History of German Language: Origins & 5 Status of the Language until Modern German

Did you know that the German language has a history that spans over a thousand years?

Olly Richards from StoryLearning made a great video about it:

In this blog post, we will explore the history of German language, its origins, classify German to its language family, and talk about the evolution of it through five distinct periods: Old High German, Middle High German, Early New High German, Low German, Standardized (Modern) German.

And in the end, we’re also going to talk about the current status of dialects and German slang. Let’s check this overview table (and click on any of them to learn more!):

German Language NameEraMain Features
Old High German700 – 1050First recorded form of German language
Spoken in southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Northern Italy
First written examples in 8th century religious texts, poetry, legal documents
Middle High German1050 – 1350Spread across central and southern Germany
Used for notable literary works like the Nibelungenlied epic poem
Development of more standardized orthography
Early New High German1350 – 1650Influenced by Martin Luther’s Bible translation
Many expressions still used in modern German
Spread and standardization aided by printing press
Low German800 – PresentDistinct group of dialects in northern Germany and Netherlands
Separate branch from High German dialects
Used for everyday communication
Still recognized as a minority language in some regions
Standardized (High) German1900 – PresentEfforts to standardize language after WWII
Rules enforced by Council for German Orthography
German Spelling Reform of 1996

Los geht’s! (Let’s go!)

1. History of German language: origins & classification as Proto-Germanic language

The German language has ancient origins tracing back to the Indo-European language family.

It belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages, which also includes English, Frisian, and Dutch. The German language emerged from the Proto-Germanic language spoken by Germanic tribes in Europe around 500 BC.

The West Germanic languages share a common ancestor and are closely related, but the German language was significantly influenced by the High German consonant shift – a series of sound changes that affected the consonants of the language. This Germanic sound shift is what distinguishes the High German dialects from other West Germanic languages like English.

The German language is part of the Indo-European language family, one of the world’s largest and most widespread language families. Its origins can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European language, which was spoken thousands of years ago and gave rise to many European and Asian languages.

2. Old High German Language (700-1050)

Old High German was the earliest recorded form of the German language, spoken from around 700 to 1050 AD.

It emerged in the southern regions of modern-day Germany and parts of Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy. The first written examples of Old High German date back to the 8th century: religious texts, poetry, and legal documents such as the Hildebrandslied and Ludwigslied.

During this period, the German language was primarily a spoken language, with various dialects used across different regions. Old High German was the language of the German people and was essentially the language of townspeople throughout southern Germany and surrounding areas.

One of the most significant works in Old High German is the translation of the Bible into High German by monks, which helped establish the language’s importance as a written language and contributed to its development as a literary language.

3. Middle High German (1050-1350)

From around 1050 to 1350, the German language evolved into Middle High German.

This period saw the German language spread and become more widely used across central and southern Germany. Middle High German was characterized by further sound changes and grammatical developments that distinguished it from Old High German.

During this time, notable works of literature, such as epic poems and courtly romances, were produced in Middle High German. The language also gained importance as a written language, with the development of a more standardized orthography (spelling system).

One of the most influential works in Middle High German was the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem that had a significant impact on the development of the German literary tradition and the German language itself.

4. Early New High German (1350-1650)

Early New High German, which emerged around 1350, was the predecessor of the modern standardized German language we know today. This period saw the continued evolution and standardization of the German language, particularly with the influence of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into High German.

history of german language Martin Luther's  statue in Dresden
Martin Luther’s statue in Dresden

Luther’s translation, published in 1534, played a crucial role in establishing a common written form of the language that could be understood across different regions. Many expressions and words used in Early New High German, such as “Guten Morgen” (good morning) and “Bitte” (please), are still familiar in modern German today.

The development of printing technology during this time also contributed to the spread and standardization of the German language, as printed materials could be more widely distributed and read by a larger audience.

5. Low German (800-Present)

In contrast to the High German dialects spoken in southern and central Germany, Low German was a distinct group of dialects that arose in northern Germany and parts of the Netherlands. It was considered a separate branch of the West Germanic language family, distinct from the High German dialects.

Low German was essentially the language of townspeople throughout northern Germany and was often used for everyday communication. It differed from High German in its sound system, grammar, and vocabulary, and was not as widely used for official or written purposes.

While High German eventually became the standard and official language in Germany, Low German continues to be spoken by some communities in northern Germany and is recognized as a legally recognized minority language in certain regions.

6. Standard German (1900-Present) and German dialects

After World War II, efforts were made to further standardize and unify the German language across German-speaking countries. The Council for German Orthography was established in 1901, and it played a huge role in developing and enforcing standard rules for German spelling and grammar.

The German spelling reform of 1996 introduced changes to the orthography, aiming to simplify and modernize the written German language. While there was some resistance initially, these reforms have become accepted and are now part of the standard German orthography.

history of german language had reforms in 1996

Today, modern standard German (also known as Standard High German or Modern High German) is the official language in Germany and is also an official or co-official language in several other countries, including Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg. It is used in education, government, media, and various professional settings across German-speaking regions.

Standard German is taught in schools and is the language used for most written materials, but German speakers often switch between the standard language and their regional dialects (Bavarian, Saxon, Thuringian, Franconian) in daily life.

German is known for its complex grammar, but it’s actually a very logical language. If you’re interested in the question as to why learn German, check out our dedicated article!

Learning German as a foreign language is popular worldwide, and the language continues to play a big role in important fields of life, including literature, philosophy, science, and technology. Sign up now, get your German Conversation Based Chunking Guide and learn more about this beautiful language!

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