Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Language Profile: German

Guten Tag! This week we're looking at German, an Indo-European language which has over 120 million native speakers. German is the most widely-spoken native language in the European Union, and is an official language in Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Belgium and last but not least, Germany! It is also a recognized regional language in several countries, including the Czech Republic, Denmark and Namibia.

The geographic distribution of German in the European Union...
the darker the color, the larger the percentage of the population
that speaks the language.

German is a pluricentric language, which means that it has several standard versions. Standard German is the name given to the written language, but it has three different national varieties specific to Austria, Switzerland and Germany. However, they differ only slightly in pronunciation and vocabulary, as well as occasional grammatical differences. Standard German was developed over hundreds of years as writers attempted to be understood by as many people as possible.

German is written in the Latin alphabet and uses the same 26 letters as English, another Germanic language. In addition, it has the consonant ß (pronounced [s] in IPA) and three vowels with umlauts: ä, ö and ü. Umlaut is a linguistic term that refers to a historical shift in vowel pronunciations. Umlaut occurred in English as well (think of man - men and mouse - mice), but it was decided to just write down different vowels instead of putting those lovely little dots over the letters like in German!

It is uniquely German to capitalize all nouns, which makes it much easier to determine the function of words in sentences. It is also known to be frustratingly difficult to learn, largely because of the high frequency of long compound words. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest published word in the German language is 79 letters long. Translated into English,
Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft means "association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services"... what a mouthful! The longest word that is actually considered to be in use (very, very limited use) is Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, which is "beef labelling supervision duty assignment law" when literally translated! Which could be more playfully translated as "what's your beef?"...

"Don't talk to me about beef labelling supervision duty assignment law!"

Another little-known fact about German is that the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the most comprehensive dictionary of the language, was written by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s. Yes, we mean the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, whose collections of folklore remain incredibly popular to this day. Disney probably owes a vast majority of its wealth to them... the brothers popularized several of the stories their most successful films were based on, including Snow WhiteCinderella and The Frog Prince.

We're going to guess that perhaps dictionary is one of
those German compound words... word + book, anyone?
It just so happens that Jacob and Wilhelm were also academics and linguists. They began to write their German dictionary in 1838, with entries that included the etymology, meanings, synonyms, usage, and regional differences of words. It was a huge undertaking... it first began to be published in installments in 1852, and work on it wasn't even finished during their lifetimes because they did such a thorough analysis of each word! We guess they're not so efficient after all!

Auf Wiedersehen!