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German Language Primer

History and development
German is a West-Germanic language that began to develop around the 6th century AD. At around that time, the southern dialects of old Frankish (including the forerunner of modern German) underwent significant phonetic changes (known as the High German shift). There was, however, little unifying force driving the development of the language until the middle ages and this partly explains the vast array of regional variants of German still found not only in Germany but across Austria and Switzerland.

This began to change in the middle ages as writers sought to be understood by as many people as possible. Luther’s translation of the Bible in the early 16th century is a perfect example. Whilst using a language that would be likely to be understood by a maximum of people, the Bibles initially came with glossaries translating unknown terms into the regional dialects. Translations by the Roman Catholic Church followed largely similar lines to Luther (despite themselves). It took, however, until the late 18th century before it was possible to say that there was a widely accepted standard. Widely accepted, however, did not mean that people actually spoke standard German in daily life. Indeed, until the 19th century the language remained a largely written one and the development of formal schooling systems undoubtedly helped spur its use in daily life.

Related languages
There are a host of so-called “German” languages and dialects with which standard German has varying degrees of similarity. Distinguishing between dialects and languages is one of the most complicated and politically sensitive areas of linguistics. The case of standard German and German dialects / sister languages is particularly complicated. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that in many instances there is no defined geographic border between one language and its neighbours, with the change between one language and the next being gradual (called a dialect continuum by linguists). In these instances, picking out one dialect and calling it a language can be a rather arbitrary affair.

That said, Upper Sorbian, Lower Sorbian, North Frisian, Saterland Frisian and Low German have been officially recognised as separate languages by Germany under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages with the level of mutual intelligibility largely depending on where the speakers come from. In other instances, such as with the Swabian and Swiss German dialects, there has been no such official recognition and yet many of the dialects are scarcely mutually intelligible for standard German speakers.

Much has been made of the fact that Dutch and English are “Germanic languages” but then again so are Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Icelandic. The tag is simply a (“poorly chosen”) linguistic term indicating that the languages share a certain ancient ancestry and in many instances various linguistic features. It should in no way be understood to imply any level of mutual intelligibility.

Status today
In addition to being an official language of the European Union, German has official status in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland. It also has varying degrees of national and local protection and recognition in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. With over 100 million native speakers, the bulk of whom are in Europe, it is the leading language of the European Union and the second most widely spoken native language in Europe after Russian.

For a range of historic reasons, notably the use of German as a lingua franca in Central and Eastern Europe as a result of the Habsburg empire and the large German diaspora across the Americas (from 18th century immigrants to New England to more recent flows of refugees to Brazil and Argentina), German is also a very popular foreign language. Reckoned to be one of the most widely spoken foreign languages in the EU and the third most widely taught foreign language worldwide, estimates for the number of non-native speakers cannot be established with any real certainty but are certainly in the tens of millions.

The only cloud on the horizon, from a purist's perspective, is the growing influence of English. Many academics have argued that German is on the decline even within Germany as the increasing use of English in popular culture and education continues unabated. This view was, however, severely dented by the recent work of Austrian linguist Alexander Onysko. In his Article “Anglicisms in German" (Anglicism he defined as "any instance of an English lexical, structural, and phonological element in German that can be [linguistically traced] to English") Onysko searched through all the articles published in Der Spiegel since 2000. His findings? Under 6 percent of the vocabulary (i.e. list of words not total number of words) were “anglicisms”. His conclusion? The German language will continue to bloom.



 
 
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