German is spoken by many millions of people in Europe as a first language and millions more as a second language. It is not, however, an international language in quite the same way as English or French. It is not spoken in quite the widespread way as Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia or Chinese, but remains an important language in the European Union because of the dynamism of the German economy and the country’s influence on the politics and general direction of the E.U. and other bodies such as those of the United Nations.
Countries where German is an Official Language
German is the official language of Germany and Austria; one of four official languages in Switzerland; an official language of Liechtenstein, one of the official languages of Belgium and Luxembourg and the South Tyrol region of Italy.
German Speaking Communities in Europe
In Europe, German, or dialects of what is now Standard German, is also one of the main languages used by minority German-speaking communities in the Netherlands, Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Bosnia and Ukraine.
One interesting fact that few younger people realize, even in Germany, probably, is that the main reason that there are these small communities of German speakers scattered outside of Germany and Austria’s borders is that the actual boundaries of what are now two sovereign nations (albeit partners in the European Union) have changed dramatically over the centuries as empires and spheres of influence of Germanic-speaking peoples have ebbed and flowed.
As boundaries expanded, at one time taking up much of central Europe, people who primarily spoke one or another dialect of German would have become established far from where their ancestors may have lived. As the boundaries shrunk again and those who were until then subjugated gave new prominence to their own native language, those German speakers became like islands of German-speaking within a newly created nation.
Old German Colonies Where German was once the Official Language
In some parts of the world, German is still spoken by older people as they or their parents emigrated from Germany, sometime in the twentieth century. It was the official colonial language of South West Africa (now Namibia), Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea). Germany lost control over these colonies after the First World War and only in Namibia are there still several thousand descendants of the first German settlers who can still speak the language.
In Papua New Guinea, the main lingua franca in many parts of the country, Tok Pisin (pidgin English), has a vocabulary that has been influenced by the period of German colonialism.
German Spoken by Descendants of German Settlers and Emigrants
The early German diaspora during the last part of the nineteenth century and the early and middle part of the twentieth century saw German speakers settle in quite large numbers in the U.S.A., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, as well as Australia, particularly South Australia. Although the use of German by descendants of German-speaking emigrants to these countries has dwindled, the language has still made its mark in the naming of localities, food and drink and on cultural practices.
Because South West Africa was ceded to South Africa after Germany lost its control of its former colony after the First World War, many former German settlers and colonists moved to South Africa. Several thousand people still speak German in that country as a first language.
German has also retained its popularity as a second language amongst many people who wish to visit Germany or other German-speaking countries as tourists, students or workers.
The Relationship of German to other World Languages
German is part of the West Germanic group of languages within the larger family of languages called the Indo-European family. German is spoken by about 100 million people around the world as a first language or important second language. Modern German, or Standard German, is actually a relatively new standardized version of a language that until relatively recently existed in many different regional variations.
There is still a lot of debate amongst linguists whether regional variations of Germans were actually separate languages or merely dialects that because of geographical separation were almost mutually unintelligible.
German, as it is spoken today, is most closely related to other West Germanic languages, like Dutch, English, Afrikaans and Yiddish. North Germanic languages include Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, while Eastern Germanic languages have died out.
Even today, the dialects used by those who primarily live in Northern Germany speak a different dialect Plattdeutsch (Low German) than those who live in Bavaria and other parts of Southern Germany who speak Hochdeutsch / High German.