Austria in the early Middle Ages. Over time, the Bavarii and their language reached down the Danube and up into the Alps, which is why Austro-Bavarian gained the geographic spread that is has today.
Interestingly, Austro-Bavarian has no written orthography, despite its status as Austria’s de facto national language. The name actually covers a variety of dialects, which differ notably as one travels from the north of Austria to the south.
Another of the unofficial languages of Austria, Alemannic is spoken by around 300,000 of the country’s inhabitants. The language is descended from the Alemanni, a collection of Germanic tribes from the banks of the Upper Rhine, and is spoken in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, France, Italy, the US and Venezuela, in addition to Austria. In total, Alemannic has around ten million speakers, though only a small percentage of them live in Austria.
As with Austro-Bavarian, Alemannic covers a group of Upper German dialects. The language has notable German Swiss influences. Its written form dates back at least to the sixth century, where it has been identified in the writing of the Elder Futhark inscriptions.
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How Many Languages Are Spoken in Austria?
What language do they speak in Austria? It’s not just a tale of German, Austro-Bavarian and Alemannic. Far from it! Austria is also home to Bosnian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Romani, Italian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Turkish and Yiddish speakers (historically, at least, for the latter). Speakers of these languages tend to be based in particular regions, while Austria is also home to a number of foreign languages, including Standard German, English, French and Italian. We’ll examine a couple of these in further detail.
An impressive 73% of the population of Austria speaks English. In fact, Austria places seventh out of 63 countries on Education First’s English Proficiency Index, with Austrians in every age group out-performing Europe-wide averages for their levels of spoken English. This is due to the language being widely taught in schools, with children receiving regular tuition in English from age seven upward.
Interestingly, there is a notable gender gap when it comes to English proficiency in Austria, with the English Proficiency Index showing that Austrian women are far more competent English speakers than Austrian men. The size of this gender gap is larger than that found in most countries within Europe.
Languages in Austria include a number of minority tongues, of which Turkish is the most prevalent. In total, 2.3% of Austria’s population speaks Turkish and Turks are the country’s second largest ethnic group, after Austrians.
It was a 1964 government policy that laid the groundwork for Turkish to flourish in Austria. The initiative encouraged Turkish ‘guest workers’ to come to Austria to work in the export and construction industries. It worked as intended and today there are somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 people of Turkish origin living in Austria.
After Turkish, Serbian is the second most spoken minority language in Austria. In total, 2.2% of Austria’s population speaks it. Like Turks, Serbs were recruited to Austria as guest workers during the 1960s, resulting in a significant surge of immigration. Previous waves of Serbian immigration to Austria had already taken place, particularly in the early 19th century, but it was the 1964 government initiative that brought in workers in their thousands.
Today, Austria is home to over 122,000 Serbian citizenships, while the true number of people of Serbian origin living in Austria could be as high as 500,000.
Austria saw an influx of Bosnians as a result of the Bosnian War during the 1990s, though many Bosnians arrived in Austria as early as the 19th century. Some 1.9% of the Austrian population speaks Bosnian, with clusters of speakers located in the Graz, Linz, Vienna and Salzburg areas.
Slovene speakers in Austria are largely concentrated in Carinthia, where it enjoys official language status. Some 0.3% of Austrians speak it in total. Interestingly, Carinthian Slovenes are a recognised minority in Austria, where they enjoy special rights and affirmative action.
While only around 1,000 people in Burgenland in Austria speak Hungarian, the language deserves a special mention due to the historical ties between Austria and Hungary, following the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the end of the Second World War.
Main Languages per Region
In Austria, language and region go hand in hand in some instances, while other languages are more widely spoken. German and Austro-Bavarian, for example, are spoken across the majority of the country, as is English. However, Alemannic and some of the country’s minority languages have very distinct regional profiles. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Alemannic Speakers in Austria
A significant unofficial language of Austria, Alemannic is spoken by Austrians who are largely located in the western state of Vorarlberg, as well as in the Reutte District of Tyrol, an historic region in the Alps that stretches from northern Italy to western Austria.
The westernmost federal state in Austria, Vorarlberg is home to over 370,000 people. It is the only one of Austria’s provinces that doesn’t speak Austro-Bavarian. Vorarlberg borders Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany, all of which are also home to Alemannic speakers.
Turkish Speakers in Austria
The most spoken of the minority languages in Austria, Turkish is widely spoken among Turks living in Vienna, but it is not just limited to the capital. Lower Austria, Vorarlberg, Upper Austria and Tyrol are also home to significant pockets of Turkish speakers.
Serbian Speakers in Austria
Serbian speakers in Austria are spread across several regions. Vienna is home to a sizeable population of people of Serbian descent, while notable Serbian-speaking communities are also to be found in the Salzburg and Graz regions.
Which Language Should You Speak in Austria?
When it comes to visiting Austria, language learning really doesn’t have to be too high up on your priority list, although this assumption does depend on which language you speak natively.
With three quarters of Austrians able to converse in English, thanks to the country’s strong emphasis on learning that language in school, there are plenty of people available to interact with English-speaking tourists in their native language.
This is particularly true in Austria’s largest cities and most popular tourist areas, where English-speaking visitors can feel confident of being able to communicate effectively, even if they can’t speak more than a few words of German. Such widespread use of English highlights its status as one of the most useful languages to learn in 2020.
Of course, those who speak German will also be able to communicate with relative ease in Austria. While Standard German and Austrian German do differ (and differ significantly when it comes to certain regional accents), a Standard German speaker should be able to attune their ear to the local dialect and hold a conversation without too much trouble.
Official Written Languages
While English is widely spoken in Austria, it has no official status there. Instead, official communications, signage and so forth uses German, as that is the primary language of Austria.
Despite both Austro-Bavarian and Alemannic being significant (if unofficial) languages in Austria, communication in both tends to be spoken, rather than written. German is used as the official written language instead.
Austria is an interesting country to put under the microscope when it comes to the languages, speech and writing used across its provinces. The mother tongue of the majority of its residents is either German or Austro-Bavarian, while Alemannic is also a language of significance.
The country is also home to a rich patchwork of minority languages, with pockets of speakers scattered across its regions. Some of these languages (Turkish and Serbian, for example), have arrived in Austria largely as a result of economic drivers. Other tongues (such as Bosnian) have largely come to Austria due to political and historic factors.
The majority of Austrians speak German, while a significant proportion of the population also speak Austro-Bavarian. In addition, nearly three quarters of Austrians speak English proficiently. Within this mix of languages, there is plenty of scope for business translators to make a good living.
For businesses looking to establish a presence in Austria or to expand an existing foothold there, access to accurate, high quality translation and localization services, which focus on moulding translations to better meet the needs of their intended audiences, can make all the difference. If your business is one of those with big plans for the Austrian market, why not use Tomedes’ translation quote function to help you budget for the work at hand?