Central Austro-Bavarian or Upper Saxonian dialect speakers are perceived by others to be less open to experiences and less conscientious. Whereas women and men who speak Upper Saxonian are judged to be less open to experiences than central Austro-Bavarian-speaking women and men, Upper Saxonian-speaking men are viewed as least conscientious. These are the findings of Dr. Kerstin Trillhaase at the TU Berlin Chair of Speech Communication.
In her dissertation, Trillhaase examined how the Upper Saxonian and central Austro-Bavarian dialects influence how we perceive the personalities of such dialect speakers. She used a novel approach in language research combining dialectal language recordings and the Big Five model from psychology. The Big Five – neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness – attempts to comprehensively describe a person's personality. "Until now, there has been research on how typical Saxons or Bavarians are perceived to be educated/uneducated, spirited/calm, and friendly/unfriendly compared to non-dialect speakers as well as on whether such dialects are thought to be attractive, beautiful, melodical, soft, and logical," says Trillhaase, "but research investigating how dialects impact our perception of the Big Five is new."
Trillhaase analyzed the influence of the two dialects on three of the Big Five traits, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Openness to experience refers to one’s openness to fantasy, aesthetic, emotions, actions, ideas, as well as openness to one's own systems of standards and values. Agreeableness concerns trust, frankness, altruism, obligingness, modesty as well as good-heartedness. Conscientiousness encompasses traits like competence, orderliness, sense of duty, striving for achievement, self-discipline, and prudence.
Upper Saxonian is spoken roughly in the region between Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz. Central Austro-Bavarian is spoken across Upper and Lower Bavaria, including Munich, as well as Upper and Lower Austria. In her empirical study, Dr. Kerstin Trillhaase invited subjects from Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz, Heidenau, Munich, and rural areas of Bavaria to read a text about an everyday situation in their respective dialect and then again in standard German. In the end she had 88 audio recordings which 43 other participants from nine federal states then assessed with respect to the three personality traits described above. Her analysis of the results showed that subjects who spoke Saxonian were assessed as significantly less open to experience than when reading the same text in standard German. Listeners also evaluated Saxonian-speaking men as significantly less conscientious. "If you consider that conscientious people are described as orderly, dutiful or disciplined and these traits are hardly attributed to Saxon men, then you could almost come to the conclusion that they are not taken seriously with regards to their competence," says Trillhaase. Interestingly, the Upper Saxonian dialect does not have the same negative affect on women in this category. Only a moderate effect could be found when reading the text in dialect compared to standard German.
In contrast to the Saxonian speakers, speaking in central Austro-Bavarian dialect only had a small effect on women’s perception as being open to experience and conscientious compared to standard German. Central Austro-Bavarian-speaking men, in turn, are also perceived as less open to experience and less conscientious than when speaking standard German, but not as negatively as the Upper Saxonian-speaking subjects. "My empirical study shows that compared to standard German, dialect influences the perception of both genders' personalities and that men who speak in dialect are more strongly impacted by such biases in perception than women," summarizes Trillhaase. Agreeableness on the other hand, was not shown to be impacted by dialect compared to when speaking in standard language.
Trillhaase believes these attributions stem from a historical perception of dialects as the language of peasants, leading to the stigmatization of dialect speakers as uneducated and simple-minded. People who speak dialect tend to be older males living in rural areas and thus are associated with prejudices of being traditional, conservative, and conventional as well as having ingrained attitudes. According to Trillhaase, this may lead to the reverse conclusion that anyone who speaks dialect is traditional and conservative.
It is important to point out that her results only speak to how dialect speakers are perceived as less conscientious or less open by their counterparts, which is not to say they are. For example, a 2008 study by the Institute for German Language in Mannheim refuted the prejudice that dialect is the language of the social underclass. "People who speak dialect are not per se less educated than those who speak high or standard German," says Trillhaase.
Trillhaase attributes the differences in the perception of the personalities of dialect and standard German speakers, among other things, to the modernization of Germany after 1945 and an accompanying change in language manifesting itself in a shift away from basic dialects toward standard German. "Several studies, most recently in 2019, demonstrate that people speaking standard German or rather standard German itself is assessed more positively,” she continues.
The fact that Upper Saxonian was significantly more negatively perceived than Central Austro-Bavarian in her study correlates with results from previous studies on how favored German dialects are. Saxonian has topped the unpopularity scale for years. Additionally, stereotypes about residents of the former GDR could have been passed on to Saxonian speakers, as views about "Saxons" and "East Germans" partially overlap.
In practical terms, her findings mean that dialect speakers should be aware of these perceptual distortions - for example, in the job application process or in everyday professional life. The same applies to HR managers who shouldn't let dialects distract them into making incorrect judgments about applicants. Despite these findings, Trillhaase does not want her dissertation to be understood as an impetus to stop speaking dialect.
Kerstin Trillhaase, "Der Einfluss der deutschen Dialekte Obersächsisch und Mittelbairisch auf die Wahrnehmung der Persönlichkeit" in Mündliche Kommunikation, Edited by W. Sendlmeier, Logos Verlag Berlin GmbH 2021, Volume 11, 225 pages, ISBN 978-3-8325-5313-5