700 words on… how languages change and evolve

Interested in how the German language evolved? Linguistics may be for you...

The interesting thing to wonder now is how it’s going to continue to develop and evolve in my lifetime.

When I started learning German I was aware that I was learning a variation called ‘Hochdeutsch’ or High German. I had heard of ‘Plattdeutsch’ (Low German) but I wasn’t sure how it was different and why it wasn’t the German language I was learning. I finally found out when I took a module called the introduction to German linguistic studies in my first year at university, and suddenly became enlightened about the languages family tree and the sound shifts which shaped the German we know and use today.

German, along with English and Dutch, is part of a branch on the West-Germanic side of the Indo-European tree; the language family tree. The Indo-European tree shows how languages group together and interlink with one another, and also how they can all be traced back to the same language: Proto-Indo-European (PIE). However, there are no definitive forms of PIE so linguists have had to examine other languages in an attempt to recreate it. So, as all languages evolved from PIE, it’s only natural that they continue to evolve in their own ways which explains how we ended up with Low and High German nowadays.

But it wasn’t a simple evolution. The changes in German language were the result of two sound shifts. Die erste Lautverschiebung (first sound shift) was in 500 BC and it took three to four generations to change completely. In this sound shift ‘d’ became ‘t,’ ‘b’ became ‘p’ and ‘g’ became ‘k.’ For example, the Latin word for ‘day’ is ‘dies’ and the German word is ‘Tag.’ 1

The second sound shift shook the German language more than the first. It occurred between 500 and 800 AD 2 and changed the spoken language in North and South Germany. In this sound shift:

  • ‘t’ turned to ‘s’ - eg water to wasser
  • ‘p’ became ‘f’ – eg schlapen to schlafen
  • ‘k’ changed to ‘ch’ – eg cook to kuch.

The lasting result of the second sound shift was the initial divide that led to Hochdeutsch being spoken in Central and Southern Germany, setting these areas apart from Northern Germany in terms of the language they spoke.

So this was great. After learning German for four years prior to university I finally discovered how the variants came about by taking a module on German linguistics! But there was more to it than just two sound shifts. The Benrath Line is the isogloss, which divides whereabouts the two sound shifts affected Germany and is so-called because it runs through the town of Benrath. It isn’t a straight line as it fans out at the end; known as der Rheinischer Fächer (the Rhenish Fan) 3. This linguistic boundary shows Plattdeutsch is spoken in North Germany, and Hochdeutsch in Central and Southern Germany. The Benrath Line also represents the difference in spelling and pronunciation since the second sound shift between the two deutschs. Plattdeutsch developed different spellings to Hochdeutsch, eg, ick, maken and appel instead of ich, machen and apfel.

Although this linguistic boundary is not actually visible on the ground, it does, however, demonstrate the difference in dialects. Nowadays the separation is not so clearcut. Many factors have led to the smudging of the line, partly due to the relocation of refugees to West Germany during World War Two and the relocation and general movement of people living in Germany, but also partly due to the media and education. Many programmes in Germany are broadcast nationwide and therefore must be shown in Hochdeutsch so that everyone understands. All education, formal letter writing and documents are in Hochdeutsch too which is why it is the version of German that we learn.

So the evolution from Proto-Indo-European, the sound shifts and the Benrath line have led to parts of Germany either speaking Hochdeutsch or Plattdeutsch. Over time, Plattdeutsch has become a dialect spoken at home and among friends as it is not the language used in education or the media. However, all Germans are able to understand, communicate and write Hochdeutsch, it just might not be their language of choice in an informal situation.

This module was really interesting as it showed me how German has evolved into the language that I was learning and studying. From looking at where the German language has stemmed from right up to how it had become the language we know today, the interesting thing to wonder now is how it’s going to continue to develop and evolve in my lifetime.

If you enjoyed reading this article, the study of linguistics may appeal to you, in particular linguistics relating to the language you are learning rather than English.

Wolfgang Eichler, Sprachdidaktik Deutsch (Wilhelm Fink 1974) p244

Patrick Stevenson, The German Speaking World (Routledge 1997) p67

Patrick Stevenson, The German Speaking World (Routledge 1997) p72