Published, edited, formatted, images added & annotations/comments (in red) by Kenneth S. Doig)
Old High German (OHG, German: Althochdeutsch, German abbr. Ahd.) is the earliest stage of the German language, conventionally covering the period from around 500 to 1050 AD. Coherent written texts do not appear until the second half of the 8th century, and some treat the period before 750 as "prehistoric" and date the start of Old High German proper to 750 for this reason. There are, however, a number of Elder Futhark inscriptions dating to the 6th century (notably the Pforzen buckle), as well as single words and many names found in Latin texts predating the 8th century.
The main difference between Old High German and the West Germanic dialects from which it developed is that it underwent the Second Sound Shift or High German consonant shift. This is generally dated approximately to the late 5th and early 6th centuries—hence dating its start to around 500 AD.
The result of this sound change is that the consonantal system of German remains different from all other West Germanic languages, including English and Low German. Grammatically, however, Old High German remained very similar to Old English, Old Dutch, and Old Saxon.
By the mid 11th century the many different vowels found in unstressed syllables had all been reduced to "e". Since these vowels were part of the grammatical endings in the nouns and verbs, their loss led to radical simplification of the inflectional grammar of German.
For these reasons, 1050 is seen as the start of the Middle High German period, though in fact there are almost no texts in German for the next hundred years.
Examples of vowel reduction in unstressed syllables:
|Old High German||Middle High German||English|
|machôn||machen||to make, to do|
(The Modern German forms of these words are broadly the same as in Middle High German.)
There was no standard or supra-regional variety of Old High German—every text is written in a particular dialect, or in some cases a mixture of dialects.
Broadly speaking, the main dialect divisions of Old High German seem to have been similar to those of later periods—they are based on established territorial groupings and the effects of the Second Sound Shift, which have remained influential until the present day.
But because the direct evidence for Old High German consists solely of manuscripts produced in a few major ecclesiastical centers, there is no isogloss information of the sort on which modern dialect maps are based. For this reason the dialects may be termed monastery dialects.
The main dialects, with their bishoprics and monasteries:
- Central German
- East Franconian: Fulda, Bamberg, Würzburg
- Middle Franconian: Trier, Echternach, Cologne
- Rhine Franconian: Lorsch, Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Frankfurt
- South Rhine Franconian: Weissenburg im Elsaß
- Thuringian: (no texts)
- West Franconian: conjectural dialect of the Franks in Northern Gaul
- Upper German
- Alemannic: Murbach, Reichenau, Sankt Gallen. Strasbourg
- Bavarian: Freising, Passau, Regensburg, Augsburg, Ebersberg, Wessobrunn, Benediktbeuern, Tegernsee, Salzburg, Mondsee
- Langobardic: (fragmentary, classification as OHG uncertain)
There are some important differences between the geographical spread of the Old High German dialects and that of Modern German:
- no German dialects were spoken east of the Rivers Elbe and Saale—in the Old High German period this area was occupied by Slavic peoples since the Völkerwanderung and was not settled by German speakers until the late 10th and the early 11th century
- the Langobardic dialect of the Lombards who invaded Northern Italy in the 6th century is assumed to have been an Upper German dialect, though little evidence of it remains apart from names and individual words in Latin texts, and a few inscriptions
- the Old Frankish language is a special case among the old West Germanic languages. The Frankish tribes built their empire at the same time as the High German consonant shift took place. This meant that the dialects of Frankish in the north of their empire, the Low Countries, did not shift, while the dialects in the south did. The dialects in the south are part of Old High German; the ones in the north are part of Old Dutch (Low Franconian).
The charts show the vowel and consonant systems of the East Franconian dialect in the 9th century. This is the dialect of the monastery of Fulda, and specifically of the Old High German Tatian. Dictionaries and grammars of OHG often use the spellings of the Tatian as a substitute for genuine standardised spellings, and these have the advantage of being recognizably close to the Middle High German forms of words, particularly with respect to the consonants.
Short and long vowels
Old High German had five phonemic long vowels and six phonemic short vowels. Both occurred in stressed and unstressed syllables.
- All back vowels likely had front-vowel allophones as a result of Umlaut. The front-vowel allophones likely became full phonemes in Middle High German. In the Old High German period, there existed [e] (possibly a mid-close vowel) from the Umlaut of /a/ and /e/ but it probably wasn't phonemicized until the end of the period. Manuscripts occasionally distinguish two /e/ sounds. Generally, modern grammars and dictionaries use ⟨ë⟩ for the mid vowel and ⟨e⟩ for the mid-close vowel.
- The short high and mid vowels may have been articulated lower than their long counterparts as in Modern German. This cannot be established from written sources.
- Short vowels followed later by long vowels tended to be reduced to ⟨e⟩ in unstressed syllables. The ⟨e⟩ may have represented [ɛ] or schwa [ə].
- Vowel length was indicated in the manuscripts inconsistently (though not in modern handbooks). A macron was generally used to indicate a long vowel.[dubious ]
Old High German diphthongs are indicated by the digraphs ⟨ei⟩, ⟨ie⟩, ⟨io⟩, ⟨iu⟩, ⟨ou⟩, ⟨uo⟩.
|Plosive||p b||t d||c,k /k/ g /ɡ/|
|Affricate||pf /p͡f/||z /t͡s/|
|Fricative||f, v /f/ /v/||th /θ/||s, ȥ /s̠/, /s/||h, ch /x/||h|
|Approximant||w, uu /w/||j, i /j/|
- There is wide variation in the consonant systems of the Old High German dialects arising mainly from the differing extent to which they are affected by the High German Sound Shift. Precise information about the articulation of consonants is impossible to establish.
- In the plosive and fricative series, where there are two consonants in a cell, the first is fortis the second lenis. The voicing of lenis consonants varied between dialects.
- Old High German distinguished long and short consonants. Double-consonant spellings don't indicate a preceding short vowel as in Modern German but true consonantgemination. Double consonants found in Old High German include pp, bb, tt, dd, ck (for /kk/), gg, ff, ss, hh, zz, mm, nn, ll, rr.
- /θ/ changes to /d/ in all dialects during the 9th century. The status in the Old High German Tatian (c. 830), reflected in modern Old High German dictionaries and glossaries, is that th is found in initial position, d in other positions.
- It is not clear whether Old High German /x/ had already acquired a palatized allophone /ç/ following front vowels as in Modern German.
- A curly-tailed z (ȥ) is sometimes used in modern grammars and dictionaries to indicate the dental fricative which arose from Common Germanic t in the High German consonant shift, to distinguish it from the dental affricate, represented as z. This distinction has no counterpart in the original manuscripts, except in the OHG Isidor, which uses tz for the affricate.
- The original Germanic fricative s was in writing usually clearly distinguished from the younger fricative z that evolved from the High German consonant shift - the sounds of these two graphs seem not to have merged before the 13th century. Now seeing that s later came to be pronounced /ʃ/ before other consonants (as in Stein /ʃtaɪn/, Speer /ʃpeːɐ/, Schmerz /ʃmɛrts/ (original smerz) or the southwestern pronunciation of words like Ast /aʃt/) it seems safe to assume that the actual pronunciation of Germanic s was somewhere between [s] and [ʃ], most likely about [s̠], in all Old High German up to late Middle High German.
A word like swaz, "whatever", would thus never have been [swas] but rather [s̠was], later (13th century) [ʃwas], [ʃvas].
Here are enumerated the sound changes that transformed Common West Germanic into Old High German, not including the Late OHG changes which effected Middle High German
- /ɣ/, /β/ > /ɡ/, /b/ in all positions
(/ð/ > /d/ already took place
in West Germanic). Most but not all High German areas are subject to this
- PG *sibi "sieve" > OHG sib ( cf. Old English sife), PG *gestra "yesterday" > OHG gestaron (cf. OE geostran, "ge" being fricative /ʝ/ )
- Clusters /ht/ and /hs/, from PIE velars + */s/ or */t/, are fortified to /kt/, /ks/ respectively
(/xs/,/xt/ after the shift).
- PG *hlahtraz "laughter" > OHG lahtar > Modern German Gelächter.
- High German consonant shift: Inherited
voiceless plosives are lenited into fricatives and affricates, while voiced
fricatives are hardened into plosives and in some cases devoiced.
- Ungeminated post-vocalic /p/, /t/, /k/ spirantize intervocalically to /ff/, /ȥȥ/, /xx/ and elsewhere to /f/, /ȥ/, /x/. Cluster /tr/ is exempt from this. Compare Old English slǣpan to Old High German slāfan .
- Word-initially, after a resonant and when
geminated, the same consonants affricatized to /pf/, /tȥ/ and /kx/, OE tam : OHG zam.
- Spread of /k/ > /kx/ is geographically very limited and is not reflected in Modern Standard German.
- /b/, /d/ and /ɡ/ are devoiced.
- In Standard German, this applies to /d/ in all positions, but to /b/ and /ɡ/ only when geminated. PG *brugjo > *bruggjo >brucca, but *leugan > leggen.
- /ē²/ and /oː/ are diphthongized into /ie/ and /uo/ respectively.
- Proto-Germanic /ai/ became /ei/, except before /r/, /h/, /w/ and word finally,
where it monophthongizes into ê ( which is also the reflex of unstressed /ai/) .
- Similarly /au/ > /ô/ before /r/, /h/ and all dentals,
otherwise /au/ > /ou/. PG *dauhθaz "death" > OHG tôd, but *haubudam "head" > houbit.
- It should be noted that /h/ refers here only to inherited glottal /h/ from PIE *k, and not to the result of the consonant shift /x/, which is sometimes written as h.
- Similarly /au/ > /ô/ before /r/, /h/ and all dentals, otherwise /au/ > /ou/. PG *dauhθaz "death" > OHG tôd, but *haubudam "head" > houbit.
- /eu/ merges with /iu/ under i-umlaut and u-umlaut, but elsewhere is /io/ ( earlier /eo/ ). In Upper German dialects it also becomes /iu/ before labials and velars.
- /θ/ fortifies to /d/ in all German Dialects.
- Initial wC and hC lose /w/ and /h/.
The following is a sample paradigm of a strong verb, nëman "to take".
|2nd sing||nimis (-ist)||nëmēs (-ēst)||nim|
|1st plur||nëmemēs (-ēn)||nëmemēs (-ēn)||nëmamēs, -emēs (-ēn)|
|2nd sing||nāmi||nāmīs (-īst)||--|
|1st plur||nāmumēs (-un)||nāmīmēs (-īn)||--|
|Present Participle||nëmanti (-enti)|
The Franks conquered Northern Gaul as far south as the Loire; the linguistic boundary later stabiliZed approximately along the course of the Maas and Moselle, with Frankishspeakers further west being romanized.
With Charlemagne's conquest of the Lombards in 776, nearly all continental Germanic speaking peoples had been incorporated into the Frankish Empire, thus also bringing all continental West Germanic speakers under Frankish rule. However, since the language of both the administration and the Church was Latin, this unification did not lead to any development of a supra-regional variety of Frankish nor a standardized Old High German.
Old High German literacy is a product of the monasteries, notably at St. Gallen, Reichenau and Fulda. Its origins lie in the establishment of the German church by Boniface in the mid 8th century, and it was further encouraged during the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th.
The dedication to the preservation of Old High German epic poetry among the scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance was significantly greater than could be suspected from the meagre survivals we have today (less than 200 lines in total between the Lay of Hildebrand and the Muspilli). Einhard tells how Charlemagne himself ordered that the epic lays should be collected for posterity.
It was the neglect or religious zeal of later generations that led to the loss of these records. Thus, it was Charlemagne's weak successor, Louis the Pious, who destroyed his father's collection of epic poetry on account of its pagan content.
Hrabanus Maurus, a student of Alcuin's and abbot at Fulda from 822, was an important advocate of the cultivation of German literacy. Among his students were Walafrid Straboand Otfrid of Weissenburg. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) towards the end of the Old High German period was among the greatest stylists in the language, and developed a systematic orthography.
The early part of the period saw considerable missionary activity, and by 800 the whole of the Frankish Empire had, in principle, been Christianized. All the manuscripts which contain Old High German texts were written in ecclesiastical scriptoria by scribes whose main task was writing in Latin rather than German. Consequently, the majority of Old High German texts are religious in nature and show strong influence of ecclesiastical Latin on the vocabulary.
In fact, most surviving prose texts are translations of Latin originals. Even secular works such as the Hildebrandslied are often preserved only because they were written on spare sheets in religious codices.
The earliest Old High German text is generally taken to be the Abrogans, a Latin-Old High German glossary variously dated between 750 and 780, probably from Reichenau. The 8th century Merseburg Incantations are the only remnant of pre-Christian German literature.
The earliest texts not dependent on Latin originals would seem to be the Hildebrandslied and the Wessobrunn Prayer, both recorded in manuscripts of the early 9th century, though the texts are assumed to derive from earlier copies.
The Bavarian Muspilli is the sole survivor of what must have been a vast oral tradition. Other important works are the Evangelienbuch (Gospel harmony) of Otfrid von Weissenburg, the short but splendid Ludwigslied and the 9th century Georgslied. The boundary to Early Middle High German (from ca. 1050) is not clear-cut. The most impressive example of EMHG literature is the Annolied.
The Lord's Prayer is given in four Old High German dialects below. Because these are translations of a liturgical text, they are best not regarded as examples of idiomatic language, but they do show dialect variation very clearly.
|Alemannic, 8th century
The St Gall Paternoster
|South Rhine Franconian, 9th century
|East Franconian, c. 830
Old High German Tatian
|Bavarian, early 9th century|
Fater unseer, thu pist in himile,
uuihi namun dinan,
qhueme rihhi diin,
uuerde uuillo diin,
so in himile sosa in erdu.
prooth unseer emezzihic kip uns hiutu,
oblaz uns sculdi unsero,
so uuir oblazem uns skuldikem,
enti ni unsih firleiti in khorunka,
uzzer losi unsih fona ubile.
Fater unsēr, thu in himilom bist,
giuuīhit sī namo thīn.
quaeme rīchi thīn.
uuerdhe uuilleo thīn,
sama sō in himile endi in erthu.
Brooth unseraz emezzīgaz gib uns hiutu.
endi farlāz uns sculdhi unsero,
sama sō uuir farlāzzēm scolōm unserēm.
endi ni gileidi unsih in costunga.
auh arlōsi unsih fona ubile.
Fater unser, thū thār bist in himile,
sī geheilagōt thīn namo,
queme thīn rīhhi,
sī thīn uuillo,
sō her in himile ist, sō sī her in erdu,
unsar brōt tagalīhhaz gib uns hiutu,
inti furlāz uns unsara sculdi
sō uuir furlāzemēs unsarēn sculdīgōn,
inti ni gileitēst unsih in costunga,
ūzouh arlōsi unsih fon ubile.
Fater unser, du pist in himilum.
Kauuihit si namo din.
Piqhueme rihhi din,
Uuesa din uuillo,
sama so in himile est, sama in erdu.
Pilipi unsraz emizzigaz kip uns eogauuanna.
Enti flaz uns unsro sculdi,
sama so uuir flazzames unsrem scolom.
Enti ni princ unsih in chorunka.
Uzzan kaneri unsih fona allem sunton.