Many questions about the German language and its regional varieties cannot be answered without an explanation of the history of the German language. This article attempts to present the basic facts without going into detail; it is therefore often an oversimplification. Some emphasis is placed on language features that can be demonstrated by comparison with the English language. – The author is an amateur in the best and the worst sense of this word. It is hoped that this had led only to more conciseness, but not to more errors.
The Germanic languages departed from the other Indo-European languages by a shift in sounds called the First Germanic Sound Shift, and by other distinguishing features as well. More detail can be found here.
The language we now call German departed from the other Germanic languages (mainly English, Dutch, Scandinavian and the now extinct Gothic) by a shift in sounds called the Second Germanic Sound Shift. Its effect can still be seen by comparing modern German words with their English cognates: pound→Pfund, pipe→Pfeife, hope→hoffen, apple→Apfel, plant→Pflanze, tide→Zeit, cat→Katze, heart→Herz, hate→hassen, make→machen, weak→weich.
The rules for this sound shift are:
p→f, pp→pf, t→ss, tt→ts (written [t]z), k→ch, kk→kch, where initial p, t and k are treated like their geminated counterparts. The p→(p)f shift is quite regular, and so is the t→(t)s shift, which is somewhat blurred by the later differentiation between tz and ss. The k→(k)ch shift, however, is fully in effect only in Swiss German; in standard German and in most of its dialects we find kk (written [c]k) instead of kch. (The characters in square brackets are not written initially in a syllable.)
The Second Sound Shift divides Germany into a smaller Northern part (without the sound shift) and a larger central and Southern part (with the sound shift). The border between the two regions approximates a line passing through Cologne (Köln) and Berlin, but there is a more or less fuzzy region of more than a hundred kilometres width south of that line where the language underwent the Seconds Sound Shift only partially. In Western Germany, for instance, the non-initial -t- (e.g. dat and wat instead of das and was) reaches much farther south than most of the other non-shifted sounds. There are several central German dialects that have neither initial p- nor pf-, but f- instead. The other countries where German is spoken are all south of this line.
Since the part of Germany where there was no Second Sound Shift are the North German Lowlands, their language is called Low German as distinct from High German. Because High German has been the official language even there for quite some time, and because Low German is too different from High German to mix easily with it, this region has become, in fact, bilingual. We even find a two-layered dialect situation: in addition to Low German, the real vernacular of the region, new High German dialects are developing there, in particular in the larger cities. Examples are Berlinisch (Berlin), Missingsch (Hamburg, Kiel, ...), Ruhrpott-Deutsch (Bochum, Dortmund, ...). “Missingsch” has its name from the town Meißen, although Missingsch did certainly not develop there – the connexion between Meißen and High German will become clearer towards the end of this article.
German comes in many dialects which are in general not mutually intelligible. A separate (still rudimentary) Web page by the same author deals with German dialects. Which dialects are to be regarded as separate languages shall not be discussed here. It is reasonable to regard a variety of German as a separate language at least when it is one of the official languages in a country or when it has its own historic development:
Dutch and its Belgian variety Flemish are official languages in the Netherlands and in Belgium; they are closely related to the Low German languages of Germany’s North. Afrikaans which developed out of the Dutch spoken by Dutch settlers, is an official language in South Africa.
Of the languages related to High German, that is, languages that have undergone the Second Sound Shift at least partially, there is only one besides German which has such a status: Luxemburgish (Lëtzebuergesch) is an official language in Luxemburg along with both French and German.
Yiddish, which developed out of Middle High German dialects and is now spoken by several million Jews throughout the world, belongs in the High German language family, too, and has its own interesting history. It is not an official language in any country.
In the last section, the German language was characterised as the language that has undergone the Second Germanic Sound Shift, but nonetheless the term “Low German” was introduced for a language not meeting this criterion. What, then, does “German” mean?
The name “German” (deutsch) denotes at the same time a language and a country. These two notions do not coincide, which leads to some inconsistencies. The Low German areas are said to speak a variety of German because they belong to Germany, and because they have adopted High German as their standard language gradually since the 15th century. Even earlier, High German had occasionally been used in Low Germany as a means of communication across whole Germany, as Berthold of Regensburg (~1210–1272) states: “Also stêt ez umbe di niderlender und umbe oberlender, daz manic niderlender ist, der sich der oberlender sprâche annimet. (It is so with the lowlanders and the highlanders that there are quite some lowlanders using the language of the highlanders.)” In the days of the Hanse, Low German gained much importance in the area of the Baltic sea and in the coastal regions of Germany, but with the decline of the Hanse at the end of the 15th century, High German became increasingly important in the big cities in Germany’s North, a tendency which was intensified by Luther’s High German Bible in the 16th century. – In contrast to this development, the Netherlands, whose language is not much different from Low German, have not belonged to Germany for quite some time and their culture was more oriented to the cities at the sea, where a literature in their own language had developed since the 13th century; they had thus no reason to follow a High German standard. Consequently, the language of the Netherlands is not regarded as a variety of German. It was formerly, however, called diets from the same root as deutsch, hence the English word Dutch; the etymology of this word will be explained below.
For understanding how the country of Germany came into existence, and hence also a common name for its languages, a short look at the early Medieval political map may be helpful. In the 5th century, there were several countries of West Germanic tribes at the Northern edge of the Roman Empire: the kingdoms of the Saxons (Sachsen) at the German North-Sea coast (they invaded also England together with the Anglians, hence “Anglo-Saxon”), of the Franks (Franken) between the rivers Rhine and Weser in North Germany, of the Alamannes (Alamannen) in South-West Germany, of the Burgundians (Burgunder) in Eastern France, and of the Thuringians (Thüringer) in Central Germany between the rivers Weser and Elbe. In the following centuries, the Franks conquered large parts first of the Netherlands, of Belgium and of Northern France and later of Western and Central Germany until the empire reached its final size under Charlemagne, comprising all continental Europe from France to Western Germany and Northern Italy. The empire was then divided among the sons and grandsons of Charlemagne in several treaties in the 9th century, finally leading to a centralised kindom, France, in the West, a more loosely coupled kingdom of dukedoms, Germany, in the East, a similar kingdom of dukedoms, Italy, in the South, and a kingdom, Burgundy, between France and Italy.
The border between France and Germany was more or less the border between the Romance-speaking West and the Germanic-speaking East. Prior to the division of the Frankish empire, the language name “Frankish” meant the local language as distinct from Latin, and quite different languages may have passed under that name. As a result, until today both a Romance language, French, and a couple of High German dialects, Franconian (Fränkisch), carry a name derived from “Frankish”. The word was no longer unique, and another word had to be found for the vernacular of the Germanic East. The new word for the purpose was diutisc with the meaning “belonging to the people”. It derives from a Germanic root meaning “people” (e.g. Old English þeod) which is now lost in most languages (but compare Icelandic þjóð). Interestingly, the oldest preserved mention of diutisc occurs in Latin texts of the 9th century where it appears as a Germanic loanword theodiscus borrowed into Latin; it denoted the local vernacular as distinct from Latin. In some instances it appears even as a Latin translation for Germanic frencisg then still having its original meaning. At the end of the 11th century, the word diutisc is applied for the first time to both the language and the country and slowly gets more and more into use.
The remaining portion of this article deals only with High German as spoken in Germany and the neighbouring countries.