Early Germanic Dialects – Old High German

Blog day!

Isn’t it just the best day?

Today, we’re looking at Old High German – our last and final Early Germanic Dialect (but see the end of this post for a hint of next week’s topic – it’s a juicy one!).

As usual, let’s start with a history lesson!

So, we really have three EGDs that were instrumental in the formation of the German dialects:

Old Saxon
Old Low Franconian
and
Old High German.

Saxons are associated with Old Saxon, and therefore the later Low German dialects of northern Germany. The Franks, with Old Low Franconian, are associated with the later dialects of Dutch as well as a number of High German dialects of central Germany.

Most of the High German-speaking area, though, is associated with three Germanic (sub)groups: the Alamanni, the Bavarians, and the Thuringians.

These three belong to a subdivision of the West Germanic tribes sometimes known as Elbe Germans, because, during the last few centuries B.C., they were grouped around the lower and middle Elbe.

Eventually, they started to expand from there, primarily towards the south. You see, to the east of them were the East Germanic tribes while the Weser-Rhine tribes, ancestors of the later Franks, occupied the area to their west.

And eventually, again as people tended to do at this point in time, they found themselves quarreling with the Romans. This, naturally (…), led to a war of about 400 years – sometimes quiet but never quite restful. The driving force behind this war was, during the last 200 years anyway, a loose confederation of a large number of people.

They were known as the Alamanni.

The Alamanni were dead set on breaking the frontier barrier of the Roman Empire, which they finally managed around 260 A.D.
For about 70 years, there was relative peace in the area, but then they set their sights a bit too high. Attempting to conquer what is today Alsace, they were defeated in 357 by the Roman emperor Julian.

Of course, the Alamanni were just as tenacious as the other Germanic tribes. So they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and tried again.

This time, they succeeded and conquered most of Alsace. At the same time, they pushed north and west toward the Moselle river and south into present-day Switzerland. Pretty impressive multitasking.

Buuut, they seem to have forgotten something about the northwest. Because there they, of course, encountered another Germanic people.

Unified, strong, and probably pretty scary. Can you guess?

Yep, you’re absolutely right – the Alamanni encountered the Franks. As you might imagine, the huge battle that ensued in 496 did not end well for the Alamanni. It thus marks the beginning of a long and very unhappy relationship (for the Alamanni at least).

In the sixth century, the Alamanni were already recognized as a part of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom. By the mid-eight century, the last illusion of their independence disappeared – they were totally subsumed by the Frankish kingdom.

Their (maybe) buddies, the Bavarians, suffered roughly the same fate.

The Bavarians seem to come out of nowhere in the late fifth century. Their origin is still largely unknown – who were they and where did they come from?

While we actually don’t know, scholars appear to be reasonably sure that they came from an original Elbe-German group. Their name might give us some clue: it is probably derived from a pre-Germanic tribe. Perhaps a Celtic or an Illyrian tribe called the Boii (by the way, I am curious if George R.R. Martin was inspired by the name Illyria – Valyria does seem remarkably similar…)

Anyway, their origin remains argued about but it is not very relevant for our purposes so let’s move on.

Last of the groups, we have the Thuringians. The Thuringians appear to have worked together with the possible ancestors of the Bavarians – a group known as the Marcomanni – for a little while at least. And then, of course, they decided to “compete” with them (which appears to be a fancy word Robinson uses for “making war upon”).

Anyway, they took over parts of Bohemia and extended their area quite significantly for a while…

And then, they encountered the Franks.

Well, actually, they met with a joined force of Franks and Saxons and –poof – gone was the kingdom of Thuringia. By 531, northern Thuringia fell to the Saxons and the rest quickly became integrated into the Frankish kingdom.

And that’s the end of our tale! Let’s look at language.

Obviously, the most distinguishing feature of Old High German and its surviving descendants is that odd little thing they did to some of their consonants. That is, the shift we now know as the High German consonant shift or the second Germanic consonant shift.

There are three phases to this shift:

The first phase, controversially dated to as early as the 4th century, affected the entire High German area.

In this phase, the voiceless plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/ changed when they were found between vowels or in word-initial position.
Here, they changed, becoming long fricatives, like so:

/p/ > /f/ – for example, OE slǣpan > OHG schlafen ‘sleep’
/t/ > /ts/ – (often spelt <z> or <zz>) for example, OE strǣt > OHG strāzza ‘street’
/k/ > /x/ – for example, OE rīce > OHG rīhhi ‘rich’.

This shift did not affect the consonants if they were found in word-final position. This phase also didn’t affect the consonants if they were already geminated or if they occurred following another consonant. So the two p’s in appul ‘apple’ remained unaffected, as did skarp ‘sharp’.

The second phase of the shift was completed by the 8th century. At this point, the same sounds became affricates in three environments: in word-initial positions, when geminated or when following a liquid (/l/ or /r/) or a nasal (/m/ or /n/). And so, we get:

/p/ > /p͡f/ – also written ⟨ph⟩ in OHG
/t/ > /t͡s/ – written ⟨z⟩ or ⟨tz⟩
/k/ > /k͡x/ – written ⟨ch⟩ in OHG

and so, we find:

OE æppel > OHG apful ‘apple’
OE scearp > OHG scarpf ‘sharp’
OE dic > OHG Deich ‘dike’ (trench)

This shift didn’t take place if the plosive was preceded by a fricative. So in the combinations /sp, st, sk, ft, ht/, the plosive remained unchanged. The plosive /t/ also didn’t shift if it was followed by /r/. This stopped the shift of modern German words like bitter or Winter, as these stems had /tr/ in their inflected forms in OHG (so, bittr– and wintr-)

Some of these were simplified in some German dialects. I won’t talk about that other than to note it, though.

We have enough things to go through without it!

And last, the third phase. This phase likely began in the 8th or 9th century, after the first and second phases had stopped. How do we know that, you ask? Well, if not, the voiceless plosives that were the results of the third phase would have continued to shift according to the first and second phases of the shift – which they did not.
You see, during this phase, the voiced plosives become voiceless:

b > p
d > t
g > k

You might be familiar only with the second shift here – the dental shift from /d/ to /t/. This is the only shift that universally finds its way into standard German. So, for example, English day but German Tag.

If you think about it though, you might recognise the other two shifts in some German words.

These are the original geminates, so, for example, Rippe ‘rib’, Brücke ‘bridge’. In single consonants, the shift is restricted to the High Alemannic German in Switzerland, and south Bavarian dialects in Austria.

And that is it for the High German Consonant Shift. Naturally, these aren’t the only changes (and they are, of course, only a very brief overview). These are the three commonly recognised distinct phases of the shift though.

You still with me?

Good – let’s look at some other distinctive features of OHG!

Now, obviously, German today contains numerous umlauted vowels (ä and ö for example). These are often (though not always mind you) evidence of i-umlaut (remember i-umlaut? If not, check it out here).

For example, the Proto-Germanic vowel /ɑ/ became /ɛ/ in numerous Germanic languages, like English, German, Swedish and Icelandic. Yet, we all appear to be spelling it a bit differently.

Let’s look at the word men, for example.

In English, of course, we spell this plural form (from Proto-Germanic *manniz) with <e>. Icelandic also spells it with <e> (menn), while both Swedish and German spell it with <a>, complete with umlaut marks (<¨>) over it – that is, <ä> (German Männer, Swedish män).

Similarly, we find <ä>, <ü> or <ö> in some words where English spells it <ee> or <ea>, for example, Gänse ‘geese’, Füße ‘feet’ or hören ‘hear’.

I think you get the picture.

Obviously, there are many interesting features of Old High German that I haven’t talked about today, but a blog post can only be so long (and I tend to be better at writing books than short stories) so I’ll stop myself there. As always, check out our sources for more information about Old High German and other Germanic languages!

This was our last Early Germanic Dialect! However, it is not over quite yet… Tune in next week when I will tell you my personal (super-secret so hush) cheat-sheet for recognising the different Early Germanic Dialects!

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References

As always, I refer you to Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives.

For this post, though, Robinson’s book was a bit dense, so to clarify some points, I’ve also looked at Wikipedia, this Powerpoint presentation from the Middlebury Blog Network (specifically the first two slides on page 4), and slide 23 and 25 of this slideshow.

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