If you’re celebrating Oktoberfest this year with a bratwurst in one hand and a beer in the other, then I’m über-confident that you’re interested in German. Maybe you’ve even been brushing up on your German language learning in preparation for the celebration!
But Oktoberfest is just one aspect of regional German-speaking culture. There’s so much more to explore and discover, especially about the language. If you’ve been learning German and have noticed some similarities with your own language, you’ve been building some great Sprachgefühl, a feeling about language. And there's plenty about the history of German to give you that Sprachgefühl!!
Highs and lows
Even though we use “German” today, this language is the result of centuries of gradual change, involving many dialects. The biggest distinction we have to make before diving in is between High German and Low German.
- Low German, Plattdüütsch: This is what was and still is spoken in parts of Northern Germany and the Netherlands, as well as abroad in the areas where those speakers settled. This is the variety of German that English is most closely related to! Although between 2/3 and 3/4 of English vocabulary is non-Germanic, there are still plenty of Germanic words in English that we use every day, like, well, “day.”
- High German, Hochdeutsch: This originated south of the Low German regions and, likewise, in the areas around the world where they settled.
- Standard High German, Standarddeutsch: Over time, German writers tried various forms out until eventually it evolved into Standard High German, and you'll recognize it as the variety you're learning on Duolingo.
A major difference between High German and Low German is something that happened to the consonants over time. For example, in High German, "p" gradually became "f," while "p" in Low German stayed the same. We can still see those differences today, where Low German and Modern English still have "p" but High German has the "f":
|English||Low German||High German|
But that’s not the only change that happened to make varieties of German pretty different from each other! There's lots of really interesting linguistic and social changes that happened in all the major stages in the history of German:
Let's look deeper into all of the different kinds of German through time!
Red Riding Hood and runes
The German that you’re learning traces its roots to Proto-Germanic, the ancestor to all the different Germanic languages we have today (including German, English, and Swedish). This early Germanic language differed in a lot of ways from languages it was related to in Europe and parts of Asia. One way we can see how Proto-Germanic was different from its neighbors is to compare its sounds and those of more distantly related languages:
- First Germanic Sound Shift: This change happened long ago in Proto-Germanic but not in other European languages, like Latin. So words with “p” in Latin correspond to “f” in the Germanic languages. People who study the history of German also call this Grimm’s Law—yes, THAT Jacob Grimm, who gave us Cinderella and Snow White.
- Second Germanic Sound Shift: Another important difference in sounds is the one we saw above, where High German started pronouncing an “f” where Low German has a “p.” This change happened a while later and made German varieties even more different from each other.
Sound changes weren’t the only thing happening in this early period. Around the 4th century, the Germanic tribes started moving around and settling outside their homelands. They used a writing system known as the Elder Futhark—so called because the first six runes of the alphabet spell out “futhark.” These writings are usually inscriptions found on artifacts of the period, the most famous being on the smaller of the Golden Horns of Gallehus. Unfortunately, the horns were stolen in the 19th century and likely melted down, but luckily some people had the good sense to make replicas and sketch them and we still can read the inscription: ek hlewagastiz holtijaz horna tawido. Isn’t that just so cool? Words passed down to us in the modern era on such a beautiful instrument. What are they telling us? Well, naturally and without climax, our Germanic ancestors are telling us that it was Hlewagast the son of Holt who made the horn!
Old High German: Hildebrand and Hogwarts
From 750 to 1050, we refer to the language as Old High German, the variety that we find in old texts, including those written by Christian monks. There was still lots of variation in vocabulary, grammar, and spelling, and there was plenty of contact between Old High German and the prestigiously regarded Latin, too. Borrowings like Schule (school) from Latin schola and schreiben (to write) from Latin scribere are from this period.
One of the most famous Old High German writings is the 9th century heroic poem Hildebrandslied that recounts the battlefield meeting of Hildebrand and Hadubrand, his son! It’s not exactly like the final fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader—because, spoiler alert, most people assume Hadubrand, the son, is killed by his father.
Other famous pieces of Old High German are the Merseburg Incantations that recount pre-Christian beliefs of the Germanic people. One incantation itself is contained in a story about the Germanic gods. They’re having a great time out in the woods together, when one of their horse’s feet gets dislocated. To heal the horse, the following charm is said:
ben zi bena, bluot zi bluoda, lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin
bone to bone, blood to blood, joint to joints, so may they be glued
It may not quite roll off the tongue as saying brackium emendo in Hogwarts, but presumably it did the job just as well for the early Germanic gods!
Middle High German: courtly love
By 1050-1350, corresponding roughly with the High Middle Ages, Middle High German emerged. Literacy was ever increasing and so writers started to come from different social backgrounds and their language reflects those differences. It was also during this period that German expanded geographically into the eastern reaches of the Holy Roman Empire into what is now Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere.
Perhaps the most famous Middle High German writer was Walther von der Vogelweide—a medieval heartthrob who composed and performed songs about love and politics. His love poem Under der linden (Under the Linden Tree) is about a secret rendezvous between two lovers in the woods. It begins innocently enough but increases steadily in sultriness, all while a lone nightingale sings in the distance:
Under der linden an der heide, dâ unser zweier bette was, dâ muget ir vinden schône beide gebrochen bluomen unde gras
Under the linden tree on the heath, you can find our communal bed made of crushed flowers and pressed-down grass
German learners might be able to make out some familiar words:
|Middle High German||Modern German||Modern English|
|bluomen unde gras||Blumen und Gras||flowers and grass|
In fact, it’s during this period that ge- starts being used consistently for participles like gebrochen (broken)!
In Old High German, nouns typically changed depending on their place in a sentence, but in Middle High German, those endings were increasingly getting left off nouns and instead appeared more often on articles like “a” or “the” and on adjectives. Yes, endings on adjectives—the bane of every German learner today, including Mark Twain who said he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective!
Early New High German and the not-so father of the German language
We think of the Early New High German era beginning around 1450, with a number of economically and politically competing dialects in the region. It’s also from this time that a myth was born of who was responsible for the standardization of German: Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, has been called “father of the German language.” Well, he wasn’t.
Even with early attempts to come up with a standard language, there still was tremendous socially- and culturally-motivated variation. The German that Luther used in his translation of the Bible was Lutherdeutsch or Meißnisch and, of course, the Protestant German-speaking areas took up that form. But Catholic areas, for example, stuck with a form of the language called gemeines Deutsch (East Upper German). Luther’s translation did give German some idiomatic expressions that are still quite popular like Ebenbild (spitting image). Sometimes, though, Luther’s German didn’t hold up through the ages; for example, his variety used flugs for "soon," but today we say bald, which comes from gemeines Deutsch. Regardless, Luther’s Bible translation from the early 16th century is easily understood by modern learners of German. How much do you recognize from these three verses?
|Luther's Bible translation||Modern German||Modern English|
|Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde.||Im Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde;||In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.|
|Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebete auf dem Wasser.||die Erde aber war wüst und wirr, Finsternis lag über der Urflut und Gottes Geist schwebte über dem Wasser.||Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.|
|Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! Und es ward Licht.||Gott sprach: Es werde Licht. Und es wurde Licht.||And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.|
So although Luther wasn’t the father or creator of the German language, his Bible still had many social, cultural, political, religious, and linguistic impacts. More and more swaths of society were becoming literate—thanks in part to the rising popularity of the printing press by German printer Johannes Gutenberg. This new availability of publications, together with population growth and urbanization, fueled attempts to standardize German.
German contact with French also increased considerably during this time, giving German words like Adresse (address), Moment (moment), and Autor (author). (Guess where English got those words from, too?) These words have actual German-rooted equivalents, but French has a way of wheedling its way into language, much like it did with English.
New High German: Change is the only constant
The German Empire united in 1871, and interest grew in unifying German speakers through a national language. By the late 19th century, attempts to standardize New High German were fueled by language clubs and the publication of the Duden grammar and dictionary—still a reference today!
Even though there now is a standard language that is taught and learned, German continues to change! While standardization might be important for social, cultural, political, and language learning reasons, it's not the end of the road or the complete story in a long history of German innovation and change. Here are a few examples of language change in progress:
- Out with the old subjunctive, in with the new. In German, the older subjunctive verb forms, like stünde and würfe, are being replaced with würde stehen and würde werfen. Even though you might encounter them in writing, they sound artificial and archaic to most German speakers.
- More modals. Brauchen (to need) is also being used in more ways and joining the ranks of the modal verbs, but maybe das brauch’ ich euch nicht sagen (I don’t need to tell you that)!
- Technically speaking. Vong-Sprache, a social media and internet writing style, made I bims ‘ich bin / ich bin’s’, a variation of "I am/it’s me," into the 2017 Langenscheidt Youth Word of the Year.
- More and more English. More targeted among language purists is the use of English words in German. Some German speakers couldn’t believe that their chancellor used the term Shitstorm the same year that the Duden dictionary accepted the verb (wellnessen) the German noun Wellness.
There are also many new and long-standing German varieties born out of multilingualism, both in German-speaking countries and in the German-speaking diaspora. Just as it is for English, French, and other languages, you might hear German grammar mavens lament the decline of the standard, but really, these new forms of German (like Kiezdeutsch, "neighborhood German") innovate in just the same ways that German has always been moving and changing. Now in the hands of so many multilingual speakers—highly-skilled language users!—many German varieties today are the result of balancing two (or more!) languages and all the social and cultural aspects that come with being a part of many cultures.
Language changes to match the lives and needs of the people speaking it. If it didn’t change, we’d still be tawaido-ing our horna, right?
From Europe and beyond
German is a language with multiple centers and so different language variants naturally emerge. German is the official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium, and South Tyrol (Italy). It’s also a legally recognized minority language in parts of Eastern Europe. And there continues to be plenty of variation in all those places where German is legitimized—just as there was back in Luther's day.
Beyond Europe, German-speakers settled all over the globe and brought their languages with them. Each community carries with it the dialectal foundation established in the homeland, but also elements of whatever language they now use alongside their heritage German. Heritage varieties of German are spoken widely throughout the world from Brazil to Namibia, from Pennsylvania to Ontario. Each has their own histories of language change as colonial and immigrant varieties of German—some which even pre-date the processes of modern standardization. But German in the diaspora is worthy of a blog post of its own!
Prost to German!
So, whether you’re celebrating Oktoberfest in Munich this year, watching the annual Dachshund Derby Race at Oktoberfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or wearing lederhosen to the Oktoberfest Blumenau in Santa Catarina, Brazil, think about all that’s out there to discover about German.