If you are learning some basic German words, you may not be aware of just how much German has changed over the centuries. Even today, German speakers in different parts of Europe and different regions within Germany itself speak with a different dialect. These dialects may have a different word order and vocabulary, even though they are recognisably German.
The reason for the variation is that German has evolved over the long period that it first developed as a language. Some dialects are more akin to the Old German language while others are more akin to the New German language.
The Beginnings of Old German
What has been called ‘Proto-Germanic’ are the languages of the first people to migrate westwards out of Central Asia across the Baltic Sea. These people were using one or more of the language family called ‘Indo-European’. Virtually every language in Western Europe, including German, belongs to this group. This migration took place between 2000 B.C. and about 500 B.C. By the end of this period, there were already certain significant changes in the languages that eventually became Old German. This included what has been called by linguists the ‘Great Germanic Sound Shift.,’ and relates to the way consonants sound in Germanic languages compared to Latin, Greek and other non Germanic languages.
The Old German Language
Much of the time up to around the eleventh century A.D. is what could be called the era of Old High German. It is not an easy period to research simply because of the dearth of written records. Old Saxon was a Germanic dialect that was concurrent with Old German and had a lot of linguistic similarities.
Much of what is known about Old High German during this era is from studies of ancient manuscripts from monasteries. It must be understood that Greek and then Latin were the main languages used by those who could read and write at that time and there was no real call for writing anything in Old German.
Middle High German
Middle High German describes the language forms of what became the German language between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries A.D. There were significant changes in vowel sounds. The umlaut sound, a variation of the a, o and u, became used for the first time. German writing became more widespread, especially in the form of early poetry. In this period, the courts were heavily influenced by French and so this was a language that had an influence on German vocabulary, which absorbed a lot of French loan words.
A visitor to what is now Germany during the Middle High German period would notice that wherever they travelled local communities would speak widely different dialects of the language, with the pronunciation and vocabulary often so different that it meant a mutual lack of easy communication.
Early New High German
The New High German language, which eventually evolved into modern German, spanned the period between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, there were many changes in phonetics. Printing was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century, although most literary works that were printed were in Latin, not in German. Martin Luther’s painstaking translation of both the New Testament of the Bible, then the Old Testament from the Hebrew into early New German, gave a huge impetus for using the German language in print. In fact, Luther has been credited with doing more than most to develop a standardised form of New High German that became the modern German that people use today.
Will German Continue to Evolve and Change?
It’s hard to say. The fact that German is used so much all over the world in printed form, either on the Internet or on paper may help to slow down the pace of change, but all languages change over time as they absorb new influences. What may be different is that the number of dialects of German that are still spoken may decrease as more and more children in the communities where these dialects are spoken will learn to use modern standardised German rather than their own parents’ dialects.
What will also change is the vocabulary, especially the particularly distinctive German compound nouns and other words that are often very creative. Many new words develop because of changes in technology. We don’t really know what will happen in fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years time if the planet survives, but it’s unlikely that German will be exactly the same as today.