- Luther und die deutsche Sprache. 500 Jahre deutsche Sprachgeschichte im Lichte der neueren Forschung by Werner Besch
As humans, we are generally curious about where things of interest to us, both tangible and intangible, including ourselves, come from. We are intrigued by “firsts”: when the first X appeared, who made the first X, and so forth. Unfortunately for us, however, the origins of many things, even those that are relatively young in the span of human experience, such as baseball or African-American gospel music, are often obscure, due to the fact that things such as games and musical genres generally do not arise ex nihilo, but are the products of complex and gradual processes of development. Modern baseball, for example, clearly derives from earlier games involving bat-like instruments and round(ish) projectiles, though the precise path of that development is difficult to discern. Likewise, black gospel music, which emerged as a distinct artistic expression only in the early twentieth century, has its roots in a complex synthesis of African and earlier American musical forms that is not easily reconstructed.
Arguably the most fundamental expression of our humanity is language. Language is at the heart of our identity as individuals and as members of social groups. To cite an example from Germany, 96.8% of participants in a recent study conducted by the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research at the Humboldt University [End Page 635] named knowledge of the German language as the most essential feature of identity as a German; only 37% cited family heritage as a necessary requirement for being German (http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/wann-sind-einwanderer-deutsche-laut-umfrage-soll-sprache-entscheiden-a-1005767.html). Given the central importance of language, including and especially among contemporary Germans, it is interesting to consider what they believe about where their language, specifically its standard variety, “High German,” comes from. Here legends abound, beginning with geography. Many German speakers, for example, associate the “High” in High German with the social status of its speakers. And when asked where High German comes from, many look to northern Germany; the city of Hannover is often cited as the source from which High German sprang. Still others identify Martin Luther as the “father” of the language used by German speakers in schools, media, and to a considerable extent, in speech. Even many linguists play a role in advancing these popular beliefs about German.
The reality about the origins of standard or High German, as is true of baseball and gospel music, is at odds with many popular views and quite complex. As is the case with many popular legends, those linking northern Germany and Martin Luther to the development of German do contain a kernel of truth. The linguistic roots of standard German are not to be found in cities such as Hannover, rather farther south, especially in the eastern-central area of today’s Federal Republic, and Martin Luther did not single-handedly bring the modern standard language into being. But northern Germany and Luther’s translation of the Bible did play important roles in the development of German. The book under review here provides readers with an excellent introduction to the place of Luther in contemporary scholarship on the history of the German language.
Werner Besch, the book’s author, a leading figure in German linguistics in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond, is well suited to this task. From 1970 until his retirement in 1993, he was a professor of German linguistics and medieval studies at the University of Bonn. As a specialist on the development of German in the early modern period whose career is in its seventh decade, Besch has devoted much of this career to assessing Luther’s place in this development. The book consists of twelve chapters, each averaging just 13–14 pages in length. In his introduction (“Hinführung,” 11–15), Besch lays out seven questions that guide the discussion...