Wednesday, May 22, 2019

How to Learn German in Order to Read 16th-17th c. Lutheran Theology

How to Learn German

Beginner Adult, Already Knows Foreign Languages

Consider taking a course from a real instructor. I find that this works best to begin learning any language. Wittenberg Academy is an affordable way to do this. Contact Mrs. Jocelyn Benson ( for details.

Wilson, April. German Quickly: A Grammar for Reading German. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

Linda C. DeMeritt, German Grammar (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), or similar. What is needed is a grammar that has charts of all the forms of the nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, etc.

Or try the free, online resource:

A decent online dictionary for modern German (not for theology or early modern high German) is:

Begin to read the Bible in German. At first, use the 1984 Lutherbibel, for example: Die Bibel nach Martin Luther 1984: Mit Apokryphen (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012). This is comparable in accuracy (or inaccuracy, as the case may be) to the ESV.

Adult Who Knows Some Modern German

At this point, consider learning conversational German. University courses are best for this purpose, but otherwise consider a text such as: Lothar Kahn, Intermediate Conversational German (New York, American Book Company, 1963).

This is also a good time to plan to study in Germany. Both seminaries of the LCMS send one exchange student per year to the Lutherische Theologische Hochschule in Oberursel ( But if you are not selected for Oberursel, there are also other ways to have an immersion study experience in Germany. See for more information, and contact me for suggestions on creating a study-abroad experience in connection with a supportive sister congregation in Germany. The connection with a supportive sister congregation is important for many reasons, one of which is that often the best learning comes from a faithful, scholarly pastor showing you good German theological literature.

Use a primer in theological German in order to learn the theological vocabulary. For example:

J. D. Manton, Introduction to Theological German (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1973).

Helmut W. Ziefle, Modern Theological German: A Reader and Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).

Walter M. Mosse, A Theological German Vocabulary: German Theological Key Words Illustrated in Quotations from Martin Luther’s Bible and the Revised Standard Version (New York, Octagon Books, 1955).

At this point you should also become familiar with the old German typeface, commonly called Fraktur. To do so, start to read in a theological reader such as the following:

Martin Bertram, ed., Stimmen der Kirche (St. Louis: Concordia, 1961). The reprint from Concordia Publishing House includes a chart that compares Roman and Fraktur typefaces. Purchase it from CPH.

If you can find a Fraktur edition of the 1912 Lutherbibel, it’s time to start reading it instead of the 1984. It is comparable to the NKJV, though some of the phraseology is old.

Speaking of the Lutherbibel, modern German dictionaries will not help you to read the old versions. Here are some dictionaries that will help you read not just the 1912 Lutherbibel, but also 19th century German (e.g., old LCMS stuff):

Johann Christoph Adelung, Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart (1793–1801), available free online.

Or other 19th-century German-English dictionaries.

There are specific dictionaries for Luther’s German Bible. One of them is:

W. A. Jütting, Biblisches Wörterbuch enthaltend eine Erklärung der alterthümlichen und seltenen Ausdrücke in M. Luther's Bibelübersetzung. Für Geistliche und Lehrer (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1864), available free online.

Advanced German for the Study of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions

Now it’s time to read Luther’s 1545 German Bible. Not everything on the internet that calls itself the 1545 Lutherbibel is the real, genuine 1545 Luther Bible with Luther’s spelling and marginal notes. You can read it online. There are also modules for various Bible apps that feature the “Lutherbibel letzter Hand.” The critical edition of Luther’s German Bible is in the Deutsche Bibel section of the Weimar Edition (WA).

To make sense of 16th-century German, first consult the explanation of early modern high German in: Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, 12th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), vii–x.

If more introduction is desired, see also:

Frédéric Hartweg & Klaus-Peter Wegera, Frühneuhochdeutsch: Eine Einführung in die deutsche Sprache des Spätmittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, second edition, Germanistische Arbeits-Hefte 33 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2005).

“Zum Verständnis der Luthersprache,” in Martin Luther: Studienausgabe, Hans-Ulrich Delius, ed., vol. 1 (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1979), 13–28.

Herbert Penzl, Frühneuhochdeutsch, Germanistische Lehrbuchsammlung 9 (Bern: P. Lang, 1984).

The best compact grammar of Frühneuhochdeutsch is: Frühneuhochdeutsche Grammatik, ed. Robert Ebert, Oskar Reichmann, Klaus-Peter Wegera, Sammlung kurzer Grammatiken germanischer Dialekte 12 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1993).

The following works deal specifically with Luther’s language:

Carl Franke, Grundzüge der Schriftsprache Luthers in allgemeinverständlicher Darstellung, 3 volumes (Halle: Waisenhaus, 1913; reprint Hildesheim: Olms 1973). Helpful also as a glossary. This has been scanned and can be downloaded from Google Books: first copy, second copy, third copy, fourth copy. Note: the Google Books version has different pagination and paragraph enumeration than the Olms edition.

Ernst Thiele, Luthers Sprichwörtersammlung (Weimar: Böhlau, 1900; reprint Leipzig: Reprint-Verlag, 1996). (Cf. WA 51:634–731.) Available for download from Google Books.

The definitive dictionary of Frühneuhochdeutsch will be: Frühneuhochdeutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Ulrich Goebel & Oskar Reichmann, 13 volumes projected [1-4 and fasicles of vols 5-9 & 11 available as of 11/2006] (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1989-).

Meanwhile, the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, which begins its coverage with Luther, is authoritative and is now freely available online. Its advantage—comprehensiveness—is also its disadvantage: it can be cumbersome to use. Nevertheless, being able to do digital searches online makes it a crucial resource. Deutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, 33 volumes (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1854-1971; repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 2003-); available online at . Be aware that this work spells the “ß” as “sz”. For example, if trying to look up “Buße,” you should search for “Busze” rather than “Busse”.

Lexer’s Mittelhochdeutsches Handwörterbuch extends through the fifteenth century and is sometimes helpful for Luther’s German: Mittelhochdeutsches Handwörterbuch, ed. Matthias Lexer (Stuttgart: Hirzel, 1872-1878; reprint 1974), available online at

Two pocket-sized dictionaries of early modern High German are readily available:

Frühneuhochdeutsches Glossar, ed. Alfred Götze, Kleine Texte für Vorlesungen und Übungen 101, seventh edition (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1971).

Kleines frühneuhochdeutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Christa Baufeld (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1996).

Paul Dietz’ dictionary of Luther’s German is highly accurate and easy to use. It is slowly being expanded, but still only extends from A-Hornig:

Wörterbuch zu Martin Luthers deutschen Schriften, ed. Paul Dietz (Leipzig, 1870-1872; repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1961) [only up to “Hals”]. The original edition appeared in fascicles and stopped part way through the second volume. This work is also available as a free download via Google Book Search:

Gustav & Renate Bebermeyer, Wörterbuch zu Martin Luthers deutschen Schriften: Wortmonographien zum Lutherwortschatz: anknüpfend an Philipp Dietz, Wörterbuch zu Dr. Martin Luthers deutschen Schriften (Hildesheim: Olms, 1993-) [to Hornig].

Wander’s Sprichwörterlexikon is a comprehensive source for German proverbial sayings. It can now be searched conveniently at Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1830-1880).

Are there any others that should be added to the list?


  1. Several students have also used April Wilson, German Quickly. Does anyone know that book?

  2. Here’s a bilingual edition of the 1912 Lutherbibel.

  3. Here’s advice on selecting a dictionary.

    Carl Eduard Aue, Elementary German Grammar With Exercies (1897). The exercises have most of the answers in footnotes.
    Roscoe James Ham and Arthur Newton Leonard, Brief German Grammar (1908). Includes exercises, but not the answers.
    E. S. Sheldon, A Short German Grammar for High Schools and Colleges (1889). Includes exercies, but not the answers.
    W. H. van der Smissen and W. H. Fraser, Harrap's Modern German Grammar with Exercises and Vocabularies (1957). Includes exercises, but not the answers.
    Edward S. Joynes, Practical German Grammar: A German Grammar in Progressive Lessons (1907). Includes exercises, but not the answers.
    Beresford-Webb, A Practical German Grammar (1888).

    August Prehn, A Practical Guide to a Scientific Study of the German Vocabulary (1912).

    Charles Harris, A German Grammar (1914).
    Calvin Thomas, A Practical German Grammar (1898)
    William D. Whitney, A Compendious German Grammar (mid 1800s)

    J.D. Manton, Introduction to Theological German (1971). Temporary use only.
    Walter M. Mosse, A Theological German Vocabulary (1955). Temporary use only.
    Helmut W. Ziefle, Modern Theological German: A Reader and Dictionary (1997). Temporary use only.

  5. Here are some resources for reading Frühneuhochdeutsch (Luther's language):
    In particular, I'd suggest Kleines frühneuhochdeutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Christa Baufeld; and Dietz, Wörterbuch zu Martin Luthers deutschen Schriften.

    Here are the best online dictionaries of Frühneuhochdeutsch: (but it's still incomplete); ; (update of the DWB, covering letters A-F); (easier to use than DWB);
    Johann Ebers, The New and Complete Dictionary of the German and English Languages, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Breitkopf and Haertel, 1797-1799).

    1. A-G
    2. H-R
    3. S-Z