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GE11: Aspects of the History of the German Language

This paper is available for the academic year 2016-17.

Every student of German as a foreign language runs into questions which the language teacher can only answer by saying 'Because that's how it is'. Why is the plural of Tag Tage, while the plural of Nacht is Nächte and the plural of Wort is Wörter? Why is the past tense of singen sang, when the past tense of bringen is brachte? If we compare German with English, how can we account for the correspondence we find in Pfeffer-pepper, Pfeife-pipe, Pfad-path, but not in Pilger-pilgrim or Partei-party? Why do some words which have the same form not have the same meaning, like weil and while or klein and clean? Why does German still have gender, when English does not? The only intellectually satisfying way to explore these issues is to look at the development of the German language in the past, considering both continuity – shared features between German and related languages – and variation and change. Drawing on data derived from a close analysis of texts from earlier periods and varieties of German, we can consider innovations like the role of Umlaut in phonology and morphology, the development of future marking and the fixing of the V2 word order pattern.

This paper may be taken as a follow-up to Ge7, German: A Linguistic Introduction, or as a stand-alone paper. It will complement the borrowed Germanic Philology paper, the papers on the history of any of the other languages offered in the Faculty, or the general Historical Linguistics paper. It also gives an overview of German language through culture which would make it a good foil for any of the literary or historical papers in Part II German.

For students from other triposes who wish to take this paper, a good reading knowledge of German is required (at least AS-level or equivalent).



The paper is structured around four thematic areas. In 2016–17, those themes will be distributed as follows:

Michaelmas Term

Improvement and Improvers: the Sprachgesellschaften of the 17th Century and their successors

Morphosyntactic Change in the History of German


Lent Term

Old High German and Old Saxon

Standardization, Purism and Sprachkritik since the 19th century


 1. Improvement and Improvers: from the Sprachgesellschaften to Gottsched

The seventeenth century saw a decisive development towards linguistic modernity: German began to be the primary language of the written word, replacing Latin. Men of letters were quickly aware that German lacked the vocabulary and the rhetorical structures to be the equal of Latin, or indeed of other European vernaculars: yet at the same time they formulated theories about the antiquity and purity of German, and argued that the language was worthy of being developed and improved in order to be fit for new purposes. They therefore formed societies, gentlemen’s clubs with the language as their focus, to promote writing on and in German, and to clamp down on the use of foreign, particularly French, words.  All the most prominent seventeenth-century writers were members – Gryphius, Opitz, Zesen, Moscherosch and many more. The patriotism of the societies has been mocked, but it needs to be understood in the context of the difficult period of the Thirty Years’ War and its aftermath.  Besides, this period witnessed genuine achievements in producing teaching materials, grammars and dictionaries of German, and developing an understanding of the history, variety and structure of the language. These formed a basis on which the more rational grammarians and lexicographers on the Enlightenment, above all Gottsched, could build.

This module will examine the role of the language societies in developing German towards a written standard, looking at grammatical and lexicographic works, at the growing interest in and understanding of the history of German, and at the early moves towards selection of a variety on which to base standardization of the language.

Introductory reading

  • Haß-Zumkehr, Ulrike (2001) Deutsche Wörterbücher. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.
  • Jones, William Jervis (1995) Sprachhelden und Sprachverderber. Dokumente zur Erforschung des Fremwortpurismus im Deutschen (1478-1750) . Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.
  • Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy (1992 2nd ed.) Authority in language : investigating language prescription and standardisation. London: Routledge.
  • Padley, G.A. (1988) Grammatical theory in Western Europe 1500-1700. Trends in vernacular grammar II. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Polenz, Peter von (1994) Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. Bd. II 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.


2. Morphosyntactic Change in the History of German

The historical development of German grammar is outlined in a series of longitudinal studies looking at the whole span of the history of the language, supported with material available in digital corpora as well as print text collections. The key topics are auxiliaries and the rise of the two-verb phrase; the marking of number, gender and case in the noun phrase; negation, and V2 and the verbal brace. The reasons why German is generally less grammatically innnovative than related languages such as English and Dutch are explored, and there is an opportunity to look at closely related languages and dialects to see how some changes are favoured while others (such as the do-auxiliary) are not. This discussion dovetails with the overall topic of standardization which is a key element in topic areas 1 and 4.  

Introductory reading

  • Axel, Katrin (2007) Studies on Old High German Syntax. Left sentence periphery, verb placement and verb-second. John Benjamins: Amsterdam.
  • Besch, Werner and Norbert Richard Wolf (2009) Geschichte der deutschen Sprache. Längsschnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien. Berlin: Erich Schmidt.
  • Jäger, Agnes (2008) History of German negation. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
  • Nübling, Damaris (2000) Prinzipien der Irregularisierung. Eine kontrastive Analyse von zehn Verben in zehn germanischen Sprachen. Niemeyer: Tübingen.
  • Nübling, Damaris, Antje Dammel, Janet Duke and Renata Szczepaniak (2006)  Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen. Eine Einführung in die Prinzipien des Sprachwandels. Tübingen: Narr.
  • Szczepaniak, Renata (2009) Grammatikalisierung im Deutschen. Eine Einführung. Narr: Tübingen.


3. Old High German & Old Saxon

This section focuses on the earliest stage of German, considering the regional and temporal diversity of the period from 800- 1000. We look at the representation of key sound changes in the earliest forms of written German, at the contrast between inheritance and innovation in German morphology, and at the emergence of charactieristic word order patterns. These phenomena are illustrated through data from a wide range of early texts, looking particularly at early religious texts which allow a comparison between different regions, including northern texts in Old Saxon. Text classes enable the study of longer texts in Old High German.

Introductory reading

  • Bostock, J. Knight. 1976. A Handbook on Old High German Literature. Oxford: OUP.
  • Braune, Wilhelm.1994. (17th ed.). Althochdeutsches Lesebuch. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Braune, Wilhelm and Ingo Reiffenstein. 2004 (17th ed.). Althochdeutsche Grammatik 01. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Fischer, Hanns. 1966. Schrifttafeln zum althochdeutschen Lesebuch. Tübingen : Niemeyer. (S760.a.96.3 - order to West Room)
  • Gerdes, Udo and Gerhard Spellerberg. 1972. Althochdeutsch - Mittelhochdeutsch. Grammatischer Grundkurs zur Einführung und Textlektüre. Frankfurt: Fischer.
  • Meineke, Eckhard and Judith Schwerdt. 2001. Einführung in das Althochdeutsche. Paderborn: Schöningh.
  • Schrodt, Richard. 2004. Althochdeutsche Grammatik II. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Sonderegger, Stefan. 1987. Althochdeutsche Sprache und Literatur. Berlin: de Gruyter.


4. Standardization, Purism and Sprachkritik since the 19th century

The 19th century has long been neglected in German linguistic historiography as a consequence of the widely-held view that standardization had already been accomplished by the end of the 18th century, and that after the grammar of Gottsched and dictionary of Adelung, there was little left to be done. More recently, though, the concept of Sprachgeschichte von unten introduced by Stefan Elspaß has cast a new light on the linguistic and national debates of the 19th century, when industrialization, urbanization and the spread of literacy to all sectors of society created clashes over the role of the German language in the creation of a unified national identity. From the late 19th century to the present, the German language has at times become a political football, with a strong tradition of journalistic and academic Sprachkritik challenging the role of loanwords, changes in spelling, and prescription vs. description in the widest sense. We will focus on discourse about German as a standard language, though purism in lexicography from Campe to the Anglizismus-Index, notions of ‘correct spelling’ from the late nineteenth century to the present, and the current disaster–narrative of the position of German in globalization.

Introductory reading

  • Davies, Winifred (2009) 'Standard German in the Nineteenth Century', in: Landmarks in the History of the German Language, ed. G. Horan, N. Langer and S.Watts. Bern, etc.: Peter Lang.
  • Eichhoff-Cyrus, Karin and Rudolf Hoberg (eds.). 2000. Die deutsche Sprache zur Jahrtausendwende. Sprachkultur oder Sprachverfall? Mannheim, etc.: Dudenverlag.
  • Elspaß S. (2005), Sprachgeschichte von unten. Untersuchung zum geschriebenen Alltagsdeutsch im 19 Jahrhundert, Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Gardt, Andreas and Bernd Hüppauf (eds.) (2004) Globalization and the Future of German. Berlin : Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Johnson, Sally. 2005. Spelling trouble? Language, ideology and the reform of German orthography. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Limbach, Jutta. (2008) Hat Deutsch eine Zukunft? Unsere Sprache in der globalisierten Welt. Munich: C.H.Beck.
  • Mattheier, K. J. (2000), 'Die Durchsetzung der deutschen Hochsprache im 19. und beginnenden 20. Jahrhundert: sprachgeographisch, sprachsoziologisch', in: Sprachgeschichte. Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung,, edited by W. Besch, A. Betten, O. Reichmann and S. Sonderegger, vol. 2.2, 2nd, completely revised ed., Berlin and New York: de Gruyter. 1951-66.
  • Mattheier, K. J. (2003), 'German', in: Germanic Standardizations. Past to present, edited by A. Deumert, and W. Vandenbussche, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 211-44.
  • Polenz, P. von (1999) Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. Bd III: 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.
  • Sick, Bastian (2004 and later volumes). Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod. Ein Wegweiser durch den Irrgarten der deutschen Sprache. Hamburg/Köln: Spiegel Online and Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
  • Wiese, Heike (2012). Kiezdeutsch: Ein neuer Dialekt entsteht. Beck.
Preparatory reading: 

See reading lists above.


Teaching and learning: 

The teaching for this paper is delivered via a weekly lecture, supplemented with a weekly text class in the Lent Term. Supervisions are held fortnightly throughout the year.

For the Ge.11 Moodle site, please see here. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator. 



The examination is divided into five sections, one for each topic area and a general section. Candidates answer a total of three questions, taking each from a different section.

A specimen examination paper can be seen here.

For students wishing to offer an optional dissertation to replace this paper, topics may be considered which focus on any period in the history of German, or which compare standard German and any of its varieties, or which incorporate a comparison with closely related languages such as Dutch. Any theoretical approach which is established within linguistics may be adopted. 

Course Contacts: 
Dr Sheila Watts