Just like in other West- and Central European countries the German-speaking region knows two fundamentally different varieties: the spoken and the written language. No changes have occurred here in over 1500 years. The initial situation during the early Middle Ages has been the same everywhere: the lingua franca or written language was Latin, the spoken languages were the vernaculars.
In the Romanic language area the vernaculars basically were forms of vulgar Latin drifting further and further apart. In the area of present day Germany the population spoke closely related dialects of the West Germanic language group: Old High German, Old Low German and Frisian. Until the time of Charlemagne none of theses dialects was written. The intellectuals in those days, monks and priests of the Christian church, communicated in Latin, mostly in writing and on some occasions also verbally.
The first form of a pan-German language, although limited to a small group of art-minded nobles, developed in the High Middle Ages, known today as Middle High German. It is the language of the “Nibelungenlied” and courtly love lyrics, carried from castle to castle by travelling lieder singers. The people living at the foot of theses castles continued to speak their dialects though and these dialects kept drifting apart. Serf or yeoman: the simple folks’ mobility did not extend beyond the next church or the next marketplace. Whatever language idiosyncrasies, pronunciation varieties or fashionable words developed in small regions like these, remained limited to them and had no influence on neighbouring communities. During these times the close-meshed dialect language developed and endured into the past century.
In the late Middle Ages, the dawn of the courtly knight culture also brought about the end of the Middle High German as literary language. With the Renaissance came new developments, eventually resulting in the beginning of the modern standard language. The cities saw middle-class craftsmen become factory owners, simple shopkeepers turning into large-retail merchants. In the rulers’ orderly offices their comprehensive correspondences were not longer processed by monks but by bourgeois officials instead. Neither the merchants nor their clerks knew Latin, so their correspondence was handled in Vernacular. It was then that two written versions of German developed, by the spelling and the vocabulary of different regions slowly assimilating.
Driving this development was the Meißen Electoral Saxon Chancellery in south east Germany, the Imperial Chancellery in Vienna and the correspondence of merchants in the large free cities of Nuremberg or Augsburg. Today this new developing literary language is called Early New High German; it adapted properties of the Franconian, Bavarian and Saxon. In the north, at the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, an independent literary language evolved. The Low German, correspondence language of the Hanse, in its oral basics, complied with the dialects of Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and the Netherlands. With the written standard German and the Low German two written dialects were opposed, over the following centuries eventually developing into normed standard languages: German and Dutch.
During the 17th und 18th century the New High German experienced its first trans-regional standardisation. Grammars and dictionaries were authored and quite effective in regard to a growing standardisation of the „written“ as opposed to the vernacular. It was only in the 20th century when pronunciation dictionaries and especially the media brought about a unification of the standard German pronunciation.
To this day this new standard language did not fully oust the old dialects. With a functional differentiation both varieties exist side by side: Standard German is spoken in situations requiring communication crossing dialect borders. Dialect remains the language of human closeness, of contact with family, friends, within communities, of clubs and regional culture. Two language varieties allocated to specific roles as described here is generally called „diglossia“.
Prerequisite for a functioning diglossia: The speakers have perfect command of both varieties and are able to switch back and forth depending on the situation. There are differences though within the German-speaking region. In North Germany the Low German dialect has been almost extinct. Within the diglossia its function is the colloquial, a phonetically Low German tinted, spoken version of the standard language.
In South Germany many speakers still switch back and forth between several transitional stages of standard language and dialect. An example:
The standard language sentence: „Der Junge wird dieses Jahr eingeschult“ sounds like this in various language stages of the city of Nuremberg
der Bub kommt heuer in die Schule (süddeutsche gesprochene Standardsprache)
dä Buu kummt heuer in die Schull (fränkische Umgangssprache)
dä Buu kummt heier in d’Schull (städtische Mundart Nürnbergs)
dä Bou kummt heier in d’Scholl (Mundart der näheren ländlichen Umgebung Nürnbergs)
In between the language stages indicated here there are multiple transition varieties, spoken by one single speaker according to a given situation.
Mostly or exclusively spoken variety of a language with properties differing from the standardised form of a given language.
The notion „vernacular“ is often used as a synonym for „dialect“.
Rules for pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and spelling of a language.
|Version of a language spoken and/or written in specific regions, social strata, professions or age groups.|
Exclusively spoken version of a language, mostly differing from the standard by simpler grammar and simpler sentence structures but also reminiscent of the dialect spoken in a given region.