[lg policy] book review: Das Lied der Deutschen: A new history of German shows how it came to be, and how it could have been

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Sep 7 15:56:03 UTC 2010

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

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.

The next turning point was courtesy of Arminius, also known as
“Hermann the German”, a Roman-trained soldier; in 9AD he stopped a
Roman advance eastward across the Rhine. At the battle of Teutoburg
forest, the troublesome locals ambushed three Roman legions. As a
result, the Roman borders, known as “limes” (from which comes the word
“limits”) stopped at the Rhine. Whereas the Germanics took up as many
Roman ways of life as they could afford, they never took up their
language as the conquered—primarily Celtic—people of France and Spain
had. Germanic marauders would later devastate the empire itself, but
in another twist, those who settled in Italy, Gaul and Spain did in
fact begin speaking Late Latin. Arminius had saved a bit of the map
for German.

At another of Ms Sanders’s turning points, the Germanic dialects had
split into High (mountainous, southern) and Low (northern, flatland)
varieties, giving modern (High) German ich, for example, while old
Anglo-Saxon had ic and Dutch, ik. Perhaps the most celebrated turning
point in the history of the German language is the work of another
rebel against Rome, Martin Luther. His belief in salvation through
personal faith alone, not the intermediation of the Church, led him to
violate a longstanding prohibition on translating the Bible into
vernacular languages. Luther had to compromise between the many
different “Germans” that filled the German lands in those days,
hundreds of years before there was a single German state (the creation
of which is Ms Sanders’s fifth turning point). Luther borrowed an
emerging standard used by the Holy Roman Empire, “chancellery German”,
as a base with some currency in different regions.

Luther’s genius was to infuse his translation with the words he heard
on the street in his bit of Saxony, in east-central Germany. He
obsessively asked friends and fellow scholars which dialectal words
would be most widely understood. The common touch was so successful
that a Catholic opponent complained that “even tailors and
shoemakers…read it with great eagerness.” It was the bestseller of the
century and remains the most popular German translation. Rarely has a
single man had such a mark on a language. The German of Luther’s Bible
was nobody’s native language in his day. Today it is so universal that
it threatens Germany’s once-vibrant dialects with death by

Ms Sanders’s work contains some disappointments. Occasionally she
reintroduces the same fact as if it were new. And with under 250 pages
to tell her tale, there is little room to spare. There are no examples
of the earthy Saxonisms that Luther made into today’s standard German.
Ms Sanders reports that the Latin theodiscus is the first mention of
German’s name for itself (Deutsch), but not where theodiscus comes
from. (The answer is that theud was a Germanic root meaning “people”,
so that Deutsch meant “Peoplish” to its speakers.) The chronological
tables contain more errors than they should. The last turning point,
German’s cultural revival after two crushing world wars, feels too

Ms Sanders’s book is a biography, not of the modern German language
proper, but of the Germanic languages and the people who speak them.
She takes in the development of Yiddish, Dutch, Icelandic and of
course English, as well as others. As such it is an ingenious telling
of just how German emerged from the primordial Germanic soup, and how
many other ways it could have been if, say, Luther had been born 100
miles farther north. For all its flaws, this is an enjoyable yet
still-scholarly read for the historian, linguist and Germanophile
alike. It would be a fine thing to have more such brief histories,
made easily readable to the non-specialist, of the major world


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