Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen 4 – Reading Early Modern German

By Henrike Lähnemann

This is part of a series of introductory posts for the updated edition and translation of Martin Luther’s Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen und Fürbitte der Heiligen (An Open Letter on Translating and the Intercession of Saints), published as Volume 5 of the Treasures of the Taylorian. Series One: Reformation Pamphlets.

1. The Historical Context (Ulrich Bubenheimer)
2. The Translation Controversy (Howard Jones)
3. The Publication (Henrike Lähnemann)
4. Reading Early Modern German (Henrike Lähnemann)

The following is meant as a practical guide for studying early modern print publications and – preferably – for reading them out aloud. Early modern German was written to be performed. Luther’s audience would have had exposure to German verse and prose largely as listeners, whether through mystery plays, sermons, or public performance of the works of the ‘Meistersinger’. The best approach to what may seem at first to be an impenetrable succession of clauses is therefore to read them aloud, particularly since Luther wrote the Sendbrief to argue for the importance of idiomatic expression and the ‘street value’ of language.

We have not normalized the spelling, because the inconsistency is part of the reality of written German at the time. The short guide below is intended to help the modern reader decipher the transcription and enjoy the rhetorical flourish of Luther’s style. The main rule of thumb is to pronounce the words like their modern German equivalents regardless of differences in spelling.

  1. Punctuation
    Early modern prints use full stops, brackets, question marks, and virgules as punctuation marks. The ‘/’ Virgel (virgule or forward slash) is the main means of structuring sentences, and can stand for both a comma and a semicolon. It is best to treat a virgule like a musical caesura, to pause for breath.
  2. Abbreviations
    Early prints took over from manuscripts some handy ways to save space. The main abbreviation mark is a bar (macron) over characters ‘-’. As a nasal bar above any letter it replaces a following n such as ‘dē’ = den or (for Latin case endings only) an m such as ‘Christū’ = Christum. The macron is also habitually used for ‘vn̄’ = und. Confusingly, the rounded z-form ‘ʒ’ stands both for z and for a number of established abbreviations, particularly in ‘dʒ’ / ‘wʒ’= das / was and ‘qʒ’ = que. The z-forms used for abbreviations have been rendered as ʒ. Occasionally a hook is used for the -er ending, e.g. ‘ď’ = der. If you cannot figure out an abbreviation the first time it occurs, carry on reading – they come up again and again.
  3. u/v/w – v/f – i/j/y, and different s- and r-forms
    The Roman alphabet had only one symbol for u and v and one for i and j. u/v/w are interchangeable, as are i/j/y, and v/f are both used for f, e.g. ‘vnd’ = und; ‘trewe’ = treue; ‘vleissig’ = fleißig; ‘jhn’ = ihn. In most cases, letters are pronounced as in the equivalent modern German word.
    The two typographically different forms for s (long ſ versus round s) and for r (the round form of r = 2 being mainly used after characters with a rounded right hand border such as o or – in the font used by Petreius – h) in the print have not been distinguished in the transcription.
  4. Umlaut and superscript e
    The umlaut sound would have been in the same position as in modern German but there is no strict rule for writing it; modern ä is mostly spelt as e, e.g. ‘lestern’ = lästern; modern ü and ö are mostly spelt with a superscript e as in ‘Rotzloͤffel’ for Rotzlöffel. Sometimes umlaut is not indicated but implied, especially when v is used instead of u, e.g. ‘vber’ for über; also ‘ſuſſe’ for süße. Occasionally an umlaut is marked with superscript e where none would be expected in modern German, e.g. ‘Luͤthers’ for Luthers. In most of the cases, umlaut should be used whenever there is one in modern German.
  5. Diacritical marks above u
    Superscript o and double dots above u as in ‘bůch’ for Buch and ‘saüren’ for sauren originate from the manuscript practice of distinguishing u from n by a diacritical mark. Sometimes they are placed where an umlaut would be used (fürst) but in general, diacritical marks above u can be ignored; umlauts (see 4) are independent of diacritical marks.
  6. Double versus single consonants and s/ß, k/ck, z/tz, r/rh, t/th
    There is no consistency in writing single and double consonants such as f/ff or n/nn, nor is there a difference in pronunciation, i.e. ‘tauffe’ and ‘taufe’ are pronounced the same. This also applies to s and ß (the latter started out as a ligature of long ſ and z to indicate a double consonant), to k and ck (the spelling for double k), and to z and tz. Note that tz always sounds like modern German z, i.e. ts, not like English z. The spelling of initial r and t as rh (‘rhümen’) and th (‘thun’) is a common feature of Humanist writing, inspired by the transliteration of Greek rho (ρ) and theta (θ) into German as rh and th. Again, almost all consonants can be pronounced like their modern German equivalents.
  7. Use of h and e after vowels; long and short vowels
    While in medieval German each letter would have been sounded, e.g. ‘lieb’ would have had a diphthong in the middle, e after vowels had become silent in 16th century. This is evident from the use of e after i where there never was a diphthong, e.g. the word ‘diesen’. The same applies to h. In most instances a following e or h indicates a long preceding vowel, but this is not consistent, e.g. ‘jhm’ can stand both for modern im and ihm. Do not therefore pronounce h and e after vowels, but use long and vowels as in modern German.
  8. Word division and ‘Zusammenschreibung’
    Hyphens in the form of ‘=’ are used frequently but not consistently to indicate the continuation of words across line-breaks; if typesetters ran out of space in a line, they would assume that the reader would be able to link words without this visual prompt. Clear single words have been joined in the transcription, e.g. ‘od|[linebreak]der’ as ‘odder’, but the irregular use of spaces between compounds such as ‘Esels koͤpffen’ for Eselsköpfen, ‘zu rissen’ for zerrissen or conversely ‘zuuerdeutschen’ for zu verdeutschen has not been normalized.
  9. Capital letters
    Capital letters are used as in English to indicate the beginning of new sentences and for proper names but also for emphasis in words such as ‘Sola’, ‘Esel’ or ‘Testament’; these have not been normalized since they highlight key terms.
  10. Syncope, apocope, and contraction
    Unstressed vowels are sometimes absent where we should expect them in NHG, either mid-word (syncope), e.g. ‘gsagt’, ‘gnug’, or at word-end (apocope), e.g. ‘frag’, ‘sach’ (note that the opposite also happens, e.g. ‘saget’, ‘stehet’). Such vowel loss can cause confusion, e.g. ‘dolmetscht’, which looks like a present, may stand for the preterite ‘dolmetschete’. Sometimes a consonant is lost along with a vowel, especially a repeated consonant, e.g. ‘laut’ for ‘lautet’, ‘veracht’ for ‘verachtet’, ‘verstorben’ for ‘verstorbenen’. Vowel loss also occurs by contraction between words, e.g. ‘ers’ for ‘er es’, ‘wissens’ for ‘wissen es’, ‘zun’ for ‘zu den’.
  11. Zero inflections and absence of ge- prefixes
    Some neuter plurals have a zero-inflection in ENHG and look like singulars, e.g. ‘das/die werk’, ‘das/die wort’. Strong adjectives in the nominative and accusative singular could also be zero-inflected, e.g. ‘ein solch fein hubsch new deutsch Testament’, ‘solch vnleidlich tyranney’. The past participles of some ENHG verbs may be formed without the ge- prefix, notably komen, troffen, gangen (and its compounds), geben, and (even outside the passive) worden.
  12. Omission of auxiliaries and personal subject pronouns
    The auxiliaries haben and sein are sometimes omitted, especially in subordinate clauses, e.g.  ‘damit er … nichts dauon gesagt’ (NHG gesagt hat), ‘diesen sendtbrieff / der mir … zu handen kommen’ (NHG gekommen ist). Personal pronouns are also sometimes left out where they would appear in NHG, e.g. ‘Vn̄ zeigt … an’ (NHG Und ihr zeigt … an).

Sample transcription

Sendbrief, top of a2v

   Zum andern muͤgt yhr sagen / das ich das Newe Testamēt verdeutscht habe / auff mein bestes vermuͤgen vnd auff mein ge wissen / habe damit niemand  gezwungen / das ers lese / sondern frey gelasen / vnd allein zu dienst gethan denen / die es nicht besser machen koͤnnen / Ist niemandt verboten ein bessers zu machen.

The equivalent modern German text with normalized punctuation, capitalization, no abbreviations, and umlaut:

Zum andern mögt ihr sagen, dass ich das Neue Testament verdeutscht habe auf mein bestes Vermögen und auf mein Gewissen; habe damit niemand gezwungen, dass er’s lese, sondern frei gelassen und allein zu Dienst getan denen, die es nicht besser machen können; ist niemand verboten, ein bessers zu machen.

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