2017 will be a big year for Martin Luther, father of the German language

We will be hearing plenty about Martin Luther over the next two years, as Germans gear up for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Luther is best known as the father of the Reformation. But he also wrote anti-Semitic screeds that were extreme—even by the standards of the time. In addition, he revolutionized the German language.

Before Luther, there was no single German language but a series of dialects. Two were dominant: Upper German and Low German. As a child, Luther lived on the linguistic borderlands that divide the two. His family moved back and forth across the boundary several times.

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)


“He was totally bilingual,” says Alexander Weber, a linguist at Birkbeck College, University of London. “It’s a stroke of luck in terms of the development of the German language that the key figure [of the Reformation] would actually be able to address an audience in Low German and Upper German.”

Luther’s bilingualism allowed him to create a national language. But his genius was in his colloquial turns of phrase. Before him, the Bible was a theological text. His translations transformed it into everyday language.

“This language has a new purpose, to speak to everybody,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which recently staged an exhibition of German cultural history. MacGregor wrote and hosted an accompanying podcast for the BBC.

Macgregor says Luther’s translations turned the New Testament’s gospels into “conversations you might overhear: Jesus speaking as a German carpenter to German fishermen.”

“He listened to the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen to the child playing,” says Lutheran theologian Margot Kässmann. “Still today…our language is really Luther’s.”


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