German Language: Origin, Highs, Lows, and Importance

February 5, 2024
German Language: Origin, Highs, Lows, and Importance

Coming all the way back from the ancient Romans, perhaps even farther than that, the German language, now called “Deutch” by its native speakers, has been in use for millennia, by a collection of tribes in a land that was once known as Germania.

Today, let’s look at the extensive history of one of the well-known languages in Europe, discover its changes throughout time, and the importance of translating the German language in the current globalized world.

German Language Origin

As a language, German shares its beginnings with many languages that are used today. While its modern form isn’t considered one of the oldest languages in the world, its roots can be traced back as contemporaries of Latin and Greek, which were once used as the lingua franca of their respective civilizations. 

Indo-European Roots

German belongs to the vast family of Indo-European languages, which includes English, Spanish, French, and many others. These languages share a common ancestor, and over millennia, they have evolved into distinct entities. But the earliest traces of the German language can be found in the Proto-Germanic language, spoken around 500 BC.

What eventually separated German from the other languages in this large family tree are two “Sound Shifts”, around 750 BCE and 600 CE, which split this Proto-Germanic language into the ancestor of Modern German: first into the German that was used by the Germanic tribes, then another around 600 CE, when it became a separate language from other West Germanic languages, such as English, Frisian, and the Netherlandic-Flemish version of Dutch.

Influence of Latin and Romance Languages

At the time of the Romans, the German language underwent some changes. The rapid expansion of the Empire in Europe introduced Latin to the masses. Latin intermingled and expanded the German vocabulary, adding words related to religion, science, and art.

Though attempted multiple times, the Roman Empire was never able to completely conquer Germania, allowing the Germanic tribes to use their native German in daily life throughout the centuries.

Old High German and Middle High German

This “Second Sound Shift” during 600 CE led to German language evolving into what’s known as Old High German. Old High German, spoken from the 6th to the 11th century, became the language of German people in Southern and Central Germania. Meanwhile, Northern Germania continued to use old pronunciation, leading to the development of the Northern European languages.

Old High German is the foundation for the modern language. It was during this period that significant literary works, such as the epic poem "Hildebrandslied," began to emerge.

It was not until the Middle Ages, between 1050 and 1350 CE, that Middle High German was developed, with various dialects and varieties created, due to economic growth and political decentralization.

One of the more interesting changes during this time are pronunciation changes, becoming more like the language of German people today. Vowel sounds were weaker, and articles became a requirement to display noun cases (subject, direct object, indirect object, and possessive).

Modern German Language

A significant event that impacted the evolution of Standardized Modern German was the translation of the Bible into German by Martin Luther in 1545. This brought the German language in its written form to native speakers.

This translation also became the basis of a centralized version of the language. Books were printed in German, as opposed to Latin, eventually unifying the different variations into a common form, grammar, and structure.

The modern German language, as we know it today, emerged later, around the 18th century.

Now, German is spoken by around 130 million people worldwide. Many countries have German as their official language, with around 7.5 million people belonging to a German-speaking minority.

This establishes German as one of the most spoken languages in Europe, and one of the most translated languages around the globe.

German can be characterized by a few features, such as its use of the umlaut (the two dots on top of a vowel), and the capitalization of its nouns. German also has two recognized variants: High German and Low German.

High German (Hochdeutsch)

High German, or "Hochdeutsch," is the most widely spoken and recognized form of the German language. The “High” or (Hoch) within this name doesn’t refer to status, but rather, location; it’s spoken in central and southern highlands of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

This variety descended from the Middle High German version of the language. It’s also used as the language of administration, higher education, literature, and the mass media in most German-speaking countries.

Hochdeutsch and Standard Modern German are often referred to interchangeably. It’s also the dialect that allows communication across German speakers with different dialects. While not considered the “official” version of the language, High German is the de-facto “lingua franca” of the country, and what is often taught to those who want to learn the language.

Within the modern High German speech area, there are different varieties, which can be categorized into Middle and Upper German dialect groups, including Austro-Bavarian, Alemannic (Swiss German), and High Franconian for the latter.

Low German (Plattdeutsch, or Niederdeutsch)

In contrast to High German, Low German (Plattdeutsch, or Niederdeutsch) has no literature that it’s based on. Similar to its High counterpart, Low German is named as such because its speakers can be found in Northern Germany and the northeastern part of the Netherlands, a flatter geographical location.

As there’s a minimal amount of literature that uses Low German, there are fewer speakers of this variety compared to High German. There are also no standards when it comes to literary or administrative texts. Additionally, due to its proximity to the Netherlands, many Dutch natives will be able to understand Low German.

One feature that sets Low German from High German is its pronunciation. Unlike High German, Low German did not experience “the Sound Shift” in the past. Some of these differences include:

  • The [p] sound in Low German becomes [pf] or [f] in High German

  • The [t] sound in Low German becomes [s] or [ts] in High German

  • The [k] sound in Low German changes to the fricative [ch] sound in High German

Other Major Dialects

The German language extends across borders, and in time, other countries and locations have created their own dialects of the language.

Some of these major varieties are:

  • Swiss German (Schwiizerdütsch): Spoken in Switzerland, with influences of French and Italian, which are the other official languages of the state. Understanding the Swiss-German dialect is difficult, even for German speakers from other regions.

  • Bavarian German (Bayerisch): Spoken in Bavaria in Southeastern Germany. Bayerisch is very similar to standard written German but has differences in vowel pronunciation. High German is known as “Written German” (Schriftdeutsch) in this region. 

  • Austrian German (Österreichisches Deutsch): Spoken in Austria, with similar grammar, but unique vocabulary. The differences between Austrian German and Standard (or High) German are similar to American and British English; understandable for native users, but use different words when discussing specific objects.

  • Upper Saxon Dialect (Sächsisch): spoken in the eastern region of Germany on what is historically known as the land of Saxony. What sets it apart is its recognizable accent, while retaining the grammar and form of Standard German. 

  • Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch): Unlike its name suggests, Pennsylvania Dutch is a German dialect, coming from the German immigrants who moved to America on the Eastern coast. 

Comparative Analysis of Germanic Languages

To understand the significance of the German language, it's essential to look at it in the context of other Germanic languages. The Germanic language family encompasses languages like English, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian, all sharing a common ancestry. Despite having a common founding language, historical events have shifted and changed the features of each language: making them similar in some aspects, and radically different in others.

Phonology

  • Vowel Systems: Germanic languages exhibit a range of vowel systems. German and Dutch have extensive vowel systems with long/short contrasts and umlauts. North Germanic languages, like Swedish and Danish, feature vowel length, tonal qualities (in Norwegian and Swedish), and vowel mutations.

  • Consonants: The High German consonant shift is a hallmark of German, differentiating it from other Germanic languages by altering stops into fricatives and affricates in certain environments.

Grammar

  • Morphology: German retains a more complex case system (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) compared to English's simplified structure. Scandinavian languages, while having simplified their case systems, maintain a distinction between definite and indefinite forms more explicitly than German.

  • Verb Tenses: German and Dutch possess a similar verb tense system, emphasizing the perfect and pluperfect. Scandinavian languages also use these tenses but employ different strategies for expressing future intentions.

  • Word Order: German and Dutch are known for their V2 word order in main clauses. Scandinavian languages share this feature, though they vary in the use of subordinate clause word order.

Vocabulary

  • Common Roots: Germanic languages share a substantial lexicon derived from Proto-Germanic. However, loanwords from Latin, French, and other languages have diverged their vocabularies over time.

  • Cognates and False Friends: While many words are cognates, having a common etymological origin, there are numerous false friends due to semantic shifts in different languages.

Mutual Intelligibility

  • Between Languages: Mutual intelligibility varies within the family. Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian) are more mutually intelligible with each other than with German or English. German and Dutch share some degree of intelligibility due to closely related vocabulary and grammatical structures.

Why the German Language is Useful

As one of the most spoken languages in the world, the German language holds significant weight in the business field, particularly those looking to expand in European and global markets.

As the most widely spoken native language in the European Union and an official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein, the German language promises direct access to multiple powerhouse economies. Germany, in particular, is a leader in the engineering, manufacturing, automotive, and renewable energy sectors, which can be beneficial for brands that work within those industries.

Alongside the multiple economies available for negotiations, research, and innovation, the German language also opens up to consumers with strong spending power. The DACH region in particular, comprising Germany (D), Austria (A), and Switzerland (CH), represents a high-income area with a combined population of nearly 100 million. German language translation and proficiency are key to unlocking these markets, offering a homogeneous linguistic landscape despite cultural differences.

Unlock Fluent Communication in the German Language with Tomedes

In conclusion, the German language is a linguistic gem with a rich history, diverse dialects, and enduring importance. With its similarities to other languages like English, Dutch, Swedish, and other Indo-European languages, establishing your choice of language for communication cannot be understated. So allow Tomedes to be your partner in exploring this language fluently, whether your purposes are immersing yourself in cultural richness, opening economic opportunities, or choosing academic pursuits.

By Raphaella Funelas

Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.

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