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German: Biography of a Language Hardcover – 15 Jul 2010

3.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (15 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195388453
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195388459
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 2.3 x 15 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,002,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


German provides an apt starting point for anybody seeking an accessible book on the history of German (Kerstin Hodge, Times Literary Supplement)

Like a good biography, it provides a tantalising taste of its subject. (Kerstin Hodge, Times Higher Education Supplement)

For any scholar of linguistics, this book offers rich material. (Organiser, New Delhi)

an ingenious telling of just how German emerged from the primordial Germanic soup...this is an enjoyable yet still-scholarly read for the historian, linguist and Germanophile alike. It would be a fine thing to have more such brief histories, made easily readable to the non-specialist, of the major world languages. (The Economist)

About the Author

Ruth H. Sanders is Professor of German at Miami University of Ohio.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a frustrating and disappointing read. The idea is such a great one - a biography of language - but it is not to be found in this book. The book is for the most part a mosaic of short topics which appear to have been written on index cards, and then shuffled into some order (I allow), but with no thought about duplication of things already mentioned - and more seriously, shame on Oxford University Press, no proper editing. So, for instance there is a topic on Martin Luther, which is followed after a break by a topic on Martin and Katharina Luther and then some pages further on we are told: 'He was excommunicated, left his orders..., eventually married, and became the leader of a new branch of Christianity.' This is not just the turning point of Christianity it is the turning point of author and editor credibility.

I had thought, judging from the title and cover, that this book would be more than the half-hearted philological text-book in disguise that it is. It has been sexed-up, but remove the superficial make-up and there is little beneath to separate this book from an amateur thesis. Bracketed references occur annoyingly throughout the text often set against simple already well-known facts.

For a book that discusses boundaries and geographical language and people shifts, there are no helpful visual aids; no maps or diagrams - instead we have tables set at a 90 degree orientation to the book and for some reason each chapter fizzles out into a time-line which includes irrelevant details about, for instance, Galileo etc.

Will someone please write the fabulous book this should be - I would love to read it!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a German speaker, this book (recommended by The Economist) was very interesting, and very enjoyable to read. I recommend it to every person interested in German history and culture.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars 16 reviews
65 of 70 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Badly needed an editor 5 Aug. 2010
By Stuart Bloom - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book reads like a stream-of-consciousness first draft.

The giveaway is the endless repetition. Why do we need to be told THREE TIMES that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and that this was a seminal event in the beginning of the Reformation? Why do we need to be told TWICE that in Wittenberg alone, 100,000 copies of Luther's translation of the Bible were printed during Luther's lifetime? Why do we need to be told THREE TIMES that the 30 Years War devastated the German countryside and made life miserable for the peasant population? And those examples are just from one chapter; they are representative of an endemic problem.

Then there are the issues of the content itself, which the previous two reviewers have discussed. It seems to me that in a book purporting to be the biography of a language, it would have been useful to include more examples of that language as it evolved than this book has. It certainly would have been more relevant than the mini-biography of Luther's wife or the details of exactly when the major Lutheran church bodies in the United States got around to disassociating themselves from Luther's excoriation of the Jews. The author tells us, several times, that High German is so called because it developed in mountainous southern Germany and Low German because it prevailed in the lowlands of the north - yet gives just a single, one-word example of the sound shift that distinguishes the two languages. The author talks about how Luther in his Bible translation combined his local dialect with chancellery German, but gives not a single example that illustrates this.

A good editor would have caught these things. This book clearly did not have one, or perhaps it had one but the author was not willing to accept the editor's advice.

I give it three stars because amid all the chaff, there is some wheat, especially for someone like myself who is trying to relearn German a half century after studying it in school and who is curious about the history of the language. But the book could have been, and should have been, so much better.
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Another Book Filled With Factual Errors 11 Nov. 2010
By Illiniguy71 - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Although as a historian, I did learn things about the history of the German language from this book, I agree with most of the other reviewers' criticisms. But my central concerns are the book's egregious errors of historical fact. Here are only some that I noticed. There may be others as well.
Page 42: The Septuagint is the Greek Old Testament, not the Greek New Testament. Page 155: It is certainly NOT true that 14,000 Germans migrated to North America in 1709. About that many did come down the Rhine and were taken across to Britain, but fewer than 3000 were sent on to New York and fewer than 1000 to North Carolina. The remainder stayed in England or were transported to Ireland. (A. B. Faust, The German Element in the United States, p. 80.)Page 158: Napoleon did NOT die in 1815. He was taken into exile in 1815 and died in 1821. Page 212: 92 per cent of the Germans most certainly did NOT vote for the Nazis in 1933. According to Hajo Holborn's A History of Modern Germany (vol. 3, pages 701 & 725) in the last fully free German election in November, 1932 the Nazis got 33.1% of the popular vote. Even with the Nazis attempting to suppress the campaigning of other parties before the election of March 5, 1933, the last even partially free election in pre-war Germany, the Nazis received only 43.9% of the popular vote. Page 161: It is unlikely that the Forty-Eighter immigration to America had much to do with today's "red state-blue state" divide despite the concentration of people of German heritage in the American Midwest. The political immigration from Germany in the years after the Revolution of 1848 was numerically overwhelmed by as much as 20 to 1 by the concurrent influx of apolitical or quite conservative Lutheran and Catholic German peasants.
This book is another appalling example of a major and respected publisher of non-fiction failing to do any simple fact-checking before publishing a supposedly non-fiction book. (for another example, see mine and the other reviews of John Keegan's The American Civil War: A Military History.) How are we now to trust what we read in new books unless we ourselves already know well the subject matter of the book so that we can spot the obvious errors?
40 of 46 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars enttaeuscht 29 July 2010
By sascha - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was very disappointed by this book. But perhaps I brought more to it than the average reader, since I have academic work in European history and linguistics. I thought the author's linguistic information was rather elementary. But my primary complaint is, that in woefully short book (215pp of text, some of which is taken up by timelines that could have been omitted), the author devotes too much space to Germanic languages other than German and too much space to nonlinguistic matters. For example, 20 of the books 215 pages are devoted to an historical overview of the invention of printing, the Reformation and the 30 Years War. I don't dispute the importance of this background, but anyone who buys a history of the German language will probably know it already
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars German's development placed in historical context 13 Sept. 2010
By Spring Candle - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book based on a favorable review in The Economist, and I was not disappointed. As a non-linguist and a non-speaker of German, I found the book's emphasis exactly right for me. Specifically, it describes the history of the language in the broad historical, political, cultural, and religious context in which it developed, and it devotes some time to other Germanic languages that shared beginnings with German. In this regard, unlike the negative reviewers, I found the peripheral historical material to be helpful context; and I didn't find it to be overly repetitive. While there are occasional examples of passages in the German of a particular era, which I didn't find useful but a linguist probably would, one of the negative reviewers is right that there are not too many examples. So if you are looking for an analysis that is at all technical, this book is not for you. But I think it should be judged according to what it aims to accomplish, and it accomplishes its aim of providing the language's history in context admirably.

The best way to give an idea of what it covers is to list its chapter and sub-chapter names:

Ch. 1: Germanic Beginnings:
Indo-European Proto-Language and culture...Agriculture comes to the Germanic homeland...A Proto-Germanic language emerges...The Germanic sound shift...Substrate hypothesis...Uralic influence?...Language prestige

Ch. 2: The Germanic Languages Survive the Romans:
The Battle of Kalkriese, 9 AD...Why did Arminius ambush the Roman legions?...The linguistic consequences...The Germanic tribes: From clans to warbands to tribes...The Celts...The Germanen go to Britain: The Anglo-Saxons and the English language...The Germanic 'Volkerwanderung', 375-568 AD...The Goths and the Gothic language...The Vikings: Raiders, traders, neighbors...The end of the Western Roman Empire...The Germanen under Roman rule...The religion of the Germanen...The Germanen overwhelm the Empire...The Germanic languages, ca. 800 AD...Roman views of the Germanen...Germanic life and society...Germania and the Roman Empire

Ch. 3: A Fork in the Road:
600 AD: Idorih...The second sound shift...Theodiscus, Diutisk, Deutsch: German takes a name...Life in the Early Middle Ages...Eighth century Germanic languages...Old High German, 750-1150... Yiddish: A new branch of High German...How the days of the week got their German names...The early influence of Latin...What causes sound shift?...Substrate hypothesis, again

Ch. 4: Bible German and the Birth of a Standard Language:
1522: September Testament...The history of European printing...Readers...Martin Luther...Life in the Sixteenth Century...The Reformation...Social control...Finding a language fit for the Bible...Loosening the ties to Rome...Other German Bibles...Translation as an art...Latin: The beginning of the end

Ch. 5:The German Language Gets a State:
1871: High German follows the Empire...Setting the stage: The German Confederation, 1815-1871...Language and state...Pronunciation...The language of bureaucracy...Linguistic nationalism...German as a literary language...Intellectual life in the Nineteenth Century...Social democracy and the 'Kulturkampf'...Daily life in the German Reich...Germany and Europe

Ch. 6: Postwar Comeback Times Two: A High Point, a Double Fall from Grace, and Recoveries:
A "German epidemic" conquers America...The 'Dichter und Denker' go to war...German cultural capital declines...Nazism and the German language...German revives at home...The German Democratic Republic, 1949-1989...Tendencies in contemporary German...German at home: Four national standards...German as an international language...Language contact and language change: The case of Finnish...Early Germanic languages in a Deep Freeze: The case of Icelandic

Finally, at the end of each chapter is a timeline of events in German-speaking Europe and outside it, corresponding to the chapter's linguistic era. Again I found that these timelines did a nice job of providing context. The book is short (215 pages + 10 page bibliography + 15 page index) and is written in an easy-to-read style.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gems and Filler 13 Jan. 2013
By J. Luetjen - Published on
Format: Paperback
For the casual student of the German culture there is much about this book that is positive. I think the author had a good idea to link the language into the development of the culture and history of the Germanic peoples. The the glaring errors (as mentioned below) and apparent filler suggests that she didn't get as much support from her editor(s) and publishers as she could have. She obviously was coming to the subject from the direction of a German language teacher and not necessarily a historian. In spite of this it is the chapters covering the earliest history where the book works best. The chapters discussing the development of the language and culture in "pre-Germanic" Europe through the middle ages works pretty well.

On the other hand the last chapter discussing the 20th century is hopelessly "politically correct" and correctly summed up in the introduction as "the beginning of a postwar recovery of the moral and cultural capital of the German language which had been squandered in the brutal deeds of two world wars instigated by Germany". Need I remind the author that Germany did not "instigate" the first world war. To quote the wonderfully pithy "Horrible Histories" -- the first world war started "because an Austrian has been shot in Bosnia by a Serb". Even aside from the military expressions that developed in the language during the 20th century, there are contributions of the German speaking people in technology and politics which are completely ignored. Having a longer description of the different dialects and how they developed and defer would have been very interesting.

So I'd describe it as good attempt, but with flawed execution.
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