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'Kaiser' to 'cheese': Etymology of German words

Suzanne Cords
May 28, 2022

The German word "Kaiser" is Latin by origin, "capital" and "bankrupt" are Italian, and "biology" is Greek. A new book offers insights into the evolution of the German language.

Jumble of large wooden letters in a bowl
Languages are alive, they changeImage: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

"The German language is well-traveled, well-connected and happy to keep up with the times — it is a prime example of successful integration," the authors of "The Extraordinary History of Our Words," published by the Duden publishing company, write in the new book's preface. Indeed, language purists might rub their eyes in amazement when reading how many words entered into the German language not just in Europe, but from all over the world. 

Germans and Romans

Researchers have found out that the original proto-German language originated around 8,000 BC in Asia Minor. It later developed into what is known as Indo-Germanic: today, about half of humanity speaks a language that goes back to it. Germanic as such did not crystallize until the second millennium BC in northern Europe, where different tribes formed a cultural group with a similar language.

In the course of time, they migrated southward and inevitably met the Romans. The Roman Empire was an advanced civilization at the time, and the Germanic peoples picked up many achievements and techniques, along with the Latin terminology, which was assimilated.

Statue of Gaius Julius Caesar in Rome
Caesar became "Kaiser" in GermanImage: Paolo Gallo/Zoonar/picture alliance

What is presumably the oldest loanword from Latin goes back to Gaius Julius Caesar, the Roman general who conquered the Gaul region (today's France and Belgium) in the first century BC. The word "Caesar" for the ruler became "Kaiser" (emperor). The Romans were ingenious builders, too: "Mauer" (wall) from murus and "Fenster" (window), from the Latin word fenestra, also entered the Germanic language. The Nordic tribes ate and used the words for the many delicacies the Romans brought with them, including "Kirsche" (cherry, Latin ceresia), "Zwiebel" (onion) — the Romans called the vegetable cepulla —, "Käse" (cheese, Latin caseus) and "Wein" (wine, the Latin is vinum).

In turn, the Romans borrowed words from the Greeks, who were highly developed and eloquent in everyday culture, philosophy and literature. And so, via Latin, ancient Greek words were later often adopted into Germanic or German, including "Kirche" (church, Greek kyriakon) and "Biologie" (biology, Greek bios and logos).

Latin, dialect, loan words

The Germanic tribes, however, were far from having any kind of unified language. The tribes spoke Frankish, Alemannic or Bavarian; Latin was the church and administrative language and — to make the confusion complete — there was a mix of all languages.

Portrait of Cosimo De Medici
German merchants had close ties to ItalyImage: Heritage-Images/picture-alliance

In the 13th century, the bourgeoisie, with its crafts and trades, became more powerful. Their close ties with Italian merchants led to the adoption of a great many words from Italian in the 15th and 16th centuries. People went to the bank (banco: long table of the money changer), deposited their capital (capitale) there and hoped never to go bankrupt (banca rotta — the money changer's broken table).

German merchants had close trade relations with the Orient, too — words including coffee, alcohol and sugar originated in Arabic. In the 16th century, ships brought goods from the newly discovered America — indigenous words like chocolatl and tomatl became Schokolade (chocolate) and Tomate (tomato).

German bible, French customs

Martin Luther's 1522 translation of the Bible into German had the greatest influence on the development of the German language at the time. The reformer tried to write in a manner that was clear and understandable. He "looked at people's mouths," as he put it. Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press around 1450, Luther's bible was widely distributed. The language of science, however, remained Latin — German dialects were deemed vulgar.

 Versailles palace in background, fountain with a figure at the front
Germans tried to copy the French way of life Image: Andreas Engelhardt/picture alliance

After France won the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and expanded its supremacy in Europe, French became the colloquial language for the upper social classes. German was spoken only by commoners, craftsmen and peasants. And even they would use the odd French word, like parquet, rendezvous and wardrobe, to appear educated.

Language purists feared moral decline

17th-century language purists were opposed to the flood of fashionable foreign words. On August 24, 1617, the first language society was founded in Weimar, named the "Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft" (Fruitful Society). Its members were firmly convinced that a decline in the language would inevitably endanger native customs, virtues and traditions. 150 years later, poets who were revered abroad, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, helped the German language blossom again. But even they used foreign phrases and words.

A new era

The Industrial Revolution provided a whole new chapter of word creations. The French term "industrie" that originally meant "diligence, industriousness" took on a unique meaning.

People working in ironworks factory
The industrial revolution brought change, and new vocabularyImage: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Karl Marx' and Friedrich Engels' criticism of capitalism followed on its heels, including words like communism (from communis: common), proletariat (proletarius: member of the lowest class) or socialism (socialis: social).

Desire for unified language

People in Germany increasingly resented not having a unified nation-state — but at least, so the thinking went, they could aim for a common language. Chairs for German Studies were established at universities in the early 19th century. Language guides including the Grimm Brothers' 1854 German Dictionary and the 1880 Duden Spelling provided orientation.

In 1871, the German Empire was founded, but still, foreign words slipped into the language. When the Nazis seized power in 1933, they turned back the clock and avoided foreign words. Some terms were stylized, in particular "Volk" (people). The "people as a whole" took precedence over all else, everyone had to serve the "people's welfare." Most Germans owned a Volksempfänger radio set and people who could afford it bought a Volkswagen.

Separate ways

After World War II, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, West and East Germany respectively, were founded in 1949. Again, language reflected realities: West Germans admired the American way of life and many English words found their way into the language, including management, makeup and LPs. East Germans resorted to Russian words like "dacha" (small country house) and coined ideologically influenced terms like "workers' and peasants' state" and "anti-fascist protective wall" (for the Berlin Wall).

 Goebbels und Glasmeyer, other people in the background, at a trade fair in 1939, radio set to the left
Most German households owned the affordable Volksempfänger (people's receiver) radioImage: akg-images/picture-alliance/dpa

Political, social and technical developments were reflected in the language over the following decades, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to recycling in times of climate change. The computer age, too, has given Germans numerous everyday technical terms that were unthinkable in the 1980s: from browser (to browse) to download to e-mail.

Peaceful coexistence

The new Duden book points out that people worried about the German language should realize that it has lived in peaceful coexistence with foreign words for thousands of years. "Our old lady the German language lives entirely according to the motto 'You never stop learning' and demonstrates a stylistically confident attitude," according to the book. "While the vocabulary is undergoing a very dynamic development, the grammar demonstrates stability and perseverance and takes even bold new creations under its structuring wing."

English words the Germans use wrongly

This article has been translated from German.