The History of the German Language

Why is is it called “German” and not “Germanic”? How has its pronunciation changed? Take a dive into the exciting, centuries-old history of the German language.

With over 100 million speakers, German is currently the most spoken language in the EU. But where does German — with its complex grammar and endless vocabulary — actually come from, and how did it evolve into the language it is today?

Let’s take a journey through the history of the German language, from its first proto-speakers 3,000 years ago to its youngest letter, which just celebrated its third birthday. 

Once upon a time: Proto-Germanic Language 

Before we can even begin to talk about German, we have to travel to sometime between 1000 and 450 BCE, to when the First Germanic Sound Shift — or change in pronunciation — took place in the Indo-European proto-language (the “ancestor language” of related languages). The exact details of this Pre- or Proto-German can only be reconstructed today, as written records from that time are extremely rare. Though the early Germanic tribes did leave behind a few Runes inscribed on graves and ritual objects; stories and songs were pretty much exclusively passed down through oral tradition. Nevertheless, some Germanic terms such as brauda (Brot, or “bread”) or grīpan (greifen, or “to grip”) have survived in modified form today.

Bishop Ulfilas wrote the earliest version of the Gothic bible (Credit: Wikipedia)

Atta unsar, þu in himinam: The Germanic Tribes’ Writing

With the arrival of the Romans in the year 55 BCE, the Germanic tribes’ lives — and their language — would change forever. Numerous Latin concepts from trade, war, and infrastructure expanded the Germanic vocabulary to include words such as mura (from the Latin murus, later Mauer, or “wall”), or strazza (Straße, or “street,” from the Latin via strata). 

But let’s not forget: The Germanic language wasn’t a singular one — it was actually made up of different dialects. One can hear, for example, clear distinctions between Old Norse and Old Saxon, or Western Germanic dialects such as Alemannic and Eastern Germanic dialects such as Gothic. 

The first written Germanic language was created in the 4th Century, by Bishop Ulfilas, who used Latin and Greek orthography to create a version of the Bible in Gothic. In the Gothic language, the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer reads as, “Atta unsar, þu in himinam, weihnai namo þein.” The Gothic scriptures outlived the language itself, as Gothic, like all Eastern Germanic languages, died out long ago.

Then, There Was Diutisc: Old High German (600-1050 CE)

The actual history of the German language began around the time of the Germanic migration and the spread of Christianity around 600 CE. One group of Western Germanic languages split itself off from the other Germanic dialects during the so-called Second Germanic Consonant Shift (or Second Germanic Sound Shift), and what remained was what we now call Althochdeutsch, or Old High German

The Second Germanic Consonant Shift is an important turning point in the history of the German language: It’s the reason that today we say Pfanne (“pan,” with both the “p” and “f” pronounced aloud), Zeit (“time,” with the “z” pronounced like the English “ts”) and Tochter (“daughter,” with the “t” pronounced like the English). In addition, this shift structured the German-speaking W into different dialects: While the Sound Shift took place fully in both southern and Central Germany, the Niederdeutsch dialect in the north retained the old sounds (e.g. “p” instead of “pf”). This is still reflected in the Nordic dialects and languages. 

The word Deutsch, or “German,” with the meaning it retains today, also appeared for the first time during the Second Consonant Shift. It comes from the Germanic word diot (“people”), as well as diutisc (“belonging to one’s own people”), and at the time it signified the Germanic-speaking locals of the Franconian Empire.

Herzeliebez Vrouwelin: Middle High German (1050-1350 CE)

Knights, Minnesang and fiefdom: The High Middle Ages were shaped by economic and cultural growth, but also by political fragmentation: From 1050 on, the German-speaking world was divided into a patchwork of individual domains, and the German language developed in a similarly multifaceted manner. Every territory had its own dialect, each ruling house its own courtly poetry. From the Court of the Staufenkaiser, or Staufen emperor, for example, there emerged such renowned epics as the Nibelungenlied, Parzival and Tristan

In addition, the poet Walther von der Vogelweide wrote his Minnesang-style verse, Herzeliebez vrouwelin (“Dearest Lady of my Heart”), in the language now known as Mittelhochdeutsch, or Middle High German. “Middle High German” does not refer to a special dialect, but rather encompasses the different varieties of languages spoken in this epoch in central and southern Germany. Middle High German is also a bit more recognizable to contemporary German: On the one hand, the umlaut diacritical marks (ä, ö, ü) came into full use; on the other, unpronounced syllables were eliminated and vowels that had heretofore been unpronounced at the end of words turned into the schwa sound (think of the sound of the “o” in the English photograph, the “i” in pencil or the “y” in syringe). The Old High German hōran, for example, became the Middle High German hœren, now hören, or “to hear.” This change in pronunciation led to a real chain reaction: The weakening of vowels meant that all case endings now sounded identical, which in turn made articles necessary in order to be able to continue displaying the case of a noun (aka, whether it’s nominative, accusative, dative or genitive.)

Feuereifer and Lästermaul: Early New High German (1250-1550 CE)

Early New High German is deserving of its own epoch, given that so many significant cultural changes took place during this time period. With his translation of the Bible in 1545, Martin Luther enriched the German vocabulary with countless new creations such as Denkzettel (“object lesson,” literally “think sheet”), Feuereifer (“zeal,” literally “fire eagerness”), or Lästermaul (“scandalmonger,” literally “vice yap”). 

In addition, previously regional expressions such as Ziege (“goat,” instead of Geiß), or “Ufer” (“shore” or “bank,” instead of Gestade), became more widely known in all German-speaking regions. Most importantly, however, the foundation was set for a unified German language, which through the wide dissemination of the Bible, established the southern and central New High German dialects in the north as well. 

Technical innovations such as the printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1446 also led to the increase in importance of a written German language. This led to the creation of interregional standard languages that speakers of all dialects would be able to understand. 

As books started being printed in German instead of Latin, numerous borrowed words from Latin also came into play in the growing Humanist movement, such as Dekret (“decree”), zitieren (“to cite”) and Examen (“exam”). Even the German grammar was revamped in the image of the Latin, thus introducing a future tense built with werden (“will”) + infinitive (ich werde reisen, or “I will travel”), where one had beforehand simply used the present (as German-speakers once again do today). 

Dutch, one of the German dialects, became its own language in the 16h century. (Credit: Unsplash)

A Unified Written Language: New High German (16th Century—Present)

By the time the 16th century rolled around, there were numerous variants and standards in the German language. Slowly, they united. From the 16th to the 18th Century, the southern and central German dialects came together to form Neuhochdeutsch, otherwise known as New High German, the version of German we speak today (with small modifications). 

The northern German dialects, on the other hand, did not develop their own written language — with the notable exception of Dutch, which was one of the German dialects in the Middle Ages and became its own language in the 16th Century.

German as a National Language: 19th and 20th Centuries

When the majority of German-speaking territories became a part of the German Reich in 1871, people saw increased need for a singular set of spelling conventions for their new nation-state. And so it was that in 1880 Konrad Duden published the first edition of the Complete Orthographic Dictionary of the German Language. The spelling rules in the 1880 Duden remained in place until the first Rechtschreibreform (“spelling reform”) of 1996.

In the 19th Century, the industrial revolution brought with it numerous technical terms such as Elektrizität (“electricity”), Waschmaschine (“washing machine”) and Eisenbahn (“railroad track”). In the business world, one also often encountered borrowed words from English or French, such as Lokomitive (“locomotive”), Billet (“ticket”) or Telegramm (“telegram”). And obviously, the 20th Century also brought new discoveries and societal changes, many of which resulted in words borrowed from English such as Computer, Job and Team

While the 20th Century did not bring about many changes in pronunciation (the rolled “r” changed into what is now considered the classic German-sounding “grated r”), we can observe several tendencies toward simplification in German: For example, the genitive case (used to signify possession) is used with increasing rarity (especially in spoken language), and the dative case often appears in its place.

The German language today is unified to an extent — different dialects still pervade across the country. (Credit: Unsplash)

German Today: As Diverse as its Speakers

Unlike English, French or Spanish, German never became a world language (maybe that’s thanks to its complex grammar?). Besides, the German language today is anything but unified, for the numerous German dialects that were developed hundreds of years ago still exist today. Generally the further south you go, the more pronounced they get, which is why a resident of Hamburg will have a terrible time following the conversation in a Viennese coffeehouse.  

The large number of dialects is also responsible for the fact that German often has numerous expressions for the same thing: One needs only to recall the expressions for “comfortable house shoes”: Schlappen, Latschen, Pantoffeln, Puschen, Finken, Patschen.

And as with all languages, German is also in constantly changing. Even the written languages are not immune to new additions: For example, in June 2017 the youngest letter in the German alphabet was invented: ẞ, the capital “Eszett,” or “long s,” which heretofore did not exist, as it is only used at the end of a syllable, but which is required in instances where a word (or proper name) containing the “small” ß is written in all-caps. 

Whether the cases (genitive, dative, accusative) that are the bane of so many German-learners’ existences might also go the way of the Dodo, or a Third Sound Shift simplies some of the more complicated syllable structures — well, that’s probably something only Germans’ great-great-great-grandchildren will experience.

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