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German Language

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Overview: German is one of the dominant languages of Europe, and high numbers of Europeans from every country have at least a basic proficiency in it. However, Germany (German: Deutschlandkarte) never achieved a worldwide colonial empire on the level of those of France, Spain, or England, so the language has less of a global reach than the languages of some other European powers. Many of the enclaves of the German language that exist in other countries were brought by German immigrants, especially in South America and the United States.

Roots of the language: The Germanic tribes of the eastern part of the European continent were quite numerous and diverse in the ancient world, and in turn spoke many disparate (though related) languages. The Romans conquered and reconquered them several times, as they tended to do on the rest of the continent, but did not establish Latin in the same way that they did in modern-day France and Spain. Modern German therefore descends almost directly from the barbarian dialects, as opposed to the Romance languages, which descend from Latin.

The many varieties of Old German, including the Old Saxon language which was one of the major influences on modern English and Dutch, spread across Eastern and Northern Europe over several centuries. One of the dominant dialects of German became more elevated when Martin Luther used it as the platform for his revolutionary reforms to the Christian Church. By publishing the Bible in a language other than Latin (i.e. German), Luther’s aim was to make the most important religion in Europe more accessible to the masses.

Language characteristics: The German vocabulary is and has always been capable of growing at an astonishing rate. Not only do its many ways of conjugating root words give it the ability to coin new words easily, but it is one of the most permissive languages in the world when it comes to compound words. Theoretically, any number of basic words, prefixes and suffixes can be strung together into one long German word. Because of these aspects, although other languages such as Latin and French have influenced German over the centuries, many loanwords are simply “translated” into a German word with the ease of making up new phrases.

Written form: Like many other European languages, German uses the 26-letter Latin alphabet (German dialects before the introduction of Latin did not have much of a literary tradition). In addition, German adds vowels with the Umlaut and a sharp form of the S consonant. Because German is technically capable of forming infinite compound words, it contains some of the longest words found in the Western world. However, because this is impractical for all but the most esoteric uses, the vast majority of words are of more or less average length.

The German language has undergone a recent change: in 1996 an official reform attempted to standardize the spelling of German to make it easier to learn. It proved controversial, with many citizens and businesses ignoring or rejecting the changes. One angered group actually brought the matter to the courts, which ruled that the resolution had full effect only in schools, with the rest of the populace able to choose which spelling rules they wanted to implement on a case-by-case basis. Currently, German-language media tends to use a mix of the newer and older spelling rules.

Last Updated : April 20, 2015


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