I am wondering how much the region from which a German author was writing in the 17th-19th centuries would affect the grammar and lexicon of his text, and would this significance be relevant to a modern reader against differences arising from the evolution of the language from then until present.

My background on the German language (and language in general) is not very strong. I know that in the past, oftentimes scholarly/informative work intended for broad or potentially international applicability was often written in Latin. Luther translated the Bible into German to make it more accessible to the people. In so doing he developed 'New High German'[1] which became more or less the standard for written German against which we now apply to other typologies to consider them to be dialects? Did the authors of important German literature from the 16-19th centuries write in High German? Why might they have/ have not?

An example I am interested in to use as a case study is On War by Carl von Clausewitz (1835). Did he write in dialect? Would someone new to learning German be able to tell the difference if he was?

Feel free to pick and choose ideas to focus in on in your answers, and answer in as much detail as you like.

[1]Martin Luther, Bible Translation, and the German Language, Anja Lobenstein-Reichmann https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.382

3 Answers 3


Literature, especially written after the 18th century, was generally written in (at least what its author and publisher considered) Hochdeutsch. Most of the German dialects don't even have a written form (maybe not even today), so it would have been hard to read, even for speakers of the dialect. And, after all, authors write for their readers, and they normally want as many of them as they can get, so write for the broadest possible audience.

You may find some partial exceptions, or rather strong hints of dialect, especially in lyrics. Friedrich Schiller, for example, wrote most of his pieces in perfect Hochdeutsch, but in some of his poems you might find verses that simply don't rhyme properly in Hochdeutsch, but rhyme very well in his native dialect, Schwäbisch.

Feur soll ich gießen auf’s Papier
mit angefrornem Finger,
oh Phöbus, hassest du Geschmier,
so wärm auch deinen Sänger.

("Finger" and "Sänger" simply don't rhyme in Hochdeutsch, but rhyme perfectly well in Schwäbisch)

While his writing was for the most part perfect Hochdeutsch, his speech, however, apparently wasn't well appreciated everywhere. One of his students in Jena wrote to a friend:

es ist weit besser, Schiller zu lesen als ihn zu hören, denn er liest mit einem unausstehlichen Dialekt

This also gives you some clue that his writing was perfectly hochdeutsch, while his talking was not.

In the specific case of von Clausewitz, who was born in what's Sachsen-Anhalt today and mainly worked in Prussian service, he wouldn't have had a very strong dialect, by far not as strong as Schiller's - Prussian was pretty much considered Hochdeutsch at that time. You might find a lot of archaisms in his writing, perhaps some regionalisms but I couldn't find any when reading Vom Kriege, and dialect: No, not at all.


German literature, especially written in the 18th and 19th century by bourgois writers, is certainly written in a language that has only minor differences to modern Hochdeutsch. If you look back to the 17th century, this might not always be the case. In the period around and after the Thirty Years War, the written German showed some appreciable differences, mostly in vocabulary, but also sometimes in grammar. These differences are not uniform, and can often be traced back to dialect roots.

Nonetheless, the difference between speaking in dialect and writing in Standard German, was something all writers were aware of. Let me give you an example from a writer who was not part of the well-educated higher class: Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, author of the 1688 bestselling novel Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus. He is from Frankonia (the Kinzig valley to be exact, although he identifies also with the Spessart hills to the south). When he uses words from his native region, he sometimes feels the need to explain:

Zwar ohngeschertzt/ mein Herkommen und Aufferziehung läst sich noch wol mit eines Fürsten vergleichen/ wann man nur den grossen Unterscheid nicht ansehen wolte/ was? Mein Knan (dann also nennet man die Vätter im Spessert) hatte einen eignen Pallast...

Shortly after, he describes a dialog with his father about the finer points of shepharding, where he freely interlaces descriptive text in Standard German with direct speech in Frankonian dialect:

Aber indessen wieder zu meiner Heerd zu kommen/ so wisset/ daß ich den Wolff eben so wenig kennet/ als meine eigene Unwissenheit selbsten; derowegen war mein Knan mit seiner Instruction desto fleissiger: Er sagte/ Bub biß fleissig/ loß di Schoff nit ze weit vunananger laffen/ un spill wacker uff der Sackpfeiffa/ daß der Wolff nit kom/ und Schada dau/ dann he yß a solcher feyerboinigter Schelm und Dieb/ der Menscha und Vieha frisst/ un wan dau awer farlässj bisst/ so will eich dir da Buckel arauma. Ich antwortet mit gleicher Holdseeligkeit: Knano/ sag mir aa/ wey der Wolff seyhet? Eich huun noch kan Wolff gesien: Ah dau grober Eselkopp/ replicirt er hinwieder/ dau bleiwest dein Lewelang a Narr/ geith meich wunner/ was auß dir wera wird/ bißt schun su a grusser Dölpel/ un waist noch neit/ was der Wolff für a feyerfeussiger Schelm iß. Er gab mir noch mehr Unterweisungen/ und wurde zuletzt unwillig/ massen er mit einem Gebrümmel fort gieng/ weil er sich beduncken liesse/ mein grober Verstand könte seine subtile Unterweisungen nicht fassen.

Da fienge ich an mit meiner Sackpfeiffen so gut Geschirr zu machen/ daß man den Krotten im Krautgarten damit hätte vergeben mögen/...

Note the interspersed latin words (Instruction, replicirt, subtile) and literary expressions never to be heard in spoken language (Holdseeligkeit, lovelyness). But then, in the next paragraph, he starts out with several dialect expressions without acknowledging them: gut Geschirr machen (gut aufspielen, strike up well), Krotten (Kröten, toads) and vergeben (vergiften, to poison).

All citations are from the first edition Nürnberg 1688, facsimile at Deutsches Textarchiv. Some typesetting features have been exchanged for more common latin letters for the sake of reproducing them in a readable way. The dialect translations are from the 1984 edition by Aufbau Verlag; there are more explanations in reference to the quoted text: feierboinigter: vierbeiniger, four-legged; arauma: vollhauen, bash up; geith meich wunner: nimmt mich wunder, it astonishes me.

The Aufbau editor, Günther Deicke, starts his remarks with the following note on edition history:

"Der abenteurliche Simplicissimus Teutsch" erschien zum ersten Male im Herbst 1688, mit der Jahreszahl 1669. Der große Erfolg dieses bei Wolff Eberhard Felßecker in Nürnberg verlegten Werkes veranlaßte den Frankfurter Verleger Georg Müller, das Werk sprachlich zu überarbeiten, mundartliche Formen Grimmelshausens durch hochsprachliche zu ersetzen und das Werk in dieser Form nachzudrucken. Felßecker rächte sich an dieser Geschäftsschädigung, indem er vermutlich Grimmelshausen veranlasste, für die nächste erweiterte Ausgabe diesen überarbeiteten Text zu verwenden. Er hoffte dadurch einen noch größeren Leserkreis zu erreichen.

(Translated with DeepL.com)

"Der abenteurliche Simplicissimus Teutsch" was first published in autumn 1688, with the date 1669. The great success of this work, published by Wolff Eberhard Felßecker in Nuremberg, prompted the Frankfurt publisher Georg Müller to revise the language of the work, to replace Grimmelshausen's dialectal forms with standard ones and to reprint the work in this form. Felßecker took revenge for this damage to his business by presumably getting Grimmelshausen to use this revised text for the next expanded edition. He thus hoped to reach an even wider readership.

He then goes on to reason why he preferred the first edition. But that is an attitude that only developed in the second half of the 20th century. Before that, revisions were common editing practices. They started with exchanging Fraktur typesetting with Latin, but also non-standard word forms, unusual grammar and "obsolete" spelling were "modernized". So even if the original work was written in a form that had more dependence on dialectal backgrounds, they would reach you in most cases in a form where everything "hard to understand" had long been expunged, or would be explained in footnotes (from a 1874 edition):

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  • Interesting that you consider the language outside direct speech as regional/dialect - When I read the Simplicissimus, I considered them archaisms - Simply a sort of non-complete standardization of Hochdeutsch ("Krotte", for example, is common all over southern Germany).
    – tofro
    Apr 20 at 19:10

Tofro has supplied a good answer, but I would like to add that there is a large amount of literature in German dialects, especially in verse, but also in prose. For example, Hauptmann’s play “Die Weber” is entirely in Silesian dialect. Bach’s “Bauernkantate” uses Saxon dialect. When I was living in Strasbourg I collected a couple of books written entirely in Alsatian dialect and published in France.

  • 1
    Hmm. In your examples (which I consider exceptions), the dialect is used as a vehicle, both in the play and in the music piece, to transport social class distance. So, I think your examples even confirm what's in my answer - Text books have been written in High German. And I think the question doesn't really relate to the relatively modern development of dialect books.
    – tofro
    Apr 20 at 8:37

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