Inventing German

Posted on Posted in History

We’re now deep in the heart of Bavaria. The language here is not like that of where we started in Thuringia, where High German is spoken. Here the “r”s are trilled with the tongue, not the throat, and the vocabulary is distinct, especially when it comes to foods, flora, and fauna. It will become even more pronounced as we head south into Austria, and then on to Switzerland (not to mention Liechtenstein!). Deep in the alpine valleys the “German” spoken among the locals is hardly comprehensible to outsiders or foreigners who learned Hoch Deutsch in classrooms. Something like Highland Scottish for those us who speak the Queen’s (or the President’s) English.

So it was for Luther. He noted that in Bavaria and Switzerland the dialect was so pronounced and local that sometimes neighboring villages couldn’t even understand each other. He himself likely spoke Latin wherever possible and made the best of kindly directions on to the next Augustian priory.

As inheritors—disillusioned though we may be—of the nineteenth-century’s nationalisms, it is easy for us think of languages as static, regionally defined entities. Luther spoke German. In Italy they spoke Italian. But historical reality is much less clear cut. It’s said that during the Middle Ages you could have journeyed from the North Cape at the top of Norway all the way to the tip of Italy’s boot and found that the people of each village could understand the speech of their neighbors in either direction, even if there was linguistic incomprehension a few miles farther on. There was no “German,” “Italian,” or “French” as we know them now, only vast regions of vague linguistic similarity.

It wasn’t until Luther that any attempt to centralize and regularize the German language took place, and even this was incidental. The mechanism for the establishment of High German was the Reformation itself: a combination of polemical pamphleteering and Luther’s translation of the Bible disseminated the regional dialect of Saxony to the entire region. Luther’s Bible in particular was so widely read, so thoroughly studied, and so often imitated that it could be said to have created “German” as we know it. (Much the same could be said for the King James Version of the Bible for English.)

And so as Luther traveled south through “Germany,” there was no guarantee that he’d be able to understand the other “German speakers” at all. Even with our own (classroom) knowledge of German, and today’s lingua franca of English, we’ll be getting by a fair bit easier than Luther did.

2 thoughts on “Inventing German

  1. Einen schönen Sonntag!
    Thank you for commenting on Luther’s impact on the German language.
    Just a short comment as to the intricacies of the German dialects:
    In the area between Ulm, Memmingen, Füssen etc. the local dialect is not Bavarian, but Swabian, farther southwest it is a “allemannisch”, even related to the southern Alsatian dialect. The traditional Western borderline of the Bavarian dialect is somewhat along the Lech river.
    Gutes Wetter und gute Reise wünscht
    Johannes Oesch

  2. There is an interesting connection between this post and Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over, which concludes with a linguistic analogy to describe the separated churches. Most of us have one kind of accent (Protestant or Catholic), and it’s extremely difficult to ever lose your accent no matter how well you learn a new language.

    And yet, this post causes one to wonder if Christian differences are perhaps less clear, being better described as “vast regions of vague lin­guis­tic similarity.”

    Keep walking! It means much to many of us.

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