The Indo-European language family and the development of German

The Indo-European roots of most modern European languages

Comparative linguists have spent much time determining the genetic relations of the world’s languages and one of their major discoveries over the past few centuries is that almost all living European languages – with the exception of Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian and Basque – belong to the same language family: French, Spanish, Greek, German, Russian, Polish, English and many more all have Indo-European roots. Indo-European is in fact the most widely spread language family in the world, with at least one of its languages spoken on every continent. In Asia there are also many indigenous Indo-European languages, such as Armenian, Farsi as well as many of the most commonly spoken languages on the Indian subcontinent, such as Hindi/Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati. However, the spread of the Indo-European family is due to a large extent to the process of colonisation by European countries over the past five hundred years; Spanish and Portuguese are spoken in former colonies in South America, English in North America and Australia and all three of these, together with French, in Africa.

The similarities between all these geographically diverse languages first became the subject of extended serious study around 1820 as a result of the work of the German Professor Franz Bopp, although the existence of such a language family had previously been posited by other scholars. These discoveries were to a significant extent based on comparisons of three ancient languages: Ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, none of which are now spoken in daily life, but which are still read and understood because of the large corpus of texts of great cultural significance written in these languages.

Given the existence of an Indo-European language family with common linguistic roots, it is often argued that there was at one point a single Indo-European language from which all the others developed. This is known as Proto-Indo-European and although there is no direct textual evidence for it – it is assumed that the people speaking it were not literate – many words can be reconstructed by looking at similarities in the vocabulary of its descendents. Researchers believe that Proto-Indo-European would have been spoken rather more than 4,000 years ago, but there is no conclusive proof as to where or by whom it was spoken. Many present day researchers have argued that the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European lived in Eastern Europe or central Asia, some of whom later migrated in several waves both westwards into Europe and southeast towards the Indian subcontinent, leading to the development of different dialects and eventually languages. In any case, Hittite, a descendent of Proto-Indo-European, had already become extinct around 1,000 B.C.E.

There are many striking similarities in the grammar of many Indo-European languages. The grammatical concepts of case (nominative, accusative etc.), tense (present, perfect, future etc.) and mood (indicative, subjunctive etc.) are common concepts in almost all European languages, whereas language families in other parts of the world often have a completely different grammatical framework. An even more convincing argument for the common origin of almost all European languages is provided by similarities in their vocabulary. There are three main reasons which can be given for similarities between words used by different languages: chance or non-linguistic reasons such as the imitation of a natural sound like a bird’s call, mutual influence or borrowings (known as loan words) and a genetic relation between the languages. It is true that the geographical and cultural proximity of many European languages to each other has resulted in many words and concepts from one language and culture being adopted by another. However many of the words in Indo-European languages displaying such similarities are so basic that it is difficult to believe that they could have at one point existed without these words and then borrowed them. The similarities between pronouns, words from daily household life and the first twelve numbers, suggests that these languages are indeed all descended from a single initial language, even if they were each later subjected to different influences.

Sub-divisions of the Indo-European family

Indo-European languages can be subdivided into several even more closely related different groups. Some of these groups contain large numbers of related languages, as in the case of the following groups: Celtic (Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Irish and Breton) Germanic (including English, German, Dutch and all Scandinavian languages except Finnish), Romance, descended from Latin (including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and Romanian), Balto-Slavic (including, among others, Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovakian, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croat as well as Lithuanian and Latvian in the Baltic branch) and Indo-Iranian (including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi and Farsi and many more). Other languages, by contrast, followed an individual path of development, such that there are no other closely related languages in existence. Greek, Albanian and Armenian are good examples of this phenomenon. Each of the groups listed here developed from Proto-Indo-European in a different way and at a different point in time. They were all exposed to different influences from cultures not sharing this linguistic heritage and the complex and fascinating stories of these languages are all worth examining in further detail. In this article, however, we shall look only at the Germanic family, in order to gain a better insight into the history of German.

The linguist Johan Grimm (1785 – 1863), who is better known as a collector of fairy tales, argued that the Germanic languages came about as a result of a sound shift between 1,500 – 200 B.C.E., which affected so-called ‘plosive’ sounds: one can often find a p in the Germanic dialect where there was a b in Proto-Indo-European and its descendents which did not take part in this sound shift. Similarly, a p often became an f in Germanic.

The Germanic homeland was probably what is now southern Denmark or northern Germany, from where some of the Germanic tribes spread throughout Scandinavia, including to Iceland. The dialects spoken in these regions were the forerunners of the modern North Germanic languages. Other tribes moved in the opposite direction, travelling through Eastern Europe before settling in the Crimea as well as founding short-lived kingdoms in Italy, Spain, North Africa and France. The languages of these peoples, all now extinct, with the last Gothic speakers dieing out in the 18th Century, are collectively known as East Germanic. The final sub-group, the West Germanic languages, comprises all the remaining Germanic languages (English, Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Frisian, Low German and German), which derived from the dialects spoken by tribes originally living in what is present-day Germany and Holland.

The development of Old High German

A second sound shift separated the dialects spoken in south Germany from the other Germanic languages and created some of the characteristic sounds of the German language, such as pf and tz. By comparing the extent to which the dialects of different tribes took part in this shift with the time at which they are supposed to have left present-day Germany, linguists have determined that this shift, which established the forerunner of modern German, occurred between 500 and 750 C.E. Of course, this was a gradual process which did not leave neighbours suddenly unable to communicate with each other. Indeed, although the Germanic languages are not mutually intelligible, a speaker of German faced with a relatively simple written text in another West Germanic language can often understand the majority of what is being communicated. War, trade, religion and literature have ensured a constant cultural exchange between speakers of West Germanic languages since their very origins and this resulted in influences on their vocabulary and grammatical structure, aiding mutual comprehension. This can be seen from the example of Swedish, in which many words bear the prefixes ‘er-’, ‘be-’ and ‘ge-’. These prefixes did not arise naturally, but rather were adopted from German via the Low German spoken by hanseatic traders. Although German has been a major influence on neighbouring languages, this process has also occurred in the other direction.

Old High German (750 – 1050)

The earliest written evidence of Old High German dates from the 8th Century and this version of the language was spoken in various forms over a period of approximately three centuries. It is important to recognise that the term ‘High German’ does not refer to the social register of the language or imply that this was a standardised language. Rather, it was merely a group of related dialects, which had all undergone the same sound shift to a greater or lesser extent and none of them could claim overall primacy. In fact the term ‘High’ here is a merely geographically descriptive term, referring to the highlands of south Germany where the language was spoken. This perhaps initially misleading term is used to distinguish High German from the language of the Germanic tribes of low-lying north Germany, which is known as Low German and which did not participate in the second sound shift mentioned above.

The texts from which we gain our knowledge of Old High German were almost all produced in monasteries, since at that time in Europe the clergy were about the only people who could write. They learnt this skill primarily in order to write and reproduce sacred texts in Latin, as the printing press was not to be invented for several hundred years. The majority of the texts written in German-speaking areas at the time were in Latin, but a few monks did translate religious texts into their native language and record pre-Christian sagas and magic spells. Abbots and bishops, whose individual names are often recorded, promoted the literary activity in the monasteries on a local level. The real impetus, however, for the spread of writing came from the highest places. It is believed that Charlemagne himself, the King of the Franks and later also King of the Lombards and finally Holy Roman Emperor, was illiterate, but it is known that he promoted learning throughout his empire. He encouraged writing in his own native language, not just in Latin and the dynasty founded by Charlemagne left us a relatively large legacy of texts in Old High German, even though Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious ordered the destruction of many texts judged to have a non-Christian content. However, the weakening of the dynasty towards the end of the 8th Century was accompanied by the drying up of literary sources and this situation continued for the next hundred years.

Middle High German (1050 – 1450)

After the literary barren period mentioned above, we begin to find texts that could be classified as early Middle High German, such as the so-called ‘Ezzo-Lied’ from 1063. It is nonetheless extremely difficult to determine a clear divide between Old and Middle High German, since at the time of the ‘Ezzo-Lied’, texts were still being written in dialects more similar to the Old High German of earlier times than to the Middle High German of the coming centuries. It is for this reason that the beginnings of Middle High German cannot be pinpointed much more accurately than in the 11th Century. The change from Old to Middle High German consisted mainly of a simplification of grammatical forms from those based Proto-Germanic ones to forms recognisably similar to present-day German. In addition to the simplification of the conjugation of nouns, the Old German dialects also experienced further vowel changes. The West Germanic-speaking areas had undergone a huge shift at the beginning of this period, as the Franks in Modern-day France and the Lombards in what is now known as Italy adopted the Romance languages of their new territories. At the same time, German-speaking colonists expanded eastwards, moving into the territories now called Silesia and Saxony, Pomerania and parts of Prussia, whilst the Bavarians conquered Austria. The disruption inherent in such movements of large parts of the population could in part have caused some of the changes in the Old High German language.

The Middle High German period can be divided up into three sections, reflecting different stages of linguistic development. During the period from around 1050 until 1170, Early Middle High German was spoken, which developed into ‘classical’ Middle High German shortly before turn of the next century. This was the high point of courtly literature and lasted roughly until the end of the historical High Middle Ages in around 1300 or 1350, depending on which scholars are consulted. Late Middle High German then lasted until the middle of the following century, when Early New High German began to develop. The first two stages of this period saw early attempts at the use of a standardised language, as some authors deliberately chose not to write in their own dialects, perhaps as a result of the increased possibility for writers to travel and work in regions with different dialects. These writers increasingly treated secular material as a result of the rise of the courtly tradition at the time of the Crusades. Instead of translating Latin literature, German-speaking writers took French novels as the basis for their texts, with the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table being a particularly popular theme. However, the decline of the courtly epic after around 1300 led to the loss of the authoritative status of the literary High German dialect. As well as epics, poems and religious texts, legal documents were also increasingly written in Middle High German and King Louis IV the Bavarian (1314 – 1347) gave the order that legal documents should primarily be written in German.

Early New High German

The development from Middle to Modern German was characterised by numerous sound and grammatical changes, which varied from dialect to dialect and did not occur everywhere simultaneously. This period of change, which linguists call the period of Early New High German, lasted roughly two hundred years and mainly involved changes in vowel sounds, with a few further grammatical simplifications. At the same time, German experienced an influx of loan words from Latin during the Renaissance as a result of the increased interest in antiquity. Furthermore, this era saw the introduction of the capitalisation of nouns, as more and more attention was paid to orthography, reflecting a growing consciousness of the idea of writing ‘correctly’. Although there was still no unified standard language, there was a distinct tendency towards the development of such an authoritative dialect. This trend did not, however, go unchallenged and even today, when there is a clear standardised written form of German used in politics, business, the media and education – High German – this process of standardisation has met with too much resistance to replace all spoken regional dialects. Be this as it may, the writers of the Baroque period managed to produce a version of German that all could agree on as a literary language by the middle of the 17th Century. This version of the language combined the southern ‘high’ German dialects with elements from the Low German spoken further north to create something that would be intelligible to all. The only risk of incomprehension was now due to the over-zealous use of loan words from foreign languages such as Latin and French, something found in the works of many writers of the time from all over Europe. It was nevertheless not until 1901 that an officially binding set of German orthographic rules was established which established the correct spelling of words in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

The impact of the printing press

Johannes Gutenberg developed his technique of printing books around 1450. The invention of the printing press made it possible to print hundreds, if not thousands, of books in the time it would have previously monks to make a single copy. Before this epoch-changing invention, it did not necessarily make sense for many people to learn to read, as there was simply not that much material available which could be read. Gutenberg’s invention changed this situation dramatically and made the written language accessible to a much broader section of society. Printing led to the creation of the world’s first mass medium and must count alongside the Reformation and the colonisation of America as a watershed moment in the development of modern western civilization. The printing press also had an important standardising effect on the German language itself. People in different German-speaking regions with different dialects all began to read the same texts, leading to the development of a universally comprehensible written dialect and an increased acceptance on the part of the populace of a single set of grammatical rules and vocabulary which might not correspond exactly to the dialect used in daily life. This process was driven by the centres of the German book trade: Frankfurt, Leipzig, Nuremberg and Bamberg and created a standard version of German which competed successfully with the Emperor Maximilian I’s attempt to create a standard official language based solely on southern German dialects.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible played a particularly important role in the development of German as it is currently spoken, known to linguists as New High German. Although Luther himself spoke a north Thuringian dialect, he did not use his own dialect in his translation, but instead adapted the official dialect of the court of Saxony, which at the time was a lingua franca in eastern German-speaking regions. Luther’s aim was to maximise the number of people who could understand his translation by avoiding any regionalisms which might impede comprehension in other areas and by using as simple a register as possible. Although his was by no means the first German translation of the Bible, it was by far the most successful and its widespread popularity – over 100,000 copies of the Wittenberg edition of Luther’s translation were in circulation around Germany by the middle of the 16th Century – contributed to the slow decline of Low German and its replacement by New High German. Luther also spread the use of German in church services in general instead of in Latin as a part of his involvement in the Reformation and his translations of psalms and other religious songs form an important element of the German-language Christian tradition; nowadays even Catholic communities use some of these translations in their services.

New High German since the 17th Century

The final development of New High German took place in the 17th Century. Texts from the baroque time, if not earlier, can be understood by modern German-speakers without having to use a dictionary. Although some words looked different because at the time no spelling rules had been set in stone and some authors still used dialect, it can be seen that there have been no significant changes to the sounds of the German language since approximately 1650. The vocabulary, however, has been enriched since then by the adoption of words of French and Latin origin, as well as through the creation of new German words. The past four centuries have seen the periodic appearance of groups dedicated to the preservation of the German language, such as the ‘Fruchtbringenden Gesellschaft’ (Fruit-bearing Society), a group of baroque poets, and the present-day ‘Verein deutsche Sprache’ (German Language Association). However, in the past they have disappeared again relatively quickly and the German language has proved fairly resilient despite the influence of other European languages, such as French – especially in the 18th and 19th Centuries – and English in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Even though the Francophile Prussian king Frederick the Great was so taken by the French language that he refused to speak in German, declaring it a language fit only for horses and soldiers, no lasting damage was done to German – one consequence of the Napoleonic wars was an increased pride in German language and culture which overcame, to a certain extent, the previous fascination with French. In fact, the French influence had an especially beneficial side-effect in that it encouraged German-speakers to follow the example of their western neighbours and lay down specific rules governing the use of the written language.

Political developments after the end of the Seven Years’ War and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire meant that Prussia increasingly became the centre of German political power. As a result, the dialect employed by Luther in his translation of the Bible began to lose its status as ‘standard’ German and the regions where previously Low German had been spoken then gained a reputation for speaking the best, or ‘purest’ High German. These inhabitants of regions had to learn High German almost as a foreign language, as it was too distinct from the native Low German for them to simply adapt their own dialect. Their speech therefore contained very few traces of their regional style of speech, unlike in more southerly regions, which preserved their own dialect and accent. Even today, the German spoken in Lower Saxony is felt to be standard New High German and this version of the language formed the basis for the stage pronunciation rules for Germany, Switzerland and Austria laid down in 1898.

German today

Nowadays German is an official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland (along with French, Italian and Romansh), Luxembourg (together with a Middle Frankish dialect called Luxembourgish and French), Liechtenstein, Belgium (only in the east) and South Tyrol in Italy (a minority language, alongside Italian) and has minority status in Denmark, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary. It thus has the largest number of native speakers of all languages used in the European Union and is one of the most important languages in publishing, with between 15 and 20% of the world’s books being published in German. Until recently there were also German-speaking communities in many parts of Eastern Europe, in Romania, Poland, Hungary and the countries of the former Soviet Union, but those eastern European communities which do still exist are, however, shrinking, as more and more of their members emigrate to Germany or Austria.

It is clear from this brief overview that the series of dialects spoken by tribes in what we now call south Denmark had a major influence on European and indeed worldwide communication and culture. Although some fear for the impact of another language descended from the dialects of the Angles and Saxons on German, the popularity and linguistic strength of German are sufficient to absorb and use English and other elements to develop further.

Based on: Jacob, Stefan ‘Vom Indogermanischen zum Deutschen: Geschichte der deutschen Sprache von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart’