German is one of the main cultural languages of the Western world, spoken by approximately 100 million people. It is the national language of both Germany and Austria, and is one of the four official languages of Switzerland. Additionally it is spoken in eastern France, in the region formerly known as Alsace-Lorraine, in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige, and also in eastern Belgium, Luxembourg, and the principality of Liechtenstein. There are about 1 1/2 million speakers of German in the United States, 500,000 in Canada, and sizable colonies as well in Argentina, Brazil, and such far flung countries as Namibia and Kazakhstan. In Switzerland High German is used in formal settings, but Swiss German, a distinctly different dialect, is used in everyday speech.
Like the other Germanic languages, German is a member of the Indo - European family. Written German is quite uniform, but spoken dialects vary considerably, sometimes to the point where communication becomes a problem. The dialects fall within two general divisions: High German (Hochdeutsch), spoken in the highlands of the south, and Low German (Plattdeutsch), spoken in the lowlands of the north. In the Middle Ages Low German was the language of the Hanseatic League and served as a lingua franca over much of northern Europe. An important step in the evolution of a literary standard was Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into East Central German, a dialect that stood roughly midway between those of the north and south.
Today High German is the standard written language, used almost exclusively in books and newspapers, even in the regions where Low German is more commonly spoken. Low German more closely resembles English and Dutch, as may be seen by such words as Door (door – High German, ur), and eten (to eat – High German, essen).
Traditionally German was written in a Gothic style known as Fraktur, which dates from the 14th century. In the period following World War II, however, Fraktur was largely superseded by the Roman characters used throughout the rest of Western Europe. The Roman script used to contain an additional letter, the ß or double s, used only in the lower case (e.g., heiß – hot), but this was abolished in the spelling reform that took effect in 1998. The letter j is pronounced y (ja – yes), v is pronounced f (vier – four), and w is pronounced v (weiss – white). Diphthongs include sch, pronounced sh (Schnee – snow); st, pronounced sht (Strasse – street); and sp, pronounced shp (sprechen – to speak). The only diacritical mark is the umlaut, which appears over the letters a, o, and u (Rucken – back). German is the only language in which all nouns begin with a capital letter.
Since English is a Germanic language, it is not surprising to find a high degree of similarity in the vocabulary of the two languages. Finger, Hand, Butter, Gold, Ring, Name, warm, and blind are German words meaning exactly what they do in English. Other words that are very similar to their English counterparts are Vater (father), Mutter (mother), Freund (friend), Gott (God),Licht (light), Wasser (water), Feuer (fire), Silber (silver), Brot (bread), Milch (milk), Fisch (fish), Apfel (apple), Buch (book), gut (good), alt (old), kalt (cold), and blau (blue). More recent German borrowings in English include schnitzel, sauerkraut, pumpernickel, kindergarten, dachshund, poodle, yodel, lager, ersatz, edelweiss, meerschaum, wanderlust, hinterland, and blitzkrieg. The words frankfurter and hamburger come from the German cities of Frankfurt and Hamburg respectively.
In the matter of abstract concepts, however, German words often bear little or no resemblance to their English counterparts. In the centuries following the Norman Conquest English adopted thousands of French-based words which were in turn derived from the Latin. A few examples among many of common German words that are completely different from the English are erhalten (to receive – French, recevoir), wiederholen (to repeat – French, répéter), uberzeugen (to convince – French, convaincre), and beschutzen (to protect – French, protéger).
The word for German in other languages takes many different forms. In German itself it is deutsch, in Spanish alemán, in Italian tedesco, in the Scandinavian languages tysk, and in Russian nemetsky.