Sprechen Sie Deutsch? With over 100 million speakers, German is one of today’s most important languages. In addition to being the most-spoken language in Europe, it is integral to the European Union. It’s spoken in Austria and Switzerland, too!

There are 5 main reasons why it can be difficult to learn German online or face to face.

  1. German is made up of diminutives and compound words, which can make it seem like a synthetic language.

  2. Just like Latin, German grammar follows strict grammatical rules like declensions which express a word’s function by changing its ending: the nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative.
  3. German is a language that needs to be understood in its entirety since verbs can be placed at the end of sentences.

  4. Nouns can be masculine, feminine, and neuter. This can make learning German tricky if English if your native language since every time you learn a noun, you need to learn which gender it is and every time you learn an adjective, you need to learn multiple versions of it.

  5. The German accent can also be tricky when you’re first starting out. However, like English words, the stress is often also at the beginning for German words.

To fully understand its foundations, we need to go all the way back to 1200 years BCE. However, its solid foundations were laid in the Middle Ages. Then there’s High German and Low German.

The German language, as we know it today, started being used around European capitals in the 19th century.

The Foundations of the German Language

Around 1200 BCE, people in Jutland (on the Danish peninsula) spoke an Indo-European language that mixed Latin, Celtic, and Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the same language used in Hindu and Buddhist texts. Unfortunately, there are no written records of this language.

The Germanic Languages from the 1st to 5th Century

The history of German culture & language is characterised by 2 consonant mutations. This is when a phonetic change happens to a consonant and people start pronouncing certain groups of consonants in a different way.

The first of these consonant changes took place in the 1st century. This is when linguists consider that the Indo-European language being spoken in the area became the Proto-Germanic and Armenian languages.

While this may seem like absolutely aeons ago, this is still an important part of the German language's history.

How old is the German language?
Not that type of Gothic! (Source: www.flickr.com)

The Germanic language was made up several dialects:

  • Gothic, an East Germanic language, which was spoken by the Goths, Vandals, and the Burgundians. This language hasn’t been spoken since the 4th century.

  • Anglo-Frisian, Germano-Dutch, Low German, Dutch, Flemish, High German, Luxembourgish, Moselle Franconian, and Upper German are part of the West Germanic languages.

  • Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese, Danish, and Swedish are the North Germanic languages.

Nowadays, the Germanic languages include English, German, Dutch, the Frisian and Upper Saxon dialects spoken in the Netherlands and Germany, Luxembourgian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese.

Afrikaans, which is spoken in South Africa and Namibia, is also a Germanic language. Pennsylvania Dutch is a dialect of German spoken in the United States predominately in Amish communities.

Old High German (Althochdeutsch) between 750 and 1050

The second consonant mutation took place between the 4th and 8th centuries. This led to a phonetic consonant shift across all of Old High German’s vocabulary.

The consonant changes in Germanic languages were explained by Grimm’s Law. This is named after Jacob Grimm, the German philologist and one half of the Brothers Grimm who are most famous for their fairy tales like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel.

The linguist Karl Verner later expanded on Grimm's Law and better explained a few of the elements of these consonant shifts. This explanation is called Verner’s Law. It states that plosive consonants become fricative consonants, thereby changing the pronunciation of a large number of words in the language.

While the history of the German language began thousands of years ago, the word German wasn't documented until  786.

Throughout the Middle Ages, there wasn’t an established writing system for German. This is why we consider Old High German as a collection of all the Germanic dialects including Old West Franconian, Rhine Franconian, and Old Bavarian.

Written sources are mainly religious texts although there are texts including magic incantations and the Oaths of Strasbourg. The first text in High German discovered was Abrograns, a Middle Latin glossary.

Middle High German (Mittelhochdeutsch) from 1050 to 1350

Throughout the 10th century, the production of German texts decreased significantly and it was only in 1050 that texts written in the German language started appearing again.

Middle High German is made up of a number of Swabian and East Franconian dialects. There is a big gap between Old High German and Middle High German given that Latin was the language of writing in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Most of the evidence between 1150 and 1250 in Middle High German is written in a chivalrous style.

Middle High German gave rise to Early New High German (Frühneuhochdeutsch) which was used between 1350 and 1650.

Low German

While High German was mainly spoken in the south of Germany and considered the language of writing, Schriftsprache or Low German was the language of the north of the country. As a language of the working classes, Low German was considered to be of a lower register.

Low German includes several dialects such as: Low Franconian from the Netherlands and Flanders, Dutch and Frisian which, when taken by the Saxons to Great Britain in the Middle Ages, would later become English.

Low German and High German would merge during the Holy Roman Empire before becoming a dialect during the 17th century.

Low German didn’t give rise to Middle Low German. In fact, the Old Saxon and Low Saxon spoken in the north of Germany did. This West Germanic language spoken between the 9th and 12th centuries, along with Frisian and Old English, would also contribute to Modern English.

Middle Low German was spoken between around 1100 and 1500 along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. We know it was written but there isn’t official proof. Middle Low German is the ancestor of Modern Low German.

Standard German (Hochdeutsch)

Protestantism would lead to Standard German being used in schools and help create a German-speaking population in the north of Germany.

Between 1520 and 1535, Martin Luther translated the Old and New Testaments into German (is he one of our top 10 famous Germans?). Until 1850, it was learnt as a foreign language in the south of Germany.

When was the Reformation?
Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 19th century, German became the language of business par excellence. Due to the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe, German was spoken in a number of cities including: Prague, Budapest, Bratislava, Zagreb, and Ljubljana while rural areas continued to speak their local languages.

The Brothers Grimm, who are probably more famous for fairy tales like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, were also philologists and the creators of the German language's first dictionaries. Between 1852 and 1860, they undertook the Herculean task of cataloguing the German lexicon. However, this task ended up being far bigger than they could have possibly fathomed and was never finished.

Were the Brothers Grimm included in our list of greatest German writers?

The Weak Influence of Latin on the German Language

While not a Latin language, German was also heavily influenced by Latin like many other languages throughout the rest of Europe.

This influence, while not as strong as it would be on languages such as French, Italian, or Spanish, came about from the Roman invasion which brought technological and war vocabulary to the language.

Latin’s influence would increase as Christianity spread through the land and monasteries were built. Latin would see its biggest period of influence during the Renaissance.

The Impact of German in Alsace

Alsace is a region in the east of France and, through wars and annexation between France and Germany, is home to 3 main languages: French, Alsatian (known as Elsässerditsch), and German.

Alsatian is a dialect of High German. During the First and Second World Wars, German was the most common language spoken but following World War II, French was the only language allowed as the region was controlled by France.

Where is German spoken?
Insert obligatory Alsatian joke here. (Source: Vladislav)

For many years, due to France's monolingual policies, the French language was promoted and use of Alsatian has inevitably decreased.

However, it is still spoken privately by around 50% of the population of the region meaning that it is spoken at a much higher rate than better known regional languages like Breton, Corsican, or Basque.

However, it has struggled to find its place between German and French which are more commonly spoken.

With so many interesting things to learn about German, perhaps you'd like to live, work, or study in Germany. Would you like to learn more about becoming a German citizen? If so, check out our article on German citizenship and naturalisation here.

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.