Take ‘High German’, or Hochdeutsch as the language calls itself. Centuries ago, the name simply meant ‘the German language as spoken in some of the more elevated regions’, roughly in the centre and south of what’s now Germany. Low German or Niederdeutsch, in contrast, was spoken in the plains near the North and Baltic Seas.
From the sixteenth century on, High German increasingly came to be seen as the standard language of the whole empire, while Low German’s status dropped to that of a mere dialect. Instead of Niederdeutsch, it’s now often called Plattdeutsch: literally ‘flat German’, but with overtones of ‘dialect’ and undertones of ‘not-all-that-bright’. (The westernmost dialects of Low German broke away from the rest and are now known as Dutch.)
As a result, the term ‘high’ is nowadays no longer interpreted geographically, as the German of the higher areas, but sociolinguistically, as the high-status or standard variety of the language. Even well-educated Germans, indeed linguists, believe that this is what it has always meant. (Remember what I said about ‘not being sure what things used to be like’?) But etymology, schmetymology – what matters is current usage, and there can be no doubt that the word hoch in this context has come to mean ‘standard’.
This has had the remarkable effect that the same epithet is now also applied to other standard languages, to distinguish them from competing varieties. Among the language guides for travellers that I have on my shelves, there is one for Hochchinesisch and another for Hocharabisch – ‘High Chinese’ or Mandarin and ‘High Arabic’ or Modern Standard Arabic.
Sounds sort of highfalutin, doesn’t it?
The two guides mentioned above are from the superb Kauderwelsch series, which covers well over a hundred languages. It includes one publication in English, which is about German – High German, of course.