History of German Language

To even attempt to start with the importance of language would be juvenile. It is what binds people together, it brings you closer to others, and let’s just say that the years of evolution pay off when you get comforted by a friend in your language. The why’s and how’s of the origin of language may remain obscure, but scholars have done rigorous research to trace out the origins of individual languages arriving at an interesting conclusion: that most languages have one common ancestor, and the original linguistic group is the reason why some words are common from as far as Sanskrit to French. This group is the Indo-European group, which also has the German language in it.

(You-Know-Who was confused when he thought of Aryan as a race, but rather it was a sub linguistic group in the Indo-European family.)

The history of any language is complicated, it is not a linear process of evolution, changes occur because of cultural influences, shifts of power to different groups, and the effort of the intelligentsia. The latter are the ones who in their quest to “purify” a language direct its evolution. And then they attempt to infuse these changes in the vocabulary of the language and redefine the rules that governed it, which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. The evolution of German is also very complex, and to understand it means also looking at how the standardisation of the language was tied to the identity of the German nation and people.

Today there are three Standardised variants of German; German, Austrian, and Swiss Standard High German. But overall it is an inflected language, which means that the form of the word changes to show grammatical use, with four cases of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives; three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter); and strong and weak verbs.

Scholars have traced the emergence of the German language to the Proto Germanic, as a part of the Proto Indo-European family. Germanic was entirely spoken and not written by any of the people living in northern Europe. Even after the people spread to other areas, there was no standardisation; rather many dialects of Germanic became the norm for the people who spoke it. These were Northern Germanic (Norse, Runic), East Germanic (Gothic), and West Germanic (Dutch, English, German).

German scholars have classified time periods for the evolution of German, not in its diversified dialectic form, but when conscious effort started being made that put it on its evolutionary path.

There are three periods, and each period has left its own impact on German because of its unique cultural and political influences.

Althochdeutsch (750 AD–1050 AD)

It is the “Old High German” period, which indicates all the different dialects that existed in the German speaking regions. And does not refer to any one as being representative of AHD, as each had its own nuances and subtleties. Written AHD existed but that was mostly among monks and clerical circles who were translating Latin religious texts. They still only made up a privileged minority. Sometimes a dialect was designated as the “standard” because a certain powerful group used it, and proposed it as such, but that only lasted till they were able to hold on to this power. But it did not have an impact on the German speaking population as most of them were illiterate, so written AHD was only for the religious literate few.

Mittelhochdeutsch (1050 AD- 1350 AD)

By this time the Church really wanted a unifying, standard German to better communicate with the German speaking populace. But the literacy levels were still low, and the conditions weren’t set for the emergence of a standard language; no medium through which to set the standard, no printing, and no education. Along with the Church, certain political families were rising to prominence, amongst them were traders and merchants which facilitated the rise of cities with trade centres. This meant that there had to be effective communication between two different regions, two different dialects. But it was the courtly society which contributed to the writing of the most texts in this period. And like the monks and clerics these writers who were of aristocratic backgrounds, nobles and knights alike, focused on religion. Writing poetry, epics and romances deeply infused with religious meaning. These texts were not reflective of the many dialects spoken by the majority German speaking population, but as these courtly writers met frequently it is possible that both their written as well as spoken MHD was the most uniform it had ever been before.

Neuhochdeutsch (1350 AD- Till now)

A change in the vowel sounds occurred at the end of the MHD period, and when that change had spread through all the German speaking regions, the NHD era started. All the elements of the current standard German were present in this period, but this is not to say that it was a standard language. To reach a large number of people, and to make them understand the law the bureaucrats were encouraged to write in the vernacular. This meant that all these various vernaculars were becoming the standard of their particular area. Historical changes were bringing more people in from the countryside to the cities, where their various dialects interacted, resulting in new urban dialects. And understanding that written word affects speech and vice versa, the different new dialects were becoming more uniform over time.

Another historical push to these dialects’ uniformity was the invention of the movable type printing press by Johaness Gutenberg. Not to say that one standard was fixed, rather the differences in the vernaculars were getting fixed.

Martin Luther’s Bibeldeutsch was written to promote his reformed Christian faith, and in a way that would be understood by both those in power and the masses. So he combined the spelling and grammar of the Kanzleisprache the standard (more or less) for the imperial court, with his hometown East German vernacular. His work was not only reflective of the vocabulary of the East German dialect but also the form and manner of speech of other dialects so as to appease as many people as he could, which resulted in a hybrid German.

It was only after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that the courts decided to bring stability to the German speaking regions. To codify both political and literary rules to redress the historical lack of unity of the German speaking regions. It was then that the Sprachgesellschaften, language societies were founded. They comprised poets, scholars and noblemen pursuing the single goal to rid German of any Italian, Latin or French influence. To select German words over using loaned foreign words, and using German grammatical forms. Culminating in the Grimm brothers making standard dictionaries (Wörterbuch), and writing one of the most widely known German texts “ The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.”

Moreover, with compulsory education being introduced the literacy rate was on the rise, contributing to greater uniformity across school systems and universities. And the urban centres with an ever increasing German speaking population, gave rise to political mobilisation, advanced communication and transport technology; ultimately unifying the different German speaking members under one German language and nation.

Knowing the history of German, now we should look to the present and the future. It is the mother tongue of the majority of people in Europe, not Germany, the entire continent. And has more than a hundred million speakers worldwide, with more joining. Not to compare the rich history of a language to commerce, but German is a very lucrative language. With major German powerhouses like BMW, Volkswagen, Bosch, Adidas, Lufthansa and many more, having their operations worldwide, it opens job opportunities for people everywhere and knowing their language definitely would not be a setback. For learning purposes as well Germany is the centre of sciences, universities giving considerable concessions, with most courses being free of cost for not only native but international students. It is also one of the most innovative countries, and the third largest contributor to research and development, so if you wish to contribute to the wonderful field of astrophysics or biochemistry, it is the language to learn.

And if you just wish to know the language that has the saying, “ Herr, wirf Hirn vom himmel! Oder steine hauptsache er trifft.” (Lord throw some brains from the heavens! Or stones as long as he hits the mark.) German is the language to know.

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