German language

History of German

Historically, German falls into three main periods: Old German (c.A.D. 750–c.A.D. 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 A.D. 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.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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