German language


German Language, language of the German people and other peoples akin to or at one time politically united with the Germans. German belongs to the Netherlandic-German group within the western branch of the Germanic languages, a subfamily of the Indo-European languages. It comprises two main groups of dialects, High German (including standard literary German) and Low German. Together, they form a continuum from Switzerland north to the sea; a local dialect can be understood by speakers of nearby dialects but not necessarily by speakers of far-away dialects.


The development of German was affected by several systematic shifts of certain consonants. The so-called Germanic consonant shift distinguished the ancient Proto-Germanic tongue from other Indo-European speech. In this shift, which is described by Grimm’s law, an Indo-European p, t, k changed to a Germanic f, th, h, respectively; Indo-European b, d, g to Germanic p, t, k; and similarly Indo-European bh, dh, gh, to Germanic b, d, g. After the western Germanic dialects had developed their own distinctive traits, the High German sound shift occurred. Datable to ad500-700, it set the High German dialects off from other West Germanic speech. During that period the Germanic p, when used initially, or after consonants, or when doubled, became pf (High German Pflanze, Low German Plante,”plant”); when used medially or finally after vowels it became ff or f (High German hoffen, Low German hopen,”to hope”). Under the same conditions the Germanic t became z (pronounced ts, as in Pflanze) or ss (High German essen, Low German eten,”to eat”). After vowels, k became ch (High German machen, Low German maken,”to make”); in all other cases k remained unchanged except in the extreme south of Germany, where it first became kch, and later ch. A later change, found also in Low German, is that of the Germanic th to d (High German das, Low German dat,”that”).

Another characteristic of German, as well as of all the Germanic languages, is that the principal accent falls regularly upon the first syllable of a word; in verbal combinations, however, the root syllable, not the prefix, is stressed.

The phonological characteristics of the German language include the use of the glottal stop before every initial stressed vowel in simple words or independent parts of a word; the pronunciation of u, o, ü, and ö with full lip-rounding; the tenseness of long vowels and the laxness of short vowels; the articulation of r lingually and gutturally; the voicing of the single s before and between vowels, and the devoicing of the final b, d, g to p, t, k, respectively; the use of the affricates pf and ts; and the pronunciation of w as v and of v as f. Vowels are nasalized only in words borrowed from French.

German is an inflected language, with three genders, four cases, and a strong and weak declension of qualifying adjectives. Because of the declensional and conjugational endings, some parts of speech are more precisely identified than in languages that show less inflection. Word order is strictly regulated; for example, subject and predicate are inverted when preceded by an adverb, prepositional phrase, or dependent clause; the verb is placed in the final position in a subordinate clause introduced by a relative pronoun or conjunction. In the formation of new words, German makes extensive use of compounds of two or more independent words and of prefixes and suffixes (Oberbaumeister; Handelsluftfahrt; Geteilheit; teilbar). The poetic and philosophical vocabulary and scientific and technical terminology of German are particularly rich.


The usually cited dividing line, south of which High German is spoken, runs eastward from Aachen, south of Düsseldorf, Kassel, Magdeburg, and Berlin, to Frankfurt. High German is in turn divided into two categories: Upper German, in Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, and southern Germany, and Middle German, across Luxembourg and the middle of Germany.

Upper German consists of (1) Alamannic (designated as Swabian in its northeastern sector), spoken in the southern regions of Baden-Württemberg and of Alsace, the southwestern corner of Bavaria, and the German-language areas of Switzerland, including the major cities of Basel, Zürich, and Bern; (2) Bavarian-Austrian, used in the southeastern section of Germany east of the Lech River and south of Nürnberg, including Munich, and in Austria, including the cities of Innsbruck, Vienna, and Graz; (3) the branches of the Franconian dialect, classified as South Franconian, found between Karlsruhe and Heilbronn, and East Franconian, used in the vicinity of Nürnberg, Würzburg, Bamberg, and Fulda; and (4) Langobardic, spoken at one time in the parts of Lombardy (Lombardia) (Italy) occupied by the Germanic tribe of the Langobards, and surviving today only in certain geographical names of that area. The Langobardic dialect is of great historical interest because it is the earliest (mid-7th century ad) recorded German dialect, whereas the majority of German dialects can be traced back only to the 8th, 9th, or 10th centuries.

Middle German consists of (1) Rhine Franconian, spoken in most of the Palatinate and Hessen, which contain the cities of Mainz, Heidelberg, Frankfurt am Main, and Marburg an der Lahn; (2) Mosel-Franconian, used on both sides of the Mosel River and centering in the city of Trier; (3) Ripuarian, used between Aachen and Cologne; (4) Thuringian, heard in the environs of Weimar, Jena, and Erfurt; (5) Upper Saxon, spoken in Saxony (Sachsen), including the cities of Dresden and Leipzig; and (6) Silesian, used in Lower and Upper Silesia, northwest and southeast of Wrocław (formerly called Breslau, now in Poland).


The second principal division of German, Plattdeutsch or Low German, includes Low Franconian, which is very closely related to Netherlandic (Dutch-Flemish) and is spoken only in the west, in a narrow fringe along the border between the Netherlands and Germany; and Low Saxon, which is used in the northern lowlands as far east and northeast as the Elbe River, including the cities of Münster, Kassal, Bremen, Hannover, Hamburg, and Magdeburg. As a result of the colonization of the Baltic regions by the Teutonic Knights, Low German spread throughout the lands east of the Elbe to Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, and Pomerania, as well as parts of Prussia.


Until the middle of the 14th century Latin was the official written language of the Holy Roman Empire, which comprised most of the German-speaking regions of present-day Europe. During the reign (1314-47) of Louis IV, Holy Roman emperor, German was adopted as the language of official court documents. Between 1480 and 1500 it was introduced for official use in many municipalities and courts of Saxony and Meissen and was adopted also by the universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg. By 1500 German had become generally accepted as the official language of all parts of Saxony and Thüringen and was the written language of the educated classes. In addition the publication of books in German increased in the East Middle German towns of Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Leipzig, as well as in such western and southwestern cities as Mainz, Strassburg, Basel, Nürnberg, and Augsburg. These developments helped reduce regional differences and standardize the literary language.

Standard written German emerged during the first quarter of the 16th century in the eastern midland area of Erfurt, Meissen, Dresden, and Leipzig, where the inhabitants, originally from regions farther west and southwest, spoke a dialect based on the Middle and Upper German dialects of High German. Largely by means of Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and his German pamphlets, hymns, and catechisms, the High German standard spread from the eastern midland throughout the rest of Germany. Thus, the term High German came to mean, on the one hand, all German dialects except those belonging to the Low German branch of the language, and, on the other hand, the literary language of Germany. By 1600 this literary language was firmly established, although its present form did not become recognizable until about the middle of the 18th century.

The various sections of Germany and of other European nations where German was spoken adhered to different standards of spelling until the 20th century. In 1901 a conference, in which representatives of northern and southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland took part, devised a uniform system of orthography that later came into acceptance. This system is outlined in Rechtschreibung der Deutschen Sprache (Orthography of the German Language, published in many editions), by the German philologist Konrad Duden.

No generally accepted standard of German pronunciation exists. As the result of the work of a commission established in 1898, composed of university professors and representatives of the German theater, certain norms of pronunciation were, however, accepted. These rules have been codified in Deutsche Buhnenaussprache (German Stage Pronunciation), first published in 1898 and again in 1957 as Deutsche Hochsprache (Standard German). The speech even of highly educated Germans is affected by the pronunciation peculiar to their native dialects. Various German-speaking groups, such as the Swabians, Saxons, Austrians, and Swiss, can be distinguished readily by their characteristic types of pronunciation.


German is spoken by many millions of people throughout the world. Approximately 71 million German-speaking persons live in Germany, and several million under foreign administration. In addition, German is spoken by almost 7 million people in Austria, about 300,000 in Luxembourg, 3,400,000 in the northern section of Switzerland, and about 1,500,000 in Alsace-Lorraine. Reliable statistics are not available concerning the number of German-speaking persons who inhabit those regions of eastern Europe from which Germans were expelled at the end of World War II.

Outside Europe, the largest number of people using German as their mother tongue live in the United States. An important group of German-speaking people in the U.S. are the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, who left the Palatinate region of Germany during the late 17th and the 18th centuries and settled in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania. They speak the Rhine-Franconian dialect with relatively few admixtures of English. Other countries with a fairly large number of German-speaking citizens are Canada (approximately 330,000), Brazil (550,000), and Argentina (250,000).

Contributed By:
Otto Springer

Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2005. © 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


About this entry