Where the modern German language came from and how it has changed over time

A lot happened before German took its modern shape, still continuing to evolve today. This article offers a look at where modern German came from and how it has changed over time.

The primeval roots of the modern German language can be traced back to the 4th millennium BC, when the original homelands of the Indo-Germanic-speaking peoples are believed to have been located north and east of the Black Sea.

However, the original Germanic language was born in the 1st millennium BC, when the first Germanic Sound Shift occurred, commonly referred to as Grimm’s Law. From then on, the evolution of the Germanic language was shaped by major historical events.

Grimm’s Law is a set of sound laws describing the Proto-Indo-European stop consonants as they developed in the Proto-Germanic language in the 1st millennium BC. First systematically put forward by Jacob Grimm, Grimm’s Law establishes a set of regular correspondences between early Germanic stops, fricatives, and the stop consonants of certain Indo-European languages.

If you are struggling to understand what “fricatives” are, here is an explanation: fricatives are consonant sounds that are created by constricting the vocal tract, causing friction as the air passes through it.

A famous linguist named Karl Verner offered a linguistic explanation of the exceptions to Grimm’s Law, which became known as Verner’s Law.

The importance of Verner’s Law primarily lies in the vital role that accent, i.e., stress, played in the evolution of the Germanic languages. Essentially, it states that in the Germanic branch of Indo-European languages, all non-initial voiceless fricatives became voiced between voiced sounds if they followed an unaccented syllable in Indo-European or Sanskrit.

Old High and Old Low German

Old High German resulted from the Proto-Germanic due to the High German consonant shift or second Germanic consonant shift – a sound change that gradually took place in the southern parts of the West Germanic dialect continuum. It is called “the second Germanic consonant shift” to distinguish it from the laws formulated by Grimm and Verner.

Most likely, the High German consonant shift began some time between the 3rd and 5th centuries, completing before the 8th century, when the earliest written records in High German were produced.

Another Germanic language first documented in the 8th century is Old Low German, i.e., Old Saxon. Equally important, it is the earliest recorded form of Low German that is today spoken in northern Germany, northeastern Netherlands, southern Denmark, the Americas, and some parts of Eastern Europe.

It is worth noting that Old Low German did not participate in the High German consonant shift, and thus preserves its stop consonants that have been shifted in Old High German to different fricatives and affricates, i.e., consonant sounds that begin as a stop and conclude with a fricative.

Development of High German – Martin Luther, the Habsburg Empire, and Urbanization

Contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther did not start the development of modern German with his translation of the Bible. In fact, it started gradually around 1650. Either way, bear in mind that present-day High German differs greatly from the language the people spoke back then.

What drove the development of German as a language was the rule of the Habsburg monarchy, which extended from 1526 to 1867/1918.

The Habsburg monarchy is an umbrella term for the collection of lands and kingdoms of the Habsburg dynasty, in which the Germans formed the largest language group. In 1784, German replaced Latin as the official language of the Empire.

Furthermore, between 1871 and 1910, the German Empire experienced a period of both large-scale industrialization and large-scale urbanization, which resulted in the spread of literacy to all areas of life. Indeed, urban development had a clear impact on the language, as the milieu shift often meant a change from previous isolation, requiring better understanding of general spoken and written language standards.

The origins of the German language

Photo by Shvets Anna

German Spelling Reform of 1996

In 1996, German spelling and punctuation were changed to simplify German orthography and thus make it easier to learn. These changes are commonly known as the German orthography reform of 1996.

The reform was based on an international agreement signed in Vienna by the governments of the German-speaking countries, including Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. The rules of the reform apply to correspondence between sounds and written letters, capitalization, joined and separate words, hyphenated spellings, punctuation, and hyphenation at the end of a line.

At this point, you may also want to read our article about the German alphabet.

The reformed spelling became obligatory in schools and in public administration. However, there was a campaign against the reform, and the long-lasting public debate resulted in the Council for German Orthography agreeing to remove the most controversial changes from the reform in 2006.

Recent Developments

We strongly believe that language is a mirror of the world. So, what are the trends that dominate German today?

One of the most notable trends is the use of anglicisms, which have, in fact, found their way into many languages. Simply put, an anglicism is a word or construction borrowed from English by another language. The concentration of anglicisms in the German language is high.

Another massive trend is linked to the coronavirus pandemic, which has transformed the way we communicate. According to NPR, the pandemic inspired the creation of more than 1,200 new words! You can find all of them listed here.

What’s Next?

We don’t know what the future holds, but we can be sure that no matter what happens next, it will be reflected in the language.

The Lingvist team will keep you up to date with the developments, so keep a close eye on our blog!

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