German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language after English and it is an official language in several central and eastern European countries. There are, of course, regional differences, variations, and dialects, but the standard German is more or less understood in any German-speaking area. But how did the German language evolve? Today we are going to have a closer look at a certain point in the history of this language.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, central Europe was part of the Holy Roman Empire with Catholicism as its official religion under the authority of the Pope. Serious dispute with the Roman church’s practices led Martin Luther, a monk and professor of theology, to write his 95 theses that initiated the 1517 Reformation. However, Luther’s disagreement did not lay only in religious matters. He also criticised the use of Latin language in preaching because it was a language only the educated could understand. As the clergy insisted on using Latin, ordinary people were not able to fully understand the word of God.
Martin Luther wanted the German population to have access to the Holy Book’s message so, to achieve this, he translated the Bible in German. Of course, he was not the first to do that. Others before him had translated the Bible in some of the various German dialects that were spoken in the area. However, what was new about Luther’s translation was that he wrote it in a form that every German speaker could understand, no matter which dialect they spoke in.
His own linguistic background was the main reason behind that. Martin Luther grew up in the region of Saxony, an area where he got familiar with and fluent in different German dialects as well as in colloquial language, so he knew how to translate a text in a way that could be comprehensible by a large number of German speakers. Apart from blending dialects, he composed the text in simple language, the language of everyday conversation in the streets and homes using everyday expressions. This way, the Bible’s message could reach ordinary people.
This was revolutionary in itself, but let’s not forget that it was also a time of technological advancement. The printing press, which was introduced less than a century before, allowed Luther’s Bible to be published in many copies. In addition, the political situation in the region was such that the German language was becoming more and more popular and the need for German publication was increasing, helping Luther’s ideas disseminate easily.
And so did the language that he used. Luther’s German spread widely to the German speaking world and shaped the version we speak today. That’s how Martin Luther contributed not only to the religious reform but the linguistic, too.
• Luther, Martin, Le petit Larousse, 2003, Paris, p. 1499, ISBN 2-03-530203-X
• Patrick Cox, ‘Martin Luther didn’t just reform the church, he reformed the German language’, 2015, pri.org [online here], retrieved on 24/10/2018
• Lucy Proudman, ‘How Luther gave Germans a language everyone could use’, 2018, thelocal.de [online here], 24/10/2018
• German language, Wikipedia, [online here], 24/10/2018
Written by Olga Vamvaka – Terminology trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She holds a BA in International Relations and Organisations, an MA in Translation, and has worked in language teaching. She speaks Greek, English, Czech and French.