Estimated native speakers: 98 million
Estimated total speakers: 175 million
Official/de facto official language in: Austria , Belgium, Germany, Italy (South Tyrol), Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Switzerland
Language family: Indo-European – West Germanic
A brief history:
German as a distinct language splintered off from the other West Germanic languages – nowadays including English, Dutch, Afrikaans, the Frisian languages and Yiddish – in the early Middle Ages. Developing from various related tribal languages, the German dialects varied greatly and it wasn’t until the 16th century that something approaching the language we know today took root. As with English, the real standardisation came about with the printing press. Martin Luther’s Bible completed in 1534 was written using the grammatical system of Middle High German, including the genitive case and the preterit which had all but disappeared in the northern dialects.
During the 19th century, German was the language of the Habsburg Empire and was essential across Central and Eastern Europe. Before this time, the standardised written version of German was spoken by practically nobody but people made the effort to learn it. At the end of the century, the Duden Handbook codified the language for the first time and this is the version that has been accepted as official German. Today there is still a wide variation in the German dialects; that’s why, for examples, Swiss German television programs are shown with subtitles in Germany and Austria.
The German Orthography Reform of 1996 attempted to standardise German spelling and in particular capitalisation, compounding and the use of the “scharfes S” (ß).