Skip to main content
Select Source:

GERMAN

GERMAN A GERMANIC LANGUAGE of Western Europe, the official language of Germany and Austria, and an official language of Switzerland (with FRENCH and ITALIAN) and Luxembourg (with French). It is also spoken by communities in Belgium, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Poland, Romania, and parts of the former Soviet Union, is widely used as a second language in Turkey and in the former Yugoslavia, and is spoken in enclaves in North and South America, Africa, and Australia. With c.100m speakers, it ranks tenth among languages in world terms and first in Western Europe in numbers of native speakers. Because of close genetic links, German and English share many features, as seen in the sentence: Für rund 95 (fünfundneunzig) bis 100 (hundert) Millionen Menschen ist Deutsch heute Muttersprache (For around five and ninety to hundred million people is German today mother-speech: ‘Today German is the mother tongue of about 95 to a 100 m people’). The difference in word order is great, but a close match can be made with Für/for, rund/around, fünf/five, neunzig/ninety, hundert/hundred, Mensch/man, ist/is, Mutter/mother, Sprache/speech (with million as a shared Romance BORROWING). German is structurally more complex than English, having inflectional endings for number, case, gender, person, tense, etc., and in this it resembles OLD ENGLISH more closely than Modern English. In its orthography, German gives an initial capital letter to its nouns, a practice common in English until the mid-18c.

Varieties

Historically, German has been an amalgam of DIALECTS slow to develop a STANDARD language. The continuum ranges from the geographically ‘low’ German dialect of Westphalia in the north-west (mutually intelligible with DUTCH), through the dialects of Lower and Upper Saxony, the Rhineland, and Franconia, to the ‘upper’ German varieties spoken in Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria. The term Plattdeutsch (sometimes translated as ‘Low German’) is used for the ‘broad’ dialects in the north and west. Schwyzertüütsch is the common spoken German in Switzerland, a dialect more than most others in diglossic contrast with the written and printed language. The linguistic distinction between Niederdeutsch (Lower German) and Oberdeutsch (Upper German) covers the same continuum. It is usually traced to the Second Sound Shift in the 8c, in which the Southern dialects became phonologically distinct from the Northern, producing such South/North contrasts as machen/maken (make) and Schiff/skip (ship). Confusingly, the geographical term Hochdeutsch or High German is applied to the result of this sound change, so that the term can refer both to all the Upper German (that is, geographically ‘highland’ and Southern) dialects and to an idealized STANDARD German language which is ‘high’ in the social sense.

Even then, however, the division into Lower and Upper/High German is not the whole story, as dialectologists and language historians generally recognize an intermediate variety: Mitteldeutsch (Central or Middle German) stretching from Cologne to Frankfurt and Leipzig. Observers can draw attention either to such Low/High contrasts as Junge/Bub a boy, and Sonnabend/Samstag Saturday, or such Low/Middle/Upper contrasts as ik/ich/i the pronoun I, and Männeken/Männchen/Mandl a little man. The contribution of the Central and Southern dialects to a common Schriftsprache (written or literary language) is often acknowledged, as is the fact that more recently a supra-regional Umgangssprache (colloquial semi-standard) has served to level out differences.

Tensions persist, however, between unifying and separatist tendencies. More than in English, orthographic conventions have been standardized, largely because of the influential Duden spelling dictionary (Vollständiges orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, Konrad Duden, 1880; Duden, vol. 1, Die Rechtschreibung, 19th edition, Bibliographisches Institut mannheim, 1986). Local differences in pronunciation occur at all social levels and are often deliberately asserted to establish people's back-grounds. A single, supranational norm for pronunciation does not exist in German-speaking countries any more than in English-speaking countries, although 19c Bühnendeutsch (stage German) and 20c media and social mobility have promoted compromises between Lower/North and Upper/South German speech forms. Distinct varieties have emerged in East and West Germany (prior to reunification in 1990), Austria, and Switzerland, especially in vocabulary, which have been partly codified in ‘national’ dictionaries.

Historically, (High) German is divided into Old High German from AD 750, Middle High German from 1150, Early New High German from 1350, and New High German from 1650.

German in English

Over the centuries, many German words have found their way into English: for example, Low German brake, dote, tackle and High German blitz, dachshund, kindergarten: see BORROWING. Cultural acquisitions have been significant in such fields as food (frankfurter, hamburger, hock, pretzel, sauerkraut), mineralogy (cobalt, feldspar, gneiss, quartz), music (glockenspiel, leitmotiv, waltz), philosophy (weltanschauung, zeitgeist), and politics (diktat, realpolitik). Two powerful sources of borrowing in AmE have been such German settlers as the Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, Deutsch) and YIDDISH-speaking Jewish immigrants.

English in German

Contacts between English and German have been on the increase since the early 18c, promoted by literary translation, diplomatic links, trade relations, language teaching, and the media. Loans have entered German from such fields as literature (sentimental, Ballade), sport (boxen, Rally), politics (Hearing; Hochverrat, from ‘high treason’), and technology (Lokomotive, from locomotive engine; Pipeline). Resistance is no longer as vociferous as during the time of the Sprachgesellschaften (17c language societies) and the anti-foreigner propaganda of the Nazis in the 1930s. English usages are adopted and adapted as: loanwords (babysitten babysit), loan translations (Beiprodukt by-product), blends of LOANWORD and LOAN TRANSLATION (Teamarbeit team work), semantic transfer (Schau from ‘show’, in the sense of theatrical event), and loan creation (Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, ‘work for the public’, loosely based on ‘public relations’). Most borrowing is at word level, but occasionally idioms or syntactic constructions are transferred, as in grünes Licht geben give the green light, Ich fliege Lufthansa I fly Lufthansa. The influence of English is strong in advertising (High Life, Image) and information science (Compiler, Feedback). In general, AmE has a greater influence than BrE.

See CAMEROON, DIALECT IN THE UNITED STATES, EUROPEAN UNION, GOTHIC, INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES, INDO-GERMANIC, NAMIBIA, PAPUA NEW GUINEA, SPELLING REFORM, TANZANIA.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"GERMAN." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"GERMAN." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/german

"GERMAN." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved August 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/german

German language

German language, member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). It is the official language of Germany and Austria and is one of the official languages of Switzerland. Altogether nearly 100 million people speak German as their first language, among them about 77 million in Germany; 8 million in Austria; 4.5 million in Switzerland; 2 million in the United States and Canada; about 2 million in Latin America; and several additional millions throughout Europe, including the Baltic republics, Belarus, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, and the Balkan states. German is important as a cultural and commercial second language for millions of people in Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe and in North and South America.

High and Low German

There are two principal divisions of the German language: High German, or Hochdeutsch, and Low German, or Plattdeutsch. One of the most striking differences between them is the result of a consonant shift (usually referred to as the second, or High German, sound shift) that took place before the 8th cent. AD in certain West Germanic dialects. This sound shift affected the southern areas, which are more elevated and hence referred to as the High German region, whereas it left untouched the Low German prevalent in the lowland regions of the North. In a broader and purely linguistic sense, the term Low German can also be extended to cover all the West Germanic languages in which the second sound shift did not take place, such as Dutch, Frisian, and English.

Distinctive Features

Besides differences in word order, the German language is unlike English in that German makes extensive use of inflectional endings. The verb is inflected to show person, number, tense, and mood; and the subjunctive is frequently used. The declensional scheme has four cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. There are two ways of declining the adjective, and there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. A distinctive feature of German is its extensive use of lengthy compound words. For example, the English "history of antiquity" is translated into German as Altertumswissenschaft; the English "worthy of distinction" is translated as auszeichnungswürdig.

The Gothic or Black Letter form (in German called Fraktur) of the Roman alphabet, which first appeared in Europe around the 12th cent., is now rarely used, although knowledge of Fraktur is needed in order to read many works printed before 1945. The Roman alphabet is now exclusively used in printing. To it were added the symbol ß, representing a voiceless s (as in English mouse), now often replaced with ss; and the umlauted vowels ä,ö, and ü. German is the only language in which all nouns are capitalized, common as well as proper. There is a closer relationship between German spelling and pronunciation than there is in English.

History of German

Historically, German falls into three main periods: Old German (c.AD 750–c.AD 1050); Middle German (c.1050–c.1500); and Modern German (c.1500 to the present). The earliest existing records in German date back to about AD 750. In this first period, local dialects were used in writing, and there was no standard language. In the middle period a relatively uniform written language developed in government after the various chancelleries of the Holy Roman Empire began, in the 14th cent., to use a combination of certain dialects of Middle High German in place of the Latin that until then had dominated official writings.

The German of the chancellery of Saxony was adapted by Martin Luther for his translation of the Bible. He chose it because at that time the language of the chancelleries alone stood out in a multitude of dialects as a norm, and Luther thought he could reach many more people through it. The modern period is usually said to begin with the German used by Luther, which became the basis of Modern High German, or modern standard German. The spread of uniformity in written German was also helped by printers, who, like Luther, wanted to attract as many readers as possible.

During the 18th cent. a number of outstanding writers gave modern standard German essentially the form it has today. It is now the language of church and state, education and literature. A corresponding norm for spoken High German, influenced by the written standard, is used in education, the theater, and broadcasting. German dialects that differ substantially from standard German, not only in pronunciation but also in grammar, are found in regions of Germany, E France, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein; Lëtzeburgesch, an official language of Luxembourg, is a German dialect spoken by about 400,000 people there. Although dialectal differences within both the High German and Low German regions remain, a trend toward uniformity in the direction of the written standard is expected partly as a result of widespread broadcasting, diminishing isolation, and increased socioeconomic mobility.

Bibliography

See B. A. Reichenbach, Handbook of German Grammar (1987); W. B. Lockwood German Today (1987); W. M. Rivers, Teaching German (1988); C. V. J. Russ, ed., The Dialects of Modern German (1989); A. E. Hammer, German Grammar and Usage (1989).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"German language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"German language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/german-language

"German language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/german-language

German

German Indo-European language spoken by c.120 million people in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and by German communities in many other countries. High German (Hochdeutsch), of s Germany and Austria, is now the standard dialect. Low German (Plattdeutsch) was spoken widely in the n, but is now declining.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"German." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"German." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/german

"German." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/german

Germanic languages

Germanic languages Group of languages, a sub-division of the Indo-European family. One branch (West Germanic) includes English, German, Yiddish, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and Afrikaans; another (North Germanic) includes Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Germanic languages." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Germanic languages." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/germanic-languages

"Germanic languages." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/germanic-languages