Modern Language: GERMAN

Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > German

As a standard language, Modern High German evolved primarily as a literary language. It is understood and used by most people within German-speaking central Europe, but it is fair to say that this region is still a colourful patchwork of related dialects that often take precedence over the standard in everyday use.

While it is the official language of ninety million people in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, there are varieties of German found in smaller pockets, namely Belgium, France, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Italy and in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities of the USA (among others). The various dialects are usually grouped into 'Upper' or 'High' German (which includes Bavarian, Allemanic, Alsacian), 'Central' German, and 'Low' German or 'Plattdeutsch'. This distinction is made by the effects of the so-called High German Consonant Shift, in which many consonant sounds changed, such as k > ch, t > ss, d > t, etc. This can be seen in examples such as northern maken, dorp and appel and southern machen, dorf and apfel. English and Dutch compare in this way to German, for example Eng foot & Dut voet > Ger Fuss.

The earliest German texts are largely southern Old High German, namely the Bavarian Abrogans, essentially the first German dictionary. However, most of the texts from this period show large regional variations in orthography and style. The classical Middle High German period also betrays dialectal differences, but the vast majority of works are composed in Upper German. The first major attempt to standardize the dialects came in the 1520s with Martin Luther's Bible translation. German soon became one of the great languages of philosophy and theatre, but perhaps the most celebrated of all German writers was Goethe, whose Faust is one of the masterpieces of European literature.

German is known abroad by many names: allemands in French, tysk in Danish, tedesco in Italian, saksaa in Finnish, niemiecki in Polish, duits in Dutch, german in English. They call their language Deutsch, which ultimately derives from the old Germanic word for 'people'; in Carolingian times their tongue was commonly called lingua thiudisca, that is, language of the (Germanic) people.

examples of german

Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint !
Und das mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht,
Ist wert, daß es zugrunde geht;
Drum besser wär’s, daß nichts entstünde.
So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde,
Zerstörung, kurz das Böse nennt,
Mein eigentlices Element.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 'Faust', part one, 1775. (Translation: "I am the spirit that doth still deny; And I am right; for everything that is by rights should topple down to the abyss: ergo, 'twere better if nothing had been. All that you call destruction, evil, sin, that is the element that I work in." G.M. Cookson)

Als die großen Feuer brannten
Und in Blut die Städte standen
Aus der Trefe krochen Spinn und Kakerlak
Vor dem Schloßtor stand ein Schlächter
Am Altar ein Gottverächter
Und es saß im Rock des Richters der Azdak.
Bertolt Brecht, 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle', scene V, 1945. (Translation: "Great houses turn to ashes / And blood runs down the streets / Rats come out of the sewers / And maggots out of the meat. / The thug and the blasphemer / Lounge by the altar-stone. / Now, now, now Azdak / Sits on the Judgement Throne." James & Tania Stern, with WH Auden)

1.1: Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde.
1.2: Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser.
1.3: Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! Und es ward Licht.
1.4: Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis.
Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, (Genesis) c1522.

a short german bibliography
  • R.E. Keller, The German Language (London: 1978)
  • Charles V.J.Russ (ed), The Dialects of Modern German (Routledge, London: 1990)
  • Patrick Stephenson (ed), The German Language and the Real World (Oxford: 1995)
  • Peter Eisenberg, German: in E. Konig & J. Van Der Auwera, The Germanic Languages, pp349-387 (Routledge, London: 1994)

some german links


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