Martin Luther & German
A nice article on German you may have missed: http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-04-02/martin-luther-didnt-just-reform-church-he-reformed-german-language
Selection from the article: "Before Luther, there was no single German language — just a series of dialects. Two in particular were dominant: Upper German and Low German. As a child, Luther lived on the linguistic borderlands that divide the two, and his family moved back and forth across the boundary several times.
"He was totally bilingual," says Alexander Weber, a linguist at Birkbeck College, University of London. As he translated the Bible into German for everyday worshippers, that fluency helped him craft a version of the language that everyone could understand."
What I consider even more interesting... Low and Upper German have pretty much no importance in written German anymore but they are still present in the dialects. Even though the dialects lost importance and almost disappeared in a lot of metropolitan areas, they still influence the way we speak... And in some areas (not just rural ones!) they are valued a lot.
This is the dialect distribution as it is today. Yellow is Low German, Green/Brown Upper German and the blueish area is Central German. These categories are very general though, each group contains several dialects that share a few similar properties... Mostly how much impact the second consonant shift had on them (very little in Low German, very much in Upper German).
I don't know for sure but I think dtremenak is right. It also makes a lot of sense when you consider that Low German is closely related to Dutch (also no impact of the second consonant shift)... And "Netherlands" pretty much mean "low lands".
You can find this Low/Upper distinction in a large number of geographical contexts. For example, Low and Upper Bavaria or Low and Upper Austria.... All of them are in the southern parts of the "Upper German" area but the Low/Upper distinction is relative (Low Austria has mountains as high as two kilometers but is still called "Low").
The Oxford English Dictionary says that upper/lower Germany is "probably ultimately from" the Roman names for the roughly corresponding areas: Germānia superior and Germānia inferior. This of course raises the question of where those names came from. Wikipedia says it's because Germania superior "lay upstream of Germania Inferior" -- they don't give a reference for this but it certainly seems the most likely, and since rivers flow downhill this is in agreement with dtremenak's answer that it's about altitude.
Remember that "north = up" is not a universal convention, and many medieval maps had east at the top.
Thanks for giving me an excuse to talk about German dialects ;)
Duolingo kindled my interest in the diversity of the German language (especially the Ripuarian dialects who belong to the Central German part) but it's quite a... special topic. But for me, it's fascinating how there is a common written language thanks to Martin Luther and the reformation... Yet the spoken language remains diverse to the degree that you sometimes simply won't understand it if you live in a different area.
Maybe I should put an own post together?
Surely you have seen this? http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/dialekte-quiz-wo-spricht-man-so-wie-sie-a-1030362.html
You have to click which word you use for certain things and they guess where you come from!
I love the way you flipped the narrative there from singularity to diversity! :) Sure! I would love to see that topic get discussed! :) There are always new learners on here and I think good posts add a little culture, etc. as they take breaks between lessons. I know that's what I like to see! :)
Yes, I like the few posts between all the grammar questions (important but not very exciting) and spam (neither important nor exciting) that give a little perspective. Informative posts for example or those that encourage an interesting discussion.
I'll try to put something interesting up but it may take a little time =)