Günter Neessen gave an excellent answer; I would like to look at the term German from a different angle.
German is a “residual category” of all continental West Germanic languages that have remained and are not at some point in the last millennium, for political, social or cultural reasons, they have given a different identity.
German has much more to do with politics than language.
In order to better understand this, we start with Germanic languages and proceed in the exclusion procedure – we start with those who are clearly not German and were never German:
- Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese: all Germanic languages and certainly not German.
All these languages are North Germanic; German is West Germanic. The term German was never used in North Germanic languages.Anything that has ever been called German and which, according to the broadest interpretation of the term, could be considered German is West Germanic. (There were also times East Germanic languages like Gothic, which were also not called German, but they are now extinct.)
From the beginning, German has only referred to the continental West Germanic languages.
But it will also be difficult to define German more precisely.
Historically, the term German has been used as a collective term for all continental West Germanic languages (except Frisian) spoken in a damn large linguistic area.This language area was by no means homogeneous or centralized – we imagine German as a single language, but in some ways it was more of a language family of different languages spoken in a dialect continuum.Dialect continua are always complicated when deciding whether they are different dialects of the same language or different languages: all speakers can understand the variety of their neighbours, but the further away they move away from their home village, it becomes all the more difficult until at some point you come across a variety that you can no longer understand at all and perceive as a foreign language. And the larger the language space, the greater the differences between individual varieties and the more diversity there is. Low German varieties on the coast are clearly a different language from the highest-alemannic varieties in the Alps.
This is also the reason why linguistic criteria for the concept of German hardly play a role historically and why German is more of a political term.If one wants to define the difference between dialect and language with purely linguistic criteria – i.e. independent of culture or politics, with language-inherent characteristics – then one often orients oneself to mutual comprehensibility, but the term German was always used for all West Germanic continental languages, although the speakers could not necessarily communicate with each other.They often did not travel far, and German was simply called “the language of the people”.It does not necessarily have to be uniform.
Gradually, different groups joined together to create a close political unity, split from the rest of the German-speaking area and eventually stopped calling their language German – to be remembered by the other German speakers. to be distinguished.None of this had anything to do with language-inherent developments and was purely politically motivated.
The Dutch, for example, have always referred to their varieties as German – until they did not do it at some point.Of course, their language was somewhat different from other varieties of German, but that was nothing special – all the varieties of German were different.From a purely linguistic point of principle, there was no reason why, for example, Bairisch should count in German and Dutch not – both were simply special varieties of German, which could be summarized under the collective term German.Bairian German and Dutch German. For this reason, the Dutch national anthem still mentions ‘German blood’. And the fact that “Dutch German” eventually simply became “Dutch” and speakers of this language began to answer “no” to the question “do you speak German?”, was not because the language itself suddenly came to the other dialects of German. it was too dissimilar and Dutch and German are structurally divergent, but because the Dutch developed more and more their own cultural identity after the Peace of Westphalia and wanted to distinguish themselves from the rest of the German speakers.
Yiddish is another example – it started as “Jewish-German” (Yiddish-Taytsh), so again only a special variety of the German, until at some point in the Rhineland, where the Ashkenasim were mainly located, anti-Semitism arose and many Jews emigrated to Eastern Europe and separated themselves more from Christian Speakers of German and then called their language only Jewish.
Finally, the Luxembourgers separated themselves from the rest of the German speakers and declared that their language does not belong to German.
In all these processes, the group, which distinguishes itself from the “rest”, seeks a more specific label and gives up the term German.It could theoretically be the other way around – what used to be considered Luxembourgish German is just as German as any other German and has just as much “claim” to the label; and the Luxembourgers might as well explain that their German is the “right” and that everyone else should look for a new label – but the rest left behind is always considered the default that gets the default label German.After all, ‘Luxembourgish’ is a much narrower and more specific term than ‘everything that is not Luxembourgish’.
However, there is one exception: the English exonym for German and Dutch.In the Anglophone world, the Dutch inherited the label Deutsch (Dutch) and everyone else had to settle for a different term.Perhaps this is because, from a British perspective, the Dutch were the normal default Germans and everyone else simply wasn’t so present.
What does German mean today?- It simply refers to the continental West Germanic dialects that remain. And in some cases they are still quite diverse and not a uniform language, but rather a dialect continuum – the variety from Klagenfurt is called “German” as well as the variety from the Valais and the variety from Bremen or the one from the Saarland. So it is, in principle, arbitrary and pure self-definition. German are all varieties whose speakers they refer to as German.
Nevertheless, in “German” today we think more of a uniform language, because languages have been strongly standardized in recent centuries.Often the standard language/written language has supplanted native varieties and leveled dialect continua. Groups that see themselves as a related language community form their own standard languages: all countries that refer to their most widely used language as German share the same national standard language (with negligible minimum No matter how many differences there are in the non-standard is native varieties – and in Switzerland this standard language differs greatly from the native Alemannic varieties, so that Swiss are rightly considered bilingual to be able to.This is partly due to the fact that the standard language is largely based on Central German dialects; on the other hand, the fact that the standard language in Switzerland has not supplanted the native varieties, quite in contrast to the Low German varieties in northern Germany, which were almost wiped out by the standard language. When we think of German these days, we often think of standardGerman, which is much more concise than German and excludes many varieties called German by their speakers – and some of them do not speak anything. Standard German, but only its regional variety, for example people who speak Pennsylvania German.
The Dutch and luxembourgers, on the other hand, have their own standard languages based on their native varieties.From there, there are now more abrupt dividing lines and less fluid transitions at national borders than in the past; and today it also makes sense from a language-in-simple point of view to refer to Dutch and German as different languages. Due to the long political separation and the standardization according to different norms, the dialects close to the border are divergent because they have been pulled in almost opposite directions.
It is striking that Switzerland has been a political entity for so long and has long since split politically from the rest of the German-speaking area, but still feels that it belongs to the German-speaking area and adopted the standard national language. instead of developing their own standard language based on native languages, such as the Dutch and Luxembourgers.I can only speculate that I do not know the culture and society of Switzerland well (and I would be grateful for comments from Swiss people), but I could imagine that it could be partly because Switzerland is multilingual and one is often within Switzerland had to distinguish the German speakers from other Swiss, and that the German label was very useful for this.If the native languages were simply called Swiss german instead of Swiss German and no longer defined them as a special variety of German, one might suggest that, for example, the Romandie is not really switzerland, as if the Alemannic language were the “right” language of Switzerland.