When you start learning German, you’ll most likely focus on German grammar and vocabulary. First you’ll learn conjugations, declinations, and then you'll probably head out and buy yourself a dictionary. Soon you’ll want to know everything there is to know about the German language and all the German speaking countries.
While people usually take language classes in school or study with a private language tutor, you could also choose to attend a German university or live in a German city.
It’s rare that people are interested in the history of the language they’re learning to speak. However, when you learn a foreign language, you should learn everything there is about it as it can massively help with your appreciation and understanding of the language! Plus you’ll also discover its culture and its history.
Would you like to learn German quickly because you’re going to work in Germany?
Do you already speak German to a high level and would like to improve your language skills?
Whatever your reasons, it’s never too late to learn about the origins of the German language!
It may seem obvious to say that “German is a Germanic language”. However, you’ll soon see there’s much more to it than that and names can be deceiving. Did you know that English is also a Germanic language, for example?
Where Do the Germanic Language Come From?
The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European languages. This family includes most of the languages spoken today in Europe as well as others. In fact, Persian, Hindi, a large number of dead Latin languages, and many of the minority languages around Europe also belong to this group.
Have you ever wondered why there are so many words in different languages that seem similar? That’s because they share a common root! While the English is “mother”, the German is “mutter”, the Persian is “madar”, and the French is “mère”! This is no coincidence...
Most linguists agree that all of these languages come from a common dialect known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE) that appeared long before writing and has since disappeared, being replaced by a large number of the languages that are spoken around Europe today.
Linguists can't seem to agree on the geographic origin of this prehistoric language. Where did it come from? If it wasn't Europe, how did it get here?
Some believe that PIE started in south-eastern Europe while others posit that the language originated in Anatolia, the region between eastern Turkey and Azerbaijan.
However, since this language was never written down, there is no physical evidence of its existence and it’s therefore very difficult to prove a large number of these hypotheses.
Nevertheless, some scientists have managed to determine that part of PIE’s vocabulary refers to plants and animals that are only found in the Caucasus, the border between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, which would support the second hypothesis.
While linguists mostly agree that there was definitely a Proto-Indo-European language, there isn't really any evidence that there were Indo-European peoples or tribes. The language itself, however, did spread across the continent over the course of many years and has given rise to tonnes of different languages.
You’re probably asking yourself how German and its Indo-European cousins diverged and became all the different languages we know today. Like I said before, with little written evidence, it’s impossible to know exactly how and when the language divided and gave us its current branch although linguists can compare existing languages and later texts to calculate with a good degree of accuracy.
We reckon that this divergence took place around 6,500 years ago. As a result, there are now around 12 groups that make up this language family. One of them is the Germanic family which includes German as well as English, Dutch, and even Icelandic. This linguistic family apparently started on the Danish peninsula with the Germanic peoples living there.
French, on the other hand, belongs to the Italic languages, a sub-group of the Romance languages which include Spanish and Italian.
There are currently 3 billion people who speak a language from this massive language family. 450 million of them are speakers of a Germanic language. Here are a few things you should know, especially if you’d like to become a German citizen.
Features Common to Germanic Languages
Of the Indo-European languages, the Germanic languages don’t tend to share as many similarities as you would think despite their shared heritage. In fact, a Spaniard and an Italian would find it easier to understand one another than a Brit and a German.
However, that's not to say that English and German lessons are completely different. The Germanic languages do include a number of similarities. If you’re currently learning german online or face to face, you’ve probably noticed there are a number of words and expressions that are similar to English.
In addition to the vocabulary and certain grammatical elements, some of the biggest similarities can be found in speech. A number of the phonetic elements are similar and both accents are tonic. If you're taking German tutorials, this is probably one of the first things you learn. This means that you stress a certain syllable in each word, usually the first.
When you study German, you’ll learn about strong and weak verbs. They might be more familiar as “regular verbs” and “irregular verbs” and all Germanic languages have these two types of verbs.
When it comes to Germanic conjugation, you should know that these languages originally only had two tenses: the present and the past. Languages like French, Italian, and Portuguese, on the other hand, had a huge number of tenses and moods.
The other tenses are more of a “recent” addition. This is why in languages like English and Dutch a modal verb is often used to express the future. In German, you just need to add a time expression for the future and conjugate the verb in the present.
The History of the German Language
The German language is one of the most popular Germanic languages. In fact, there are almost 100 million speakers of the language.
Jacob Grimm and a number of other philologists attested that the Gothic language was the foundation of the German language. There were three important historic periods after Gothic that defined the German language.
High German (from the 7th to the 12th century), Middle High German (from the 12th to the 16th century) and Modern German (until today).
Modern German, German as we currently know it, was standardised thanks to Protestantism. However, it should be noted that High German was particularly influential in terms of literature.
You shouldn’t forget that there were also a large number of important German dialects spoken throughout the Middle Ages.
Nowadays German is an official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Belgium. However, keep in mind that German can vary by region and the German spoken in Northern Germany is different to Swiss German, Austrian, and Bavarian, for example! When it comes to German, the language is as rich and varied as the people who speak it!
You should also check out our list of the 10 most famous Germans in the world!
Features of German
German, due to its interesting history, is a rich and varied Germanic language. This also influenced some of its more interesting characteristics.
However, if it’s not your mother tongue, you might come across a few difficulties when it comes to learning the language since it definitely has a few quirks that you mightn’t find in your own language. Taking German lessons London (or Lincoln or Perth) can help you with that!
Firstly, Germans seem to construct their sentences “backwards”. At least in comparison to English. You should keep this in mind if you’re learning the language. In fact, in English, you usually start with the most important aspects and add less important elements. In German it’s the opposite.
Declensions, which are now much simpler in English, were an important element of Indo-European languages in the past. In German, they dominate grammar! In this respect, German is a very Germanic language. The accusative, dative, genitive, and the nominative were the foundations of Germanic languages but Icelandic and German are the only two languages to have retained them in such a way.
Precision is another of German’s important features. As you learn German, you’ll quickly discover that German is incredibly precise.
You will probably also notice that a lot of German words have a capital letter. This is because all nouns in standard German (Hochdeutsch) are capitalised.
Germans have a word for everything. For example, in German, a “Geisterfahrer” is a driver who goes the wrong way down a road. There are no “polite” equivalents in English.
In English, when you say “put it on the table” and “look, it’s on the table”, you use the same three words “on the table”. In German, you need to specify a nuanced difference between these two sentences.
German is also a passionate and rich language. I bet you’ll be surprised!
Why not check out our list of the greatest German writers?