ArticleA short history of the German language
AuthorHelmut Richter
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Standard German

In this section we give a short survey of what has contributed to the development of a standard German language, irrespective of whether this has been a deliberate effort of language planning or just a coincidence of circumstances that favoured a common language.

A first minor standardisation was brought about by the minstrels who wanted their songs to be understood in more than one region and avoided regionalisms or rhymes that would work only in some dialects. Otherwise there was little necessity for a common German language since laws and administrative and judicial documents were written in Latin.

In the 13th and 14th century, German became more and more used in the administration. By the time of Emperor Ludwig the Bavarian (reigned 1314–1347), most imperial documents were written in German, in particular when they pertained to affairs in Southern Germany, and documents he issued as duke of Bavaria were nearly exclusively written in German. His successor, Karl IV (reigned 1347–1378), had his chancery at Prague, which had a still greater influence on the common judicial language. At that time, this common language was not the language of the ordinary people but the jargon of imperial adminstrators and lawyers. This changed significantly with Johannes Gutenberg’s (~1400–1468) invention of printing with movable type and with Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) translation of the Bible. For the first time, there was a German text of common interest to spread rapidly all over Germany, thus communicating not only the contents but also a specific variety of the German language. Luther put quite some effort in carefully selecting an idiom that would as far as possible be perceived as natural in the different regions of Germany. To this end, he took the chancery language of Prague and Meißen as his standard, but changed its style drastically so that it was no longer the stilted language of lawyers, but resembled more the colloquial language of the man in the street. That both Meißen, and even more so Wittenberg and Thuringia in which Luther lived at various times, are located in the centre of Germany contributed largely to the creation of a language that would be understood in wide parts of Germany.

The mere existence of a document in a common language was but the first step towards the development of a standard language. The next step was the advent of descriptions of the language in dictionaries and grammars. In the time of baroque, poetry was not so much regarded as an art but more so as a kind of craftsmanship adhering to fixed rules. Some of such rules were written down by Martin Opitz (1597–1639) and others. In 1648, Justus Georg Schottel (1612–1676) published his “Ausführliche Arbeit von der Teutschen Haubt Sprache” (Elaborate work about the German main language), Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–1766) followed later with a grammar and Johann Christoph Adelung (1732–1806) with a dictionary. In the time of the Enlightenment, the motive of writing grammars was no longer the interest in defining rules for poets and writers, but rather the conviction that every observable phenomenon, including language, is subject to scientific laws like those we find in physics. Both attitudes, baroque craftsmanship and Enlightenment science, led to an understanding of grammars as prescriptive rather than descriptive. In the 19th century, interest in the German language shifted towards its purification by eliminating unnecessary foreign words, an endeavour during which many useful words of today’s German language were coined, whereas the attempt to replace well-established loanwords by inventing awkward “German” circumlocutions for them rightly failed.

Another important step towards the standardisation of the language was the creation of a generally binding orthography by the kingdom of Bavaria in 1879; the kingdom of Prussia followed one year later when Konrad Duden (1829–1911) created his famous dictionary “according to the new Prussian and Bavarian rules” which has been continued and adapted to language changes until today. This dictionary was regarded as the de-facto standard (and sometimes even the de-jure standard) of German orthography. Since 1880, the orthography has been subjected to two reforms in the first and the last years of the 20th century: In 1901, there was a three-day administrative conference accepting and continuing Duden’s innovations, most notably abandoning writing -th- in German words such as Thal or Rath. The reform in the 1990ies consisted of a long series of academic and bureaucratic debates whose results have remained controversial because they were not an attempt to codify changes already in use but to invent new changes to orthography.

While the orthography followed a compromise between Northern and Southern language, this was not the case for the pronunciation. In 1898, Theodor Siebs (1862–1941) fixed rules for the “Deutsche Bühnenaussprache” (German stage pronunciation) which are still regarded as binding until today. In his work, Siebs declared more or less exclusive Northern pronunciation to be the German standard: voiced s (like English “z”) and labiodental w (like English “v”) in syllable-initial positions; long vowels in words like Städte or Husten; initial st- less consistently spoken as scht-; Honig pronounced as if it were written with -ich; voiced b, d, g; the Schwa (unstressed e) spoken a bit more rounded than in the South. More examples are given here. Siebs always favoured the more distinctive pronunciation, e.g. Fliesen distinct from fließen, Städte distinct from Stätte (spoken alike in the South) or Ehre distinct from Ähre (spoken alike in the North).

To sum up: today’s standard German is the language of the Southerners in the pronunciation of the Northerners – in principle a reasonably fair compromise. The effect is, however, that North German language is often nearer to the standard (because it does not so easily mix with the dialect, and because of Siebs’s preference of Northern pronunciation), and we observe a tendency that Northern regionalisms are often regarded as “more standard” than Southern ones.