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German Language

German is used as the official language of Germany and of Austria. It is also used as one of the four official languages of Switzerland (along with French, Italian, and Romansh).

German is also spoken in dialect form throughout Luxembourg and by much of the population of the regions of eastern France formerly known as Alsace and Lorraine. It is further spoken in the north-Italian border regions of Tirol and Ticino (formerly parts of Austria), and in isolated communities widely scattered throughout eastern Europe, notably in Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania (Transylvania), and Russia (Volga region). Outside Europe, dialect German continues to be spoken in large emigrant communities in southern Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and the United States (notably Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas).

Germany and German Language History

Modern German belongs to the group of so-called Germanic languages (including also the Scandinavian, Dutch, Flemish, and English languages) that are descended from a common prehistoric ancestor referred to by linguists as “proto-Germanic”.  “Proto-Germanic” is itself a branch of the Indo-European family of languages that also includes the Celtic, Italic, Slavic, Albanian, Greek, Baltic, Armenian, Iranian, and Indic language groups.

Earliest archaeological findings establish that around 750 B.C. Germanic tribes were concentrated in southern Scandinavia and along the North Sea and Baltic coasts from what is now the Netherlands to the Vistula River. Over the next 500 years, some of them spread southward along the Rhine and Elbe rivers and into the Danube river valley, conquering territories formerly populated by Celtic and Slavic tribes, while others remained in Scandinavia; still others wandered southeast along the Vistula  River, ultimately to the shores of the Black Sea. The increased geographical dispersal of the Germanic tribes brought with it, over time, variations of pronunciation and grammatical usage that resulted in the emergence of separate Scandinavian, German, Gothic (now extinct), and later also Netherlandic (Flemish, Dutch) and English branches of the Germanic language group.

During the 1st century B.C., portions of the territory then occupied by the Germanic tribes were conquered by the armies of the expanding Roman Empire. Some of these regions later became parts of modern Germany (western portion), Austria, and Switzerland. The Roman cities of Colonia, Confluentia, Trivium, and Vindobona, for example, founded at this period, survive today as the modern German and Austrian cities of Cologne (Köln), Koblenz, Trier, and Vienna (Wien).

The earliest written records of any Germanic language are isolated words and names cited by Latin authors of the 1st century B.C. From 200 A.D., Germanic carved inscriptions are found using a 24-letter “runic” alphabet. The official conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in 312 A.D. slowly led to the Christianization of all the Germanic tribes over succeeding centuries, launching the establishment of their tongues as written (as against oral) literary languages, as the Bible was translated for local use. The first, fragmentary example of the latter is the so-called “Gothic Bible”, dating from 350 A.D., made by the Visigothic Bishop Wulfila, of the so-called Arian church, for the conversion of Gothic-speaking tribes inhabiting the Black Sea coast around the mouths of the Danube. (The last trace of living use of this Gothic language is found in the 16th century Crimea, among a tribal remnant whose speech was noted down by a Flemish ambassador to Constantinople.)

Map of Germany In the region of what are today Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the Germanic tongues (having already absorbed some important Latin “culture” words during Roman times --for example kaufen = to buy, from Latin caupo = merchant, shopkeeper) subsequently underwent changes in grammar and pronunciation that created the spoken forms of modern German. These fall into two main groups, corresponding to a geographical divide: so-called Low German (“Plattdeutsch”, spoken in the low-lying coastal plain area that forms the northern half of Germany), and High German (“Hochdeutsch”, spoken in the upland plateau and mountainous region that forms the southern half of Germany and all of Austria and Switzerland). Within Low German and High German there are many local variations that form a continuum of change in pronunciation and idiom from south to north.

But a clear break is apparent along the line of demarcation where the upland plateau of southern Germany falls away to the north-German plain. A “standard” form of German was evolved in early modern times, at first as a written language modeled on that of the German translation of the Bible made by Martin Luther in the early 1500’s. This was a language that corresponded essentially to the spoken dialect of Luther’s home region of Saxony -- a so-called “East Middle German” dialect that combined features of High German and Low German, and was thus found convenient for communication between the governments of the many postage-stamp-sized principalities that then formed the feudal political landscape of the German-speaking world.

The nearly simultaneous introduction of the printing press (Gutenberg published Luther’s Bible translation) powerfully abetted the acceptance of this “Lutheran” language as the standard written German language, as did the extraordinary eloquence and power of Luther’s rendering of the Biblical text. In the eighteenth century, a standard spoken from of German (“Hochsprache”), based on the written language, came into use with the establishment of theaters by the many German-speaking princely courts. This “Hochsprache” entered the curriculum of public schools as public education was instituted on a wider and wider basis, and is universally used today in business, media and films.

It is an irony of the history of the German language that, although the migration of Germanic tribes fleeing attacks by nomadic invaders from Central Asia led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the immediate replacement of the Empire by states ruled by a feudal aristocracy of largely Germanic extraction did not lead to the dominance of German on the continent of Europe. The most politically and militarily successful of the migrating Germanic tribes – the Franks, the Langobards, the Allemanni,  and the Visigoths – all abandoned their Germanic languages in favor of the popular Latin spoken by the indigenous populations of the Roman territories they overran and subsequently governed.

Indeed, the so-called “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” founded in 800 A.D. by Charlemagne, a French king of Frankish origin, vigorously promoted the use not of German, but of church Latin as a unifying force throughout a Christian Western Europe that was feeling the chronic threat of invasion by Islamic armies. The subsequent history of this Holy Roman Empire likewise made only a very late and precarious contribution to the spread of German within Europe. When Charlemagne’s French-speaking dynasty died out and was replaced by one that that actually spoke a form of German (the Hohenstauffen), the territory of France was severed from the imperial package.

Only during the later phases of the Habsburg dynasty’s rule of the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire did German make territorial gains as a commercial language in East Central Europe (Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Galicia, Bukovina Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia...). In modern times, the use of German outside of Europe has generally been limited to German-speaking minorities living in the Western Hemisphere, Africa and Australia. Like Italy, modern Germany was late to achieve political unification as a nation-state (1870), and undertook overseas colonial expansion only after British, French, Spanish and Portuguese imperial undertakings had preempted most of the globe. German colonial establishments in Africa (German Southwest Africa [now Namibia] and Cameroon), the islands of the Western Pacific, and China (the Shandung Peninsula) were lost by 1919, following the German defeat in World War I. Hitler’s defeat in World War II put paid to a transitory military occupation of North Africa.

As a result the German language, although of great importance for the historical literature of science and technology (in which Germany was preeminent up to 1933), does not today play a major role in global commerce. The earliest written records of any Germanic language are isolated words and names cited by Latin authors of the 1st century B.C. From 200 A.D., Germanic carved inscriptions are found using a 24-letter “runic” alphabet. The official conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in 312 A.D. slowly led to the Christianization of all the Germanic tribes over succeeding centuries, launching the establishment of their tongues as written (as against oral) literary languages, as the Bible was translated for local use.

The first, fragmentary example of the latter is the so-called “Gothic Bible”, dating from 350 A.D., made by the Visigothic Bishop Wulfila, of the so-called Arian church, for the conversion of Gothic-speaking tribes inhabiting the Black Sea coast around the mouths of the Danube. (The last trace of living use of this Gothic language is found in the 16th century Crimea, among a tribal remnant whose speech was noted down by a Flemish ambassador to Constantinople.)

German Language in the World

In the region of what are today Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the Germanic tongues ( having already absorbed some important Latin “culture” words during Roman times --for example kaufen = to buy, from Latin caupo = merchant, shopkeeper) subsequently underwent changes in grammar and pronunciation that created the spoken forms of modern German. These fall into two main groups, corresponding to a geographical divide: so-called Low German (“Plattdeutsch”, spoken in the low-lying coastal plain area that forms the northern half of Germany), and High German (“Hochdeutsch”, spoken in the upland plateau and mountainous region that forms the southern half of Germany and all of Austria and Switzerland). Within Low German and High German there are many local variations that form a continuum of change in pronunciation and idiom from south to north. But a clear break is apparent along the line of demarcation where the upland plateau of southern Germany falls away to the north-German plain.

A “standard” form of German was evolved in early modern times, at first as a written language modeled on that of the German translation of the Bible made by Martin Luther in the early 1500’s. This was a language that corresponded essentially to the spoken dialect of Luther’s home region of Saxony -- a so-called “East Middle German” dialect that combined features of High German and Low German, and was thus found convenient for communication between the governments of the many postage-stamp-sized principalities that then formed the feudal political landscape of the German-speaking world. The nearly simultaneous introduction of the printing press (Gutenberg published Luther’s Bible translation) powerfully abetted the acceptance of this “Lutheran” language as the standard written German language, as did the extraordinary eloquence and power of Luther’s rendering of the Biblical text.

In the eighteenth century, a standard spoken from of German (“Hochsprache”), based on the written language, came into use with the establishment of theaters by the many German-speaking princely courts. This “Hochsprache” entered the curriculum of public schools as public education was instituted on a wider and wider basis, and is universally used today in business, media and films.

It is an irony of the history of the German language that, although the migration of Germanic tribes fleeing attacks by nomadic invaders from Central Asia led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the immediate replacement of the Empire by states ruled by a feudal aristocracy of largely Germanic extraction did not lead to the dominance of German on the continent of Europe. The most politically and militarily successful of the migrating Germanic tribes – the Franks, the Langobards, the Allemanni,  and the Visigoths – all abandoned their Germanic languages in favor of the popular Latin spoken by the indigenous populations of the Roman territories they overran and subsequently governed. Indeed, the so-called “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” founded in 800 A.D. by Charlemagne, a French king of Frankish origin, vigorously promoted the use not of German, but of church Latin as a unifying force throughout a Christian Western Europe that was feeling the chronic threat of invasion by Islamic armies.

The subsequent history of this Holy Roman Empire likewise made only a very late and precarious contribution to the spread of German within Europe. When Charlemagne’s French-speaking dynasty died out and was replaced by one that that actually spoke a form of German (the Hohenstauffen), the territory of France was severed from the imperial package. Only during the later phases of the Habsburg dynasty’s rule of the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire did German make territorial gains as a commercial language in East Central Europe (Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Galicia, Bukovina Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia...).

In modern times, the use of German outside of Europe has generally been limited to German-speaking minorities living in the Western Hemisphere, Africa and Australia. Like Italy, modern Germany was late to achieve political unification as a nation-state (1870), and undertook overseas colonial expansion only after British, French, Spanish and Portuguese imperial undertakings had preempted most of the globe. German colonial establishments in Africa (German Southwest Africa [now Namibia] and Cameroon), the islands of the Western Pacific, and China (the Shandung Peninsula) were lost by 1919, following the German defeat in World War I. Hitler’s defeat in World War II put paid to a transitory military occupation of North Africa.

As a result the German language, although of great importance for the historical literature of science and technology (in which Germany was preeminent up to 1933), does not today play a major role in global commerce.


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German Quick Facts

Alternate Names & Spellings: Deutsch, Tedesco

Language Family: Indo-European, Germanic, West, High German, German, Middle German, East Middle German

Official Language of: Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium, Germany

Spoken by Approximately 95,393,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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