German is a West Germanic language. It derives most of its vocabulary from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. A number of words are derived from Latin and Greek, and fewer from French and English. Widely spoken languages which are most similar to German include Luxembourgish, Dutch, the Frisian languages, English and the Scandinavian languages.
German is written using the Latin alphabet. In addition to the 26 standard letters, German has three vowels with umlauts (Ä/ä, Ö/ö, and Ü/ü) and the letter ß (a special kind of “s(s)”, called “Eszett” or “scharfes Es”; it originated as a ligature of archaic forms of the letters s and z, which were represented as ſ and ʒ, respectively, that is, ſ + ʒ = ſʒ = ß).
German is spoken natively by about 100 million people, making it the most widely spoken native language in the European Union and one of the major languages of the world.
German is a pluricentric language, with multiple countries having their own standardised variants (e.g. Austrian German, Swiss Standard German) as well as many dialects. There is also one variant referred to as Standard German.
German is the only official language of Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein; one of the official languages of Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Belgium; and a recognised minor language in many other countries, such as Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Namibia, and Poland. At the same time, German is the second most commonly used scientific language and the third largest contributor to research and development, as well as an important language in business, culture, history, literature, philosophy and theology. Worldwide, Germany is ranked number 5 in terms of annual publication of new books. One tenth of all books (including e-books) in the world are published in German. German is also the third most used content language for websites.
The history of the language begins with the High German consonant shift during the migration period, separating Old High German dialects from Old Saxon. The earliest evidence of Old High German is from scattered Elder Futhark inscriptions, especially in Alemannic, from the sixth century AD; the earliest glosses (Abrogans) date to the eighth; and the oldest coherent texts (the Hildebrandslied, the Muspilli and the Merseburg Incantations) to the ninth century. Old Saxon at this time belonged to the North Sea Germanic cultural sphere, and Low Saxon was to fall under German rather than Anglo-Frisian influence during the Holy Roman Empire.