review of _German: Biography of a Language_

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 9 14:37:18 UTC 2010

In _The Economist_ at

Here are the headers and first 2 paragraphs.

The German language
Das Lied der Deutschen
A new history of German shows how it came to be, and how it could have been

Aug 5th 2010

German: Biography of a Language. By Ruth H. Sanders. Oxford University
Press; 248 pages; $29.95 and £17.99.

MOST people regard grammar books and dictionaries as a codified set of rules
prescribing dos and don’ts. For professional scholars of language, though,
they are more like history books. Languages are constantly in flux, but it
takes a rather long view to show just what a contingent and transitory thing
a language can be at any point in time. Ruth Sanders, a professor of German
Studies at Miami University in Ohio, takes just such a view in her new book,
telling the millennia-long story of German and how it got that way.

Ms Sanders neatens the history by choosing six turning points to trace the
development of German or, more accurately, the Germanic languages. During
the third millennium BC, speakers of Proto-Indo-European reached most of
Europe. Ms Sanders’s biography ranges widely over not just linguistics, but
also over archaeology and genetic history to tell the story of these
prolific Indo-Europeans and their languages; an eighth of this slim book has
passed before the reader first encounters the first Germanic-speakers (on
the coasts of Denmark). No one knows what made the Germanic language branch
off from the Indo-European family. Whether the pre-existing population in
Scandinavia influenced it, or if it had already branched off when it
arrived, is hard to say for certain at this distance. But Ms Sanders does
usefully correct a common misconception. Languages do not usually spread
because newcomers replace indigenous peoples. Rather, those already there
often take up the new settlers’ tongue.

Mark A. Mandel

The American Dialect Society -

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