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.”