Hochdeutsch - How Germans came to speak one Language

Due to Luther There Is a Homogeneous Written Language

Man and woman with illustrated jumble of letters
It is quite difficutl to understand each other, when different dialects are spoken. Plum Creative - DigitalVision@gettyimages.de

Like many countries, Germany contains numerous dialects or even languages within its different states and regions. And just as many Scandinavians claim, the Danes can’t even understand their own language, many Germans have had similar experiences. When you are from Schleswig-Holstein and visit a small village in deep Bavaria, it is more than likely that you will not understand what the indigenous people are trying to tell you.

The reason is that a lot of what we now call dialects actually derive from separate languages. And the circumstance that Germans have one fundamentally uniform written language is a big help in our communication. There actually is one man we have to thank for that circumstance: Martin Luther.

One Bible for All Believers – One Language for Everyone

As you will know, Luther kicked off the Reformation in Germany, making him one of the central figures of the movement in the whole of Europe. One of the focal points of his clerical belief as opposed to the classic Catholic view was that every participant of a church service should be able to understand what the priest read or quoted from the Bible. Up to that point, Catholic services were usually held in Latin, a language most of the people (especially people who didn't belong to the upper class) did not understand. In protest against widespread corruption within the Catholic Church, Luther drafted ninety-five theses that named many of the wrongdoings Luther had identified.

They were translated into an understandable German and spread all over the German territories. This is usually seen as the trigger of the Reformation movement. Luther was declared an outlaw, and only the patchwork fabric of the German territories provided an environment in which he could hide and live relatively safely.

He then began to translate the New Testament into German.

To be more specific: He translated the Latin original into a mixture of East Central German (his own language) and Upper German dialects. His goal was to keep the text as comprehensible as possible. His choice put speakers of Northern German dialects at a disadvantage, but it seems that this was, language-wise, a general tendency at the time.

The “Lutherbibel” wasn’t the first German Bible. There had been others, none of which could create as much of a fuss, and all of which had been forbidden by the Catholic Church. The reach of Luther’s Bible also benefited from the rapidly expatiating printing presses. Martin Luther had to mediate between translating the “Word of God” (a highly delicate task) and translating it into a language everyone could grasp. The key to his success was that he stuck to spoken language, which he changed where he deemed it necessary in order to maintain high readability. Luther himself said that he was trying to write “living German.”

Luther’s German

But the importance of the translated bible for the German language rested more in the marketing aspects of the work. The immense reach of the book made it a standardizing factor.

Just as we still use some of Shakespeare’s invented words when we speak English, German speakers still use some of Luther’s creations.

The fundamental secret of the success of Luther’s language was the length of the clerical controversies his arguments and translations sparked. His opponents soon felt forced to argue in the language that he composed to counter his statements. And exactly because the disputes went so deep and took so long, Luther’s German was dragged all over Germany, making it a common ground for everyone to communicate in. Luther’s German became the single model for the tradition of “Hochdeutsch” (High German).