German is a Western Germanic language that is spoken
in Germany, Austria, several Swiss cantons, Alsace-Lorraine (France), South
Tyrol (Italy), eastern Belgium and in Liechtenstein. There are also German
speaking minorities in Romania and southern Denmark. In Luxemburg a dialect of
German is spoken that is generally considered a separate language. But German
is often used as a written language there along with French, which is the
official language. German itself is the official language of Germany, Austria,
Liechtenstein and in the above-mentioned Swiss cantons. It is also officially
recognized in South Tyrol and the German speaking parts of Belgium and
Once there were also German speaking areas in what is now Poland, the Czech
Republic and even in the Russian exclave Kaliningrad (between Polland,
Lithuania and the Baltic) but after World War II most of the ethnic Germans
were deported to present-day Germany.
There are in fact many dialects of German, often so different from the
standard language that from a linguistic viewpoint they might be considered
separate languages (sometimes with dialects of their own). The main division
is between High German (in a more narrow sense the designation for Standard
German) and Low German. The latter is spoken in the lowlands of the north and
the term Low Saxon is sometimes applied to it when viewed as a separate
language (which is also spoken in some eastern regions of the Netherlands).
Low Saxon has recently been granted some official recognition in both the
Netherlands and Germany, but its use as a written language is hampered by the
lack of a widely accepted standard orthography and the existence of many
dialects (which form an almost continuous spectrum between Standard
Dutch and Standard German).
The High German dialects are those forms of German in which the
so-called Second Sound Shift took place, resulting in the change of
certain consonants. The following table illustrates this sound shift by
comparing words from English, Dutch and
Frisian with their equivalents in High German.
|P to PF|
|P to F|
|T to SS|
|T to (T)Z (pronounced as ts)|
|K to CH (a guttural as in Schottish loch)|
Two important dialects of High German are Bavarian and Swiss German. These
tongues are almost completely unintelligable for a speaker of Standard
German. To illustrate this I shall give a few examples of Bavarian words here.
The fact that the part of Europe that is now called Germany has been
a collection of many more or less independant bishoprics, counties, duchies,
electorates and free towns has had a profound influence on the development
(or rather the lack of it) of a standard language. In Britain the standard
language grew out of the dialect of London, in France it was the dialect of
Paris, but Germany did never have one dominant cultural centre. Standard
German can be considered the creation of Martin Luther who naturally used his
own dialect (he hailed from Thuringia) for his German translation of the
Bible. As a result of the invention of the art of printing and the spread of
Protestantism this dialect gradually became the norm, first for the written
and later for the spoken language as well, even in German speaking areas that
remained Roman Catholic. But even today there are regional differences of the
"Standard" Language. For example, a potato is called Kartoffel
in Berlin and Erdapfel in Vienna.
Prior to World War II German was usually written in a variant of the
Latin script dating from the 14th century, the so-called Gothic style.
From this script came the German sz ligature ß which is in
certain cases used for ss. A curious phenomenon in written German is
that all nouns start with a capital letter.