The History of the German Language and Literature
German belongs to the family of Germanic languages that also includes English, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. All these languages go back to the same ancient language, proto-Germanic, which is believed to have originated in Northern and Western Europe around 500 BC. The Germanic tribes that spoke this common ancestor of all Germanic languages spread throughout Europe until the Black Sea, resulting in a diversification of their languages.
In the first century BC their territories were conquered and integrated into the Roman Empire, where Latin was widely spoken. After the decline of the Roman Empire and the transition to Christianity in 312 AD, Germany was divided into countless different states within the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (founded in 800 AD). In all of these states, people spoke local dialects and different varieties of German. Martin Luther’s translation of the Holy Bible into Saxon German in 1500 AD initiated the standardization of the German language and marks the beginning of the modern German period. In addition, the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press spread the German Bible and Luther’s standard German became widely spoken.
In 1870 Germany finally became a nation state. It founded colonies and brought the language to what is today Namibia and Cameroon, as well as to the Western Pacific Islands and the Chinese Shandung Peninsula. All of these colonies had to be given back after Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914-1918).
In 1880 Konrad Duden published the Duden Handbook, a comprehensive collection of grammatical and orthographic rules that was declared the standard definition of the German language. The modern German alphabet features some specialties. Besides the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, there are some additional letters: the umlauts ä, ö, ü, and the ß (the sharp s). German literature has always been a major contributor to the standardization of the language, as well. One of the earliest and most outstanding works is the medieval “Hildebrandslied”. The Modern Period of German literature includes major works by authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in the 18th and early 19th century. Other exponents of 19th century German literature include Heinrich Heine, Heinrich von Kleist and August Wilhelm Schlegel. The 20th century saw many German Nobel prize winners, including Gerhart Hauptmann, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, Elias Canetti, Günter Grass (author of “Die Blechtrommel” – “The in Drum”).
Austria’s linguistic history is also distinct. The Duchy of Austria had been under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty since 1278. Later, Hungary and Bohemia were part of the Austrian Duchy. Austria achieved its heyday under the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1867 and 1918, when its realm included large expanses of Central and Eastern Europe. At that time, the languages spoken in Austria-Hungary included German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, Polish, Ukranian, Rusyn (an Eastern Slavic language), Romanian and Italian. The Habsburg reign came to an end at the end of World War I in 1918 when Austria’s territory was essentially reduced to the German-speaking regions of the former Empire. Famous Austrian writers, many of them of Jewish descent, include Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Robert Musil, Franz Werfel, Franz Kafka, Georg Trakl, and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Bertha von Suttner, a writer of social novels, won the 1905 Nobel Prize for Peace for her novel “Die Waffen nieder” (Lay down your arms.) Other 20th century authors include Ilse Aichinger, Ingeborg Bachmann, H.C. Artmann, Heimito von Doderer and Elfriede Jelinek.
Since the 13th century, Switzerland consisted of an alliance of different communities in the central Alps which formed the “Old Confederacy”. For a long time, the alliance kept its independence from the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation. In 1798 the Confederacy was conquered by the French and turned into the Helvetian Republic. In 1815 the country gained independence again. In 1848 Switzerland adopted a democratic Federal Constitution that was revised in 1891 and is still valid in its basic features today. Today Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Famous Swiss-German authors include Johann Rudolf, Gottfried Keller, Hermann Hesse, Johanna Spyri (famous for her children’s stories, including “Heidi”). Erich von Däniken became known world-wide for his books about potential extraterrestrial influences on early human civilizations.