The Beautiful German Language


Enda O'Doherty in Eurozine:

Germans have featured prominently among those who have sometimes had difficulty in believing that their native tongue is quite up to the mark, or, as we say in our barbarous contemporary jargon, fit for purpose. The German invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century was certainly to give a boost to the prestige of vernacular languages (at the expense of the universal language, Latin). It was also to be important in spreading the new religion, Protestantism. Martin Luther enthused:

Printing is God's most recent gift and his greatest. Through it, in effect, God wishes to make known the true religion to the whole world, right to the extremities of the Earth.

And so it came to pass. But the Whiggish Protestantism (still alive in the popular cultural histories of Lord Bragg, formerly Melvyn) which celebrates the unstoppable spread of the Word, to be read and chewed over by the individual in private – an improving substitute for the “nonsense” mumbled by the priest in an incomprehensible language – tends to forget that in the short term virtually no one could read, whereas all could see and grasp the meaning of the wall paintings, statues and altarpieces in the church, which the Protestants for the most part were so keen to efface or destroy. The short term in this context, we should remember, was rather long. Mass literacy came to England only in the nineteenth century.Luther however, after his initial enthusiasm, seems to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of translating the Bible into German and making it available to everyone, or everyone who could read (he was to find, disturbingly, that they disagreed with him about what it meant).