West German and East German: A Country Divided by One Language

Bavarian, Swabian, Hessian, Saxon… There are plenty of regional dialects in Germany. The four decades during which Germany was divided into the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany have also left their mark on the development of the German language. Although they have always shared the same written language, East Germans and West Germans, aka “Ossis” and “Wessis”, often find it difficult to talk to each other. Read on to learn more about the key linguistic differences between both parts of the country.


Image courtesy of nito/ fotolia.de

Some Linguistic Differences Were Politically Motivated

For all the German State Party’s (SED) efforts to introduce a “socialist” version of German on its territory, there were huge differences between the official jargon of its media organs and political speeches and the way people talked in private. Linguists estimate that between 800 and 3,000 words were either different or used differently in both parts of Germany – between 1.8 and 3 percent of the total number of German words. Very few of them have survived. Complete linguistic reunification is expected to happen within the next generation.

Some Words Had Different Meanings on Both Sides of the Wall

In the East in particular, many people had to get used to everyday words suddenly having a different meaning after the fall of the Wall. For example, a colleague from the West might use the term Bilanz to talk about quarterly profit-and-loss accounts, whereas East Germans of a certain age still remember the socialist planned economy, where the same term meant the alignment between production goals and demand. Other misunderstandings concern the interpretation of terms such as freedom and consciousness, which in official East German parlance related to the community or collective, whereas in the West they were used in relation to the individual. In other words, there is a strong connection between language use and social conditioning.

Sometimes Different Words Meant the Same on Both Sides of the Wall

Instances where different words are used to express the same meaning in East and West German language use can prove equally problematic. East Berliners did their shopping at the Kaufhalle, while their Western counterparts went to the Supermarkt. After work, Ossis would crack open a Pulle of beer, while Wessis drank theirs from a Dose. In the GDR, the angel that traditionally sits on top of a proper German Christmas tree was officially known as a geflügelte Jahresendfigur, Jahresendflügelwesen or Jahresendemann in an attempt to obscure the holiday’s Christian origins that caused much hilarity even among many East Germans.

Our Top 10 Entries for a trilingual East German/West German/English Dictionary:

East German West German English
Bemme belegtes Brot sandwich
Campingbeutel Rucksack backpack
Erdmöbel Sarg coffin
Feierabendheim Seniorenheim care home
Flebben Fahrerlaubnis driving licence
Getränkestützpunkt Getränkeladen bottle shop
Grüne Minna Polizeiauto police car
Kombinat Konzern company
Niethosen Jeans jeans
Untertrikotagen Unterwäsche underwear


Efforts by the socialist regime in Eastern Germany attempted to impose its own language during the forty-year period when Germany was divided into two countries proved ultimately unsuccessful. However, the meaning and usage of individual words differed considerably in both parts of Germany. Some of these differences are still noticeable today.