History of German

An ancient Germanic word, "theodisk" was used to describe "the people's language" (that is, what they spoke, not the Latin of the upper crust). The “disk” part of this term has an ancient connection with words derived from Latin, like "diction." In German, "theodisk" was compressed and corrupted into Old High German, "diutisc" and eventually to "Deutsch." In Italian, "theodisk" became "tedesco.” In English, the word used is "German," which come from the Latin term for the two Roman provinces in which German was spoken: Germania Superior ("Upper Germania"), which was the closer of the two to Rome and included areas now referred to as those speaking “High German,” and Germania Inferior (“Lower Germania”) the more remote of the two, which occupied part of what is now the Netherlands. The provincial names came from the Latin name for a specific group of barbarian tribes, which the Romans called the "Germanii." In late Latin and in modern French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic the term employed is some variation of "aleman.” Roman Historians reported that the "Alamanni" were a confederation of several West Germanic tribes, centered mainly on the Main River, a tributary of the Rhine. They operated much like the Franks, which also was a federation of like tribes. At their peak of power in the third century, the Alamanni invaded and destroyed much of Roman Gaul. They were defeated by the Romans in the fourth century, and eventually became subjects of the Franks. The term "Alamanni" is said to mean “everybody” (as in modern German, "Alle Männer").

Slavic languages, like Russian, Polish and Czech, use a term, which in Czech is "nemecký" for the languages and "Nemecko" for the country name. It comes from an old Slavic word meaning “mute.” It is thought to have been used by the Slavs because the Germanic tribes were the first peoples they encountered in their migrations westward with whom they could not communicate. In Finland and Estonia, the term employed is "saksa" which derives from "Saxon." In Scandinavia, "tysk(a)" is used for the language, a term that has the same origin in "Theodisk" as both "tedesco" and "Deutsch.”

German is classified as “a Germanic language” and part of the Indo-European group of languages. Around 2000 BCE, part of the Indo-European aggregation migrated into northwest Europe and established bronze age communities there. They remained nomadic, however. A form of speech called “Proto-Germanic” developed, it is supposed, around 500 BCE, and spread throughout Scandinavia, the Baltic, the British Isles, and in the Low Countries and part of modern Germany. The extreme boundaries of the Roman Empire stopped the migrations for several centuries.

The “Volkerwanderung” or “Migration Period” refers to the time in Europe from the fall of Rome to the time called “the Middle Ages.” The phenomenon was the invasion of Europe from the east by nomadic warrior tribes, mainly Huns, Magyars and Bulgars from Asia. The Germanic tribes already occupying these lands, migrated further west and south to find lands of their own. These were the Goths, Vandals, Alan, Suebi and Franks. The eastern, or “Ostrogoths” settled in Italy, while the Franks and Suebi went into Gaul. A second phase of the migration period started around 530 and ended around 750 CE). During that time, the Angles, the Saxons and Jutes migrated west and north into Frisian and British Isles. The Lombards moved into Northern Italy, while the Visigoths and Suebi went into Spain. Slavs and Bulgars migrated into Eastern Europe as well. A Turkish incursion into Europe was stopped at Constantinople in 718 by vestiges of the Byzantine Empire with the help of the Bulgars. Khazars stopped Arab expansion into Eastern Europe at the Caucasus Mountains, and the Franks ended Moorish penetration of Spain at the battle of Tours in 732. Thus, the Migration Period ended with a relatively stable geographic distribution of Germanic (and Slavic) tribes, which lasted for about three centuries.

From the late fifth century onwards, culminating with the reign of Charlemagne (800-814), the Franks gradually unified the Germanic tribes in a single confederation, with the exception of Scandinavia and the British Isles. Linguistically, each small area spoke its own dialect of a Germanic language, with Vulgar Latin overlaid in most areas. The dialects of German continued to be “low” in the North (by the Netherlands and the Baltic) and “high” in the central and southern parts of German territory. From about 700 to 1050, the educated version of the Germanic dialects in the central and southern areas of Germany has come to be called “Old High German” without regard to the fact that there were many regional dialects of the same.

“Middle High German” was the resulting evolution from “Old High German.” Linguists place it from about 1350 to 1550. The invention of movable type (1450), combined with the Protestant Reformation (starting with Martin Luther in 1517), led to the widespread distribution of the Bible in German. (Though Luther’s translation dates to 1534, several previous translations – including some ancient Germanic manuscripts -- had been in existence prior to that. The first printed German Bible appeared around 1466.)

The Luther translation specifically sought to define and standardize the orthography, grammar and vocabulary of “High German.” Latin grammar had already had an influence on colloquial German, but Luther superimposed a systematic version of Latin grammar on the language (with declensions of nouns, articles and pronouns, and with conjugations of verbs similar to that of Latin). East Middle German was the starting point for his translation effort, which resulted in a form of German closely related to the modern tongue.

Today, “Standard German” is “Hochdeutsch” (High German) and is the form of written German accepted as correct. It is the language of all educated speakers of German. With the advent of modern communications and media, the many local dialects have begun to disappear, though regional accents are still quite pronounced and easily recognized (from the North of Germany to the South, and in Austria, Switzerland and the Italian Tyrol).

Since the 14th century, German was traditionally written in a Gothic script or font known as “Fraktur.” Since the end of World War II, Fraktur has fallen out of use, replaced by a Latin alphabet that is somewhat easier to read. The masthead of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s principal newspapers, provides us an example of Fraktur.

The Development of “Hochdeutsch”

During the three centuries of relative peace and geographic stability at the end of the “Migration Period,” a phenomenon called the “High German consonant shift” took place. “High German” refers to the spoken Germanic languages in the south of the German-speaking area, corresponding, more or less, to Austria, Switzerland and Southern Germany today.

“Central German” describes the language of an intermediate band of speakers, from modern Belgium in the west across to Poland and encompassing Central Germany. “Low German” was a dialect region from the Netherlands in the west, along the Baltic regions, across North Germany, to northern Poland, and touching Denmark. The “High German Consonant Shift” also occurred in the Central German area as well.

By the time the earliest written records of German writing appeared in the 9th century, this shift had been completed. It is characterized by two main changes (sometimes counted as three): (1) voiceless plosives (/p/, /t/ & /k/ became fricatives or affricates in many situations (as the word for “help” became "helfen" and the word for “ship” became "Schiff.”); and (2) the voiced plosives (/b/, /d/ & /g/) became voiceless (as the word for “door” became "Tür"). This version of the language has been named “Old High German.” “Old Saxon,” it should be noted, had one foot in the North Sea Germanic sphere (with the Scandinavian languages) and one foot -- the “Low Saxon” part -- in the “Old High German” camp. To speakers of English, the consonant shift is somewhat easy to figure out: Where English developed a “th”