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19 june 2011

German: Biography of a Language by Ruth Sanders is an odd book: a history of the German language in English that includes very little German, and not much linguistics either. The book is too popular for an academic audience, and it may be too academic for a popular audience. But it's an interesting and clear exposition of some of the factors that have made German national culture what it is today.

Sanders is perhaps most interesting on the culture and languages of the proto-Germanic tribes. We know only inferentially about much of this prehistory. But Sanders lays out both the facts and the meta-facts; she tells us how we know what we know about the forerunners of the modern Germanic languages.

Much of the book thereafter is straight history. Sanders looks at the Battle of Kalkriese (once known as Teutobergerwald), a turning point in the Roman invasion of the Germanic world. Had the Romans won at Kalkriese, we might be speaking a Romance language today.

As it is, we (English speakers, that is) speak a language very heavily overlaid with Romance influences from Norman French, modern French, and Latin. German, though significantly less under the sway of Latin and its daughter languages, also contains a significant proportion of "loan-words" from French and Latin. Most of these ("Chance," "interessant," "Etage," and the like) doubtless come from a period when French was the prestige court language of central Europe (the 17th and 18th centuries) – but Sanders passes by this period with only brief remarks, and little linguistic evidence.

There is little linguistic evidence in some of her other chapters, when she discusses the life and work of Martin Luther at length, and then the 1871 unification of modern Germany, and then the Third Reich and the world wars. Yet it's all informative and correct. You could read a lot less lively and well-grounded introductions to the history of Germany.

Sanders, Ruth H. German: Biography of a Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.