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2021.01.25

German language

What is High German and how did it originate?


German is spoken by an estimated 100 million people around the world. It is also spoken outside Germany in Switzerland, Austria and other countries, each with its own dialect. However, High German in Switzerland differs from High German in Germany and again from High German in Austria. German is considered a “multicentric language” with multiple linguistic norms. How did High German develop in Germany and become so diverse?

From Latin to German

High German as a written language is believed to have been established around 1800. Because Germany had a long history of territorial states and was slow to unify, there were many regional dialects in the language, and the establishment of a standard language was delayed. In other large European countries, London in the United Kingdom, for example, had established itself as a political and economic centre by the 14th century, and Paris in France by the 13th century. The languages of these cities formed the basis for the standard language. Moreover, Latin was the official, common, and “sacred” language in medieval European society. All official documents and academic terms were written in Latin, while German was treated as the language for the common people. However, with the decline of the Catholic Church and the expansion of economic activities due to the decline of feudal agrarian society and the transition to early capitalism, the need for German increased. From the 14th century onward, written texts began to be recorded in German, rather than Latin.

Martin Luther’s achievements to create a “common German”

The first major turning point in the development of the standard German language occurred in the 16th century, when the Reformation took place. Martin Luther (1483-1546), a religious revolutionary from Germany (then the Holy Roman Empire), translated the Old and New Testaments, which were written in Hebrew and ancient Greek, into German and contributed significantly to the unification and standardization of the German language.

The basis of High German was originally Upper East German, which was the basis of the Viennese court language before Luther’s translation, and East Middle German (also called Thuringian Upper Saxon), which was adopted in the dominions of the Electorate of Saxony, including the Meissen court language. It is also called Lutheran German because Luther used it in his translation of the Bible. Luther stated in his Table Talk” that he used a “common German” that could be understood by all. This common German was based on the Saxon language, and the standardization and norming of the German language prevailed over time. In addition, the development of Gutenberg’s printing technology and the distribution of propaganda writings for the general public during the Peasants’ War were also important factors in the standardization of the German language. Thus, texts were written in German instead of Latin.

German as a National Language and the Standardization of the German Language

In the 17th century, when Germany was devastated by the Thirty Years’ War, the upper classes adopted French as their preferred language, just as they took the French economic and political system as their model. In the 18th century, Gottsched (1700-1766) presented a normative grammar in his “Grundzüge der deutschen Grammatik”, which became a model and spread. Through the efforts of grammarians, poets, writers, and philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, standard German became not only a grammatical norm, but also a scholarly language that was refined and perfected until the early 19th century. As can be seen from the process of its creation, High German did not develop as an extension of the spoken language but was developed and standardized based on the ideals and ideologies of the educated bourgeoisie. Modern German is also said to have outstanding features as an academic and literary written language.

We hope you enjoyed our excursus on the development of High German. At transeuro, we are experts in everything related to the German language. Please contact us if you need translations from German or into German.


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