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March 06, 2011

Page: 20/39

Home > 2011 Issues > March 06, 2011

German: The language has a rich, engaging history

German: Biography of a Language, Ruth H Sanders, Oxford University Press, Pp 240 (HB), $ 29.95

THE history of a language is invariably linked to the history of its people. With the rise and fall of power, the fortune of the language too changes. But as records prove, some languages survive the decline of the people, the culture in which it is spoken and the land where it was born.

The German language can definitely boast of this standing. According to a recent book German: Biography of a language, it is thousands of years old and has evolved over the millennia. Author Ruth H Sanders takes us through the tumultuous course of German, citing anthropological, historical and linguistic research. Sanders is Professor of German at Miami University of Ohio.

German is the "linguistic daughter of the Proto-Indo-European language once spoken throughout vast stretches of Eurasia." According to Sanders, six events were defining moments in the development of German. They include: the pre-historic breakaway of pre-Germanic language from Indo-European mother tongue, the decisive victory of Germanic tribes over the Roman troops (against all odds), translation of Bible in ‘peoples’ language’, unification of German speaking territories and the postwar recovery. Martin Luther is acknowledged as the father of modern German, through his translation of the Bible in a language that people could relate to in the sixteenth century. Luther came into conflict with the church because he argued that the Bible and not the church was the last word on Christianity. People who followed him were called Lutherans in jest, but it is now an official denomination of Christianity. The Gutenberg’s printing press had an obvious impact on the language.

Discussing the current status of German, Sanders says: "Although English appears to be pushing against German in some contexts, German is still to a considerable extent regionally an international language. Visitors to Eastern Europe will notice that German is a second language in many areas of Poland, Romania, Czech Republic and Russia, sometimes as a result of German invasions during World War II, but just as often as a result of historic ancestral connections." She observes that English is being offered increasingly in German Universities, to attract foreign students, a trend that is causing concern among German lovers. German is the second most widely spoken language in Europe (after English) and is the official language in seven European nations.

An interesting demonstrative translation of a Sanskrit verse into old English and PIE indicates the similarity of the languages. For any scholar of linguistics, this book offers rich material.

(Oxford University Press, 198, Madison Avenue, New York, NY10016,)-VN

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