What languages were spoken in the 1500s
Give the Rhineland a profile
Of prestige, printing and comprehensibility
After the replacement of Latin as written language by the Ripuarian and Lower Rhine writing languages in the 13th century and their spread and stabilization in the 14th and 15th centuries, the next profound linguistic change process in the Rhineland can be observed in the 16th century: the regional writing languages become replaced by the high German or the Dutch writing system. In the greater part of the Rhineland the connection to the standard German takes place; Geldern, the areas of the Duchy of Kleve on the left bank of the Rhine and the Emmerich / Rees area are clearly influenced by the Dutch. The adoption of Dutch (instead of High German) in these Lower Rhine regions was favored by several factors: the close relationship between the Lower Franconian dialects and Dutch, the cultural and economic orientation towards the Netherlands, denominational similarities and, up to the 18th century, also in some areas politically -territorial affiliation to the Netherlands (Obergeldern, County Moers). In principle, a very complex bilingual or multilingual situation can be assumed for the Lower Rhine region as a whole for the period from the 16th to the 19th century (more on this in Cornelissen 2000, Cornelissen 2003 and Eickmans 2003).
In general, the replacement process in the Rhineland - i.e. the transition from a regional to a supra-regional writing language - was favored by several factors. As early as the 15th century, documents intended for recipients outside the Rhineland were used to identify an orientation towards their linguistic usage: For example, Cologne writers used High German writing variants when they wrote to an addressee in Strasbourg, Nuremberg or Augsburg. In a letter from 1424 to the Council of Strasbourg it says: So we have dear friends uch zo ere […] – to have instead of Ripuarian grove or (less often) haven, love instead of leven or lieven; in the further course of the text are still in addition and waz instead of dat and wat, and instead of ind as ot instead of yet. There were two reasons for these adjustments: On the one hand, the Cologne writers were aware of the regionally limited validity of their writing language, they had to assume that Bavarian recipients would not understand them completely. On the other hand, the writing languages of southern Germany had a higher reputation than the Rhenish ones; this difference in prestige also led to an orientation towards the "better" variety.
Letter from the Cologne Council Chancellery to the City Council of Strasbourg
Another influencing factor was book printing, the technology of which had spread throughout the German-speaking area since the end of the 15th century. Of course, the printers were interested in not only printing their books for a small area (or several times in different regional writing languages), which is why they increasingly tried to use a kind of equalized writing language by bypassing clearly regionally colored words, if possible in was understandable in all areas of the German-speaking area. The use of such a nationally valid written language also increasingly became a concern of administration and businesspeople who regularly communicated with people in other regions. Another reason was more social and ideological than practical: the change in the point of identification between the upper and middle classes. Because for a long time the hometown or the native territory had the greatest relevance for the people, in the 16th century the German Empire or the Netherlands increasingly took its place, a development which also led to processes of equalization and adjustment of the Rhenish writing languages.
The replacement of the regional writing languages extends over several decades, because depending on the reason for writing (public - private), scribe (professional - inexperienced), type of text (certificate - diary entry) and medium (handwritten document - print), a text could still have a strong regional character or come close to the "target language" High German or Dutch. Two short excerpts from the guild letter of the Siegburg potters show how an identical text could change in the course of the 16th century due to the changes mentioned (Ulner or Aulner), once in the version from 1531, once from 1552 (from: Hoffmann 2000: 129): § 3 One oelners son who wants to empty the handicraft first, sall ... (1531) vs. § 5 If one oulners son wants to teach and practice the craft, so should ... (1552) ('If the son of a potter wants to learn and practice the craft, so should ...'). Typical features of the Ripuarian writing language were replaced here within 20 years: vowel length indicator e, dat vs. the, ind vs. and, sall vs. should.
What actually is standard German?
The target variety High German, which many writers in the central Rhineland, but also (through Cologne mediation) on the southern Lower Rhine and in some areas also on the northern Lower Rhine, had in mind as an ideal, did not yet correspond to our current High German written language. "Hoch" is to be understood here rather as a geographical indication: It was the Upper German (= South German) writing language, also called "Common German" at the time, which developed around the printing and writing centers in Augsburg and Nuremberg and which is also used in Cities of the West Central German language area like Mainz and Speyer was used.
Breakdown of the German-speaking area: Low German - Middle German - Upper German
At the same time, based on the East Central German language area (largely mediated by Marin Luther), Meißnian German developed - the basis of the New High German written language as we know and use it today. In the course of the 18th century this finally established itself in the central Rhineland (as well as in the areas of origin of the Common German, southern Germany and Austria), on the Lower Rhine it gains relevance a little earlier, mediated by the Prussian administration and as the language of the Lutherans. At the beginning of the 19th century, the writing language in the entire Rhineland no longer differed from that in the other German-speaking areas.
Dutch on the Lower Rhine
In the Dutch-speaking areas on the Lower Rhine, too, several language varieties came together, as in the Netherlands, as in the German areas, there was still no uniform supra-regional language form. On the one hand, the Brabantian, a southern Dutch variety, was used in the Lower Rhine, which was mediated through political, ecclesiastical and cultural ties to the southern Netherlands. However, another form of language was decisive for today's standard Dutch language: Dutch, a northern variety. This became the basis of modern, standardized Dutch, which had been developing since the end of the 16th century and which, from the 17th century onwards, also became increasingly popular on the Lower Rhine.
Spoken language: dialect ... and a bit of standard German
The massive change described did not only affect the written language - the changes described were also of great importance for the development of the spoken language. It can be assumed that the local dialect was the everyday language for most of the Rhenish population until the 18th century, but since the 17th century at the latest, a new variety developed alongside it: the (regionally influenced) pronunciation of High German written language. The starting point was presumably the reading and reading speech, later also the theatrical speech and finally the members of the urban upper class in particular increasingly began to use this new spoken language in public conversations. This scenic High German, which also developed in other regions of the German-speaking area, each with its own characteristics, was still clearly characterized on the phonetic level by the dialects of the respective region - a standardized, supra-regional pronunciation, as it is now recorded in pronunciation dictionaries (but at most used by the Tagesschau spokespersons), there weren't any "idioms" on radio or television either. There are only indirect sources for this early form of spoken Standard German - of course, there are no sound recordings from this period. However, since the end of the 17th century, there have been a large number of written complaints about the decay of the dialects, which suggest an actual change. For most of the population of the Rhineland, however, the spoken standard German was not yet relevant in the 18th century - this only changed in the 19th century.
- Georg Cornelissen: Niederrheinische Sprachgeschichte from 1700 to 1900. In: Jürgen Macha / Elmar Neuss / Robert Peters / Stephan Elspaß (Hrsg.): Rheinisch-Westfälische Sprachgeschichte. (= Low German Studies 46). Cologne 2000, pp. 277-292.
- Georg Cornelissen: Small history of the Lower Rhine language (1300-1900). A regional linguistic history for the German-Dutch border area between Arnhem and Krefeld. With a Nederlandstalige inleiding. Geldern / Venray 2003.
- Heinz Eickmans: Aspects of a Lower Rhine Language History. In: Werner Besch / Anne Betten / Oskar Reichmann / Stefan Sonderegger (eds.): History of language. A handbook on the history of the German language and its research. 2nd, completely revised edition. (= HSK 2.3). Berlin / New York 2003, pp. 2629-2639.
- Stephan Elspaß: Rhenish language history from 1700 to 1900. In: Jürgen Macha / Elmar Neuss / Robert Peters / Stephan Elspaß (eds.): Rhenish-Westphalian language history. (= Low German Studies 46). Cologne 2000, pp. 247-276.
- Walter Hoffmann / Klaus J. Mattheier The City in Modern German Language History III: Cologne. In: Werner Besch / Anne Betten / Oskar Reichmann / Stefan Sonderegger (eds.): History of language. A handbook on the history of the German language and its research. 2nd, completely revised edition. (= HSK 2.3). Berlin / New York: 2003, pp. 2321-2340.
- Klaus J. Mattheier: Dialect Decline and / or Dialect Renaissance? Considerations on the development of dialectality in the current German language community. In: Gerhard Stickel (Hrsg.): Varieties of German. Regional and colloquial languages. (= Institute for German Language: Yearbook 1996). Berlin et al. 1997, pp. 404-410.
- Klaus J. Mattheier: Aspects of a Rhenish language history. In: Werner Besch / Anne Betten / Oskar Reichmann / Stefan Sonderegger (eds.): History of language. A handbook on the history of the German language and its research. 2nd, completely revised edition. (= HSK 2.3). Berlin / New York 2003, pp. 2712-2729.
- Arend Mihm: Rheinmaasländische Sprachgeschichte from 1500 to 1650. In: Jürgen Macha, Elmar Neuss, Robert Peters and Stephan Elspaß (Hrsg.): Rheinisch-Westfälische Sprachgeschichte. (= Low German Studies 46). Cologne 2000, pp. 137-164.
- Robert Möller: Regional writing language in national correspondence. Recipient orientation in the letters of the Cologne Council in the 15th century. (= Rheinisches Archiv 139). Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 1998.
- Petra Maria Vogel: History of Language. (= KEGLI 13). Heidelberg 2012.
- Photo credits
- Map "Languages on the Prussian Lower Rhine 1749", LVR Institute for Regional Studies and Regional History.
- Letter from the Cologne Council Chancellery to the City Council of Strasbourg, from: Möller 1998, p. 196.
- Map "Classification of the German dialect areas", from: Vogel 2012, p. 11.
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