There’s a Martin Luther Playmobile figure and a Martin Luther noodle. It’s hard to escape the reformer’s face during the 2017 jubilee year. But what does the Reformation have to do with the present day? A lot, say researchers from many disciplines at the University of Halle. Because the Reformation’s legacy extends far beyond that of theology.
In the beginning, says Professor Hans-Joachim Solms, there is language. “It all starts with Luther’s Bible translation. It is the dawn of the modern age.” Luther’s 1545 Bible was a bestseller during the waning Middle Ages and helped to gradually develop Early High German into a supra-regional written language. “Luther gave a decisive boost to vernacular language, laying the foundations for the New High German that we speak today,” says the language historian. There had never been a standard German language. “People found it difficult to understand others living just 30 miles away. Luther was aware of this himself. They spoke in dialect and even the written word – to the extent that there was any command of it – was regionally distinct.” It was primarily used by public officials and scholars, who very often wrote in Latin.
Scholars who widely travelled did, however, possess a “supra-regional language” which Luther capitalised on when translating the Holy Scripture into German, Solms explains. Wherever he could, the reformer chose words that could be understood across regions.
Even the printers in Wittenberg, who were the first to publish Luther’s writings, left their mark on our language. “They strove to achieve a standard form of spelling. The convention of capitalising nouns today asserted itself through its use in the Bible,” says the language historian. Solms and Professor Helmut Glück, a linguist from the University of Bamberg, are currently working on a third-party-funded project examining the extent to which Luther’s Bible translation influenced the development of Eastern European languages.
Language was ultimately modelled after Luther’s Bible in broad stretches of Germany. Children learned to read and write in the spirit of the reformers, using this “Biblia Deudsch” and Luther’s catechism. Even his church songs played a decisive role in disseminating Early New High German. “His musical poetry and scoring became an indispensable part of the Protestant hymn. From a music-history perspective, the Reformation can be regarded as the first major song movement of modern times,” says music educationalist Dr Christine Klein. “As a result, a group feeling and a common identity emerged,” adds Hans-Joachim Solms. People felt connected through the language of the Bible.
Emotional mental cinema
Solms attests to Luther’s exceptional feeling for language. “He was ingenious with language. He aligned himself with the spoken word of the people and produced a written language that was much more vivid and understandable than church texts had previously been.” In his “Open Letter on Translating”, Luther wrote about his work with language: “(..) one must ask the mother at home, the children in the streets, the common man at the market, look at their lips, how they speak, and translate based on this.” Yet, despite this: “Luther is not the father of our language,” Solms makes plain. The reformer garnered inspiration from other Medieval authors. Today many coinages are ascribed to Martin Luther even though there is little evidence that they can be originally traced back to him.
The modernity of his centuries-old language still fascinates us. “Luther delivered visual messages in his language which enabled him to make himself and his translations discernible and perceptible. Words such as Lückenbüßer (stopgaps) and Machtwort (an authoritative intervention) appeal to our power of imagination. He emotionalises,” says Professor Steffen Leuschner who teaches media theory and media practice part-time at the University of Halle. Modern media design also strives to achieve this. “We, too, want to mobilise this mental cinema.”
Above all, Luther was able to remove the veil of unintelligibility from existing conditions through his clear use of language. “You have to express yourself in a comprehensible and authentic way in order to get your ideas across. That remains true today – for example in seminars where students demand clarity,” says the professor of visual communication.
Education for all
The reformers believed that successful communication also meant that every believer should be able to study the Holy Scriptures themselves. By scripture alone – sola scriptura – the faithful could achieve their own access to God. In 1520 Luther wrote: “Shouldn’t every single Christian at age nine or ten know the Holy Gospel in which his name and his life is written?” The educational programme that he created for this purpose, together with “Germany’s teacher” Philipp Melanchthon, left an indelible mark on society. “It is fair to say that the general idea of education in the sense of compulsory schooling has roots in the Reformation since, according to Luther’s way of thinking, every child – whether boy or girl – should learn to read the Holy Scripture,” observes religious education specialist Professor Michael Domsgen. “The reformers believed that every person could be and should be educated.” Furthermore, according to the reformers, the responsibility for education should no longer lie with the Church. Instead it should be the responsibility of secular rulers. The protestant princes developed an institutional education system, thereby laying the foundations for our general education system today.
Rationality and conscience