German(ic) Language

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Types of Germanic Languages

  • Proto-Indo-European
  • Proto-Germanic
  • West Germanic
  • Old High German
  • Middle High German
  • Early New High German
  • New High German
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  • Completely reconstructed
  • Gives a good idea of morphological system, sounds 
  • Difficult to limit things geographically as words change meaning 
  • Dated between 3000 - 5000 BCE
  • Around 3000BCE a Germanic group of people broke off and laguages began to diverse and gained their own linguistic identity
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PIE - Language Divergence

Language began to diverge (in a reconstructable way)

Grimm's Law 

  • Grimm = philologist
  • interested in historical languages and systems 
  • first person to get recognition for noticing a certain correspondance 

1st Consonant shift

  • Latin 'p' -> Gothic 'f' -- 'g' sound
  • Latin 'f' -> Gothic 'p' -- 'th' sound
  • Latin 'c' -> Gothic 'h' -- 'h' sound
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Germanic people who left the Black Sea area headed North and West to Denmark and Sweden (Scandanavia)

Then Germanic speakers expand southwards 1000 BCE (tribes were driven South due to flooding)

= a fragmentation (linguistic) in the Germanic people 

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Groups of Germanic People Arise

North Germanic

  • Scandanavia - Vikings

East Germanic 

  • Gothic 
  • goes extinct 
  • East of the Oder River 
  • assimilated to other cultures

West Germanic

  • West of the Oder River 
  • 1. Ingvaeones - North Sea Germanic group
  • 2. Istvaeones - Weser-Rhein group (Weser and Rhine river)
  • 3. Irminones - Elba group (Elbe river)
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The Germanic Tribes

a. North Germanic: Vikings

b. East Germanic: Vandals, Goths, Burgundians

c. Elbe Group: Alemanni, Langobardi, Marcomanni, Thuringians

d. Weser-Rhine Group: foundations of Frankish federation (under Charlemagne) and the Franconian dialects

e. Ingvaeones: English, Frisian, Saxons, modern day England and Friesland (in the Netherlands)

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Germanic Tribes

Tribes came into contact with others

a. Contact with Celts 

e.g. Lot - 'lead', Blei - 'lead', Eisen - 'iron'    - all Celtic borrowings

As Germans were going South they were pushing out the Celts 

Celts were pushed to peripheral borders or Celtic speakers assimilated and adopted Germanic languages 

b. Contact with Romans

Loanwords from Latin into German

1. administration/warfare ---> Kaiser, Zoll, Strasse, Pfeil, Kampf

2. buildings/domestic objects ---> Keller, Fenster, Spiegel, Mauer, Tisch, Stube

3. commerce ---> Pferd, Pfund, Münze, Kaufmann, Kiste

4. agriculture ---> Pflaume, Pfirsich, Frucht, Wein, Pflanzen

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Recorded History


Greeks and Romans were writing about Germanic people 

2nd half of the 2nd Century - start to see the first records written by Germanic people themselves - Runic inscriptions

North Germanic (Vikings)

  •  inscriptions often names etc.
  • not a lot of surviving ruins
  • often carved into wood and didn't last

e.g. the Gallehus horn was inscribed

  • made of metal
  • the horn today is a reproduction
  • based on rubbings made of the original
  • horn was melted down around 1806

Transliteration of horn:


I (Hlewagstiz Holtyaz - name)  horn made 

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Contact with Roman and Latin Speakers

Julius Caeser's Commentaries published around 1st Century BCE

  • writing about the Germanic people 
  • in Gaul at the time 
  • he had political and military motives

Germanic and Roman people fought quite a bit hence loans from Latin in areas of commence, administration etc. 

Not all contact was combat as the Latin loans tell - peaceful contact = trade 

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  • wrote Germania 
  • first coherent depiction of the Germanic people

Idea of the noble savage 

  • depiction of a person who is pure due to lack of or no civilisation
  • stating civilisation is the force of corruption = a corrupting source (civilisation)
  • racial superiority
  • problematic stereotype
  • a simple sort, not complicated
  • no ability to disemble (try to decieve)
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OHG ---> MHG

OHG (700-1050) ---> MHG (1050-1300)

  • focusing primarily of West Germanic Speakers: Weser-Rhine Group and Elbe Group
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2nd Consonant Shift

  • sound changes begin in South (Alps etc) and then spread northwards
  • as the 2nd consonant shift spread North it lost potency
  • can be heard in Switzerland and South Germany today

Modern Standard German most closely related to Central East German

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Charlemagne's Reign

During Charlemagne's reign - start to see the first written texts in the vernacular (langauge normally used)

Began to promote campaign of writing in German not Latin

Part of the plan to expand the Holy Roman Empire was to Christianise people 

Charlemagne wanted texts translated into the venacular, these texts were religious e.g. gospels, prayers, important theoretical texts 

All texts represent an idiolect (language of translator)

Dialects restricted to areas around monastries (knew how to read/write etc)

Picture of OHG = fragmented, incomplete

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Middle High German

  • languages that show some sign of the 2nd consonant change
  • MHG comprises middle Allemanic, middle Bavarian etc.
  • literacy rates increase
  • different texts produces ---> demographic expansion

Early Medieval Society

  • clergy/literate people -> starting to write in German, small segment of the population
  • federal aristocracy -> owned land and controlled what happened on land -> not always literate
  • peasant farmers -> free and indentured - paid for land from federal aristocracy to grow crops - huge segment of the population (99%)

There was no reason at this time to be able to read

Leades to major demographical shifts --- trend of urbanisation 

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Demographics MHG

Trend of urbanisation

  • 900 (OHG) -- 3 million with 40 cities (largest urban population 1000)
  • 1200 (MHG) -- 8 million with 250 cities
  • 1350 (MHG) --12-15 million with 3000 cities 

In 1347 = Black Death - disasterous, population figures inaccurate 

10% of 12 million 'Germans' affected by 2nd consonant shift were living in cities

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Later Medieval Society

  • Der Ritterstand (knighthood) - chivalry - imported into German culture through Flemish territories and led to new texts - cultural idea (code dictated way you should behave)
  • Cultural ideas - modernisation - loyalty, nobility, Christianity, knowing one's place (sphere born in and should stay in)
  • Chivalry seen as romantic

Das Bürgertum (bourgeoisie) 

  • class of the city
  • likely to have stemmed from the peasants 
  • opened up shops some became quite wealthy and could afford educations for children by 14th Century (increased literacy rates)

Historical changes leading to a greater stratification of society 

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French Influence on MHG

  • new texts had a more secular purpose 
  • German version of the Rolandslied (1130) originally a French text, translated to Latin then German
  • tells the story of Charlemagne
  • influenced with Christian ideas
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Literature of the Knighthood

1) Texts imported from France

2) Text types 

a) epic poetry

b) courtly lyric Minnesang

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Epic Poetry

  • Volksepos - reimagining German stories in a new light
  • Nieblungslied - tell stories and old tales in MHG - sagas
  • shows how old Germanic sagas relate to courtly ideas of chivalry
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Courtly Epic

Hartmann von Aue

  • King Arthur myths 
  • Alemannic poet
  • big works - Iwein and Erec

Wolfram von Eschenbach 

  • Parzival - prototype of development of young boy
  • telling tales about virtues - religious and ethical issues/reasoning

Gottfried von Strasbourg

  • Tristan and Isolde - major works
  • happens on British Isles
  • lengthy texts
  • generally end tragically 
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Courtly Lyric


  • Poetry/songs meant to be performed 
  • men who wrote them performed them
  • travelled from court to court and would perform their compositions know as Minnesänger
  • shorter texts
  • light topics e.g. chivalry, nobility
  • most famous was Walter von der Vogelweide (1170-1230) who was daring in song choices and topics 
  • Another Heinrich von Veldeke from a low German speaking territory and knew he could not use them in High speaking German areas 
  • when songs were made ensured rhymes would work with low and high German dialects 
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Eastwards Movement

  • 1150-1350
  • stems from Low German speaking areas and Middle and East Franconia
  • move to former DDR
  • movement east = contact with Slavic speakers = introduction of Slavic loans seen in city names Graz, Lübeck, Dresden, Leipzig, Stuttgart, Grad
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  • language used for a particular reason commonly by a group of people 
  • similar/referred to often as a standard language but it differs = not standard - there was no language standardisation at this time
  • ad hoc - created for a particular purpose

Characteristics of a Gemeinsprache

  • ad hoc - each Minnesänger adapted language on their own
  • only written, never spoken
  • use of this language never really spread beyond the Minnesänger (elite, literate, made a living through writing Classical Middle High German)
  • 2nd consonant shift had not been effective in these areas
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MHG Mystics - religious Christians - how they directly experiences God, often used poetry

Most well-known women who wrote:

  • Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
  • Elisabeth von Schönau (1129-1164)
  • Mechtild von Magdeburg (1212-1280)

Hildegard wrote about natural world around her, recipies and things to do with medicine and she was well-educated and developed her intellect.

German was being used in a different way with words being given new meanings and connotations - litteral and figurative 

e.g. einleucten --- literal = to make light --- figurative = to make something understandable

e.g. Eindruck --- literal = imprint/mark --- figurative = mental impression

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Gemeinsprache and the Hanseatic League (13th Centu

  • brought together cities along the Baltic Sea 
  • trading organisation - crossed boundary into security alliances
  • becomes a relatively strong political force within Northern Germany and along the North and Baltic seas
  • Lübeck = capital of Hanseatic League 
  • already had a type of levelled Low German 
  • different dialects mixing = marked features being filtered out
  • the written language of the Hanseatic League = ad hoc of Gemeinsprache
  • language adopted for a particular purpose
  • written common language except for those who lived in Lübeck 
  • never really spread
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Early New High German (1350)

society shifts from medieval ---> modern

  • society looks more modern
  • an eye towards language standardisation in Germany
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Characteristics - Demographic Shifts and Literacy

Demographic Shifts

  • medieval - born in small villages, raised and died there
  • modern - mobility towards cities
  • medieval - feudal aristocracy constructed around land owning elites and peasant farm land
  • modern - decline in feudal aristocracy, movement into urban areas - Bürgertum

Increase in Literacy

  • expands beyond elite classes of medieval period
  • founding of the first German speaking university in 1347 in Prague
  • 1350 Prague part of HRE and in many ways a German speaking city
  • university - more modern phenomenon although only elite could go
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Characteristics - Urbanisation and Bureaucratisati

  • division of labour = modern phenomenon
  • medieval - made things themselves or used extremely local markets - self-reliant
  • modern - outsource everything/a lot of things (bought from somewhere and did not make or grow things)
  • abdicating a lot of authority to a growing government = growing bureaucratisation
  • more complex in terms of law
  • emergence of trade unions 
  • widening of markets - selling more broadly

All characteristics are trends which stem towards/lead towards standardisation

Standardisation not just of language but of different domains - currency etc. 

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Germany during ENHG Period

  • remained highly dialectal
  • no standardisation processes yet
  • 1350 society starting to outgrow the languages
  • dialects = function locally  but cease to be functional nationally 

Dialect levelling 

  • in urban centres dialect levelling has already been underway a while 
  • 1350 dialects of cities have already evening out somewhat
  • similar to what Minnesänger were already doing
  • urban vernaculars (Umgangssprachen) - not stable entities, population (cities) in flux e.g. people dying etc. 

End of ENHG (end of 17th Century) = certain segments of population calling for Standard National Language 

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Language standardisation 

  • dialect contact from people becoming more mobile 
  • local dialects cease to be functional = disfunctional


  • multi-dialectal
  • pidign language (found in multi-lingual communities)

Authority of language standardisation?

  • which form of language is chosen?
  • who chooses?

Dialect levelling 

  • happens naturally
  • subconciously carried out 

Standardisation is NOT natural

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ENHG - Proto-Standard

  • proto-standard began to emerge
  • all plays a role in standardising German


  • chancery languages
  • used by government
  • bureocracy of the HRE
  • HRE 1347-1437 in Prague
  • Luxembourg Dynasty
  • 1440 Hapsburgs in Vienna - Southern family in their interests to develop a language (especially written) 
  • chancery language eliminated idea of 2 vowel sound
  • elimination of most southern features to increase public applicability
  • skewed more central (most comprehensible)
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Printers' Language

End of 14th Century

  •  invention of paper


  • Gutenberg's printing press invented meant new texts produced more quickly and in mass

Beginning of 16th Century 

  • texts began to be printed in German vernacular (previously Latin)
  • want texts to be comprehensible to the broader sense of populous
  • printing texts that were not highly regional/dialectal
  • texts around central German speaking in Europe
  • more texts/materials and more accessible 
  • shapes ideas about orthography
  • gave a sense of how to write down German is a less regional way
  • Marthin Luther translated Bible to German - about 100,000 copies printed and widely disseminated 
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Modernisation and Standardisation

Modernisation is creating the need for a standard 

  • dialects less functional
  • society becoming more complex


  • has to be a concerted effort to standardise language
  • when creating a standard language --> link with usage
  • standard present to supress change 
  • usage taken into account, if not standard then not very viable
  • slowly a standard change to reflect usage e.g. hopefully and I hope
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Development of Modern Standard German


  • cultural idea
  • imported into German speaking society
  • German courts would sometimes speak French e.g. Freidrick the Great
  • French held in relatively high esteem - language of university
  • 17th and 18th Century language of publishing
  • French influence began to be a backlash
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Language Purism Movement

Purism - making German language pure again -- removing native influences 

Purists - nationalistic and nationalism - growing movement / desire for a unified Germany 

Two writers associated with the Purist Movement

Martin Opitz (1597-1639)

  • criticised Germans for not using German enough
  • lays out what he though were good / bad features
  • against dialectal forms / structures
  • against meaningless fillers (modal particles e.g. ja, doch, mal)

Wolfgang Ratichius (1571-1637)

  •  linking standard language to education
  • 1612 study of German should be part of an elementary school curriculum
  • good base for learning a foreign language
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