How Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible influenced the German language

From The Economist‘s review of German: Biography of a Language by Ruth H. Sanders:

Perhaps the most celebrated turning point in the history of the German language is the work of another rebel against Rome, Martin Luther. His belief in salvation through personal faith alone, not the intermediation of the Church, led him to violate a longstanding prohibition on translating the Bible into vernacular languages. Luther had to compromise between the many different “Germans” that filled the German lands in those days, hundreds of years before there was a single German state (the creation of which is Ms Sanders’s fifth turning point). Luther borrowed an emerging standard used by the Holy Roman Empire, “chancellery German”, as a base with some currency in different regions.

Luther’s genius was to infuse his translation with the words he heard on the street in his bit of Saxony, in east-central Germany. He obsessively asked friends and fellow scholars which dialectal words would be most widely understood. The common touch was so successful that a Catholic opponent complained that “even tailors and shoemakers…read it with great eagerness.” It was the bestseller of the century and remains the most popular German translation. Rarely has a single man had such a mark on a language. The German of Luther’s Bible was nobody’s native language in his day. Today it is so universal that it threatens Germany’s once-vibrant dialects with death by standardisation.

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2 responses to “How Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible influenced the German language

  1. This is really basic, but rarely understood or even considered. It’s really something. But don ‘t you think that in English the King James translation was just as decisive?

    I am Swiss German, and in all of German Switzerland we speak only and exclusively a dialect which is very different from real German, not just phonetically, but also in grammar. The Swiss do not speak good German fluently and, like myself, tend to learn English better than German and maybe end up missing that smooth transition between the spoken and the written word that helps the English and the real Germans develop their way of speaking.

    Anyway, it looks to me as if the Bible in its translation actually channeled the development of those two languages. There seems to have been nothing of the sort in Spanish, nor in French, nor (as explained) in Swiss German.


  2. Thank you — good comments. And yes, most certainly, the King James translation formalized aspects of English. I did not know that Swiss German was so different from German.