In this blog series, I post fun facts about the German language. In the first part, I discussed the importance of the German language, in the second why English and German are sister languages, in the third the language’s love for compound nouns, and in the fourth, the language’s longest words. Today, I will discuss why all nouns are capitalised.
If you‘ve ever travelled to a German-speaking country, or read a text in German, you might have been confused to see so many capital letters. That’s because all nouns in German are written with capital letters, whereas in English only proper nouns like people’s names and the names of countries and cities are capitalised. So how did that come about?
In the Middle Ages, when texts from the Holy Scripture and other religious texts were transcribed and translated, the first word ever to be written in capital letters was the name of God. Those deemed as being chosen by God- kings, emperors, dukes and princes- subsequently insisted on the capitalisation of their titles. In 1534, Martin Luther- the initiator of the Reformation- published his translation of the Bible from Latin into what would ultimately become the first common language of German. His translation also established several linguistic norms, among which was capitalisation of the names of all estates and offices- peasants, nobility etc. In the 18th century, the German philologist Johannes Gottsched finally suggested to capitalise nouns in general, in order to distinguish more easily between nouns and other words like verbs and adjectives. Ultimately, his suggestion was accepted and is still the rule to date.
While the capitalisation of words for reasons of emphasis was initially commonplace in English and other languages as well, over time other languages began to use capitalisations less frequently, only German writers continued to capitalise. Let’s look at some examples to see why the capitalisation of nouns actually makes German easier to read.
Frankfurt ist eine große Stadt in Deutschland mit vielen Hochhäusern.
(Frankfurt ist a large city in Germany with many skyscrapers)
Die im Zentrum Deutschlands gelegene Stadt Frankfurt ist bekannt als Banken-Metropole des Landes.
(Based in the centre of Germany, the city of Frankfurt is well-known as the banking metropolis of the country)
Es gibt nicht viele große deutsche Städte. Frankfurt ist eine von ihnen.
(There are not many large German cities. Frankfurt ist one of them)
As you can see from the examples, not only do the nouns stand out by being capitalised, they can also be distinguished from articles and adjectives that often tend to have the same endings, which could therefore be confusing.
So a typical German sentence looks a bit like the cityscape of Frankfurt, where shorter buildings (lower-case words) are mixed with larger buildings (capitalised nouns), and of course it’s the latter that stand out.
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