Friday, November 17, 2017

Luther and the German Language

Luther und die deutsche Sprache. In yesterday‘s lecture, Professor Lobenstein-Reichmann defended her three theses instead of Martin Luther’s 95:


I. Although frequently claimed: Luther did not invent the German language

II. Luther did not foster a unification of the German language

III. Luther hat dem Volk nicht aufs Maul geschaut (did not look at the peoples‘ mouths). Therefore he was neither a linguistic genius nor a ruffian.


1. In spite of the many dialects, people in German territories understood each other in Frühneuhochdeutsch (Early New High German) well before Luther. The famous Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 saw Luther from Saxony discussing with Alsatian theologians speaking their Alemannic dialect because Philip, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg, their host, did not understand Latin, the lingua franca of the Middle Ages.

The Luther Triangle. The thick horizontal line represents the border between Low and High German dialects
2. Germany‘s linguistic atlas shows that Luther was working in the middle of the German-speaking territory. His German was certainly influenced by the many scholars from all regions sitting with Luther and his wife Käthe (Katharina) at the table for lunch and dinner where the reformer held his famous Tischgespräche (table talks). So he certainly did not write, as one often reads, in Meißen‘s Kanzleistil (office style), although in Hamburg somebody trying to „upgrade“ his Low German elocution with High German words is said to talk missingsch, i. e., meißnerisch.


Luther‘s choice of words was not guided by the most extended distribution pattern. So he proposed the less frequent Lippe (lip) instead of the widespread Lefze (chaps), although the latter word is still known today as the lip of wild animals and jokingly used in the case of humans.


In the case of Geißel (scourge) used by Luther in his German Bible, the Slavic Peitsche (whip) became the winner. In modern language, Geißel is only religiously known or used in a figurative sense.

In his translation of the Bible into German, Luther‘s driving force was instead: How do I best convey the verity of the Gospel? In his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (Epistle about Translation), he clearly states that translation means the transmission of evangelical truth.

3. In his concern for spreading the Gospel, Luther used the German language that he thought was appropriate to the occasion. He always wrote with an eye toward his potential readers. For him language and theology were interlaced.

Here is a nice example: Lieber Bapst, man soll dich bescheissen und an die Sonne setzen und lassen wider trocken werden, dass ich mit gutem gewissen jnen für einen Fartzesel und Gottes feind halten mag. Mich kan er nicht für einen esel halten, denn er weiß, das ich von Gottes sonder gnaden gelerter bin in der Schrifft (Dear pope, one should shit on you, place you in the sun, and let you dry so that with a good conscience I may take you for a farting donkey and God‘s foe. He cannot take me for a donkey for he knows that I am knowledgeable in the Gospel thanks to God‘s special grace).

In olden days Luther’s Bible often was the only book in a Protestant home. The fact that during long winter evenings somebody knowledgeable read some text to all others in the household established a common High German vocabulary during the 18th and 19th centuries.

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