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German language

German language, member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. It is the official language of Germany and Austria and is one of the official languages of Switzerland. Altogether nearly 100 million people speak German as their first language, among them about 77 million in Germany; 8 million in Austria; 4.5 million in Switzerland; 2 million in the United States and Canada; about 2 million in Latin America; and several additional millions throughout Europe, including the Baltic republics, Belarus, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, and the Balkan states. German is important as a cultural and commercial second language for millions of people in Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe and in North and South America.

History

The history of the German language begins with the High German consonant shift during the Migration period, separating South Germanic dialects from common West Germanic. The earliest testimonies of Old High German are from scattered Elder Futhark inscriptions, especially in Alemannic, from the 6th century, the earliest glosses (Abrogans) date to the 8th and the oldest coherent texts (the Hildebrandslied, the Muspilli and the Merseburg Incantations) to the 9th century. Old Saxon at this time belongs to the North Sea Germanic cultural sphere, and Low Saxon should fall under German rather than Anglo-Frisian influence during the Holy Roman Empire.

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German language history

Standard German

In German linguistics, only the traditional regional varieties are called dialects, not the different varieties of standard German.

Standard German has originated not as a traditional dialect of a specific region, but as a written language. However, there are places where the traditional regional dialects have been replaced by standard German (especially in major cities of Germany, and to some extent in Vienna).

Standard German differs regionally, especially between German-speaking countries, especially in vocabulary, but also in some instances of pronunciation and even grammar. This variation must not be confused with the variation of local dialects. Even though the regional varieties of standard German are to a certain degree influenced by the local dialects, they are very distinct. German is thus considered a pluricentric language.

In most regions, the speakers use a continuum of mixtures from more dialectical varieties to more standard varieties according to situation.

In the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, mixtures of dialect and standard are very seldom used, and the use of standard German is largely restricted to the written language. Therefore, this situation has been called a medial diglossia. Standard German is rarely spoken, for instance when speaking with people who do not understand the Swiss German dialects at all, and it is expected to be used in school.

Dialects

German dialects vs. varieties of standard German

In German linguistics, German dialects are distinguished from varieties of standard German.
  • The German dialects are the traditional local varieties. They are traditionally traced back to the different German tribes. Many of them are hardly understandable to someone who knows only standard German, since they often differ from standard German in lexicon, phonology and syntax. If a narrow definition of language based on mutual intelligibility is used, many German dialects are considered to be separate languages (for instance in the Ethnologue). However, such a point of view is unusual in German linguistics.
  • The varieties of standard German refer to the different local varieties of the pluricentric language standard German. They only differ slightly in lexicon and phonology. In certain regions, they have replaced the traditional German dialects, especially in Northern Germany.
Dialects in Germany

The variation among the German dialects is considerable, with only the neighbouring dialects being mutually intelligible. Some dialects are not intelligible to people who only know standard German. However, all German dialects belong to the dialect continuum of High German and Low Saxon languages. In the past (roughly till the end of the Second World War), there was a dialect continuum of all the continental West Germanic languages because nearly any pair of neighbouring dialects were perfectly mutually intelligible.

The dialect continuum of the continental West Germanic languages is typically divided into High German and Low Saxon-Low Franconian languages.

Low Saxon

Low Saxon varieties (spoken on German territory) are considered dialects of the German language by some, but a separate language by others. Sometimes, Low Saxon and Low Franconian are grouped together to the Low Saxon-Low Franconian languages because both are unaffected by the High German consonant shift.

Middle Saxon was the lingua franca of the Hanseatic League. It was the predominant language in Northern Germany. This changed in the 16th century. In 1534, the Luther Bible, by Martin Luther was printed. This translation is considered to be an important step towards the evolution of the Early New High German. It aimed to be understandable to an ample audience and was based mainly on Central and Upper German varieties. The Early New High German language gained more prestige than Low Saxon and became the language of science and literature. Other factors were that around the same time, the Hanseatic league lost its importance as new trade routes to Asia and the Americas were established, and that the most powerful German states of that period were located in Middle and Southern Germany.

The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by mass education, the language of the schools being standard German. Slowly Low Saxon was pushed back and back until it was nothing but a language spoken by the uneducated and at home. Today, Low Saxon could be divided in two groups: Low Saxon varieties with a (reasonable/large/huge) standard German influx, and varieties of standard German with a Low Saxon influence (Missingsch).

High German

High German is divided into Central German and Upper German. Central German dialects include Ripuarian, Moselle Franconian, Hessian, Thuringian, South Franconian, Lorraine Franconian and Upper Saxon. It is spoken in the southeastern Netherlands, eastern Belgium, Luxembourg, parts of France, and in Germany approximately between the River Main and the southern edge of the Lowlands. Modern Standard German is mostly based on Central German, but it should be noted that the usual German term for modern Standard German is Hochdeutsch, that is, High German.

Upper German dialects include Alemannic (for instance Swiss German), Swabian, East Franconian, Alsatian and Austro-Bavarian. They are spoken in parts of the Alsace, southern Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, and in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland and Italy.

Wymysojer, Sathmarisch and Siebenbüürgisch are High German dialects of Poland and Romania respectively. The High German varieties spoken by Ashkenazi Jews (mostly in the former Soviet Union) have several unique features, and are usually considered as a separate language, Yiddish. It is the only Germanic language that does not use the Latin alphabet as its standard script.

The dialects of German which are or were primarily spoken in colonies or communities founded by German speaking people resemble the dialects of the regions the founders came from. For example, Pennsylvania German resembles dialects of the Palatinate, and Hutterite German resembles dialects of Carinthia, while Venezuelan Alemán Coloniero is a Low Alemannic variant.