Principally right said, Heather, but this topic is very complex. Also many
Germans don't know very much about the linguistic background of our
languages here in Germany.
Language*s*? Not only one? Yes, right, there are five languages in Germany:
1. High German, a West German language together with Dutch and English, and
its dialects. High German has its roots first in the central and later also
in the southern German dialects. "High" doesn't mean "better" or "more
educated" but geographically "from the upper country" (whereas "Low German"
means the language of the lowlands). High German was formed out in the 16th
century when Martin Luther translated the Holy Bible from Latin to German,
means to his (Upper) Saxonian (not: Saxon!) -Thuringian dialect. This
Saxonian-Thuringian area got the leadership in the big "Holy Roman Empire of
German Nation" then, because of the Reformation, of its leading universities
and sciences, its important trade and its arts, etc. So this regional
dialect had an important influence and in this time the period of the New
High German began. Over the centuries, High German was formed out to be a
"bridge of understanding" between its upper German dialects in particular
and the Low German language, too. You have to know, our dialects here are so
highly different that generally speakers of one dialect over longer
distances really can't understand the speaker of another dialect! There are
major dialect groups, as there are the Rhine-Frankish-Hessian group (western
Central Germany to and over the western borders in Luxemburg and eastern
Belgium), the Thuringian-Upper Saxonian (in the Thuringia and Saxony area),
the (Upper) Franconian (in Franconia between Wuerzburg, Bayreuth and
Nuernberg), the Bavarian (in south-eastern Germany and Austria), the
Swabish-Alemannian group (in south-western Germany, western Austria, in
Switzerland and eastern France = Alsace). After WW II, many eastern
dialects, like the Silesian, the East Prussian, the Pommeranian, the Sudeten
German and many more were extinct by the ethnic cleansings forced by the
Soviets, the Polish and the Czechs and other communist regimes.
2. Low German which is *not* (!) a northern dialect but a language, close to
Dutch and English. Indeed, it derives from the same root as the Anglian and
Saxon, for these former tribes came from northern Germany and the Schleswig
area in Schleswig-Holstein, close to Denmark. Being formerly a part of this
Low German (linguistically: Middle Low Frankish, one dialect of the old
Franks), the Dutch formed out to a language as of the late high middleages.
3. Frisian (West Frisian in the northern Netherlands, East Frisian in far
north-eastern Germany and North Frisian along the North Sea in
Schleswig-Holstein. It's the old, still exisiting dialect (which became a
language over the centuries by being kept apart of the German influence) of
the Frisian tribe along the North Sea.
These three are closely related having the same roots being the idioms of
the former West Germanic and North Sea Germanic tribes.
4. Danish, a Northern Germanic language and closely related to Swedish and
Norwegian. Spoken by a minority (German citizens of Danish nationality) in
northern Schleswig-Holstein south of German-Danish borderline, whereas in
southern Denmark there are many Danish citizens of German nationality.
5. Sorbian, a West Slavish language, related to Polish and Czech languages.
Spoken by a minority in the Lausitz (Sorbian: Luzyca) area south-east of
Berlin. This area is officially bilingual, and the Sorbs have own programs
on Eastern German TV channels.
If you're interested in more info on German language(s), you may want to
search the web for "German language", "German dialects", for "Low German",
"High German", for "Germanic tribes", for "Angles", "Saxons", "Jutes", or
other tribes' names, etc..
Here's one example site for a first start:
http://www.webgerman.com/german/dialects/ . Be careful, many sites (also
this one) mix up and confuse not only the terms dialects and languages, but
also the closer relations between them and the dialects themselves!
Hope I could explain this a little bit understandable ...