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How German took on its modern shape

Sabine Peschel ss
August 10, 2020

Before Luther and Goethe, the German language has traveled a long way from its Indo-European roots to New High German. A look at the complex history of a language that's still evolving today.

Deutschland | Das Original der Merseburger Zaubersprüche
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/t. Schulze

The 2020 Summer Olympics had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But one "Olympic" event has nevertheless managed to take place this year: the Internationale Deutscholympiade, the world's biggest German language contest, organized by the Goethe-Institut.

First introduced in 2008, the global event is designed to attract young people from all over the world to compete against each other every two years with their German language skills. The competition focuses on teaching German as foreign language — one of the core tasks of the Goethe-Institut.

This year, the event for the 14 to 17-year-old students was held digitally. After five days of live streams, concerts, lectures and conversations, and even breakdancing in front of their screens, the students from over 60 countries finally competed in exams at their individual levels, with the winners being announced on August 7.

The winners included Eban Ebssa from the US (level A1), Wang Zhi-an from Taiwan (level B1) and Keta Kalandadze from Georgia (B2).

A massive family tree of languages

"Taking part!" (Dabei sein!) was the motto of this year's Internationale Deutscholympiade (IDO) event. But did the young linguists at the competition ever stop and wonder about the origins of the German language? What makes German, German? How did the language develop into what it is now, and how is it still evolving today?

Any attempt to explore the beginnings of the German language quickly lead to its roots in the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Since the 19th century, language scholars have been tracing along the branches of this huge family of related languages. That journey has taken them all the way back to the 4th millennium BCE, when the original homelands of the Indo-Germanic-speaking peoples were most likely located north and east of the Black Sea.

Luther Bible
Martin Luther's first complete translation of the Bible from Latin in 1534 was long considered to be the beginning of today's standard GermanImage: Public Domain

Language as living history

Many different language groups and individual languages developed out of this primeval language, including languages that have long since gone extinct, such as the Hittite, Tocharian, Illyrian or Vandalese languages. Research into the history of these languages fills entire libraries. But from the contemporary perspective, the most fascinating aspect is the fact that languages as different as Persian and German share the same origins.

The original Germanic language only came into being in the 1st millennium BCE as the result of a first "sound change," which is how researchers refer to such changes in language. After that, the evolution of the main Germanic language became a more complex matter, notably shaped by major events and currents in history.

When these early Germanic tribes encountered Roman troops for trade or on the battlefield, they began to adopt many of their terms. Germanic dialects were increasingly cross-pollinated with Roman and Greek words.

What did Goethe say?

But Germanic isn't the same thing as German, which developed through a second sound change that took place over four centuries from 600 AD onwards. Language researchers say that the subsequent stages of evolution to New High German (Hochdeutsch) as we know it today are Old High German, Middle High German, Early New High German to New High German.

Non-linguists, however, might rather be interested in knowing that the present stage of language development did not begin with Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) and his translation of the Bible, which was the functioning theory disseminated by linguists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It actually started over 100 years later, in 1650. That is not to say that people at the time spoke anything like today's German.

In fact, people living today would still even find great difficulty in communicating with Germany's greatest linguistic talent: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832) spoke a dialect that would no longer be intelligible today.

A portrait of Goethe
Germans wouldn't understand Goethe's spoken language todayImage: Imago Images/Agenzia Romano Siciliani

A language in transition

"Language can only exist in relation to the course of time," researcher Peter Polenz states in his landmark work on the history of the German language, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache (1970), dispelling the misconception that "the language of our ancestors was not yet 'corrupted' by modernity."

"The continual criticism of language decay is still a popular topic in certain circles that have a culturally pessimistic outlook on language today," Polenz notes, adding that changes and differences in language are self-evident phenomena of human and cultural evolution. To investigate such trends in the German language, a new "German Language Forum" (Forum für Deutsche Sprache) will be launched in Mannheim in 2023.

One of the most lamented trends is the fact that anglicisms are increasingly finding their way into the German language. But there are also German words like Autobahn, kindergarten or hinterland that travel to the English language — among others.