The good people at Oxford UP sent me a copy of Ruth H. Sander’s German: Biography of a Language, which I recently finished reading. This odd and entertaining book is not well represented by its title, which suggests a relatively straightforward history of German. In fact, Sanders has chosen to focus on six “turning points, leaving the connecting events largely in the dark.” The chapter titles, each representing one of these turning points, are “Germanic Beginnings,” “The Germanic Languages Survive the Romans,” “A Fork in the Road: High German, Low German,” “Bible German and the Birth of a Standard Language,” “The German Language Gets a State,” and “Postwar Comeback Times Two: A High Point, a Double Fall from Grace, and Recoveries.” (You can see a more detailed table of contents, with descriptions of the sidebars, here.)
You will note that Chapter 2 talks about “The Germanic Languages,” and that’s one odd thing about the book: while German itself is the main focus, a great deal of space and attention is devoted to the other Germanic languages and the history of the peoples associated with them. I’m not sure the average student of German will be quite so interested in Gothic, English, and Yiddish as this book expects them to be. Another odd feature is the emphasis on history; of course, it’s useful to be reminded of the context in which a language is used, but the long and detailed account of the Battle of Kalkriese (which when I was a lad we used to call the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest) seems excessive for a book with just over 200 pages of text, and what the account of Luther’s marriage is doing there (“The Luthers had six children and, to all evidence, a loving marriage…. The highly competent Katharina… kept house, managed the family finances, cooked, grew a vegetable and fruit garden, raised pigs, and brewed beer for visitors and family…”) is anybody’s guess. And the first chapter, on Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic and the peoples who may have spoken them, is pretty much all speculation—interesting speculation, and presented as such rather than as fact, but still, in such a short book one might have expected a brief rundown of the known elements of prehistory and a quick transition to the documented facts of the language.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression by my carping and quibbling. This is a book that anyone with an interest in the Germanic languages that extends beyond sound shifts and syntax is likely to enjoy and learn from. It’s quite well written for a scholarly book, and one thing that pleases me greatly is her habit of quoting other scholars, frequently in extenso, rather than paraphrasing them and stashing the source in a footnote. To give you a taste, here’s part of her account of Luther’s impact:

“Luther possessed a particular feel for the narrative quality of the originals,” writes Winfried Thielmann, arguing further that Luther situated each utterance into its religious context, searching for the proper effect even of single words such as prepositions and adverbs, discussing these with the like-minded associates who flocked to visit him at Wartburg Castle (2007, 219–225). Erwin Arndt writes:

Seldom has a writer or poet of the early centuries penetrated through his work so deeply into the essence of language as did Martin Luther. . . . But through it all Luther’s main interest was not even language itself, rather his first priority was the content. . . . From the beginning his compulsion for universal comprehension was a basic characteristic of Luther’s German language creation. (Arndt 1962, 7.)

Though it seems not to have been his aim, Luther’s Bible translation turned out to be an artistic accomplishment, resulting in a beautifully realized religious document—and it ended by enriching, even ennobling, the German language. As Orrin Robinson writes, Luther “broadened irrevocably the range of registers and functions for which German, rather than Latin, was the preferred linguistic vehicle” (Robinson 2004, 232).

And here’s an interesting bit about his effect on grammar (Germanists can tell me if this is generally accepted):

For example, although Luther initially decided to follow southeastern practice and drop a weak -e in both word roots and grammatical endings, in the end he brought back the unstressed -e in line with east-central German practice. Here we find that Luther’s style choice affected even the grammar of modern German. The presence of the Luther’sche -e ‘the Lutherian e’ ultimately supported the preservation of the inflectional system (for example, subjunctive markers such as the e in ihr habet ‘you might have’) in standard High German (Robinson 2004, 235).

And she has a healthy attitude toward loan words: “The borrowing of words into a language has historically had a positive, rather than a negative, influence on the borrowing language, enriching vocabulary but not causing language decline.”


  1. That said, Luther did have a rather funny attitude towards linguistic purity and straightforwardness in his recorded sermons.

  2. dearieme says:

    “But I don’t want to give the wrong impression by my carping and quibbling.” It’s your c’ing and q’ing that we come here for.
    P.S. A German colleague of mine says simply “Luther invented German”.

  3. ertzteüffel says:

    As a native German speaker, I can’t think of a sentence where ihr habet would be translated you might have (or, as here, you may have). You may/might have would be ihr könnt(et)/mögt/möchtet haben or perhaps ihr hättet or ihr würdet haben. Ihr habet is Konjunktiv I:
    John 5:39 “Suchet in der Schrift; denn ihr meinet, ihr habet das ewige Leben darin;” – “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life:”
    If this were translated “for in them you think you might have eternal life”, it would add an uncertainty that isn’t there in Luther’s German.

  4. dearieme says:

    Oi, Hat, job ad that might suit someone from your world. Scroll down if needs be.

  5. caffiend says:

    up to p. 26 at Google Books
    p. 6 Says “Führer” is no longer much used. Aren’t at least compounds like “Führerschein” in normal use?
    p.13 Seems to suggest Hungarian is a survivor rather than a recent intruder.

  6. caffiend: p. 6 Says “Führer” is no longer much used. Aren’t at least compounds like “Führerschein” in normal use?
    You betchum. Here are some more: Truppenführer [troop commander], Stadtführer [city guide (book)], Touristenführer [tourist guide (person or book)], Führerkabine [truck driver's cab], führerlos [driverless]. Führerpersönlichkeit is definitely nazty, but Führungspersönlichkeit [person with leadership qualities] is harmless. There are no difficulties about all this in actual practice. As the book says, free-standing “Führer” is simply no longer in use.
    Führerschein is odd, when you think about it: why not Fahrerschein ? Indeed, I find that the TÜV Rheinland is all hot to introduce a Gefahrgutfahrerschein.

  7. Stu,
    and the most important of all: Sprachführer.

  8. Yes, Hat is our Sprachführer. Hail Hat !

  9. To the assembled company: Hail Hatlers !

  10. I don’t think that was quite as tasteless as Springtime For Hitler, but they loved it in Berlin, so I hear.

  11. Did the book cover the development of the German languages sociopathic Nazi system of noun declensions, with five rules, twenty meta-rules, and 153 individual exceptions?

  12. JE, you have been traumatized by terrible German grammars. It’s nowhere near so bad as you make out. Off the top of my head, I’d say there are 5 to 6 standard behavior patterns – not “rules” – that almost all nouns display.
    If you spoke Standard German, you’d never again have to worry about orthography (forget the stupid recent “Spelling Reform”). Except in certain little cases that screw everybody up: du hast recht or du hast Recht ?. And you could rant to your heart’s content in that heaven of hypotaxis.

  13. You understand I’m not calling you personally a Nazi, Stu. I have no way of knowing whether or not you are one.

  14. Too risky. I am of course partial to a bit of horst-flesh, but before long I would be wesseling from a tree. So retrograde, these “Neo-Nazis”. All the demonstrations by dorf inhabitants and brow-furrowings by politicians are ridiculous. The leaders should be thrown in jail – and they are – but the kiddos are just looking for guidance. For them I envisage a round of American-style civilian boot-camp, run by an American.
    Röhm set the standard, but it’s been downhill since then. The English WiPe leaves out the juicy details, which I didn’t even know until just now:

    Röhm selbst gab in einem Brief aus dem Jahr 1928 an, seine homosexuelle Veranlagung erst 1924 entdeckt zu haben. Sein Freund Gerhard Roßbach soll ihn damals in die homosexuelle Subkultur von Berlin und München eingeführt haben. Zu dieser Zeit begann Röhm, regelmäßig Berliner Homosexuellen-Treffpunkte sowie das Berliner Dampfbad (das er als „Gipfel alles menschlichen Glücks“ bezeichnete) zu besuchen.
    Im März 1932 veröffentlichte der Publizist Helmuth Klotz drei Briefe, die Röhm 1928 aus Bolivien (La Paz, Uyuni) und München an den Mediziner Karl-Günther Heimsoth schrieb. In diesen Briefen bekannte Röhm sich selbstbewusst zu seiner Homosexualität.
    Die NS-feindliche Presse nutzte Passagen aus den Briefen an Heimsoth wie „Die blutjungen frischen Leutnants [hier in Bolivien] würden Ihnen sicher auch gefallen […] aber leider… Natürlich unmöglich. Oder hätten sie für junge Neger in Uniform was übrig?” oder Berichte Röhms über seine „bis jetzt leider erfolglosen Streifzüge[n] durch alle Viertel von La Paz”, die nach den moralischen Maßstäben der Zeit von großen Teilen der Bevölkerung als skandalös empfunden wurden, als Angriffsfläche auf Röhm im Speziellen und die NS-Bewegung im Ganzen.
    Hitler, der bis 1934 keinen Anstoß an den Neigungen Röhms nahm, nutzte diese nach dessen Tod als eines der Argumente für die Rechtfertigung der Ermordung seines ehemaligen Duzfreundes, indem er behauptete, erst 1934 von der Homosexualität Röhms erfahren zu haben.

    There’s not a noun in there that should cause you grief. But as to orthography, note im Speziellen and im Ganzen towards the end.

  15. My solution was just to decide that it was seldom important to know whether a noun was singular or plural, and if it was the subject of the sentence the verb would tell you. I even sketched out a textbook where the useful and/or easy forms were taught first, the difficult but useful ones next, and the useless ones last. If I could creolize German, I would.

  16. My solution was just to decide that it was seldom important to know whether a noun was singular or plural
    An excellent conceit. That’s what I did for a while when listening to French – pretend that the difference is irrelevant. Now, however, I can distinguish singular and plural most of the time, to my surprise. Apparently it’s only when the difference doesn’t make any difference that it’s a matter of indifference – which is how it should be.

  17. I just figured out how languages are best acquired: by brainless practice. How do you learn to tie shoelaces – by studying knot theory ? How do you learn to walk – from Gray’s Anatomy ?
    No. The less you think, the more you repeat, the less you gripe, the better you get. That’s all, folks.

  18. Quite right, but it’s a depressing thing to tell beginning students.

  19. German has seven irregular plural endings (-e, -e with stem umlaut, (-(n)en, -n, -er with stem umlaut where possible, zero, and zero with stem umlaut) and one regular one (-s). There are also some foreign plurals. But the irregular plurals are common and the regular plural is rare, unlike the situation in English or Dutch.

  20. Quite right, but it’s a depressing thing to tell beginning students.
    I’m not so sure about that. On the contrary, I think that what commonly makes learning a language so difficult, and ultimately depressing, is that it is sold as an activity which primarily demands cognitive effort.
    I am handicapped in expressing my views here by the fact that “cognitive” is a word-concept that doesn’t belong to my active vocabulary. “Physiological” is still just barely on the list towards the bottom, but “cognitive” not at all. I’ve never been able to make much sense of it, no more than of many other word-concepts such as objective, subjective, real, imaginary etc. These are tired old horses. That doesn’t mean I won’t condescend to ride them from time to time, but I don’t expect to get very far by riding them hard.
    When someone wants to learn to play the piano, must the best teaching method start with the theory of harmony ? When someone wants to play softball, should they learn ballistics first ? These two activities are commonly regarded as requiring practice. Why not language ? Maybe it’s a question of motive – do you really want to play ragtime, or speak Hungarian ?
    Apart from lack of motive, perhaps what makes language learning difficult is that it is presented as a matter of acquiring knowledge, from which competence will follow. But is this any more likely than that a ballistics expert will become a good baseball player ? Wouldn’t it be better to acquire the competence directly ? One advantage would be that you could then dispense with the knowledge altogether. In fact, I suspect the fundamental mistake here is to treat knowledge as a short-cut to competence.

  21. But the irregular plurals are common and the regular plural is rare, unlike the situation in English or Dutch.
    “Dear, a rare Regular Plural has been spotted in the Black Forest, and I need it for my life list. We must go there at once!”
    (That is to say: Liebe, ein seltenes regelmäßigen Plural hat im Schwarzwald entdeckt worden, und ich brauche es für mein Lebens-Liste. Wir müssen dorthin gehen auf einmal!).

  22. Google translate seems to have missed a couple of idioms. I tweaked the English to get:
    Liebe, ein seltenes Regelmäßigen Plural hat im Schwarzwald gesehen worden, und ich brauche es für mein Leben-Liste. Wir müssen es sofort los!

  23. Whatever happened to David Marjanowicz? I suppose he’s writing his thesis.

  24. Apropos of nothing says:

    This is somewhat off topic, but in John McWhorter’s “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,” he describes the hypothesis that German was influenced by Phoenician. I am curious as to what the current academic consensus on this is.

  25. Whatever happened to David Marjanowicz?
    Good question. I was hoping to lure him with this topic, but no such luck.

  26. Marjanović, though I’m sure he wouldn’t take offence at the Westslawifizierung.
    German declension is easier than Latin, and as far as I can tell, easier than Russian. English speakers’ problem is that we’re coming from one of the least morphologically complex of the IE languages; but at least we have a decent number of vowels and consonant clusters, so we’re not in the unhappy position of, say, Spanish speakers when learning German phonology.

  27. I gone full Chinese on the question of morphological complexity. The optimal amount is (to the extent possible) none.

  28. I full Chinese on morphological complexity question. To extent possible, optimal complexity none.

  29. JE: Mandarin more derivational zi4 English, actually.

  30. Mandarin more inflectional zi4 English, actually.

  31. Marjanović
    I knew there was a reason I had to paste it.

  32. Hm. Explain. I had to memorize no tables at all. There were the resultatives, but those were neat little ways of making useful phrases. The classifiers are inflection-like in the sense of being pointles and stupid, and for ideological consistency’s sake I just stick with “ge”. (“One stick of fish”, etc. EVIL!)

  33. John Cowan: I’m curious, what would be the definition of “regular” and “irregular” in your comment above? As an example, why would one describe the -n ending for feminine nouns ending in -e as irregular? (Banane(n), Gitarre(n), Geige(n) etc.)
    Which declensions in Latin would you describe as “regular” and which as “irregular”?
    Apologies if this is a joke flying over my head….

  34. Philip Spaelti says:

    The “-s” plural in German is “regular” in the sense that it is the default. It is the only pattern that is truly productive in Modern German. The other patterns are extended to compounds, or to morphologically coined words (so words ending in “-er” will get a zero plural pattern, etc.), but they are not used for borrowed or newly coined words.
    This is actually a big point of difference between German and Alemannic. Alemannic does not have an -s plural, so the “irregular” patterns are extended to new words, Umlaut and all.
    In Latin the “-us/-um” and “-a” declensions are the “regular” ones obviously.

  35. Thanks Philip. So, the definition of “regular” as you describe it is something like “may be applied by default to newly borrowed or coined words”?
    By the way, under that definition it doesn’t seem “obvious” that the regular Latin declensions are the ones you mention and not others. (Which is not to say it is not true).
    But what to make of a German word like “die Gitarre”? This follows the normal -n plural. But at some point in the not so distant past, it was presumably borrowed into German, from Spanish I think. So can we say that at that point the -n ending for feminine nouns ending in -e was regular? (Doubtless there are examples which are much more recent than that – but that was one which came to mind).
    One could imagine an alternative definition of “regular”, along the lines of a pattern which would be guessed naturally by a native speaker encountering a word for the first time. For example, think of a native modern German speaker who for some reason only now encounters the word “die Gurke” for the first time. Without giving it any thought, such a speaker would form the plural “Gurken”. In that sense, the plural form follows a regular pattern. Do linguists also use the word “regular” in that sense?

  36. marie-lucie says:

    JM, “may be applied by default to newly borrowed or coined words” defines “productive”, and most of the time that also means “regular”. “Regular” means “following definable rules” which apply to a large number of forms, for instance, in English, adding -s to form the plural of nouns and -ed to form the past tense of verbs. Plural nouns like “oxen” are irregular in Modern English because there are so few of them that follow the same pattern, so it is not possible to formulate a general or at least widespread rule for them, but they were regular in Old English, for instance (which was much more like German). Plurals like “bacteria” are irregular because they do not follow the rules of English (or even its ancestors and relatives) at all, they just (up to a point) follow the rules of Latin, the language they were taken from without any change. Such plurals tend to disappear once the words they are in become so common in the language that they are given regular singular/plural alternations: so, from 1 bacterium, 1000 bacteria we end up with 1 bacteria, 1000 bacterias.
    But sometimes new forms do not follow the most regular pattern but a sub-pattern: there have been discussions not too long ago about the past tense of the relatively recent verb to sneak, which “should” be sneaked but which is most often snuck, because of the common (though not quite regular) pattern of one-syllable verbs ending in k forming their past tense by internal vowel change rather than by the addition of -ed. This means that this older pattern, which has in general become regularized over the centuries (eg in Old English the past tense of to help was holp), is still holding its own for this subtype of verbs.

  37. “should” be sneaked but which is most often snuck
    It’s sneaked in Britain.

  38. John E: In English we have -s (for nouns), -s (for verbs), ‘s (for possession), -ed, -ing, -ly, -er (comparative), -est, and perhaps a few more.
    In Mandarin we have -men (pronoun number), -le (perfective), -zhe/zai (durative), -guo (experiential), ba (disposal), gei (indirect object), bei (adversive passive), and perhaps a few more. Indeed, Internet-style Chinese uses ing (spelled in Latin letters) as a partial replacement for zai.
    So the numbers are at least close.

  39. James: By “regular” I mean “applied by rule”; -s is applied by rule to form a plural when the ending is not known and analogy would be too farfetched. I wrote the situation up here based on Pinker’s Words and Rules. There is also the question of date: -s itself didn’t appear in standard German until the early 19th century, probably borrowed from English and Low German. Before that, standard German had only analogy with which to assign plural endings.
    Another example, which may be clearer, is the case of Maori passive endings. In proto-Polynesian, many verbs in the active voice ended in a consonant, and the regular passive ending was -ia; there were also some irregular ones. However, when final consonants were pervasively lost, the result was a huge mess of irregular passive endings: -ia, -tia, -hia, -kia, -mia, -ngia, -ria, -whia, depending on the now-lost consonant if any, plus the ancient irregular endings. The relation between each verb and its passive ending simply had to be memorized.
    Since then, -tia has become the regular passive ending, applied to borrowings and coinages and so on. But that does not (IIRC) make -tia the majority ending, or even the most common ending. (Other Polynesian languages have standardized on a single ending, like Hawaiian -’ia < -kia.)
    As for the Latin declensions, it seems clear that the first and second were regular, the rest irregular. Similarly, the first declension was the regular one for verbs: novel French verbs always take -er, with a few exceptions like alunir ‘land on the Moon’, clearly influenced by aterrir ‘land’. Spanish instead created a novel regular verb alunizar.

  40. So I can use the default plural -s on everything? I may have a second career as a German language reformer.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    JE: You mean “a German language inventor”. You can use the -s default plural if you invent new words, not if you use existing words which already have their own plural forms.

  42. Screw those Nazis. They WILL use my corrected, modernized plurals.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Maori passive endings:
    This is reminiscent of what happened to the old French noun-forming suffix -ier as in ouvrier ‘worker’ (from oeuvre ‘piece of work’), sabotier ‘wooden shoe maker’ (from sabot ‘wooden shoe’), etc. When many final consonants stopped being pronounced (eg sabot [sabo]), the suffix appeared to be -tier since t had been the most common final consonant, hence this new form was used in new words such as cafetier ‘coffee shop owner’ from café which never ended in t. Feminine forms of the suffix might designate a person or a thing, usually a container, so cafetière ‘coffee pot’ or tabatière ‘tobacco (snuff) container’ (from tabac [taba]).
    Similarly with the verb suffix -er and some of its forms, eg chapeauté ‘”behatted”‘, compare the older noun chapelier ‘hatmaker’, both from chapeau ‘hat’ (chapelier is actually from a much older form chapel).
    This addition of a t before -ier happened when the suffix meant a person making something, but not with the homophonous suffix meaning ‘… tree’ (eg pommier ‘apple tree’ from pomme ‘apple’), so the coffee bush is called caféier.

  44. both from chapeau ‘hat’ (chapelier is actually from a much older form chapel)
    m-l, is there a connection between chapeau and chapel (its current English meaning) based on physical resemblance?

  45. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, an interesting question! I had to go check in the Trésor de la langue française informatisé” (an online dictionary, somewhat like the OED in scope).
    Yes, there is a connection, but it is rather roundabout and has nothing to do with the physical appearance.
    In French chapeau (Latin cappellus and chapelle (Latin cappella are related to the old word chape which originally meant a kind of cape (Latincappa), a wraparound garment. There is a well-known story about Saint Martin (the most popular saint in France), who was a Roman officer, cutting his cape in half with his sword and giving one half to a beggar. His own half (or what passed for it) became a relic preserved in a small addition to the palace of Charlemagne, which was named cappella from the cappa that was preserved in it (in French, Charlemagne’s capital Aachen is called Aix-la-Chapelle for this reason). Later the word was applied to such additions to churches (often recesses off the nave), or to small churches dependent on larger ones or built for private use (ie not parish churches).

  46. I did not know that! Thanks, Cow, for the question, and m-l, for the answer.

  47. It’s sneaked in Britain.

    It’s sneak, snuck, snookered.
    And bake, boke, bickered.

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