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I've been wondering for some time,

  • Why do Germans use inverted guillemets (»…«) in contrast with the original French use (« … »)?
  • When did such usage begin?

(They are originally French, right? Since they're named guillemets in both languages ...)

There must be some historical reason for this usage and I've been looking all over the Internet and haven't been able to find any useful information.

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If you look at this you will further see that there are all kinds of differences, e.g. both guillemets to the right in Finnish or the primary quotes in English and German (66-99 vs. 99-66). It dazzles the mind. –  musiKk Nov 24 '11 at 8:25
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2 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The origin of guillemets in France

The usage of quotation marks dates back to times before typography but it was only in 1527 when Guillaume defined them for usage in printingWikipedia France. This was mainly done for France.

Interestingly even later in 1663 the German typographer Schottel, being the first who systematically wrote a guide for using punctuation in German typography did not define quotation marks in his "Ausführliche Arbeit Von der Teutschen HaubtSprache":

Original scan from the contents on punctuation from Schottel, 1663


There is quite a concise essay on the development of the French guillemet written by Pedro Uribe Echeverria (L'Express). From this we can see that the guillemet is likely to have originated from simple marks in handwritings:

After that there may have been an evolution using quotation marks similar to those used in English and German:

Guillaume postulated to have these marks

  1. on the same line as the letters, and
  2. to have them related to parentheses

Thus the known form (« ») used in France today resulted.


Guillemets in Germany

For Germany there is no rule to invert these "French" guillemets. In fact in the mid 19th Century only the French way of setting them was mentioned:

enter image description here

Carl August Franke: Handbuch der Buchdruckerkunst, 1855

Later - by the end of the 19th Century - both variants were possible:

Anführungszeichen (Gänsefüßchen, frz. guillemets), zwei Paar Strichelchen („-“) oder Häkchen («-» auch »-«), welche dazu dienen, die Gedanken oder Worte jemandes, specielle Bezeichnungen, Buchtitel u. dgl. hervorzuheben.Brockhaus 1894-96

I was unable to find any reference for a rule or a convention that conclusively explains why later guillemets were inversed in modern German (but not Swiss) typography. Some say that it may be connected to not being able to print guillemets in Fraktur. The most convincing idea however may be that it was merely a simplification of typesetting that led to inversed guillemets:

In Deutschland setzt man Guillemets am liebsten mit einwärts ge­wand­ter Spitze. Dies bringt den Vor­teil mit sich, daß man den Abstand zwi­schen dem Guil­le­met und dem benach­bar­ten Buch­sta­ben nicht hän­disch zu­rich­ten muß. Daneben ist gelegentlich aber auch die Manier mit auswärts ge­wand­ten Spi­tzen an­zu­tref­fen. Hier wen­det sich die Sei­te der Gly­phe mit der vollen Höhe dem be­nachbar­ten Buch­sta­ben zu. Der Setzer darf nicht zu­las­sen, daß sich die Zei­chen berühren oder zu nahe kommen. Deshalb bleibt diese Vari­an­te Fällen vor­behal­ten, wo größere Sorg­falt an­gewandt und damit Geld und Zeit in Kauf ge­nom­men werden. Belles Lettres

This together with a preference for other letters than in French (including many upper case letters within sentences) may be the only reason why typographers inverted the guillemets in Germany.

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Das deutsche Wikipedia behauptet, daß es Guillaume fälschlicherweise zugeschrieben wurde. (Wobei ich dort ein [citation needed] vermisse ;) –  John Smithers Nov 24 '11 at 10:05
    
Nice edit, but I can't upvote any harder. –  John Smithers Nov 24 '11 at 22:42
    
Thanks, this does shed some light on the question. –  Dejan Govc Nov 25 '11 at 17:47
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As Takkat already pointed out and as you can also look up at typolexikon.de, the guillemets developed from parentheses. Which also means that they could have been easily mixed up with parentheses.

So it is very likely (but I cannot prove it), that someone decided to write the guillemets the other way around to avoid confusion with the parentheses. Or he thought they look better pointing inwards. Or he hated these « ugly, frog-eating » Frenchmen so much that he decided to not adopt their use of guillemets.

The last one is not just a joke. Remember that France was for centuries the Erbfeind (Arch-Fiend) of Germany. So there can be many reasons and I doubt that we are able to figure it out today. The origins got lost or nobody thought it would be ever important. How wrong they were ;)How wrong I was! Takkat found it out.

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