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Did you know that German is one of the world's major languages?
It was estimated that there were 135 million German speakers in the world in 2021, with 75 to 100 million people speaking German as a first foreign language.
Whilst German is widely spoken in Central European countries like Austria, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein, it can also be heard in Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, and even Namibia!
German is part of the West Germanic language branch, which makes it very similar to Dutch, Afrikaans and English. However, it also shares words with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. Given its familiarities with these other languages, particularly English, it is thought to stem from a primitive language called ‘Indo-European’. This makes German the second most spoken Germanic language after English.
German is a very attractive language to learn, not only because of its shared linguistic branch with English, but also because it can be spoken in several countries that have strong economical, social and cultural relations.
Although German is often thought of as a rigid language, it is in fact a pluricentric language. This means that the language can have numerous interacting standard forms according to different countries, making it very rich and fascinating.
German is the official language or one of the official languages of the following countries:
This means that various forms of German exist, along with different German dialects for specific regions. Not all of these dialects are recognised as official languages, however, some non-standard varieties are recognised and protected by regional and national governments due to their contribution to the cultural and historical abundance of the particular region.
A Short History of the German Languages
You might be wondering, how did the German languages evolve in each of the countries and regions?
As with many other languages, historical events have shaped the use and evolution of the the German language.
The German language first appeared in the Middle Ages.
The first period was called Old High German, and arose with the ‘High German consonant shift’, which is a sound change that other West Germanic languages did not experience. This happened in the centre of what is today known as Germany.
During the early years, the language was predominantly spoken with a wide range of dialects and an extensive oral tradition. Only a few written texts such as the Abrogans — an Old High German glossary — provide us with records of the period.
The Middle High German period followed, between 1050 and 1350. During this period, the German tribes expanded their reach beyond the eastern boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire, and acquired a significant geographical territory equivalent to modern-day countries like Austria, Romania, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary; resulting in a considerable increase in German speakers. Linguistic changes continued during this period, and German started being used instead of Latin for official purposes.
Modern German made its appearance in the Early New High German period, which dates from 1350-1650.
During this important period, Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 and started the Printing Revolution, Luther translated the Bible from Latin to German (in 1534), and the standardisation of the written form of German and the displacement of Latin by German as the primary language in the German states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire commenced.
It was only in the middle of the eighteenth century that a widely accepted standard of written German appeared, because of its use in commerce and government. The standardisation process continued with the Brothers Grimm who started work on a German dictionary (the Deutsches Wörterbuch) in 1838, which remained unfinished at the time of their deaths. The first Duden Handbook followed in 1872, containing grammatical and orthographic rules, which you are surely familiar with if you have studied German or will be in the near future.
German Language Varieties and Dialects
Due to historical factors, the German language space or sprachraum is located mostly in countries where it is an official language, this includes Germany, Austria and 17 cantons of Switzerland.
Despite the standardisation of German, and the establishment of grammatical and orthographical rules, the German language remains pluricentric. This means that Austrian German, Swiss German and other German dialects exist and are often recognised languages.
Standard German is the official and main language spoken in Germany.
It is also the most taught form of German as a second language or foreign language.
Several varieties of Standard German exist, such as Austrian German and Swiss German.
Austrian German is a variety of Standard German. The differences are similar to the ones we find in British English and American English.
Both languages have minor differences in vocabulary, grammar and spelling, but are equally recognised and mutually intelligible. Austrian Standard German is the official language used in Austria, particularly for written and official settings such as government announcements and the media.
For less formal situations, however, other German dialects like Bavarian or Alemannic are used in the spoken form. To trace back where these differences came from, we have to consider all of the different periods that the German languages has passed through. The most determining period was the mid-eighteenth century, where Upper German was employed for political reasons and commerce.
Only in 1951 was the process of introducing a new written standard for Austrian German defined and published by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, and the language was recognised as the official language of Austria.
So, what about Swiss German?
Switzerland has an even more delicate and different use of German because, in Switzerland, languages vary from canton to canton. In addition, the official languages are not the ones used for informal or spoken situations.
This is especially the case for the variants of German used in Switzerland. An important distinction to keep in mind is that Swiss Standard German is the official written variation of Standard German used in the 17 cantons, while Swiss German or Alemannic German is the commonly spoken German dialect.
Swiss German is only used in spoken form, however, it is the most spoken language in Switzerland.
This difference can be traced back to the Habsburg Empire, which did not include Switzerland.
Swiss German is quite different from spoken Standard German, making it impossible or rather difficult for German speakers to understand it. Only Austria uses German dialects close to Swiss German.
Why Study German?
Remember that the German sprachraum is very affluent, but there are also dialects that exist beyond this realm, and which can be useful. It all depends on where you want to speak German or a German dialect.
German is also used beyond the European borders, with German communities present around the world, including Africa.
It is therefore a very valuable language to learn. One of the many reasons for this is the vast body of literature that German authors and poets have published in the German language.
If you are planning to learn German, it is wise to know the differences that exist within the German language and also to consider the reasons that motivate your learning journey.
When your goals are clear, it is easier to seek out the type of lessons and support you will need in order to become proficient in the German language.
The beauty of the German language is that once you acquire it, more than one door will open for you, and you will have the opportunity to discover many variants and dialects, along with the different cultures that use them.
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