The German Language

Origins and history of the language

German is spoken by approximately 100 million people, which of over 80 million in Germany. Standard German is popular as a foreign language in schools and at universities in Europe. It is a West Germanic language related to English and Dutch.

The German language begun to develop with the shift during the migration period in which High German dialects separated from common West Germanic. The first written inscription in Alemannic dates to the 6th century. First coherent documents, for example the famous Hildebrandlied, date from the 9th century.

Middle Low German was the spoken by the Hanseatic League predominant in Nothern Germany till the 16 century. In 1534, when Marthin Luther translated the Bible from Latin, Early New High German gained more prestige then Middle Low German and became the language of science and literature and the most widely understood language. Early New High German ended in the middle of the 18th century when a certain standard was created and widely accepted.

In the Hapsburg Empire, which stretched across large area of Central and Eastern Europe, the Standard German language was used in commerce and in government sectors. Written works and documents were in written in Standard German. Therefore people in urban northern Germany, who spoke dialects very different from Standard German, learned it like a foreign language and tried to pronounce it as close to the spelling as possible.

The most comprehensive guide to the words of the German language was the first dictionary of the Brothers Grimm; the first grammatical and orthographic rules appeared in the Duden handbook, which could be compared to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1860.

The standard definition of the German language was changed in 1996 when the German spelling reform was officially established in all German-speaking countries. The German spelling reform was high disputed and opposition emerged. For example Bavaria did not want to accept it. The argument was based on the Articles 70 –75 of the German Constitution that states that the school system is to be regulated by the federal states. From this it follows that Bavaria should be left the possibility to refuse the spelling reform. However, a major yet incomplete revision was installed in 2006.

Where it is spoken

Standard German is the official language in Germany which is fixed in article 23 Verwaltungsverfahrensgesetz (VwVfG) beside with Danish, Frisian and Sorbian as minority languages.

It is has also official status in Liechtenstein and Austria where actually the widely used language is Austrian German as a national variety to Standard German. Furthermore German is the official language in Switzerland alongside with French, Italian and Romansch. It is worth to mention that Standard Germand in Switzerland differs from the German orthography. Colloquial language is solely Swiss German.

Standard German is the official language in Belgium along with Dutch and French and in Luxembourg along with French and Luxembourgish.

German is also used as a local official language in Italian Province of Bolzano-Bozen in South Tyrol, as well as in the cities of Sopron in Hungary although it is nowadays taught as a foreign language due to fact that it is widely assimilated, in Krahule in Slovakia and several cities in Romania. It is, together with Italian, the official language of the Vatican Swiss Guard.

German has an officially recognized status as regional language in Denmark in South Jutland region, in France in Alsace and Lorraine regions which are recognize as langues régionales and in Italy in Gressoney valley.

In Namibia where German was the official language between 1984 and 1990 it is used as lingua franca. Approximately 1.5 % of the total population state German as their native language.

In Poland in the Opole region, German has the auxiliary status and the living minority there is represented in Polish parliament called Sejm since 1991.

German has also an auxiliary status in Russia in Asowo and Halbstadt.

German is also spoken in Czech Republic without having an official or auxiliary status by Sudeten Germans.

In the USA 1.5 million people speak German for which reason it qualifies as the 5th most spoken language. Not to forget that 1.5 % of the total population in Canada speak German as native language.

German is also one of the 23 official languages of the European Union. It is the language with the largest number of native speakers in the European Union, and, shortly after English, the second-most spoken language in Europe.

The most important international institutions that recognized German as official language are inter alia Fédération Internationale de Football Association – FIFA, Fédération Internationale de Ski – FIS, World Association of Newspapers – WAN and other.

Dialects in Germany

Dialects are traditional regional varieties spoken by the inhabitants of different areas. These dialects differ in a very strong way from each other and are therefore hardly undestandable to those who learn just Standard German .

In Baden-Württemberg, for example, there are two different dialects divided into Swabian “Schwäbisch” and “Badisch” (Allemanic), both of which are known for being almost unintelligible not only to northern Germans but also for inhabitant of the other region in the countryside.

However, there are places where traditional regional dialects have been replaced by standard German. This is the case in vast stretches of Northern Germany.

Standard German differs regionally, especially between German-speaking countries, especially in vocabulary, but also in some instances of pronunciation and even grammar and orthography.