Dialects still play a major role in Germany. Even German politicians often speak their dialects (even if sometimes in a form closer to Standard German).
German Dialects can be a problem even to native German speakers. It's especially problematic in more remote and rural areas, where schoolteachers who have moved from other regions can't understand their pupils at all. TV documentaries sometimes have Standard German subtitles or voice-over because the people featured in them speak a dialect that is incomprehensible to the majority of viewers.
The most important German dialects:
Plattdüütsch ("Flat German", Low German): Spoken in the north, in Hamburg, Bremen and other Hanseatic cities, and extending south as far as the northern edge of the Ruhr in places. Associated with fishermen, sailors and other people dealing with the sea (if they speak at all - the cliché says that they're rather taciturn). Or with pimps in Hamburg, of the (in)famous Reeperbahn redlight district. Typical element of northern German dialects: The sounds "St" and "Sp" at the beginning of words are pronounced like that, and not like "Sht" and "Shp" as in most of Germany. Stereotypical greeting is "Moin Moin!" — you hear the sailors in Das Boot saying this to each other.
While "Moin Moin!" certainly is Plattdeutsch, most of the above is merely northern accent. Actual Plattdeutsch is a different thing altogether as most Germans, even northerners, don't understand it. Like Dutch and English, it is a Low Germanic language; that is to say, it was unaffected by the second German vowel shift. Its status as a dialect of German is primarily political; the people who spoke it happened to become identified with Germany rather than the Netherlands, and as a result (because "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy"), Plattdüütsch came to be considered a dialect of German, while Dutch, Frisian, and (Old) English (Plattdüütsch's closest relatives, genetically), are considered separate languages. As an example of this similarity, the phrase: "Jetzt ist er tot" in Standard German is "He is dod nu." in Plattdeutsch (pronounced "Heh is dohd noo") it means: "he is dead now" Also note the similarity to "han er død nu", which is the Danish version of the same phrase. The northernmost German dialects and southernmost Danish ones overlap somewhat.
Linguists describe the ways High German is spoken in Northern Germany as dialects, because not only the pronunciation, but also the vocabulary and grammar differs both from the standard and the regional dialects of further South, usually under the influence of Plattdeutsch (Low German). This phenomenon is colloquially called "Missingsch", a word allegedly derived from the noun "Messing" (brass), because in this way of speaking High and Low German are alloyed just as copper and zinc are in brass. One of the most noticeable of North German dialects of High German is for instance that they tend to mix up the dative and accusative case, originally because Low German makes no difference between the two (e. g. for "me", High German has "mir" (dative) and "mich" (accusative), while Low German only has "mi").
"Moin" is short for "mojen dag" (good day) and thus can be used at any time of day, even though it sounds a lot like High German "Morgen" (morning), to the confusion of non-Northerners. Thus one contemporary observer thought that the Prussian field-marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who originally came from Mecklenburg, greeted his men with a cheerful "good morning" even in the evening!
Another interesting fact about real Low German is, that it is at times unbelievably vulgar. Though you can translate every word directly into standard German, it would often turn into cluster F-bombing. When used in Low German though, its totally acceptable and used to talk more friendly and non-uptight.
Plattdeutsch is actually considered a distinct language. You may contact the local authorities in Low German, and they may respond in kind, at least in the Land Schleswig-Holstein. You can even enter patent applications (in Munich of all places), as long as you also deliver an official translation. It also enjoys minority protection status.
It is also worth noting that Plattdüütsch is not one cohesive language, but among all the overarching characteristics there are significant variations even between neighbouring villages.
The Plattdüütsch language region also extends into the northeastern Netherlands, where it is locally termed as Dutch Low Saxon. Similarly, the Dutch language region creeps into Germany (in the vicinity of Düsseldorf and Duisberg) where it is termed as Low Frankish. Generally speaking, the modern Netherlands and Germany have well-differentiated national identities, though their shared national border does not coincide at all with their traditional linguistic boundaries.
There is a joke playing with this: A German girl is visiting her grandparents on the countryside. She's having the first English lessons in school and wants to show off her knowledge, so she mentions during the lunch: "The door is open!" Her grandpa just replies: "Denn maak se man tau, min deern!" (Well, then close it, my girl!) The joke being here that "The door is open" is pronounced practically the same in Plattdüütsch and English, and yes, means the same too.
Hannoverian: This is said to be a dialect, but mostly it sounds like standard ("high") German. A Swabian journalist who moved there stated that she was surprised that in Hannover, even proles spoke Standard German, while in her home area, this alone would qualify you to be Mayor.
In Three Men On The Bummel, Jerome K. Jerome recounts (in the 1910s) that conventional thinking says 'you must go to Hanover to learn the purest, proper German'. He states that this is true, the only problem being that it will be a form of German that no-one in any other part of Germany seems to understand.
As any German can tell you this is largely not true: Everyone can speak Standard German. In Germany itself the joke is mostly "You have to go to Hannover to hear actual Standard German... the problem is: you'd be in Hannover..."
Berlinerisch (Berlin German): The closest thing German(y) has to big city slang. Typical elements: They say "ick(e)" for "I", which Anglophones probably find very funny (if they speak enough German to notice), "och" instead of "auch,"note also, as well and "nüscht" instead of "nichts."note nothing Berliners are stereotypically big-mouthed, brash and cocky.
Saxon: According to a 2008 poll (here: http://www.ifd-allensbach.de/news/prd_0804.html), by far the most unpopular German dialect. Was spoken by many prominent politicians of East Germany (like Walter Ulbricht, their first head of state), and their border guards, which didn't help its popularity. The Saxon dialect replaces P, T, K sounds by B, D, G (and several vowels too, but that's too complicated to expalin). Thuringian (the area west of Saxony) is a bit like it. Most notable for the invention of new vocab (as "Plinsen" for pancakes) and new meanings to vocabs (mentioned "Pfannkuchen" in Saxon are Plinsen. In other regions pancakes are called pancakes, "Pfannkuchen" - in Saxon, however "Pfannkuchen" is what in other regions in Germany is a "Krapfen" - some doughling, baked out in oil, filled with jelly. Hilarity Ensues when a Saxonian orders Pfannkuchen in a bavarian bakery). Also known as typical Saxonian is "Nu" - the universially used word for approval, yes, maybe, scepticism ("Nu, nu...") etc. - there are cases known where entire conversations were held only by using "Nu".)
The bad image of Saxon was in no little part due to the fact that Saxon and Thuringian were the only dialect unambiguously associated with the GDR (the dialects of the coastal regions are very similar to those of Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg etc., while the Berlin dialect was shared by East and West Berliners). Specifically, communist party leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker spoke with a very noticeable Saxon accent (which in the latter case was an acquired one - Honecker originally came from the Saarland).
Has been described, for the benefit of British tropers, as someone speaking German with a thick Brummy accent.
Hoewever, there's the rumor that Luther wrote his bible translation in a sub form of Saxon an thus made Saxon the base for the later high German. (of course THIS rumor is especially loved by Saxonians themselves.)
Not a rumor, but a fact. It was based on the language used by the local chancery (Sächsische Kanzleisprache) and, as a Middle German dialect, formed a suitable basis on which to construct a language understandable to people in all part of Germany.
This joke is somewhat translatable: Two Saxon policemen see a car with the nationality sticker "GB".
Policeman 1: "What country is zat? Gingdom of Boland?"
Policeman 2: "You are so dumb! Zat's one of us! Zis means 'Griminal Bolice'!"
Franconian: Spoken in the area between Thuringia, Bavaria and Hesse. Replaces P and T sounds by B and D respectively.
The locals call it the hard B and the soft B respectively.
Also, if you want to emphazise any part of your sentence, just add 'fei' in front of the part you what to give extra weight. And no, 'fei' cannot be translated. Not even into Standard German.
Bavarian: Most popular German dialect, according to the earlier mentioned poll. (For the Oktoberfest, maybe?) Associated with the gemütlich Bavarian guys who like beer, rich food, wear lederhosen and listen to Bavarian (Polka-like) music. Typically has quite a singsong intonation and in inclination similar to Welsh to put a slight pause in between the first and second syllables of a word.
While regular Bavarian accents can be understood by most Germans, Lower Bavarian (Niederbairisch) from the eastern end of the state is often unintelligible even to other Bavarians.
Austrian: Can be used to describe three main dialect groups spoken in Austria, "Donaubairisch" (in Salzburg, Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Vienna, parts of Styria and Burgenland and northern Tyrol), "Südbairisch" (spoken in the rest of Tyrol, Eastern Tyrol, the rest of Styria) and "Allemanisch" (Vorarlberg) Hint: The sentence "My name is" ("Ich heiße") becomes "I hoaß" in Bavarian, but "I haaß" in the Austrian capital Vienna, which has its own dialect.
Austria itself has several distinct dialects, which confuses matters even more. "I hoaß" is the way it's said in Salzburg, northern Styria, norther Tyrol, parts of Upper and Lower Austria and Burgenland (when not yet superseded by the Viennese "â"), but not in Vienna and areas influenced by the Viennese dialect, where people say "I hâß".
Vienna itself has a few different dialects. The most distinguishable is the Meidlinger Dialect, which is the common, working class dialect, and famous for the "Meidlinger L", a sound even most non-Viennese Austrians can't replicate. The other major Viennese dialect, now almost extinct, is "Schönbrunner Deutsch", spoken by the nobility, which sounds completely different.
There is also Tyrolean, which is a term used for the whole of Tyrol, but actually mostly applies to Innsbruck (the capital) and surrounding areas, where consonants almost underwent another consonant shift: several consonants hardened (f.e. "k" to almost "kch") and vowels darkened ("a" -> "o" instead of "â" (standard Oberbairisch)). Also, the germanic "s" (pronounced as "sch") was retained in some areas, resulting in pronunciations of "bist" as "bischt".
Actually, each of the nine Bundesländer has its own notably different dialect (usually with several variants), with dialect borders closely following political borders.
The most easily recognizable dialect may be Carinthian, because it has very distinctive pronounciation yet is easy to understand, so it's recognised by many people. The most widely spoken dialect in Austria is Donaubairisch. Tyrolians, on the other hand, usually have to switch to a more standardized version of German to be understood by other Austrians.
Things get absolutely crazy with dialects in Vorarlberg, Austria's western-most Bundesland. The dialects are part of the allemanic group and thus very different from other Austrian dialects. There are at least four major groups (and many more subgroups) of dialects with some very distinct words and prounciation. Noticeably the Vorarlbergerisch dialects are more closely related to Swiss German, which is one of the reasons Vorarlbergers are often referred to (more or less) jokingly as Swiss by other Austrians. The other wiki has more.
For example, listen to this - I chose the line basically because I could understand it
Vorarlbergerisch: Vo Mello bis ge Schoppornou bean i gloufa - d'Füaß hend mr weh tau
Hochdeutsch: Von Mellau bis nach Schoppernau nin ich gegangen - die Füße haben mir weh getan
English: I walked from Mellau to Schoppernau, my feet hurt
Remember that we are talking about a state with only 370.000 inhabitants here.
Swabian: Spoken in the southwest in a region centered on Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg. Speakers like to apply the ending "-le" to quite many words, which make these words a diminutive.
Spätzle, the little noodle/dumpling crossovers familiar to some American tropers, are Swabian in origin.
Alemannisch: Another southwestern dialect, spoken in Baden (which prides itself on not being Swabian) and French Elsass/Alsace (Alsatian, as in the type of dog known as a German Retriever in the United States for reasons relating to World War One). Since both Swabian and Alemannisch are spoken in the state of Baden-Württemberg (known for innovative science and industry), the state had a bit of fun with an ad campaign that ran, "Wir können alles. Außer Hochdeutsch." ("We can do anything. Except speak Standard German.") Alemannisch is related to...
Swiss German: Similar to Swabian, but even more incomprehensible for other German-speakers. Has many loan words from French and Italian (which are the other official languages spoken in Switzerland).
The Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne has language-selection buttons on its videos offering English, French, German and Swiss-German. The Swiss essentially regard it as a separate language, and it has been suggested that if Dutch is a separate language, then Swiss should be too.
Perhaps, since "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy", the Dutch qualify but the Swiss don't, since the Swiss Navy is somewhat minimal.
The Swiss German "dialect" itself has more than half-a-dozen dialects, with those even having "sub"-dialects, variing from one region to another. It can be argued that, despite not officially recoginzed as such, Swiss German pratically is a separate language.
Wikipedia uses the terms Swiss Standard German and Swiss German to distinguish the two. Doesn't really help.
To clarify: "Swiss Standard German" is Standard German (Hochdeutsch), the written language common to all German speakers, with Swiss intonation and vocabulary, while "Swiss German" is any of the several dialects spoken in Switzerland, which are as a group distinct from other variations of German. There is a common joke about Germans mistaking "Swiss Standard German" for actual Swiss German because the Swiss accent alone is already very different from Standard German.
The stereotypical Swiss German word is "Chuchichäschtli" (the "ch" pronounced as in Scottish "loch"), which would be "Küchenschrank" (literally: "Küchenkästchen") in Standard German, and means "kitchen cubboard".
Hessian: Spoken e. g. in the area around Frankfurt. Became somewhat famous when parts of it entered "Kanaksprak" (the slang used by youths from immigrant families).
"Alle Hejje sin' Verbrejje, denn se klaue Ajjenbejje."
Was also spoken by noone lesser but Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as is visible in the lines "Ach neige / du Schmerzensreiche..." from Faust. In standard German, this would make a Painful Rhyme, but in Hessian, it's smooth. And the character saying it (Gretchen) would definitely speak dialect.
If you fly Lufthansa, you'll probably stop in Frankfurt. While they do their best to cover it up, there's a definite Hessian tinge to the German spoken among the people manning FRA security, so if you've been there, that's what it's like (if you can tell).
Palatinate: Pfälzisch, the dialect of former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who became the target of so many jokes. Similar to:
Rhenish: Spoken in the Rhineland. Related to Letzeburgisch, the German dialect spoken in Luxembourg, is also spoken by the Germanophone community of Belgium and forms a continuum with the dialect of Dutch spoken in the neighboring province of Limburg (you know, where the cheese that literally smells like feet comes from).
Kölsch: A specific variant of Rhenish, spoken in the city of Cologne. Associated with the Cologne Carnival festivities. May be more famous than other Rhenish variants because some of Germany's most important TV stations are located in Cologne. Not to be confused with the beer from that area which is also called Kölsch...although the similarity of names has led to a German joke about how Kölsch is the only dialect you can drink.)
Westphalian / "Ruhrpott" speech: Has quite some influences. Although it is associated with Germany's biggest urban agglomeration, the dialect is actually not all that different between the "Pütt" and rural areas like the Sauerland and Münsterland.
The Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian languages spoken in Saxony are West Slavic, related most closely to Polish and Czech. They are a remnant of the previous Wendish group of West Slavic languages formerly more widely spoken in what is now eastern Germany. Wendish languages started to disappear en masse with the Ostsiedlung in the 12th century, when ethnic Germans from further west started settling en masse further east. The only surviving Wendish languages are Upper and Lower Sorbian, and also Kashubian in Poland.
As a result of World War II, several million Germans were kicked out from the area east of Oder-Neiße-line, the new German-Polish border, as well as from many other areas of Eastern and Eastern Central Europe. Thus, these dialects were from then on just spoken by older refugees and nowadays almost completely disappeared.
Pomeranian: Basically the regional dialects of High and Low German and as such not that different from other North German dialects. Obviously some are still spoken in the part of Pomerania west of the Oder that remains German.
Silesian: As a funny detail, the phrase "Er ist von uns gegangen" ("he went from us") just means "he left" in Silesian, instead of being an euphemism for "he died", as most other Germans would understand it.
Quite a few Germans stayed in Silesia after the war and are now a recognized linguistic minority under EU law. There was a distinct difference between the northern part (Lower Silesia) and the southern (Upper Silesia). The latter had a large Polish community which basically got crapped on by both sides, becoming the subject of distrust and ridicule among Germans ("Antek and Frantek" jokes used to be popular at least until the 1940s) and regarded as too "Germanified" by Poles.
Not to be mistaken with modern Silesian language spoken by Polish Silesian minority, that uses Polish grammar, a lot of indigenous vocabulary (not strictly Polish, but definitely of Slavic origin) and many (sometimes bastardized) German loanwords.
East Prussian: Had both High and Low German dialects. The dialect of the former German-speaking community of the Baltic states sounded rather similar, as did that of German-Speakers of West Prussia (the pre-1939 Polish Corridor). Influences came from various Slavic languages such as Polish, Kassubian and Masurian (the latter two are regarded as Polish dialects by patriotic Poles). Some slightly archaic forms, collectively known as Plautdietsch (a phonically altered form of "Plattdeutsch"), are still spoken among Mennonite communities in the Americas. Not to be confused with Old Prussian, below.
Sudeten or Bohemian German: The dialect spoken by the German-speaking community of what is now The Czech Republic. Somewhat similar to Austrian and Silesian, with some influences from Czech. Although some might classify Franz Kafka's native dialect as Sudeten, things are somewhat less clear: he lived in Prague and was Jewish, and both Prague and the German-speaking Czech Jews had their own, mutually-interacting dialects.
Other dialects from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and elsewhere include those of the "Siebenbürgen Saxons" (the German community of Transylvania) and the "Banat Swabians" (Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller is from this part of Romania). (Note: In South Eastern Europe "Swabian" is often used as a pejorative name for all kinds of Germans.)
A West Slavic language, Polabian, was formerly spoken by local Slavic populations in the vicinity of the Elbe River (as far west as Bremen), and died out very gradually over centuries of assimilation into surrounding German cultures. The Polabian language's closest living relatives are Sorbian and Kashubian, and the three languages together along with more-recently-extinct Slovincian are considered the "Wendish" languages of West Slavic (often considered distinct from Polish and Czech-Slovak groups of West Slavic).
Some non-Germanic languages and dialects died out too during the flight of non-ethnic Germans (along with ethnic German neighbors) after World War II who had already adopted a German national identity. The West Slavic language Slovincian in Pomerania completely died out, as the post-war Polish authorities considered the Slovincians unwanted Germans and expelled them to Germany. Many Protestant Lechitic Slavs (such as the Masurians) and the Prussian Lithuanians were also deported to Germany, and their language was eventually lost. The entire population of what became Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast (and almost the entire population of what became Lithuania's Klaipėda region) was also expelled to Germany — they were mostly Germans and indigenous Prussian Lithuanians, but also speakers of the Baltic language New Curonian (similar to Latvian) who lived on the Curonian Spit. The descendants of all groups are now fully assimilated into modern society in Germany, mostly speaking Standard German.
The Old Prussian language was the most prominent of the obscure West Baltic languages, spoken in the northeast Poland/Kaliningrad/Klaipeda area before the Ostsiedlung; it was related to Lithuanian and Latvian, and died out by the 17th century as the locals became Germanized. The Prussian dialects of German included a number of Old Prussian loanwords.
Yiddish is a collection of Jewish-specific High German dialects that—despite the lack of an army and a navy—came to be considered a language; the Hebrew loanwords and being written in the Hebrew alphabet probably had something to do with it. To be quite fair, the dialects of Yiddish that survived are the eastern ones, which contained a large portion of Slavic vocabulary, as well (western Yiddish died out as German Jews assimilated to mainstream German culture—or died out in a more literal sense).
For all the jokes about "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy" on this page—the actual quote was originally in Yiddish, about Yiddish. The fact that Yiddish is almost universally considered a separate language from High German despite the absence of these makes one really think about linguistics.
Concerning Asterix: Some of them brought some interesting local color, like the Ruhrpott version ("Beim Jupp und Pitter!"), other were nothing but the standard German version translated into dialect, and some were a bit weird (The Gauls are Hessians? And the participating teams of the Olympic Games named like the nicknames of Hessian football teams?)
There are some dubs of non-German movies where, in an attempt at Cultural Translation, non-Germans speak (more or less) perfect German dialects.
Der Wixxer (Has two stereotypical East Germans with Saxon accents. Who are not played by Saxons. Yes, it's as wacky as it sounds.)
Bertolt Brecht, who famously wanted to make his plays emotionally distant from his audience, encouraged his actors to translate his scripts into their native dialects and initially learn them in that form, so that they would be adequately detached when they eventually performed in Bühnenhochdeutsch (standard German, literally "stage German").
The German dub of Count Duckula has Goosewing speaking Saxon dialect. And in the episode when a Scottish guy appeared, they made him speak Bavarian dialect. "Ein Fuchzgerl!"
The Austrian band STS made "Hier kummt die Sunn", a dialect version of John Lennon's "Here comes the sun".
American Dad!: Klaus the Goldfish with the mind of an East German ski jumper orignally speaks English with a generic German accent - the German dub of the series gives him a very appropriate Saxon accent.
On a related note, BAP made a version of several Bob Dylan's songs in their dialect of Cologne, i.e. Kölsch. They had told him about it, and allegedly he liked it, but as some people pointed out, Bob Dylan doesn't understand Kölsch.