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German Language

History of the German Language

The German language is considered one of the major languages of the world, although it lacks the global distribution of other languages such as English and French. While it may not have the global reach of other languages, German is the most widely spoken first language among the 27 member European Union. There are an estimated 100 million individuals who speak the German language as a native tongue.

German is spoken most heavily as a first language within central Europe, beginning in Germany itself and extending to several neighboring countries. German is the official language of Germany where 95% of the population speaks the language as their native tongue. Austria and Switzerland boast the next highest concentrations of native German speakers with 89% and 65% of their populations, respectively, speaking German. Other major German language communities exist in the following areas within Europe:

  • South Tyrol in northern Italy
  • East Cantons of Belgium
  • Alsace and Lorraine regions of France
  • Small villages in the former South Jutland County in Denmark

Outside of Europe the German language's popularity does not match that of other major languages such as English and French, but that does not dampen its reach around the globe. The largest number of German language speaking individuals outside of Europe resides in the United States where an estimated five million individuals speak German at home. Other German language speaking communities are found in parts of the following countries:

  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • South Africa
  • Namibia

The German language falls under the category of Indo-European languages and is within the subset of West Germainic languages. The German language has undergone a lot of change over the course of history and has generally been viewed as taking two separate roads consisting of High German and Low German.

High German is considered by many to be the predecessor of modern German. The rise of the modern German language came from the split of Old High German and Old Saxon, two West Germainic dialects. This split and the rise of Old High German as the dominant German language occurred around the 6th century and last into the 9th century. Beginning in roughly the year 1000, Old High German was replaced by Middle High German through the mid 14th century. Early New High German than took hold, propelled largely by Martin Luther's bible translations in the 16th century, and remained popular until the middle of the 18th century when a standardized German language replaced it.

The history of German also consists of Low German's transition over the years. Low German was a language consisting of elements from High German, Anglo-Frisian (Old English), and Low Franconian. The history of Low German is largely one of regional dialects that have since been marginalized.

The Modern German language took root and expanded during the reign of the Hapsburg Empire, which encompassed large portions of Central and Eastern Europe. Through the mid-19th century the language became the common tongue spoken among the townspeople of the empire.

The turn of the 20th century brought about the standardization of the German language. Standard German originated as a written language and has since been adopted at different stages by certain regions where German is the popular language. The language recently underwent a controversial reform in 1996 that did not finally take root until 2007 in many regions. The changes made during the reform largely dealt with spelling.

Today the German language is the second most spoken native tongue in Europe behind Russian, and is the third most popular language taught in the English speaking world behind French and Spanish.