German Language History

Improve your knowledge of German language history with these quick facts. You will learn how and where the German language originated, how it developed and where German is currently spoken.

German Language History

How did the German language originate?

The Germanic languages, part of the Indo-European language family, developed in North-West Europe and Scandinavia (excluding Finland). They are characterised principally by having undergone consonant changes known as the First Germanic Sound Shift - for details, please refer to ‘Grimm’s Law’.

Modern German derives from the West Germanic sub-division of the Germanic languages, a group which includes not only present-day German but also English, Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans.

How did the German language develop?

Two thousand years ago there was no standard or written German language, only a series of spoken dialects. By the time of the earliest written documents in the 9th and 10th centuries (mainly from monasteries), a clear division had emerged between the Low German dialects of North-West Germany (and also the other West Germanic languages) on the one hand, and the High German dialects in Central and Southern Germany on the other.

Please note: the terms High and Low here are geographical – relating to dialects spoken in the more hilly areas and the northern plains of Germany respectively; they are not value judgements!

Broadly speaking, the Low German dialects of that period are known collectively as Old Saxon, whereas those from further south are called Old High German. The difference was that the High German dialects had undergone the consonant changes of the Second or High German Sound Shift (in German: Die Zweite oder Hochdeutsche Lautverschiebung), a change which did not affect the Low German dialects (or Dutch or Anglo-Saxon).

Old High German eventually became the basis of the modern standard German language, many of its features being incorporated into Luther’s 16th century translation of the Bible into German, which helped to standardise the written language.

Where is the German language spoken nowadays?

The German language is spoken in Germany, Austria, most of Switzerland, Alto Adige (former Austrian South Tirol) in Italy, and in the Eastern Belgian districts of Eupen, Malmedy and St.Vith. Some older people also speak it in Alsace-Lorraine in France.

*I would like to thank Ian Hutchings, friend and former senior lecturer in German Language at Oxford Brookes University, for writing this section on German language history. 

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