Tracing the Evolution of the German Language and German Prepositions through an Interdisciplinary Approach

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Bi-College (Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges). Department of German and German Studies
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The evolution of the German language is incredibly complex. Changes in the language have occurred due to the influence of other cultures and languages in close physical proximity to it, as well as shifts in power. Particularly with regards to the influence of power dynamics on the language over the course of its history, power has shifted from group to group, and often even from one realm of German society (e.g. religion, culture, politics) to another. Moreover, what scholars call today the historical political fragmentation of the German-speaking regions, as well as the perceived need for their unification, has led to the eventual creation of a German nationstate. In my thesis, I took an interdisciplinary approach to examine these such factors, as understanding them helped me to trace the evolution of the written German language. Through a humanities-based approach, I examined the works produced by different literary movements, prominent literary figures, and any others who had substantial religious, cultural, or political power. The respective prescriptive and/or descriptive natures of these works shaped the language over time. The linguistics-based approach informed the humanities-based approach to understanding the evolution of the German language, by providing a quantitative measure of how German prepositions have evolved. Specifically, the study on German prepositions attempted to answer the question: have uses of German prepositions become less spatial (i.e. more nonspatial) over time? The prediction was that uses of German prepositions have become less spatial over time. However, contrary to the prediction, when all of the samples containing durch, bei, and an were analyzed together, year of use of the prepositions was not a significant predictor of the likelihood of their type of use. When the prepositions were examined independently, though, the results varied. For durch, year of use was not a significant predictor of the likelihood of its type of use, though the model suggested that uses of durch tended to be less spatial over time. For bei, year of use was a significant predictor of the likelihood of its becoming less spatial over time, and for an, the effect was reversed. The humanities-based approach helped to explain these unexpected results from the linguistics-based approach, while the linguistics-based approach determined the extent to which the conclusions drawn in the humanities-based approach held true. The humanities-based approach informed the linguistics-based approach, and vice versa, in the examination of the texts that shaped the German language over time.