Martin Luther Reinvents the German Language

When, in 1522, Martin Luther agreed to a staged kidnapping that would keep him safe from Catholic and other authorities, he soon found himself out of danger, but also bored to tears. Hiding out in castle called the Wartburg, near Eisenach, he soon admitted, “I sit here idle and drunk all day long.” Thomas Cahill picks up the story:

…this remarkable level of inactivity might have led to permanent physical and psychological damage—except that Luther soon stumbled upon an all-consuming project: the translation of the whole Bible from its original languages into idiomatic German. Such a project would be exceedingly daunting to almost anyone in any age, but there were excellent reasons in the year 1522 for judging that the task would prove utterly impossible.

      For starters, the entire library of scholarly aids available to us was then lacking. Besides the very recent publication of Erasmus’s intercolumnar texts of the New Testament, there was no published assistance of any kind. There were of course many editions of Jerome’s Vulgate in the Latin of the late fourth century AD, but more and more educated readers were coming to doubt its trustworthiness. There were no reliable dictionaries of either ancient Greek, the original language of the New Testament, or Hebrew, the language of almost all of the Old Testament. The science of textual analysis would not get under way much before the nineteenth century, and in any case there was nowhere to be found a reliable collection of ancient manuscripts (certainly not outside the papal library, which was hardly available to Luther).

      German was at this time barely a language in the sense that we would today assume. There was high German and low German, and there were a large number of dialects, Saxon, Bavarian, Hanoverian, Swabian, and the Schwyzerdütsch of the Swiss being only the most common. There was no German literary language, no written examples of classic masterpieces that could serve as models of style and substance. German was, like most European vernaculars beyond the Italian models of Dane and Boccaccio, still a language coming into being. Of course, it was spoken everywhere—in one form or another—by ordinary, unliterary folk without shame or inhibition. But writers and professors, lawyers and princes, if they wished their words to be understood clearly and definitively, still spoke and wrote in Latin. Luther had already broken with this convention by occasionally publishing in German. But the Bible? Even the innovative Erasmus had published his New Testament in Greek, Jerome’s late Latin, and his own more pristine classical Latin, but not in any vernacular. No attempt had been made to translate the Bible into German since a group of unidentified scholars had made a translated into Middle High German in the fourteenth century, a translation of the Vulgate only, certainly not of the Hebrew or the Greek. Like Wycliffe’s first translation into English in the same period, it follows the Vulgate with a painfully literal awkwardness.

      Three months or so into his new project, Martin Luther had finished his historic translation of the New Testament. He had not simply translated the Christian scriptures; he had invented literary German. He did this by peopling the books of the New Testament with ordinary Germans, speaking as colorfully as they did in real life. Such language was hardly unknown to Luther, who enjoyed the frank concreteness of German vocabulary and often availed himself of it in public and private. He had chosen the German that the imperial Saxon court used in official business with its unlettered subjects, which was also the form of German that he and the largest plurality of Germans were familiar with. But he swiftly transformed the rigidities of this official legalese by mixing it with the earthy German of daily intercourse. As he himself tells us, he listened to “the speech of the mother at home, the children in the street, the men and women in the market, the butcher and various tradesmen in their shops.” More than this, the translator exhibited a thrillingly expressive ease that harkened back to the traditions of medieval mystics and poets. As would soon become evident in his inspiring hymns, Luther was himself a genuine German poet, even a composer with a natural feeling for the rhythms of speech and the melodies of phrases.

      In making his translation accessible to the man and the woman in the street, he translated the coinage of the ancient world into its Germanic equivalents: the shekel became the Silberling, the Greek drachma and the Roman denarius became the groschen. He did the same with measures and titles, the Roman centurion turning into a Hauptmann. Wherever possible, he employed the alliteratively striking phrases of the common people: Geld und Gut (gold and goods), Land und Leute (country and countrymen), Stecken und Stab (stick and staff), Dornen und Disteln (thorns and thistles). Using the German language’s tendency to heap words on words in new combination, he enriched the language with his own evocative new combinations, such as Gottseligkeit (God’s happiness, or salvation).

      Once set in type and printed, the translation was received like rain in a desert. A shocked Johannes Cochlaeus, who had been present at [the Diet of] Worms and would remain one of Luther’s fiercest and most unyielding opponents, had to admit: “Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the Gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.” The condescending Cochlaeus was one doctor of divinity who had no interest in debating theological points with women and other “ignorant persons.” The distance between traditional, academic Romanists like Cochlaeus and the on-the-ground Germanic evangelists, such as seemed to be sprouting up everywhere, shows itself here as virtually unbridgeable.

      A far more considered and balanced assessment of Luther’s achievement was made in the nineteenth century by the great Swiss Presbyterian scholar Philip Schaff: “The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure at Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction. It was a republication of the gospel. He made the Bible and the people’s book in church, school, and house. If he had done nothing else, he would be one of the greatest benefactors of the German-speaking race.”…

      It would take Luther more than a decade to finish his translation of the Old Testament, which would be published in its complete version only in 1534, long after he had returned in safety to Wittenberg…. Despite the ban on Luther’s Bible throughout several large German-speaking lands, such as Saxony, Bavaria, and Austria, Hans Lufft, the Wittenberg printer, sold about a hundred thousand copies in the first forty years that the complete text was in circulation. This was a staggering number for a book at this time and suggests that the text was read by millions. The huge number of reprints made by other printers is inestimable. Though this trade in Bibles made fortunes for many, Luther never collected so much as a Pfennig, nor did he wish to receive any monetary reimbursement.     

– Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, 219-222, 224, 225