There are two principal divisions of the German language: High German, or Hochdeutsch, and Low German, or Plattdeutsch. One of the most striking differences between them is the result of a consonant shift (usually referred to as the second, or High German, sound shift) that took place before the 8th cent. A.D. in certain West Germanic dialects. This sound shift affected the southern areas, which are more elevated and hence referred to as the High German region, whereas it left untouched the Low German prevalent in the lowland regions of the North. In a broader and purely linguistic sense, the term Low German can also be extended to cover all the West Germanic languages in which the second sound shift did not take place, such as Dutch, Frisian, and English.
Besides differences in word order, the German language is unlike English in that German makes extensive use of inflectional endings. The verb is inflected to show person, number, tense, and mood; and the subjunctive is frequently used. The declensional scheme has four cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. There are two ways of declining the adjective, and there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. A distinctive feature of German is its extensive use of lengthy compound words. For example, the English "history of antiquity" is translated into German as Altertumswissenschaft; the English "worthy of distinction" is translated as auszeichnungswürdig.
The Gothic or Black Letter form (in German called Fraktur) of the Roman alphabet, which first appeared in Europe around the 12th cent., is now rarely used, although knowledge of Fraktur is needed in order to read many works printed before 1945. The Roman alphabet is now exclusively used in printing. To it were added the symbol ß, representing a voiceless s (as in English mouse), now often replaced with ss; and the umlauted vowels ä, ö, and ü. German is the only language in which all nouns are capitalized, common as well as proper. There is a closer relationship between German spelling and pronunciation than there is in English.
Historically, German falls into three main periods: Old German (c.A.D. 750-c.A.D. 1050); Middle German (c.1050-c.1500); and Modern German (c.1500 to the present). The earliest existing records in German date back to about A.D. 750. In this first period, local dialects were used in writing, and there was no standard language. In the middle period a relatively uniform written language developed in government after the various chancelleries of the Holy Roman Empire began, in the 14th cent., to use a combination of certain dialects of Middle High German in place of the Latin that until then had dominated official writings.
The German of the chancellery of Saxony was adapted by Martin Luther for his translation of the Bible. He chose it because at that time the language of the chancelleries alone stood out in a multitude of dialects as a norm, and Luther thought he could reach many more people through it. The modern period is usually said to begin with the German used by Luther, which became the basis of Modern High German, or modern standard German. The spread of uniformity in written German was also helped by printers, who, like Luther, wanted to attract as many readers as possible.
During the 18th cent. a number of outstanding writers gave modern standard German essentially the form it has today. It is now the language of church and state, education and literature. A corresponding norm for spoken High German, influenced by the written standard, is used in education, the theater, and broadcasting. German dialects that differ substantially from standard German, not only in pronunciation but also in grammar, are found in regions of Germany, E France, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein; Lëtzeburgesch, an official language of Luxembourg, is a German dialect spoken by about 400,000 people there. Although dialectal differences within both the High German and Low German regions remain, a trend toward uniformity in the direction of the written standard is expected partly as a result of widespread broadcasting, diminishing isolation, and increased socioeconomic mobility.
See B. A. Reichenbach, Handbook of German Grammar (1987); W. B. Lockwood German Today (1987); W. M. Rivers, Teaching German (1988); C. V. J. Russ, ed., The Dialects of Modern German (1989); A. E. Hammer, German Grammar and Usage (1989).