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First published in the Encyclopedia of German Literature (2000); this version at http://www.germanstudies.org.uk/. © 2006 Jonathan West.
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German Language

German is a Germanic (Gmc) language, most closely related to the other West Germanic (WGmc) languages English, Frisian, Dutch (Flemish in Belgium), and Afrikaans, and more distantly related to the North Germanic (Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish) and East Germanic groups (represented by Gothic). In terms of its wider genetic affiliations, German is a member of the Indo-European (IE) group. Salient archaic features include inherited core vocabulary and a three-term gender system. By contrast, innovation characterizes the sound system and syntax in particular. Archaic features and innovatory processes combine to give the impression of a language typologically very different from its close relative English.

Writing in German begins in the 8th century, and helps shape a cultural identity which has always transcended transient political arrangements. But its pluricentricity means that German has never been a national language in the narrow sense. Until the emergence of the supraregional, written standard during the course of the 18th century (NHG, New High German, 1750 - present day), German was essentially regional in character, as the spoken language by and large still is. The dialects of Upper and Central German (UG, CG) in the south are primarily characterized by the Second (High German) Sound Shift. So words like UG Pfeffer "pepper" and Wasser "water" contrast with northern (Low German, LG) Pepper and Water, and serve to mark UG and CG off from LG, English and the other Gmc languages. The major linguistic influence on German in the historical period is Latin, which, during the Middle Ages (Old High German, OHG, ca. 750 - ca. 1350; Middle High German, MHG, 1050-1350) and the Early Modern period (Early New High German, ENHG, 1350-1750), functioned as the standard written medium in the German-speaking world. The history of written German can therefore be seen first in terms of increasing distance from the spoken language and second in terms of emancipation from Latin and the gradual assumption of its functions. Broadly speaking, the standardization process is characterized linguistically by a period of unconscious convergence of written regional varieties in the late Middle Ages and the elimination of competing regional forms, followed, from the 16th century onwards, by conscious codification, which eventually produced standard dictionaries and grammars. The result is a major world standard language of extraordinary versatility and expressive power.

For English readers, a series of contrasts with English serve to characterize NHG and to highlight both its salient features and some of its stylistic possibilities. The spelling system, with capital letters for nouns (e.g. der Text "the text"), with the use of umlaut to indicate plural and other grammatical features (e.g. das Rad, die Räder "the wheel, the wheels") and with the contrast between <ss> and <ß> (ich esse "I eat" vs. ich aß "I ate") is merely a medium for recording the language, the linguistic importance of which has been consistently overrated by commentators and authors, not just during the recent debate on spelling reform. Indeed, the German spelling which was so recently modified amid much controversy was not standardized until 1901. Having said that, an important distinction is usually made in German Studies between the standard written language (Hochdeutsch, Schriftdeutsch = High German), the dialects (Dialekt / Mundart, the indigenous forms of local speech furthest removed from the standard), and the idiom of everyday speech (German Umgangssprache "colloquial language"). In other words, the "ideology of the standard" is the written language rather than (as could be argued for British English) a spoken variety. Colloquial German is a relatively recent phenomenon, having developed principally in the expanding urban areas during the ENHG period under the influence of the emerging standard language. Nowadays, the most linguistically conservative dialect speakers are located in rural communities and statistics show that they are relatively more numerous in the south. All spoken German is regional to a greater or lesser extent, and speakers use forms closer to the dialects or closer to the standard language according to a number of factors, the most important of which is probably the degree of formality inherent in the situation. Especially in the south, regional features are not socially stigmatized, and speakers' own distinctions between dialect and High German do not always correspond to objective criteria. The ability to code-switch depends on factors such as the level of education and the degree of diatopic mobility enjoyed by a speaker. However, Auer's work (2005, to appear) shows that it is often no longer possible to localize younger speakers in the south-west, so it may be that a new generalized standard spoken German is emerging after all.

German contrasts with English in having preserved its inflectional character, but the change from the movable word accent of IE to the strong dynamic accent on initial syllables in Germanic has weakened the original endings considerably. One result is the gradual development from OHG onwards of an accompanying article with nouns or an obligatory pronoun with verbs, and a consequent shift of functional load from the endings on the head word to the endings of the phrase as a whole. In NHG, grammatical categories are therefore expressed at phrase level. The noun phrase has a small set of endings which delimit each other within the phrase to express combinations of gender, number and case: {n}, for example, has a number of possible functions, but in the context den Lehrer-n "(to) the teachers" can only be dative plural. The verb phrase has taken this development furthest. Formally, German has two inflected tenses, the present (er sieht "he sees") and the preterite (er sah "he saw"), supplemented by two inflected subjunctive forms (Konjunktiv I er sehe "he saw", which mainly marks reported speech; and Konjunktiv II er sähe "he would see" which mainly marks hypothetical situations). Further tense, modal, quasi-aspectual, transitivity and focusing distinctions, if these meanings are not conveyed by particles (e.g. doch, wohl), are expressed periphrastically. The periphrasis uses either auxiliaries (haben, sein, werden) and non-finite forms of the verb (e.g. perfect ich habe gesehen "I have seen"; future ich werde sehen "I will see"; the past tense of Konjunktiv I er habe gesehen "[he said that] he had seen"; the past tense of Konjunktiv II er hätte gesehen "he would have seen") or so-called function verbs and noun phrases or prepositional phrases to express the lexical content of the verbal complex. For example, in Hier entsteht eine neue Schule "A new school is being built", the process is seen as a complete whole, whereas in Die Schule ist noch in Entstehung begriffen the emphasis is on the perception that the process is incomplete. Distributional analysis reveals a larger number of parts of speech in German, with a richly developed system of particles contrasting with an English ragbag class of "adverbs".

Word order in German, a misnomer because sentence constituents often contain more than one word, differs from English in that it never signals syntactic information. Both Der Hund hat den Mann gebissen and Den Mann hat der Hund gebissen mean "The dog has bitten the man". The verbal complex (in this case hat ... gebissen) is often seen as providing a framework for declarative sentences (German Satzrahmen "sentence frame") because the finite verb is placed in second constituent position and any non-finite elements towards the end of the sentence. We therefore distinguish three positional fields: the Vorfeld before the finite verb, the Mittelfeld between the finite verb and other elements of the verbal complex, and the Nachfeld between the non-finite elements and the end of the sentence. If word order does not signal syntactic information, what significance does it have? Within the constraints mentioned above, the position of non-verbal elements is largely determined by the degree to which they form common ground between the speaker / writer and the addressee - in Clark's words (1996:93), "the sum of their mutual, common, or joint knowledge, beliefs, and suppositions". The Vorfeld usually marks a link with previous text and therefore belongs unambiguously to common ground. The elements in the Mittelfeld are placed in order of decreasing commonality and therefore of increasing information value. That is why unstressed personal pronouns, which refer back to the last appropriate lexical item, come at the beginning and new or unusual information comes at the end (Gestern hat er mir zufälligerweise die zwei Bücher in die Hand gedrückt "Yesterday, as chance would have it, he pressed the two books into my hand"), and why definite noun phrases precede indefinite ones (Unglücklicherweise hat der Spion seinen Vorgesetzten vertrauliche Informationen weitergegeben "Unfortunately, the spy passed on secret information to his superiors"). Conversely, moving elements to the right has the effect of increasing their information value, and, as phrase length tends to correlate positively with information value, the Nachfeld is typically used for subordinate clauses and also for other long and otherwise information-heavy elements. Intonation (Satzmelodie) is also determined by grammatical and pragmatic factors and generally lacks the attitudinal element characteristic of English.

Over the last two centuries, in many varieties and styles of written German, the relative frequency of verbs per sentence has declined, whereas the length of noun phrases (NPs) has increased. NPs too appear to have a tripartite architecture supported by a nominal frame consisting of a determiner (der, ein, jeder, etc.) and a noun. In contrast to this prototypical NP pattern, the absence of a determiner has developed significance such as in the marking of indefinite plural NPs (blaue Augen "blue eyes"), and special use of abstracts (e.g. Er fürchtet das Alter "He's afraid of old age" vs. Alter schützt vor Torheit nicht "Old age is no protection against stupidity", i.e. "There's no fool like an old fool"). The Vorfeld may be occupied by a small set of so-called predeterminers (indeclinable welch, solch, all, so), e.g. welch ein Chaos "what a mess". The Mittelfeld consists of adjectives, such as guter in mein guter Freund "my good friend", which may also form the nucleus of an adjective phrase (AP), e.g. mein sehr guter Freund "my very good friend", the elements of the adjective phrase being marked by a lack of inflection. Such APs may be quite complex, e.g. die in Richtung Koblenz nicht mehr befahrbare Autobahn "the motorway/freeway which is no longer open in the direction of Koblenz", the inflection contrasting with use after the noun (e.g. die Autobahn, in Richtung Koblenz nicht mehr befahrbar, …). The Nachfeld typically contains structures dependent on non-adjectives (e.g. NPs, prepositional phrases, relative clauses: die Autobahnen der Nachkriegszeit, die Autobahn nach Koblenz, die Autobahn, die in Richtung Koblenz nicht mehr befahrbar ist).

Correlating with the drift towards simple sentences containing one verbal and a set of often very large and complex nominal constituents, the number and variety of Modern German noun and adjective derivations and compounds also contrasts sharply with English. The verb ziehen, for which around 200 related derivations and 800 compounds have been counted, is by no means unique. Implicit derivation of the type often encountered in English (e.g. the box vs. to box) is rarer in German, clear marking of word formation patterns being the norm (e.g. NHG die Packung vs. packen). NHG compounds are legendary for their complexity, but in fact generally conform to the simple binary structure present since the preliterary period (e.g. Gmc *brūði-guman- "bridegroom"). The impression of complexity arises from the increased use in NHG of complex compositional elements: e.g. Waffenstillstandserklärung "cease-fire declaration" is made up of {waffenstillstand}, itself a compound the second element of which is complex, and {erklärung}, a derivation. Even seemingly opaque ad-hoc constructions such as Kolonialwarenhändlerinsünden "the sins of a grocer's wife" (Grass) conform to this pattern and are clear and apposite in context. Another salient lexical feature is the distinction between native and foreign words, amply illustrated in the DUDEN Fremdwörterbuch. Both the productivity of German word formation patterns, including occasional compounds, and the availability of alternative foreign and dialect expressions provide counterevidence to the notion that the lexicon of German is significantly smaller than English.

All these idiosyncratic features of German, as well as more general features such as length of sentence, number of adjectives, nominal vs. verbal constructions, have been used by German authors to stylistic effect. In the future, if emerging features of German usage are translated into longer-term developments, we may well see increasing linguistic distance between standard (written) and colloquial (spoken) German producing tension and a motive for change.

Further Reading


This page was last updated on 24 March 2008. Please send comments to info@germanstudies.org.uk