12 February 2011

Word for the day: isogloss

I had never heard this word before, but encountered it today at The Big Think.  First, a definition of  an "isogloss" map:
"an isogloss map shows the geographical borders between linguistic features, be they related to syntax, semantics or pronunciation. They can focus on one particular element (like this time-telling one) or show the boundary between a complex of features (e.g. the borders between different dialects)." 
Excerpts from a discussion of the map:
If it's 10:15 in the germanosphere, you'll have at least four options of expressing that particular moment. Those four options are all regional variants, so that, in German, you can tell with some degree of certainty which general area someone hails from by the way they tell the time at quarter past ten...

This isogloss map shows that in a large part of north-western Germany, from the Danish to the French border, the preferred option is viertel nach zehn ('quarter after ten'). This viertel is considered a fixed point in time, and its point of reference is the previous full hour...

In what used to be East Germany, the same clock time is referenced as viertel elf ('quarter eleven'). This viertel is not a point in time, but a period of time, i.e. one-fourth of the next hour. This area doesn't stop at the former German-German border, but extends into northern Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.

An option limited to German-speaking Switzerland is to call this particular time viertel ab zehn ('quarter from ten'). Like the first viertel, this one is distanced from the previous hour by a preposition, albeit not a unidirectional one. In theory, this moment could both be before or after ten. Common usage will probably make such confusion improbable...
More at the link.  This reminds me of the U. S. map of "pop," soda," and "coke."


  1. Thanks for the map - I was born in Germany but grew up outside until age ~15, and this "quarter eleven" always stumped me when my grandma used it - only learned it after I got married.
    Interestingly, my wife comes from the bottom left of the purple strip (Baden), my grandma from Berlin (top right). The two dialects are incredibly different - except for this bit.

  2. Just to give some background:

    This is a annual survey from the university in Augsburg, here is the site for the current round:


    I have been taking part for the last four years or so, some of the questions do require some soulsearching.

  3. Hmmm...they didn't quite get it right as far as the german speaking part of Switzerland is concerned: we use 'viertel nach Zehn' when using written (standard) language. All other varieties are considered wrong. When it comes to speaking dialect, we do indeed say 'viertel ab...' but wouldn't use the numeral "zehn" - which is standard pronunciation, i. e. used for writing - but say 'zäni' (or a slightly different sounding variant, depending on local dialect). The expression 'Viertel ab Zehn' might be produced by a primary school child (both oraly and in writing) as swiss german children often mix elements of dialect and standard language.

  4. Furthermore the claim in the comment regarding the preposition 'ab' in 'Viertel ab Zehn' not being unidirectional and therefore introducing ambivalence into telling the time in Switzerland might technically be true; 'ab' really expresses 'being distanced from' both spatially and temporally. But when it is used in relation to time - not space - it always bears the meaning of 'past'. If you'd want to express the fact that a moment in time takes place before another moment, you'd just say 'vor'. Hence 'Viertel vor Zehn' (quarter to ten), not only in Switzerland, but for all german-speakers. No ambivalence there. (We'd all miss our trains in the morning when commuting to Zurich to work in a bank).

  5. Christian, if you have a look at the website I linked, you will see that different pronounciations of words are ignored in certain questions, where they will put the words that matter to them in bold.

    At other times, however they will ask for the actual (dialect) word people would be using. For instance for this one: http://www.philhist.uni-augsburg.de/lehrstuehle/germanistik/sprachwissenschaft/ada/runde_7/f01b/

  6. argh.

    Eating the rest of my link.

    it continues with sprachwissenschaft/ada/runde_7/f01b/

  7. ...and a link to a site which pinpoints your swiss german dialect down to the level of groups of villages just by your picking your way of pronouncing these ten words: 'hand', 'not', 'today', 'window', 'yesterday', 'evening', 'obey', 'moon', 'would/used to...', and 'splinter'.
    (The sites algorithm is based on the eight volume isogloss map "Sprachatlas der deutschen Schweiz")


    What a fascinating modern world we're living in. (Jack Aubrey)

  8. anonymus, some crossposting confusion, sorry, great link, thanks, lots and lots of reading.

  9. It's funny how your brain is "trained" to think a certain way. The quarter eleven sounds completely off to me, but if you're raised thinking of after 10:00 as being the eleventh hour of the day it would make perfect sense.

    A related TED talk:

  10. I'd love to see the reaction of Hamburger being mistaken for a Bavarian. Based on this map, that's exactly what some unaware non-native might do.

  11. If you enjoy isoglosses and have an interest in English dialect, you'll probably get a kick out of Word Maps, which is the result of work my father-in-law and his colleagues carried out on the enormous survey of English dialects back in the 80s. It's available for your browsing pleasure via Google Books here. Fascinating stuff; it's one of those books you intend to pick up for a minute or so and find yourself lost in for hours.


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