German: Biography of a Language

German: Biography of a Language

German: Biography of a Language

German: Biography of a Language


Thousands of years ago, seafront clans in Denmark began speaking the earliest form of Germanic language--the first of six "signal events" that Ruth Sanders highlights in this marvelous history of the German language.

Blending linguistic, anthropological, and historical research, Sanders presents a brilliant biography of the language as it evolved across the millennia. She sheds light on the influence of such events as the bloody three-day Battle of Kalkriese, which permanently halted the incursion of both the Romans and the Latin language into northern Europe, and the publication of Martin Luther's German Bible translation, a "People's" Bible which in effect forged from a dozen spoken dialects a single German language. The narrative ranges through the turbulent Middle Ages, the spread of the printing press, the formation of the nineteenth-century German Empire which united the German-speaking territories north of the Alps, and Germany's twentieth-century military and cultural horrors. The book also covers topics such as the Gothic language (now extinct), the vast expansion of Germanic tribes during the Roman era, the role of the Vikings in spreading the Norse language, the branching off of Yiddish, the lasting impact of the Thirty Years War on the German psyche, the revolution of 1848, and much more.

Ranging from prehistoric times to modern, post-war Germany, this engaging volume offers a fascinating account of the evolution of a major European language as well as a unique look at the history of the German people. It will appeal to everyone interested in German language, culture, or history.


THE German language has a long history, beginning perhaps as early as six thousand years ago. Linguists, that is, scientists of language, have been tracing its roots since the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, working with at times nothing more than scraps of ancient Germanic languages, often written in foreign alphabets or runes. These scientists provided the first piece of the puzzle: the stages of development of the language; pronunciation changes, grammar changes, and vocabulary additions, and how they came to be. Modern linguists have continued their work, and in fantastic detail they have reconstructed early German in its many historical stages going back thousands of years.

Recently other sciences—anthropology, archaeology, genetics— have developed exacting methods to turn their microscopes, in closer focus than ever before, on prehistoric peoples and languages. Their results enable us to see a second piece of the puzzle, that is, when and where Neolithic (Late Stone Age) peoples settled, when they began using agriculture and animal husbandry, what cultural contacts they made, and hence what languages could have influenced other languages (including Germanic). Their work has dated some linguistic events earlier than had previously been estimated, in some cases by more than a thousand years.

In the last centuries of the pre-Christian era, Greek and Roman historians and military men (for example, Julius Caesar) described their encounters with the Germanic peoples. What they wrote not only defined how the Greeks and Romans viewed these peoples, whom they called “barbarians,” but also colored our own view, since until recently . . .

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