What is a Duden? Is it just a wordbook? A dictionary? A sort of Encyclopedia? A bit of a grammar guide? In truth, it’s all of those things. The German Duden or Vollständiges Orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Complete Orthographical Dictionary of the German Language) by Konrad Duden is the gold standard for all things related to the German Language and its usage. Currently in its 27th printing, the 12 volume Duden does everything it can to dispute the phrase “Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache” (German language, difficult language) by breaking the German language down for everyone to use.
What is a Duden?
Konrad Duden sounds like he may have been a great guy to have on your Pub-Trivia team. In the 1840s he studied history, Germanistics (the study of German Language and Literature) and (my personal favorite) Philology (basically, the study of the historical development of language and its relationships with other languages). To call Konrad Duden a word ‘Junkie’ is probably a vast understatement. He devoted his life to the study of words. Specifically German words. But, since studying words doesn’t support a wife and six children, he worked as a teacher, and later as a Gymnasium (High School) director. Finally, in 1876, Duden published his most important work, The Vollständiges Orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache… (Complete Orthographical Dictionary of the German Language).
That doesn’t help much, does it.
They key word in the title is Orthographical. German language has many branches or dialects… and it’s constantly changing. Orthography is the conventional spelling system of a language. Basically…. Konrad Duden wrote an 187 page book that definitively spells 27,000 German words.
Is a Duden just a Dictionary?
In a sense, a Duden IS a Worterbuch, or Dictionary, but unlike a Dictionary, it is more about spelling and grammar than definitions.
Remember, the German language breaks down all nouns so that they have a gender; Masculine, Feminine or Neutral, which gives each word a version of the articles der, die and das. The Duden is a key reference for determining if a Mädchen (girl) is feminine (it isn’t, it’s neutral) and a Küche is neutral (it’s not, it’s feminine… but don’t blame me).
But if you DO want definitions, there is a Duden for that. In fact, there are 12 different volumes of the Duden in print… each with a different focus.
- Die deutsche Rechtschreibung – The Spelling Dictionary (How words are spelled)
- Das Stilwörterbuch – The Dictionary of Style (How to use the word correctly in a sentence)
- Das Bildwörterbuch – The Picture Dictionary (Images with labels)
- Die Grammatik – The Grammar (How to use Grammar correctly)
- Das Fremdwörterbuch – The Dictionary of Foreign Words (Translations of Foreign words that have crept into the German Language)
- Das Aussprachewörterbuch – The Pronouncing Dictionary (How to pronounce words)
- Das Herkunftswörterbuch – The Etymological Dictionary (Origin and historical source of the words)
- Das Synonymwörterbuch – The Thesaurus (Synonyms)
- Richtiges und gutes Deutsch – Correct and Good German (Guide to correct usage for writers)
- Das Bedeutungswörterbuch – The Dictionary (Definitions)
- Redewendungen – Figures of Speech (colloquialisms)
- Zitate und Aussprüche – Quotations and Sayings
There’s even a set for Little Ones
Unlike Webster’s dictionary or the Oxford English dictionary, there is a volume for seemingly every aspect of a word. Want to know how to spell a word? Check the Rechtschreibung (Spelling Dictionary). Want to know if the word has Greek or Latin roots? Check the Herkunftswörterbuch (Etymological Dictionary). Need to know how a word is pronounced? Grab a Aussprachewörterbuch (Pronunciation dictionary).
The Duden is Essential for Government
In 1902 the Bundesrat declared that the books would be the official standard for German Spelling. Austria-Hungary and Switzerland soon adopted it too. Even today, you will find the Duden on the shelves of Government offices for the definitive answer on how to spell anything from Apfel (apple) to Zwilling (twin).
Updated Every Few Years
Every few years a new edition is published, incorporating the “new” words in the German language based on Technology, Invention, and Foreign influence… The last update in 2017 added 5000 new words to the official German language, including Fluchtlingkriese (refugee crisis) and tindern (Tinder Dating). Not all new words are welcome, and in recent years there has been a backlash against the Englishification of German. (There was a groundswell movement to name the Laptop a Klapprechner– folding computer- instead of the English Laptop). The folks at Duden won’t back down though. They say that what they put in the Duden is an accurate reflection of the direction the German language is going. Besides, if you don’t know what the foreign words mean, you can always double check the Das Fremdwörterbuch (Foreign Word Meaning Dictionary).
In fact, the changes to German and influences from other languages is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s, an East German version of the set was published in Leibzig. Originally, most of the Stichworter (Root Words) were the same, but as the Russian language began to exert its influence (primarily in political and agricultural terms), the Duden split… and the East German Duden was considered a “illegitimate” by the West. (Side note- because of costs, the East did not produce all 12 volumes… instead, they condensed it to one big book called “The Grosse Duden”) After 1989, many of the Russian influences stayed in the Duden.
German is a language of constant change and adaptation. They even have a word for that “Neuwortschaffungsdrangdringlichkeit“, (which might just be my new favorite German word) meaning an “urgent drive to create new words”. Today the Duden contains over 145,000 words (making it a headache for German Scrabble players everywhere). And more words are being created all the time.
German Orthography Reform of 1996
The huge influx of words over the past 50 years means that rogue hyphens and unusual spellings were starting to appear. A Reform Council was convened to address issues like- the use of Triple Consonants (Schiffahrt), ss vs. ß and vowel changes. (Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to attend the Capitalization after a Colon seminar? By the way, it’s obligatory now.) In 1996, an International Agreement was signed by all German speaking countries (except Luxembourg… they reasoned that since only 1/3 of their population spoke German, they wouldn’t have input anyway). The intent was to streamline German language, make the rules more consistent, and make the language easier to learn. Naturally, they ended up causing more controversy. And since there is no law in place to force people to spell a certain way, outside of schools… most of the changes were scrapped.
German Language, Difficult Language
German Language, difficult Language? German is an amazing language that is in constant flux… and always has been. Still, with the help of your trusty Duden, you can work out the rules and get the grammar and spelling right. Even on extra long words like der Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister (Head District Chimney Sweep).
Other Worterbuch (Dictionary) Publishers have sued because of the monopoly that the Duden has in the word community… but in 1955 the ministers of culture of the states of Germany confirmed the spellings given by the Duden would continue to be the official standard. And so, if you want to get it right, you NEED a Duden…
Duden – Bildwörterbuch Deutsch als FremdspracheDuden 06 Das Aussprachewörterbuch: Betonung und Aussprache von über 132.000 Wörtern und NamenDuden Ubungsbucher: Lern – und Ubungsgrammatik Deutsch als FremdspracheDer Duden in 12 Banden: 4 – Die GrammatikDuden – Die deutsche Sprache. Wörterbuch in drei BändenDer Duden in 12 Banden: 1 – Die deutsche RechtschreibungDuden Das Bildworterbuch DaF Fur Alltag und Arbeit (German Edition)Duden Auf gut Deutsch! 2020: Rechtschreibung, Grammatik und Wortwahl einfach erklärtDer Kleine Duden: Grammatik (German Edition)Duden – Das Stilwörterbuch: Typische Wortverbindungen und ihre Verwendung – treffsicher und wirkungsvoll formulieren (German Edition)Duden. Deutsch als FremdspracheDuden/Deutschland – Alles, was man wissen muss (German Edition)Duden: Grammatik Der Deutschen Gegenwartssprache, Vol. 4 (German Edition)Duden: Deutsches Universal Worterbuch A-Z