From Kaiser to cheese and biology – the etymology of German words | cultural | Report on arts, music and lifestyle in Germany | DW

“The German language is well-traveled, well-connected and happy to keep up – this is a great example of successful integration”, the authors of “The Extraordinary Story of Our Words”, published by the Duden publishing house . , write in the preface to the new book. Indeed, language purists might rub their eyes in amazement reading how many words have entered the German language not just in Europe, but from around the world.

Germans and Romans

Researchers have found that the original Proto-German language originated around 8000 BC in Asia Minor. It then developed into what is known as Indo-Germanic: today, about half of humanity speaks a language that goes back to it. Germanic as such crystallized only in the 2nd millennium BC in northern Europe, where different tribes formed a cultural group with a similar language.

Over time they migrated south and inevitably encountered the Romans. The Roman Empire was an advanced civilization at the time, and the Germanic peoples picked up many achievements and techniques, as well as Latin terminology, which was assimilated.

Caesar became “Kaiser” in German

What is presumably the oldest loanword in Latin dates back to Gaius Julius Caesar, the Roman general who conquered the region of Gaul (now France and Belgium) in the first century BC. The word “Caesar” for ruler became “Kaiser” (emperor). The Romans were also ingenious builders: “Mauer” (wall) from murus and “Fenster” (window), from the Latin word fenestra, also entered the Germanic language. The Nordic tribes ate and used the words for the many specialties that the Romans brought with them, including “Kirsche” (cherry, Latin ceresia), “Zwiebel” (onion) – the Romans called vegetable cepulla -, “Käse” (cheese , Latin caseus) and “Wein” (wine, Latin is vinum).

In turn, the Romans borrowed words from the Greeks, which were highly developed and eloquent in everyday culture, philosophy, and literature. And so, via Latin, ancient Greek words were later often adopted into Germanic or German, including “Kirche” (church, Greek kyriakon) and “Biology” (Greek biology, bios and logos).

Latin, dialect, borrowings

The Germanic tribes, however, were far from having any sort of unified language. The tribes spoke Frankish, Alemannic or Bavarian; Latin was the language of the church and the administration and, to make the confusion total, there was a mixture of all the languages.

Portrait of Cosimo de' Medici

German merchants had strong ties to Italy

In the 13th century, the bourgeoisie, with its crafts and trades, became more powerful. Their close ties with Italian merchants led to the adoption of a large number of Italian words in the 15th and 16th centuries. People went to the bank (banco: long table of the money changer), deposited their capital (capital) there and hoped never to go bankrupt (banca rotta – the broken table of the money changer).

German merchants also had close trade relations with the Orient – words like coffee, alcohol and sugar came from Arabic. In the 16th century, ships brought goods from newly discovered America – native words like chocolatl and tomatl became Schokolade (chocolate) and Tomate (tomato).

German Bible, French customs

The translation of the Bible into German by Martin Luther in 1522 had the greatest influence on the development of the German language at the time. The reformer tried to write in a clear and understandable way. He “looked into people’s mouths”, as he put it. Thanks to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450, Luther’s Bible was widely distributed. The language of science, however, remained Latin – German dialects were considered vulgar.

 Palace of Versailles in the background, fountain with a figure in front

The Germans tried to copy the French way of life

After France won the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and extended its supremacy in Europe, French became the familiar language of the upper social classes. German was spoken only by commoners, craftsmen and peasants. And even they would use the French word strange, like parquet, appointment and wardrobe, to appear educated.

Language purists feared moral decline

Seventeenth-century language purists objected to the flood of fashionable foreign words. On August 24, 1617, the first language society was founded in Weimar, named “Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft” (Fruitful Society). Its members were firmly convinced that a decline of the language would inevitably endanger indigenous customs, virtues and traditions. 150 years later, poets revered abroad, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, have made the German language flourish again. But even they used foreign phrases and words.

A new era

The industrial revolution provided a whole new chapter of word creations. The French term “industrie” which originally meant “assiduité, assiduité” took on a unique meaning.

People working in a steel factory

The industrial revolution brought changes and a new vocabulary

The critique of capitalism by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels followed on its heels, including words like communism (from communis: common), proletariat (proletarius: member of the lowest class) or socialism (socialis: social).

Desire for a unified language

Germans were increasingly unhappy about not having a unified nation-state – but at least, the thinking went, they could aim for a common language. Chairs of German studies were created in universities at the beginning of the 19th century. Language guides, including the Brothers Grimm’s German Dictionary of 1854 and the Duden Orthography of 1880, provided direction.

In 1871, the German Empire was founded, but despite everything, foreign words slipped into the language. When the Nazis took power in 1933, they backtracked and avoided foreign words. Some terms have been stylized, notably “Volk” (people). The “people as a whole” takes precedence over everything else, everyone must serve the “well-being of the people”. Most Germans owned a Volksempfänger radio, and those who could afford it bought a Volkswagen.

different paths

After World War II, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, West Germany and East Germany respectively, were founded in 1949. Again, the language reflected the realities : West Germans admired the American way of life, and many English words found their way into the language, including management, make-up, and LPs. East Germans resorted to Russian words like “dacha” (small country house) and coined ideologically influenced terms like “workers’ and peasants’ state” and “anti-fascist protective wall” (for the Berlin Wall ).

 Goebbels und Glasmeyer, other people in the background, at a trade fair in 1939, radio set on the left

Most German households owned the affordable Volksempfänger (popular receiver) radio

Political, social and technical developments were reflected in the language over the following decades, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to recycling in times of climate change. The computer age has also given Germans many everyday technical terms that were unthinkable in the 1980s: from browser (to browse) to download to e-mail.

Peaceful coexistence

The new book Duden points out that people concerned about the German language should realize that it has coexisted peacefully with foreign words for thousands of years. “Our German-speaking elderly lady lives entirely by the motto ‘You never stop learning’ and exhibits a stylistically confident attitude,” according to the book. “While the vocabulary experiences a very dynamic development, the grammar shows proof of stability and perseverance and takes even bold creations under its structuring wing.”

This article has been translated from German.

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