Like many languages, German has evolved over the centuries. Even today, there are many different dialects of the language, although modern standard German has become the norm throughout Germany itself, as well as the three other German-speaking nations of Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
An appreciation of Ancient German and Middle German is not just something of academic interest. It helps translators understand the diverse dialects that have developed from the German languages that sprung up in the middle part of Europe after the arrival of Saxon speaking people. There are many people living today in Luxembourg, France and Poland, in addition to Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Liechtensteinians and German-speaking migrants all over the world, whose unique dialect is important to study and become familiar with.
Translators who make a living translating literature, poetry and marketing material are the most likely to learn something about historic German languages.
The period of Ancient German
The modern German language has gone through two main metamorphoses that we know about. The evidence comes from the very first written material that has been found and conserved. Old, or Ancient German, dates from the middle of the eighth century to the middle of the eleventh century. 750 A.D. is the first time in history that written records have been found in a language that is recognisably German. It is thought that there was no standard language in existence at the time, but a variety of different but related dialects. This probably parallels the fact that Germany did not exist at that time as a unified political entity, but a series of independent and sometimes warring states.
Middle German is the form of the language that existed between c.1050 and c.1500.
The language developed into a much more highly standardised form. This is when German began to take the place of Latin as a language of Christianity and government.
Modern German is the form of the language that has been in existence from around c.1500 to today. Even in the most recent period, there have been significant attempts to make things like spelling and orthography more consistent across all German-speaking communities. This is the German that most German translators will be familiar with.