History of the German Language
German is one of the world's most-spoken languages, with roughly 118 million speakers, including native and second-language speakers. It's also one of the most commonly spoken languages in the European Union. This is due in large part to the fact that German is the official language in seven countries, among them Germany, Austria and Belgium.
In addition, it's a recognized secondary language in another ten countries. Approximately two million residents of the United States speak German, or a dialect of it, and these numbers continue to grow. With so many people speaking German, it makes sense to pursue it as an option when thinking of learning a second language. If you learn German, you stand a better chance of being able to communicate with a large and growing portion of the world's population.
How did German grow to be so widely spoken? What are its origins, and where is it headed?
German Language Origin
The German language has a long and tumultuous history and is one of the oldest languages in Europe. Linguistic German history dates back to at least the 6th century AD. It wasn't always the German language we're familiar with today, though. German has its roots in Old Saxon, the language spoken by the Saxon people, a group of Germanic tribes. Sometime between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD, a phenomenon took place called the High German consonant shift. This was a change in sound (pronunciation) that took place in several phases, changing the language from the West Germanic dialect of Old Saxon to a new language–Old High German.
The shift from Germanic dialect to the Old High German language lasted until approximately the mid-9th century AD. It wasn't until the early 1500s that another German history change came about, when Martin Luther translated the Bible. For his translation, he used another form of German, called Middle High German, which was based on different dialects than Old High German.
The Catholic Church rejected this translation of the Bible, and created their own standard version based on yet other dialects from other regions of Germany. At the time, the country was divided into several independent states, each with its own German culture and its own dialects. There was no standard language accepted throughout the nation. Many German writers tried to bring about a standardization of the German language in order for more people to understand their work, but this would not occur for nearly 300 years.
It wasn't until about 1800 that standard German became an accepted written form of the language for government communications. Over the next 100 years, the standard German language spread throughout the country. More and more townspeople began to speak it, and it became the language of choice for the written word.
From 1852 to 1860, the Brothers Grimm wrote and released a 16-part German dictionary. To this day, it remains the most comprehensive dictionary of the German language. Also in 1860, grammatical and orthographic (spelling and writing) rules were published in the Duden Handbook, and in 1901, this was declared the definitive guide to the standard German language.
German Language Today
The standards set out in the Duden Handbook remained in place for nearly 100 years when German history changed again under the German orthography reform of 1996 (Rechtschreibreform in German). In July of that year, the governments of several German-speaking countries such as Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, signed an agreement in Vienna, Rechtschreibreform.
The agreement laid out a plan to change German spelling rules to simplify the language and make it easier to learn. At the same time, the agreement recognized that the language rules could not change substantially, so that the German people using the language at that time would not be required to relearn it.
The reform plan met with a great deal of controversy and resistance by many German people, with some states seeing it as a threat to German culture and refusing to adopt it, resulting in court intervention. The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany stated in 1998 that general orthography could not be governed; citizens could continue to write and spell German the way they always had. However, the court also ruled that the government was able to enforce the reform in schools and public administration.
After the reform was put in place, Germany went through an eight-year transition for implementation in schools. During that period, many media outlets also underwent the transition. However, some major newspapers and magazines and some well-known writers continued to refuse to adopt the new rules.
At the end of this transition period, the Council for German Orthography voted unanimously in 2006 to remove the reform changes that had caused the most controversy, which appeased many of the media organizations that had opposed the reform in its former iteration. This major change to the reform was put in place just before the new school year began. The following year, some traditional German spellings were finally phased out of the language.
One notable difference to come from this reform was the abandonment of the ligature ß, which had previously taken the place of ss in some words. The ligature can still be seen in use from time to time, but not nearly as frequently as it was prior to 1996.
While things seem to have calmed down for the time being, few languages have undergone so many changes in such a relatively short period of time as the German language. It is truly a living and vibrant language, mirroring the hardy German people who have lived through strife, preserved their German culture, and emerged as a country that is a stable and important member of the global community. Being able to more thoroughly understand these people, their history, and their culture, are but a few of the many benefits of learning German.