Language and Literature

In a time of political fights and wars in which Napoleon came to rule almost all European countries and made the Hessian Kassel the residence of the “Kingdom of Westphalia, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, about 20 years old, started their “Old German” studies. They were going to revive the “sleeping writings” of the Old German Literature and directly make it fruitful for the present. They were not interested in the “words” of the monuments of language and literature, which they edited, alone; they were rather trying to explore “the words for the sake of it.

Language had its own history to them: it was neither inborn nor ordained by God, but it was the work of man and his thinking. “The power of language creates a people and holds it together. Without such a connection, this people could not be held together.” Jacob Grimm wrote this in his 1851 academy writing “On the Origin of Language”.

In their research the Grimms focused on the Germanic languages and literatures with all their historical diversities and developments, even though they used to work in numerous neighbouring areas, as well.

With their groundbreaking historically comparative method Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm have not only founded today’s “Germanistik”, the German studies of language and literature, but also strongly impacted on all modern philologies.

By means of unconditionally going back to all attainable language documents, careful comparison of old manuscripts and fragments, involving literary and non- literary sources and the preservation of the historical nature of and its specific poetic style of the old texts, they were able to understand important lingual and literary works in their original meanings without outside additions or paraphrases. This way, they were able to present important critical editions of Middle High German as well as of other medieval literature.

In 1812 they proved their philological accuracy with their edition of the two “oldest German poems”, the Old High German “The Song of Hildebrand” and the “Wessobrunn Prayer”. For they not only provided a reprint of each manuscript in the original format as well as an ideal “restoration” of the poetic substance of the historical poetry, they also delivered a literal Modern German translation and a free translation which they called a “paraphrase”.

Further editions show the great spectrum of their critical editorial work, for example the “The Merseburg Incantations”, “The Song of Roland””, the works by Hartmann von Aue und Konrad von Würzburg, by the poet Freidank, the Old Nordic “Edda” or the widespread animal legends about “Ysengrimus” and Reinhardt Fuchs” as well as the expansive collections of the “German Law Antiquities” and the “Weistümer”.

With his major work on “The Germanic Legends” Wilhelm Grimm also delivered a list of all attainable textual references and at the same time a structured compilation of the contents of the various legends.

“The beauty of old prose can be brought back to life poetically just as little as precious animals can be made to multiply on a foreign piece of land without suffering and dying. Old prose can only be enjoyed from a historical perspective.“ Jacob Grimm wrote this in a letter to his brother Wilhelm in 1809.

In 1850 he expanded on this: Critical Philology, as soon as it can make use of the majority of a work’s manuscripts, often tends to clarity/ expose the real or fake, the original or the altered aspects and does so according to the age like internal and external signs of the text’s thoroughly developed trunk and branches. This is often accomplished with the most fortunate inference.”

The Brother Grimm’s systematic and critical studies led to groundbreaking discoveries, which will always be connected to the name Grimm. For example, Jacob was the first to formulate the law which describes the Germanic and German sound shifts in his enormous, several thousand pages covering “German Grammar”. Here, he explained the historical and mutual relationship among all Germanic languages from Gothic to Modern German. The German literary figure Heinrich Heine called Jacob Grimm’s Grammar “ a giant work, a Gothic cathedral in which all Germanic peoples raise their voices like large choirs, each one in his own dialect.”

The “German Dictionary”, which was initiated in 1838 in Kassel and encompassed the entire Modern German vocabulary from Luther to Goethe, was supposed to cover “the natural history of the single words” and crowned the unique academic achievement of the Bothers Grimm. The Grimm’s Dictionary, which could only be completed from letters A to (F)rucht in the Grimm’s time, finally covered 16 volumes in 32 partial volumes with 67.744 columns as a whole after its completion in 1960. In addition, an expansive volume with a list of all sources was published in 1971. Until today this work is regarded as one of the greatest achievements of European linguistics.

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