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The German language

I asked Cameron Sawyer about the origin of High German and its relationship to Bühnbenspracge, stage language. He replies: " As to Hochdeutsch , which is broken down into Old, Middle, and New High German (740-1050; 1050-1350; and 1350-present respectively), this seems to have been the literary, non-local, somewhat artificial language of the upland part of Germany. In 1534, Hochdeutsch was dramatically crystallized by Luther with his New Testament. Luther standardized German spelling according to an artificial scheme of his own invention (something which never happened to English, which is why we have such odd and illogical spelling). The grammar of Hochdeutsch was then standardized and codified by Jacob Grimm in the early 19th century. The combined results of the work of Luther and Grimm are the admirable logic and simplicity of the German language, in everything save gender.

As to Bühnendeutsch , this refers to pronunciation or accent, not dialect, so is not the same as Hochdeutsch. I have no idea where it comes from, and it does not seem to be from any particular city. Every major city in Germany which I know of has its own peculiar local dialect and furthermore, its own way of speaking Hochdeutsch, which is different from the Bühnensprache or TV German as is usually said nowadays. Highly literate Germans, therefore, may have three ways of talking: in their local dialect, in Hochdeutsch, but with their own local accent, and then auf reinem Hochdeutschen or TV German .

In Switzerland, where I spent a lot of time, hardly anyone speaks reines Hochdeutsch . Even highly literate people speak Hochdeutsch with a heavy local accent. Most of my years in Germany were spent in Munich. I believe that I speak rein Hochdeutsch , and I do pass pretty well for a native speaker, even after long conversations. This is a game I love to play. I pull this off better in northern Germany, however, where the natives detect in my speech a slight Bavarian or Austrian accent (which I cannot hear myself), and are therefore satisfied that I am from the South somewhere (until I make the inevitable mistake in gender of some noun, and they suddenly realize that I am a poseur). In Munich itself, however, I am usually caught out sooner as a foreigner, because what I believe is rein Hochdeutsch is apparently not quite that, and not quite a real Bavarian accent, ergo I am merely a foreign poseur who spent some time in Munich.

Germany is so small, and yet so linguistically diverse very interesting. Russia, by contrast is so vast, and yet the language is extremely uniform, with no dialects at all in widespread usage that I can tell (not counting the various slang vocabularies, which are something different), and only very slight differences in accent. Moscow-St. Petersburg is considered the standard literary language, which is a single form, and everyone from the lowest to the highest social levels speaks very pure and unaccented Bühnenrussisch , if you will. The level of literacy in Russia is extraordinary and at least in the cities there are none of the simplified dialects which prevail in Germany. Probably half of the population of Germany speaks High German only in a kind of simplified, primitive pidgin; in Russia that is not the case. In Moscow, everyone, even taxi drivers and construction workers, can recite Pushkin from memory in gorgeous, nuanced, literary Russian, even if on occasion they speak po-blatnomu among themselves (literally, a la whore , the obscene criminal slang). Language skills in Russia fall off a bit in the villages, but the general level of language ability is extraordinarily high, much higher than any other place I know of. Is that the result of totalitarianism? I do not know. Is China like this? How about Japan? The linguistic diversity of Germany seems to come from the tribal origin of the Teutons. Here is a great article on the subject:

It would do the dialects a great injustice to look at them as "bad" or "corrupted" German. After all, they have seniority: they are linked to the historic tribal sub-structure of the German- speaking people(s) who settled in central Europe and in England (Anglo-Saxons) during the "Völkerwanderung" (migration of nations) around 500 A.D. The major tribes, from N to S, were: the Frisians (Friesen), the Saxons (Sachsen), the Franks (Franken), the Thuringians (Thüringer), the Alemanni (Alemannen) and the Bavarians (Bayern). Each of these tribes developed its own dialect and subdialects. In the course of history, dynastic territorial actions--war, marriage, or inheritance--altered the political borders of the original tribes, but seldom did these acquisitions/losses affect the ethno-linguistic deliniations of the tribes. In the southern part of the German-speaking area, e.g., the Alemanni had settled in what today is: Alsace, Baden, Württemberg, western Bavaria, western Austria, Liechtenstein and two thirds of Switzerland. They formed the duchy (Herzogtum) of Schwaben. Even after 1500 years, the overarching Alemannic dialect base still makes it possible for people in these areas to communicate in their respective subdialects. The visitor in Augsburg--30 miles from München--will be surprised to hear the folks there speak "schwäbisch" rather than "bayerisch," and in Nürnberg and Würzburg it isn't "bayerisch" either, it is "fränkisch" you hear, yet Bavaria is Germany's biggest "Land." The Alemanni in Alsace speak "elsässisch," an Alemannic subdialect, and French. I suppose it is a bit hard for Austrians to swallow the linguistic designation "südbayerisch" (south Bavarian) for their dialects. But let's not forget: most of Austria was settled by Bavarians well over 1000 years ago, hence the legitimacy of the designation.

These examples want to drive home a point: political and ethno-linguistic borders must not necessarily coincide. In the course of history the latter have shown more permanence than the former. The accompanying map of German dialects around 1930 (grayscale 251kb or in color 137KB- better viewed when printed out) illustrates these incongruences. The map is based on the one by Theo van Dorp in Adolf Bach's Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, 9th ed. (Wiesbaden: VMA-Verlag, n.d.), 102. It affords an overview of the three large dialect bands spanning German-speaking Central Europe with each, in turn, showing sub- groups of dialects. From North to South:

  1. NIEDERDEUTSCH (Plattdeutsch, Low German)
    1. Friesisch (Frisian),
    2. Niederfränkisch (Low Franconian),
    3. Niedersächsisch (Low Saxon).

  2. MITTELDEUTSCH (Middle German)
    1. Fränkisch (Franconian): a. Mittelfränkisch (Middle Franconian), Ripuarisch (Ripuarian), Moselfränkisch (Moselle-Franconian); b. Rheinfränkisch (Rhine Franconian).
    2. Thüringisch (Thuringian). 3. Obersächsisch (Upper Saxon),
    3. Schlesisch (Silesian).

  3. OBERDEUTSCH (Upper German, s.t. confused with High German)
    1. Ober-Fränkisch (Upper Franconian): a. Süd-Fränkisch (South Franconian, b. Ostfränkisch (East Franconian).
    2. Alemannisch (Alemannic): a. Schwäbisch (Swabian), b. Niederalemannisch (Low Alemannic), c. Upper Alemannic.
    3. Bayerisch (Bavarian): a. Nord-, b. Mittel-, c. Süd-Bayer isch (North, Middle, South Bavarian).

A phenomenon called "Second or Old High German Soundshift" (Zweite oder Althochdeutsche Lautverschiebung) between the 5th and 9th centuries created the three big dialect bands. It affected especially the consonants p, t, k. In the Upper German area they were shifted, depending on position within a given word, as follows: p to pf, ff; t to s, ss, z, tz; k to ch. Middle German participated to a somewhat lesser degree: a Frankfurter likes his "äppelwoi" (Apple wine), not "Apfelwei(n)." The line separating Upper and Middle German is also referred to as the "Appel/Apfel" line. Low German (including Anglo-Saxon) was not affected by the soundshift at all. The line between Low and Middle German is called the "maken/machen" line. The Low German band of this map shows less differentiation than the Middle and Upper bands, but Mecklenburg, West- and East Pomerania, Brandenburg and East Prussia certainly also have dialect variants of their own. Along the Ruhr River you hear "Westfaelisch", 50 km east of there it is "Ostfaelisch," then Elb-Ostfaelisch. It is a colorful mosaic, that "small" German-speaking area!"


RH. German has many dialects because it developed locally. On the contrary, Russian was carried east much later, just as American English was carried west.

Ronald Hilton - 10/13/02