German is one of the most spoken languages in the world today, counting around 135 million speakers. If you are planning on learning German or any other of the German languages from Switzerland or Austria, it always comes in handy to know a little of the language's history to understand the differences and nuances for each country.

Most people do not know how a language has evolved and where its characteristics come from.

However, knowing the history of the language you are considering learning can be very useful because it helps you to understand the origin of some words, and how the construction of the language and its grammar evolved through time. The history of the German language also explains how the Standard German we mostly speak and study today became so prominent and important. Nonetheless, several other versions of the German language and dialects still exist today.

Here, you will learn more about the origins of the German languages and the history of the different German dialects. This will help you understand the richness of the German languages and their culture, thus encouraging you to keep on learning more, and also to help you choose the German lessons you are looking for or that will be most tailored to your needs.

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The origins of the German language

old map central europe
Old map of Central Europe, source Unsplace, Photo credit: Jakob Braun

The German language we know today has had several periods that modelled its structures and pronunciation. History plays a major role in the different kinds of German languages and dialects we know today.

German belongs to the Indo-European languages, which belongs to the language family native to western and southern Eurasia, this includes most of the European languages we speak today.

The German language, in particular, belongs to the West Germanic languages, together with English and Dutch. In the Early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were affected by the insular development of Old and Middle English in the North, while in the West the High German consonant shift was taking place during the migration period.

This shift differentiated Old High German (OHG) from Old Saxon. In historical linguistics, the High German consonant shift describes phonological development, which means that a sound change takes place and affects the language over time. The sound change involves various things, such as the replacement of sound in a speech, this refers to the phonetic aspect of the language.

For example, the appearance of new words and sounds especially in the vowels with the appearance of the umlaut, such as ä, ë, ü, ö.

In the West Germanic languages case, the consonant shift resulted in the Old High German (OHG) —the earliest stage of the German language.
This period lasted from 750 to 1050 and represented the first stages of German; this period did not have standardized use of German and was rather a dialect at this stage. The Old High German (OHG) language was mainly spoken and used by the independent tribal kingdoms that were located in Central Europe.

The only written document from this period that is still preserved today is the German Abrogans glossary, the preserved copy is in the Abbey Library of St Gall and is considered the oldest book in the German language. This glossary can be considered as the Old High German (OHG) thesaurus of its time and is, therefore, a very valuable source that gathers the knowledge of the oldest Upper German language, it contains 3,670 Old High German (OHG) words in different examples.

 

History and territory

Old High German happened in Central Europe and more precisely in the centre of Germany as we know it today because other languages were used in the nearby empires.

The Franks in the western part adopted the Gallo-Romance language, North of this line the language was not affected by the West the High German consonant shift and thus kept Old Dutch varieties. In the South, the Lombards kept their own dialect until they were conquered by Charlemagne in 744 and then definitely acquired the Romance language. In the East, no Germanic language was spoken until the German eastward expansion occurred in the early 12th century —also known as Ostkolonisation.

Monastery dialects

Because there were no standardized versions of the Old High German (OHG), only the manuscripts and glossaries produced by the monasteries, for this particular reason they were called ‘monastery dialects’. These dialects developed in different parts of the territory, in the field of linguistic this means that a language can be affected by its environment and creates sounds specific to the surroundings.

 

Another fascinating fact about Old High German (OHG) is that of the different dialects that were developed in certain territories, some of them have evolved and are still being spoken today in a particular region or city.

During the Old High German period, several dialects existed within the territory and were divided into two main groups the ones belonging to the Central German, which were spoken from the Rhineland in the west, extending to the former eastern territories of Germany, which today belong to Poland.

 

Germany Monastery
Monastery And Palace Bebenhausen in Tübingen, source Unsplash

The Central German group or Middle German dialects were affected by the High German consonant shift, but to a less extended degree than the dialects from the Upper German region.
Some of these dialects evolved and are still part of the spoken dialects of different regions and cities of Germany today. During the Old High German period, we could count up to eighteen dialects.

The other German dialects group is referred to as the Upper German, spoken mainly in what is known as today’s southern Germany, northern and central Switzerland, Austria and even some parts of France near the German-Swiss border. During the Old High German period, mainly Alemannic and Bairisch or Bavarian were considered in the Upper German dialects group. The Upper German dialects are spoken in a wider territory, there are different ways to divide how the dialects are represented in the different regions and cities.
Because Old High German is a period marked by the monastery dialects and therefore a product of the monasteries from cities like St.Gallen or Fulda, that worked in the translation from Latin texts but also in the elaboration of glossaries of the Old High German (OHG) language, thus it was a notorious period for literacy and literature, particularly poetry.

During this period, there was a strong dedication among the scholars and monks to preserve Old High German through epic poetry. During the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne himself ordered that the epic poetry scripts should be carefully preserved for prosperity.

Unfortunately, the neglect of later generations is what led to the major loss of the records that existed of Old High German. Especially through Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s successor, destroyed his father’s collection of Old  High German epic poetry and other pagan content.
Several authors and monks of this period, such as Rabanus Maurus an abbot at Fulda’s monastery in 822, played a major role in the cultivation of German literacy.

Notker Labeo also known as Notker the German, a Benedictine monk, dedicated his life to developing a systematic orthography and a great writing style for the Old High German style.

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Old High German, the end of a period

Although it has been difficult to trace all the dialects that compose the Old High German language, the end of the period was less controversial for numerous reasons.

First, during the 11th century, the sound changes were reflected in the spellings, leading to an entire remodelling of the system of noun and adjective declension. Also, the death of Notker the German in 1022 marked the end of a long-life work of translation of the Latin texts into German, an elegant writing style and epic poetry as well as, the study of the German language.

Later, he was even named Teutonicus in recognition of his service to the German language.
Thus, the mid-11th century marked the transition to Middle High German.

Nowadays, German languages and dialects are a testimony of the richness of the language and how the Second Sound Shift affected the West Germanic language in Central Europe and created the languages and dialects we know today.

map europe
Map of Central Europe and Germany today, source Unsplace, Photo credit: Danielle Rice

When travelling in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, it is fascinating to see the differences in pronunciation and phonetics that exist within and between Swiss German, Austrian German and their official language.

History and culture have also strongly affected the development and preservation of the language.

The fact that these languages share the influence of the Second Sound Shift and that the Old High German period has the role of an umbrella where all the different German languages and dialects were to appear and develop themselves.

This is an incredible way of getting acquainted with the history of West Germanic languages and German, in particular, being something that could be studied at a deeper level through history and linguistics with different courses.

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