German is a West Germanic language, closely related to Dutch and English, with about 100 million native speakers in Germany, Austria and the northern parts of Switzerland, as well as small enclaves in Russia and neighbouring countries, in Romania, and in North and South America. Unlike other European standard languages, Standard German is not the language of a specific social stratum in a specific geographical area. Rather, it is perhaps best identified in terms of the pronunciation of the written standard language as codified in the publications of the Duden dictionary publishers. Standard German, Hochdeutsch (``High German'') should not to be confused with Hochdeutsch as a technical term for the group of Southern German dialects which underwent the High German Consonant Shift in the early middle ages. The pronunciation of Standard German is sometimes called Bühnenaussprache (``stage pronunciation''). Standard German is a superstrate which is associated historically with the formal speech of the educated classes in the Lutheran areas of North Germany. However, the distinctive regional pronunciation of speakers in each major German cultural centre is also acceptable in public life.
The main regional standards are associated with Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Leipzig, and Vienna for Austrian German, and Zurich for Swiss German (see §3.1). A remarkable feature of the German of educated speakers in many parts of Germany is socially triggered dialect switching, between a local dialect, the regional standard, and the standard superstrate. As in other countries, the mass media tend to support spreading of the standard superstrate.
Regional standard accents are characterised both by differences in the vowel and consonant systems, and also by a conspicuous variety of intonation patterns. The prosodic systems of the regional standards do not differ fundamentally from those of the standard superstrate, however. German pronunciation and its relation to other varieties is described in detail by Kohler .