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The German language in the world today

Guten Tag! Hallo! Gruß got! Servus! Did you know that German is one of the major languages in the world?

In 2021, it is estimated that 135 million German speakers exist worldwide and that 75 to 100 million speak it as their first foreign language.

It is not only widely spoken in Central Europe in countries like Austria, Switzerland, Lichtenstein but also in countries like Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and even Namibia! German belongs to the West Germanic language branch, which makes it very similar to Dutch, Afrikaans and English but also shares words with Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Due to the wide spectrum of countries and familiarities with other languages, and particularly English, both are thought to stem from a primitive language termed ‘Indo-European’. Making German the second most spoken Germanic language after English. Hence, German is a very attractive language to learn for its shared linguistic branch with English but also for its possibilities to be spoken in several countries that have strong economical, social and cultural relations, the European Union being a great example. Furthermore, the German language is often thought of as a rigid language, but it is in fact a pluricentric language, which means that the language can have numerous interacting standard forms according to different countries, making it a very rich and fascinating language. Since German is the official language of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Lichtenstein, this means that various German languages exist, as well as, different German dialects for specific regions. These dialects are not all recognized as official languages, yet some non-standard varieties are recognized and protected by national and regional governments merely for their role in the cultural and historical abundance of the region.

Origins and characteristics - a short history of the German languages

German dictionary and words
German words and definition in a dictionary, source Unsplash

You are probably wondering, how did the German languages evolve in each of the countries and regions?

Just as many other languages, German languages and dialects have been affected by historical events that have shaped the use and evolution of the language. First, the appearance of the German language starts in the Middle Ages with its first period called Old High German, which arose with the ‘High German consonant shift’, which is a sound change that other West Germanic languages did not experience. This happened in the centre of what is known as Germany nowadays. This period was predominantly spoken with a wide range of dialects and an extensive oral tradition and only a few written texts such as the Abrogans —an Old High German glossary are a testimony to this period. Later came the Middle High German period between 1050 and 1350, during which the expansion of the German tribes beyond the eastern periphery of the Holy Roman Empire attained a significant geographical territory equivalent to modern-day countries like Austria, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania; provoking a considerable increase of the German speakers. This period was still undergoing linguistic changes, while it also began to be used instead of Latin for official purposes. Then, Modern German started with the Early New High German period, dating from 1350-1650 by the German philologist Wilhelm Scherer. During this important period, where Gutenberg invented the press in 1440 and started the Printing Revolution, Luther’s vernacular translation of the Bible from Latin to German (in 1534) started the standardization in the written form of German and the displacement of Latin by German as the primary language in the German states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, but not lastly, it is only until the middle of the eighteenth century that a widely accepted standard of written German appeared because of its use for commerce and government by the Habsburg Empire. The standardization process continued with the Brothers Grimm and their creation of a dictionary, followed by the first Duden Handbook in 1872 with grammatical and orthographic rules, which you must be familiar with if you have studied German or will be in the near future.

German languages varieties and dialects

German speaking countries
German-speaking countries of the European Union, source Unsplash

Due to historical factors, the German realm called German Sprachraum is located mostly in countries where it is an official language, this includes Germany, Austria and 17 cantons of Switzerland. Despite the standardization and the establishment of German grammatical and orthographical rules, the German language remains a pluricentric language, meaning that Austrian German, Swiss German and other German dialects exist and are often recognized languages.

Standard German

Standard German is the official and main language spoken in Germany, also it is the most taught form of German as a second language or foreign language. Several varieties of Standard German exist, such as Austrian German and Swiss German.

Austrian German

Austrian German for instance is a variety of Standard German, these kinds of differences are similar to the ones we find in British English and American English. Both languages have minor differences in terms of vocabulary, spelling and grammar but are equally recognized and mutually intelligible. The Austrian Standard German or Austrian German is the official language used in Austria, particularly for written and official settings such as government announcements and the media. However, for less formal situations other German dialects like Bavarian or Alemannic are used in the spoken form. If we want to trace back where those differences came from, we have to remember the different periods that the German languages had to undergo, the most determining was the mid-eighteen century with the Habsburg Empire, where Upper German was employed for political reasons, like written statements and commerce, although the origins of Austrian German has the same geographical origins as the Swiss High German. It is only until 1951 that the process of introducing a new written standard for Austrian German was defined and published by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture and recognized as the official language of Austria.

Swiss German

And what about Swiss German? Switzerland has an even more delicate and different use of German because Switzerland languages vary from canton to canton and also their official languages are not the ones used for informal or spoken situations. This is especially the case for the German variants in Switzerland, a very important distinction to keep in mind is the Swiss Standard German, which is the written official variation of Standard German used in the 17 cantons and the Swiss German also known as Alemannic German a German dialect. The latter is only used as a spoken form, but it is also the most spoken language in Switzerland with 59.4% according to a study from 2016. This difference could be explained for historical reasons, where the Habsburg Empire did not include Switzerland, and therefore affected the use of Swiss German phrases and languages over time. It is significant to mention that the German dialect known as Swiss German is mainly a spoken language and is quite different from the spoken Standard German language, making it impossible or rather difficult for German speakers to understand it. Only Austria shares the use of the German dialects close to Swiss German.

Why study German?

Remember that the German Sprachraum is very affluent, but there are also dialects that exist beyond this realm that can be useful depending on where you want to speak German or a German dialect. German is also used beyond the European borders and the German community is present around the world, making it a powerful language to know for different reasons. One of the many reasons is the vast and significant literature that German authors, poets and Nobel Prize authors have published in the German language, thus giving you access to certain knowledge and subtleties of the various masterpieces written in German.

Books in German
German books and literature, source Unsplash

If you are planning on learning German, it is significant to know the differences that exist within the German language and also consider the reasons that motivate your learning journey. When your goals are clear, it is easier to focus your priorities within the German languages and German dialects and focus on the type of courses or online courses you will need to achieve the German language. Once you have made the right assessment of the German language you need according to your studies, a future job opportunity or a trip to Europe, it will be easier to choose the right teacher and course according to your needs but also to the needs of the German language you decided to start studying. These elements will also allow you to choose the correct book and methodology you will need according to your goals.

The beauty of the German language is that once you acquire it, more than one door opens for you, and you will have the opportunity to discover so many variants and dialects and expand your expertise in this fascinating language and the different cultures that use the German languages and dialects in different parts of the world.

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