Where did the German Language Come From?
by Paul A. Schons
(Originally published by the Germanic-American Institute in October of 1999)
A number of the languages we know today are
essentially evolutions of ancient Latin (Italian, French,
Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese). These are the languages of areas
conquered by ancient Rome. As language in these regions developed
over centuries, Latin continued to grow in different directions
even after the Roman power center had collapsed. In largely
independent directions, the languages we know today changed, grew
and took on their modern forms.
But Germany, as a whole, was never conquered by Rome. To be sure there were Latin influences on ancient German. The trade of ancient times, the technical knowledge and the political influence the Romans had, brought a number of Roman words into German, even in ancient times. Also certain areas of today's German peoples had been conquered by Rome and through those areas a good deal of Latin came into German.
But German, like Latin itself, is an ancient language, about as old in its origins as Latin. Actually the ancient languages (German, Latin, Greek, Slavic) all came from a common mother tongue called Indo-European. At some time around 3,500 years BC the common language of Europe seems to have started to split and develop into separate language families. Linguists think that by about 750 BC there was a well developed and distinct Germanic language in Northern Europe.
By about 250 BC the Germanic language had split into 3 groups. The North Germanic language of those times developed further into the language group we now refer to as the Scandinavian languages. The East Germanic developed into a series of languages which eventually dissipated and were absorbed into other languages. It was the West Germanic which developed into modern German.
The West Germanic language of that period was to develop further in modern German, Dutch, Flemish and Luxemburgish. English would come later. It was not until the 4th century AD that two very influential German tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, began to cross the waters and settle on a large island there which we now call England. (They came evidently at the invitation of an indigenous ruler on the island in an attempt to deal with some of his own political problems.) As their numbers grew, the West Germanic language they spoke came to be referred to as Anglo-Saxon. That was the dialect which would continue to grow into the language we now call English. (French, Italian and Spanish would not begin to develop yet for several centuries.) The Saxons who remained behind continued their own independent development and had their own influence on the development of German language and German culture.
At about the time that English was being established in the British Islands, a form of German called High German was developing back on the continent. It was the High German which would develop into the basic German which is used today. It would evolve into Middle High German by about 1050 AD and into New High German in about 1500 AD The Latin used to the west of the Rhine would start to develop into French by about 800 AD and further west into Spanish and Portuguese. To the south Latin would develop into Italian.
Latin did not die out, of course. It continued to be used by the church for centuries. It was also used in the early universities as the language of scholars. Thus Latin continued to exert its influence into all of the European languages and to create new Latin based words in scholarship and science, to some extent even into our present times.
Modern German and Modern English are thus very closely related sister languages. They come from a common West Germanic origin and both were strongly influenced by the Latin of religion and scholarship. Most of the Latin based words which we now identify in English are essentially the same Latin based words we now see in German, thus actually increasing the similarity between the two languages.
The basic stabilization of German since 1500 can be attributed in large measure to Johannes Gutenberg and Martin Luther. Shortly after Gutenberg had developed a system of printing books at his workshop in Mainz, Luther translated the Bible into a German which could be mass produced with the Gutenberg technology and placed into all areas of Germany. It was at this time that the standard German we know today (as opposed to the many regional dialects) would gain influence and become the German of the schools, official transactions, nearly all printed materials and eventually radio and television. German as we know it today is the native language of roughly 100 million people in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and small areas in a number of other countries.