When did the tradition of capitalising nouns begin in the German language? What role did Martin Luther, Johann Gottsched and Conrad Duden play in this? What are the exceptions to the rule?

When you start learning German, you face many difficulties at once: a different typeface, a different sentence structure, for some reason the articles are suddenly needed and… nouns are suddenly capitalised.

How did the tradition come about

German is very strict and logical, and everything in the language has an explanation, even the big letters.

The tradition of capitalising nouns dates back to the Middle Ages.

In those days, church and religion played a very special role in the life of society as a whole. As a sign of respect and special honour to God, in the texts of Holy Scripture and other written sources, his name was capitalised: Gott.

The feudal lords and those in power, wishing to strengthen their power, sought to emphasise their belonging to the highest stratum of society and their being chosen by God. Kings and emperors, following them dukes, princes started to insist on capitalization of their titles.

In the middle of the 16th century, Martin Luther, the German theologian and initiator of the Reformation, translated the Bible from Latin into German.

At that time, Germany was made up of a number of small principalities and states, each with its own feudal lord. The principalities and feudal estates often feuded with each other and were largely closed. The boundaries of the principalities and estates determined the boundaries of the dialects and accents, so that Germans from the north did not always understand Germans from the south.

The first thing necessary for unity was a common language, and the Bible, the Christian holy book, was the bearer of that language. With the spread of the Bible translation into German the linguistic norms used by Luther also spread and took hold. Particularly, Luther proposed to capitalise not only the king and his courtiers, but also the names of all the estates and offices – peasants, nobility, craftsmen, merchants and so on.

In the 18th century, a famous German philologist and educator Johannes Gottescheid suggested capitalizing not only the names of offices, but all names in general – i.e. all nouns. This was meant to highlight semantic dominants in sentences.

For a long time German thinkers and philosophers have had a debate and discussion about spelling.

Goethe and Jacob Grimm, in particular, were against capitalising nouns, considering it an unnecessary redundancy.

But the great lexicographer Conrad Duden has the last word in the argument. Everyone who learns German is familiar with the Duden dictionaries – you can use them to check how to spell a particular word and what it means. At the beginning of the 20th century, a conference of German philologists and linguists, in which, you guessed it, Conrad Duden participated, established the spelling of German nouns with a capital letter.

Today, even Germans themselves would be hard put to find an answer to the question why tables, chairs, spoons and forks etc. have to be capitalised in German.

Many people would prefer to make a joke about it, to distinguish themselves from other Germanic languages such as English, Danish etc. Young people often neglect this norm on the internet, in chat rooms, in emails and text messages: here, everything is written with a lower case, sometimes even first names.

According to the spelling reform that took place in Germany at the end of the last century, some nouns that used to be capitalised in set phrases are now written with a small letter and vice versa. Here are some examples of the most common words.

Capitalized are:

im Grunde, zur Seite, Auto fahren, Rad fahren, Radio hören, Tee trinken, Zeitung lesen, Not leiden, Gefahr laufen, Angst haben, Wert legen auf etwas, (keine) Schuld tragen, eines Abends, des Nachts, letzten Endes, guten Mutes, schlechter Laune

With a small letter:

etwas ernst nehmen, ernst sein/werden, recht sein, unrecht sein, einmal, diesmal, nochmal.

But: Ernst machen mit etwas (capital letter!), recht/Recht haben (capital or small!), zum ersten Mal (capital letter!).

The parts of the strong word combinations that stand for time will also be capitalised after the words: vorgestern, gestern, heute, morgen, übermorgen.

For example: Wir treffen uns heute Mittag. Die Frist läuft übermorgen Mitternacht ab. Sie rief gestern Abend an.
But – abends, nachts, keinesfalls, andernorts – will be written with a small letter.

It is also worth mentioning the spelling of ‘you’ (Du). In the past it was customary to capitalise “Du” as a sign of respect for the addressee. Nowadays the Duden dictionary gives us the standard spelling of ‘du’ with a small ‘du’ in all cases except personal letters: in that case it is recommended to write du with a small letter, however if the writer wants he can also write Du with a capital letter to emphasise his special relation to the addressee.

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