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My German is very rudimentary (A1) and I have no regular exposure to the language except what I get listening to Bach. Recently, I have been very interested in Bach's cantatas (I have a huge box set by Gardiner) and I am in the habit of looking at the text with translation as I listen. I'm curious about the German that Bach used and how it compares to modern everyday German. Is it good learning material for me?

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Views from a native German speaker, just having looked at a text booklet: the vocabulary used in the cantatas is slighty dusted, but still easily recognisable. A few words are dated and some have strange umlauts, where the modern counterparts have none. I guess in the church context one would notice fewer substantial changes. Without knowing which solists Gardiner had available, I would warn against taking the pronounciation too seriously, however - even well-known singers struggled astonishingly.

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There are fairly good translation websites out there, for example

I'm native in both languages and it's actually a bit easier for me to read the English translation than the original German. It's dated and very "church-centric", i.e. uses phrasings and terms that are solely used in religious context. As such it would NOT make good learning material.

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Some observations:

Poetry written for use in church hymns has a rather restricted subject matter and vocabulary to begin with. And in any language, the difference between rhyming poetry and regular speech is always quite different.

German has changed quite a bit since Bach's time. In particular, German vocabulary, though not the grammar, has changed dramatically just in the last 75 years, since the end of World War II. Since that time, German-speaking people have adopted a great deal of English words and "Germanicized" them ("eingedeutscht") to replace traditional German words. This is no doubt because of all the trade and cultural influence from the United States and England as Europe was re-built after the war.

I think there's certainly no harm in studying Bach's texts to help you learn "classical" German, but realize that the vocabulary of Bach's day is not the same as the vocabulary used today.

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I learned a lot of German by studying the lyrics to Romantic-era art song, starting with the lyrics used by Schubert and other composers throughout the 1800s. This involves a much broader vocabulary than church music. – user1044 Apr 5 '14 at 19:57

Presumably, the differences between modern German and the language used in Bach's Cantatas, when considering its usefulness as a tool for learning the language, is less significant than the rather specific nature of their subject matter. As much of the cantatas are based upon liturgical texts, using them as an aid to learning German, would be like learning to speak and read English by using the King James Bible! For this reason, I would imagine that useful, conversational German might not be improved as readily by studying these cantatas, as by using more conventional methods. But, as a means to understanding the differences between modern German and 18th Century German (and earlier German…), you could have a really interesting area of study. However, it is worth noting that the German used in the cantatas is itself from a number of different eras. Text from Bach's 18th Century contemporaries is set alongside the text of the Luther Bible (translated from Hebrew into German in the early 16th Century) and chorale texts.

As soon as I read your question, it reminded me of the central character of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, who learns English by reading Shakespeare!

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There is an extensive amount of information about the various texts set in Bach Cantatas here: – Bob Broadley Apr 5 '14 at 19:56
I would say it "would be like learning to speak and read English by studying the King James translation of the Bible." In fact, a lot of Bach's textual language is reminiscent of Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible, which of course pre-dates Bach by a century and a half. – user1044 Apr 5 '14 at 19:59
Agreed, I'll amend above… Thank you. – Bob Broadley Apr 5 '14 at 20:05

The texts of Bach's Church music are in Early New High German (Frühneuhochdeutsch). This is actually very different from modern standard German.

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Being a native speaker, I’d say that the language is very easily intelligible for contemporary speakers, but also clearly recognizable as dated. I would consider it more comprehensible and more modern than e.g. the text of Simplicius Simplicissimus which was published around 1670, so I find it hard to agree with your classification of it as Frühneuhochdeutsch (which was supposed to end around 1650). – microtherion Apr 6 '14 at 19:32
That can be discussed. However, a large part of Bach’s text (e.g. all the recitative in the two passions) is lifted directly from Luther’s Bible, the main document for ENHG. – fdb Apr 6 '14 at 21:20
I compared the recitative in the St Matthew’s passion to the 1545 text of the Luther bible, and it is indeed nearly word for word identical, so I can’t dispute that it must be Frühneuhochdeutsch. Still, it is highly intelligible. Maybe that is due to the fact of the biblical language remaining in continuous use in liturgical contexts, while contemporary secular texts fell out of fashion and thus seem less familiar today. – microtherion Apr 7 '14 at 16:21

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