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19 Martin Luther: the Father of modern German?

Best known for his theological opposition to Roman Catholicism, Martin Luther is just as interesting to us in the SameSky community of linguists, as the Father of modern German. I debated with myself how best to describe him: Inventor would make it sound like he’d made it up from scratch, which he didn’t.

Founder sounds like it is an organisation to belong to.

Perfecter? “Was Martin Luther the author and perfecter of German?” would be a neatly fitting echo of another theological debate, in which the translation of how Paul describes Jesus is questioned, but given that languages constantly evolve and develop, this would not be appropriate either.

So let’s go with Father.

Anyway, the German language.

Martin Luther’s effort to translate the bible into the vernacular language not only from Latin, but also the original Greek and Hebrew texts, was monumental. It would be a great enough challenge to undertake a translation of this scale at the best of times, but there was an even greater sticking point: there was no single vernacular German language in the early 1500s when he was at his desk – there were lots of them.

At the level of piety, Luther considered none of the dialects to be suitable for the holy word of God. Politically, to choose one over the others would have nailed his colours to a single mast, risking the wrath of every other head of state in the region. So, knowing that the very act of making the Holy Scriptures available to the Great Unwashed could and probably would lead to ex-communication, he chose the most pragmatic course of action and developed an amalgam of the various Germanic dialects of the region.

On first consideration this seems to be an even more mammoth task, but on reflection, it could also be seen as a short-cut. Having myself wrestled with different combinations of words and phrases when attempting to translate documents, it now seems like a get-out-of-jail card to just make up a word to fit the purpose, because that is what Herr Luther allowed himself to do.

The dialects in question were much less sophisticated than the classical languages he was working from, so abstract concepts needed some inventiveness.

Let’s take a word like to depend. It’s a straightforward Latinate word (dependere) that has entered English without anyone feeling the need to anglicise it very much. Martin Luther however, did feel the need to germanify it, so he translated each component from Latin to German:

De = ab

Pendere = hängen

So, to depend in German is “abhängen“

And before you ask, yes, the German for down is ‘ab’, which sounds more like ‘up’ but that’s a blog for another time.

Entschuldigen is another good example. Excusare is the Latin, so:

Ex = ent (= take away, remove)

Causa = Schuld (= blame, accusation. etc.)

Logical again. When excusing yourself or someone else, what are you doing but “taking the blame away”?

One of the selling points that school Latin teachers peddle when trying to recruit punters to their GCSE classes is that a knowledge of this classical language will be of great assistance when subsequently learning any of the romance languages – those that are derived from Latin. This is undoubtedly true, especially in terms of vocabulary. What is not usually mentioned is that a passing knowledge of Latin grammar – even just being aware of the existence of concepts like accusative and dative cases – will help even more when learning German, because Luther adapted certain structural aspects of the vernacular to be more Latin-like.

All of this is good, and I hope interesting, background knowledge. It helps to know about a language, of course, but in our classes we very rarely focus on issues like this, beyond a passing comment. Our style of teaching/learning is much more bottom-up than top-down, by which I mean we try to focus on basic sentence building, from an initially limited range of vocabulary and phrases. People come to us from all walks of life, with many and varied reasons for wanting to take on the joyful challenge of learning a new language. No prior knowledge is required or expected. I am often touched by people’s modesty when they claim to be starting from zero; I have decided that there is no such thing as a complete beginner as an adult; we’ve all been on holiday, read menus, seen Fawlty Towers… There are always odd foreign words in our own idiolect; the fun starts when you are able to link a few together!

We have places available in our German classes at beginner, intermediate and advanced level. One-to-one is also an option. We also offer other languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Mandarin.

Please contact me here if you would like to enrol on a course or find out more

Alles Gute zum Weihnachten

Andrew Wenger and the SameSky team

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This is the transcript for Episode 7 of the SameSky Languages FRENCH podcast. It covers adjectives, the subjunctive and 'verlan' slang

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