High German consonant shift

High German subdivides into Upper German (green) and Central German (blue), and is distinguished from Low German (yellow) and Dutch. The main isoglosses – the Benrath and Speyer lines – are marked in black. NB: This map shows the modern boundaries of the languages.

In historical linguistics, the High German consonant shift or second Germanic consonant shift is a phonological development (sound change) that took place in the southern parts of the West Germanic dialect continuum in several phases. It probably began between the third and fifth centuries and was almost complete before the earliest written records in High German were produced in the ninth century. The resulting language, Old High German, can be neatly contrasted with the other continental West Germanic languages, which for the most part did not experience the shift, and with Old English, which remained completely unaffected.

General description

The High German consonant shift altered a number of consonants in the southern German dialects – and thus also in modern Standard German, Yiddish, and Luxembourgish – and so explains why many German words have different consonants from the obviously related words in English, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages.[1] The term is sometimes used to refer to a core group of nine individual consonant modifications. Alternatively, it may encompass other phonological changes that took place in the same period.[2] For the core group, there are three changes, which may be thought of as three successive phases. Each phase affected three consonants, making nine modifications in total:

  1. The three Germanic voiceless plosives became fricatives in certain phonetic environments (English ship /ʃɪp/, Dutch schip [sxɪp], Norwegian skip [ʃɪp] map to German Schiff [ʃɪf]);
  2. The same sounds became affricates in other positions (apple /ˈæpəl/, appel [ˈɑpəl], eple [ɛ:ple]: Apfel [ˈʔap͡fəl]); and
  3. The three voiced plosives became voiceless (door /dɔːr/, deur [døːr], dør [døːr] : Tür [tyːɐ̯]).

Since phases 1 and 2 affect the same voiceless sounds, some scholars find it more convenient to treat them together, thus making for only a two-phase process: shifts in voiceless consonants (phases 1–2 of the three-phase model) and in voiced consonants (phase 3). The two-phase model has advantages for typology, but it does not reflect chronology.[3]

Of the other changes that sometimes are bracketed within the High German consonant shift, the most important (sometimes thought of as the fourth phase) is:

4. /θ/ (and its allophone [ð]) became /d/ (this /ðɪs/ : dies [diːs]). However, this also applies to Dutch (this : dit [dɪt]) Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish, but not Icelandic (this : dette [dɛte] / detta [dɛta] , but þetta [θe:ʱta]).

This phenomenon is known as the High German consonant shift, because the core group affects the High German dialects in the mountainous south.[4] It is also known as the "second Germanic" consonant shift to distinguish it from the "(first) Germanic consonant shift" as defined by Grimm's law and its refinement, Verner's law.

The High German consonant shift did not occur in a single movement, but rather as a series of waves over several centuries. The geographical extent of these waves varies. They all appear in the southernmost dialects, and spread northwards to differing degrees, giving the impression of a series of pulses of varying force emanating from what is now Austria and Switzerland. Whereas some are found only in the southern parts of Alemannic (which includes Swiss German) or Bavarian (which includes Austrian), most are found throughout the Upper German area, and some spread on into the Central German dialects. Indeed, Central German is often defined as the area between the Appel/Apfel and the Schip/Schiff boundaries, thus between complete shift of Germanic /p/ (Upper German) and complete lack thereof (Low German). The shift /θ/ > /d/ was more successful; it spread all the way to the North Sea and affected Dutch as well as German. Most, but not all of these changes have become part of modern Standard German.[5]

The High German consonant shift is a good example of a chain shift, as was its predecessor, the first Germanic consonant shift. For example, phases 1 and 2 left the language without a /t/ phoneme, as this had shifted to /s/ or /t͡s/. Phase 3 filled this gap (/d/ > /t/), but left a new gap at /d/, which phase 4 then filled (/θ/ > /d/).

Overview table

The effects of the shift are most obvious for the non-specialist when comparing Modern German lexemes containing shifted consonants with their Modern English or Dutch unshifted equivalents. The following overview table is arranged according to the original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) phonemes. Note that the pairs of words used to illustrate sound shifts must be cognates; they need not be semantic equivalents. German Zeit means 'time' but it is cognate with tide, and only the latter is relevant here.

PIE > Germanic High German shift
Phase Germanic > OHG Examples (Modern German) Century Geographical extent3 Standard
G: /b/ > /p/1 1 /p/ > /ff/ schlafen, Schiff
cf. sleep, ship, Dutch slapen, schip, Norwegian slappe av (relax), skip
4/5 Upper and Central German Yes Yes No
2 /p/ > /p͡f/ Pflug, Apfel, Pfad, Pfuhl, scharf 4
cf. plough, apple, path, pool, sharp, Dutch ploeg, appel, pad, poel, scherp, Norwegian plog, eple, skarp
6/7 Upper German Yes No No
G: /d/ > /t/ 1 /t/ > /t͡s/ > /ss/ essen, dass, aus 5
cf. eat, that, out, Dutch eten, dat, uit, Norwegian ete, det, ut
4/5 Upper and Central German Yes Yes No
2 /t/ > /tːs/ > /t͡s/ Zeit6, Zwei6, Zehe
cf. tide, two, toe, Dutch tijd, twee, teen, Norwegian tid, to, tå
5/6 Upper and Central German Yes Yes No
G: /ɡ/ > /k/ 1 /k/ > /x/ machen, brechen, ich
cf. make, break, I Dutch maken, breken, ik 7
4/5 Upper and Central German Yes Yes No
2 /k/ > /k͡x/ Bavarian: Kchind
cf. German Kind, Dutch kind "child"
7/8 Southernmost Austro-Bavarian
and High Alemannic
No No No
G: /bʱ/ > [β]
V: /p/ > /ɸ/ > /β/2
[β] > [b] geben, weib
cf. give, wife, Dutch geven, wijf
7/8 Upper German and some varieties of Central German Yes No No
G: /dʱ/ > [ð]
V: /t/ > /θ/ > [ð]
[ð] > [d] gut, English good, Dutch goed, Norwegian god, Icelandic ður 2-4 Throughout West Germanic Yes Yes Yes
G: /ɡʱ/ > [ɣ]
V: /k/ > /x/ > [ɣ]
[ɣ] > [ɡ] gut
cf. Dutch goed
7/8 Upper German and some varieties of Central German Yes Partly No
G: (/bʱ/ >) [β] > [b]
V: (/p/ > /ɸ/ >) /β/ > [b]
3 /b/ > /p/ Bavarian: perg, pist
cf. German Berg "hill", bist "(you) are"
8/9 Parts of Bavarian/Alemanic; other Upper German only for geminates Partly Partly No
G: (/dʱ/ >) [ð] > [d]
V: (/t/ > /θ/ >) [ð] > [d]
3 /d/ > /t/ Tag, Mitte, Vater
cf. day, middle, Dutch Dag, Middel, Vader "father"8
8/9 Upper German Yes No No
G: (/ɡʱ/ >) [ɣ] > [ɡ]
V: (/k/ > /x/ >) [ɣ] > [ɡ]
3 /ɡ/ > /k/ Bavarian: Kot
cf. German Gott "God"; German Brücke
cf. English bridge, Dutch brug
8/9 Parts of Bavarian/Alemanic; other Upper German only for geminates Partly Partly No
G: /t/ > /θ/ 4 /θ/ > [ð] > /d/ Dorn, Distel, durch, Bruder
cf. thorn, thistle, through, brother
9/10 Throughout continental West Germanic Yes Yes Yes


  1. G: Grimm's law
  2. V: Verner's law
  3. Approximate, isoglosses may vary.
  4. Old High German scarph, Middle High German scharpf.
  5. Old High German ezzen, daz, ūz.
  6. Note that in modern German z is pronounced /t͡s/.
  7. Old English ic, "I".
  8. Old English fæder, "father"; English has shifted d > th in a few OE words ending in a vowel + -der.

Core group

Phase 1

The first phase, which affected the whole of the High German area, affected the voiceless plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/ in intervocalic and word-final position. These became geminated (long) fricatives, except in word-final position where they were shortened and merged with the existing single consonants. Geminate plosives in words like *appul "apple" or *katta "cat" were not affected, nor were plosives preceded by another consonant like in *skarp "sharp" or *hert "heart". These remained unshifted until the second phase.

/p/ presumably went through an intermediate bilabial stage /ɸ/, although no distinction between /x/ and /f/ was made in writing. It can be assumed that the two sounds merged early on.

The letter z stands for a voiceless fricative that is distinct somehow from s. The exact nature of the distinction is unknown; possibly s was apical while z was laminal. It remained distinct from /s/ throughout Old High German and most of the Middle High German period, and was not affected by the late Old High German voicing of prevocalic /s/ to /z/.

This phase has been dated as early as the 4th century, though this is highly debated. The first certain examples of the shift are from the Edictus Rothari (a. 643, oldest extant manuscript after 650), a Latin text of the Lombards. Lombard personal names show *b > /p/, having pert, perg, prand for bert, berg, brand. According to most scholars, the pre-Old High German runic inscriptions of about a. 600 show no convincing trace of the consonant shift.

In many West Central German dialects, the words dat, wat, et ("that, what, it") did not shift to das, was, es, even though t was shifted in other words. It is not quite clear why these exceptions occurred.


Old English slǣpan : Old High German slāfan (English sleep /slp/, Dutch slapen [ˈslaːpə(n)] : German schlafen [ˈʃlaːfən])
OE strǣt : OHG strāzza (English street /strt/, Dutch straat [straːt] : German Straße [ˈʃtʁaːsə])
OE rīce : OHG rīhhi (English rich /rɪ/, Dutch rijk [rɛi̯k] : German reich [ʁaɪ̯ç])

Phase 2

In the second phase, which was completed by the 8th century, the same sounds became affricates in three environments: in word-initial position; when geminated; and after a liquid (/l/ or /r/) or nasal (/m/ or /n/).

/p/ > /p͡f/ (also written ph in OHG)
/t/ > /t͡s/ (written z or tz)
/k/ > /k͡x/ (written ch in OHG).


OE æppel : OHG apful, afful (English apple, Dutch appel, Low German Appel : German Apfel)
OE scearp : OHG scarpf, scarf (English sharp, Dutch scherp, Low German scharp : German scharf)
OE catt : OHG kazza (English cat, Dutch kat, Low German Katt : German Katze)
OE tam : OHG zam (English tame, Dutch tam, Low German tamm : German zahm)
OE liccian : OHG leckōn (English lick, Dutch likken, Low German licken, German lecken : High Alemannic lekchen, schlecke/schläcke /ˈʃlɛkxə, ˈʃlækxə/)
OE weorc : OHG werc, werah (English work, Dutch werk, Low German Wark, German Werk : High Alemannic Werch/Wärch)

The shift did not take place where the plosive was preceded by a fricative, i.e. in the combinations /sp, st, sk, ft, ht/. /t/ also remained unshifted in the combination /tr/.

OE spearwa : OHG sparo (English sparrow, Dutch spreeuw, German Sperling)
OE mæst : OHG mast (English mast, Dutch mast, Low German Mast, German Mast(baum))
OE niht : OHG naht (English night, Dutch nacht, Low German Nacht, German Nacht)
OE trēowe : OHG (gi)triuwi (English true, Dutch (ge)trouw, Low German trü, German treu; the cognates mean "trustworthy","faithful", not "correct","truthful".)

Following /r/ also prevented the shift of /t/ in words which end in -ter in modern Standard German, e.g. bitter, Winter. These stems had /tr/ in OHG inflected forms (bittr-, wintr-).

For the subsequent change of /sk/ > /ʃ/, written sch, see below.

These affricates (especially /p͡f/) have simplified into fricatives in some dialects. /p͡f/ was simplified to /f/ in a number of circumstances. In Yiddish and some German dialects, this occurred in initial positions, e.g., Dutch paard: German Pferd : Yiddish ferd 'horse'. In modern standard German, the pronunciation /f/ for word-initial pf is also a very common feature of northern and central German accents (i.e. in regions where /p͡f/ does not occur in the native dialects; compare German phonology).

There was an even stronger tendency to simplify /p͡f/ after /r/ and /l/. This simplification is also reflected in modern standard German, e.g. werfen 'to throw' ← OHG werfan ← *werpfan, helfen 'to help' ← OHG helfan ← *helpfan. Only one standard word with /rp͡f/ remains: Karpfen 'carp' ← OHG karpfo.

Phase 3

The third phase, which had the most limited geographical range, saw the voiced plosives become voiceless.

b > p
d > t
g > k

Of these, only the dental shift d > t universally finds its way into standard German (though with relatively many exceptions, partly due to Low and Central German influence). The other two occur in standard German only in original geminates, e.g. Rippe, Brücke vs. Dutch rib, brug "rib, bridge". For single consonants, b > p and g > k are restricted to High Alemannic German in Switzerland, and south Bavarian dialects in Austria. This shift probably began in the 8th or 9th century, after the first and second phases ceased to be productive, otherwise the resulting voiceless plosives would have shifted further to fricatives and affricates.

In those words in which an Indo-European voiceless plosive became voiced as a result of Verner's law, phase three of the High German shift returns this to its original value (*t > d > t):

PIE *meh₂tḗr
> early Proto-Germanic *māþḗr (t > /θ/ by the first Germanic consonant shift)
> late Proto-Germanic *mōđēr (/θ/ > /ð/ by Verner's law)[6]
> West-Germanic *mōdar (/ð/ > d by West Germanic sound change)
> Old High German muotar (d > t by the second Germanic consonant shift)


OE dōn : OHG tuon (English do, Dutch doen, Low German doon : German tun)
OE mōdor : OHG muotar (English mother, Dutch moeder, Low German Modder, Mudder : German Mutter)
OE rēad : OHG rōt (English red, Dutch rood, Low German root : German rot)[7]
OE biddan : OHG bitten or pitten (English bid, Dutch bieden, Low German bidden : German bitten, Bavarian pitten)

The combination -nd- was shifted to -nt- only in some varieties of OHG. Written OHG normally has shifted -nt- (e.g. bintan "to bind"), but in Middle High German and modern standard German the unshifted pronunciation /nd/ prevails (cf. binden). (Although in OHG both fintan and findan "to find" are encountered, these represent earlier forms *findan and *finþan, respectively; note the corresponding alternation in Old Saxon findan and fīþan. In this case, *finþan corresponds to original Proto-Germanic *finþaną while *findan is a later, specifically West Germanic, form, created by analogy with the Verner's law alternant *fund-, as in Proto-Germanic *fundun "they found", *fundanaz "found".)

Noteworthy exceptions are modern hinter, munter and unter, for which however Middle High German preferred hinder, munder, under. (As all of these three words end in -nter, the modern unvoiced pronunciation might be caused by analogy with Winter, whose -t- stems from original Germanic /t/ unshifted before /r/.) In other cases, modern -nt- is due to the later loss of a vowel (e.g. Ente from OHG enita) or borrowing (e.g. Kante from Low German).

It is possible that pizza is an early Italian borrowing of OHG (Bavarian dialect) pizzo, a shifted variant of bizzo (German Bissen, 'bite, snack').[8]

Other changes

Other consonant changes on the way from West Germanic to Old High German are included under the heading "High German consonant shift" by some scholars that see the term as a description of the whole context, but are excluded by others who use it to describe the neatness of the threefold chain shift. Although it might be possible to see /ð/ > /d/, /ɣ/ > /ɡ/ and /v/ > /b/ as a similar group of three, both the chronology and the differing phonetic conditions under which these changes occur speak against such a grouping.

/θ/ > /d/ (phase 4)

What is sometimes known as the fourth phase shifted the dental fricatives to plosives. This shift occurred late enough that unshifted forms are to be found in the earliest Old High German texts, and thus it can be dated to the 9th or 10th century. This shift spread much further north than the others, eventually reaching all continental West Germanic languages (hence excluding only English). It is therefore not uniquely High German; it is nonetheless often grouped together with the other shifts, as it did spread from the same area. The shift took several centuries to spread north, appearing in Dutch only during the 12th century, and in Frisian and Low German not for another century or two after that.

In early Old High German, as in Old Dutch and Old Saxon, the voiceless and voiced dental fricatives [θ] and [ð] stood in allophonic relationship (as did /f/, /v/ and /s/, /z/), with [θ] in final position and [ð] used initially and medially. The sound [ð] then became /d/, while [θ] became /t/. In Old Frisian, the voiceless fricatives were only voiced medially, and remained voiceless initially except in some pronouns and determiners, much as in Old and Modern English. Thus, modern Frisian varieties have /t/ word-initially in most words, and /d/ medially.

early OHG thaz > classical OHG daz (English that, Icelandic það : Dutch dat, German das, West Frisian dat)
early OHG thenken > classical OHG denken (English think : Dutch denken, German denken, West Frisian tinke)
early OHG thegan > classical OHG degan (English thane : Dutch degen, German Degen "warrior", West Frisian teie)
early OHG thurstag > classical OHG durstag (English thirsty : Dutch dorstig, German durstig, West Frisian toarstig, Swedish törstig)
early OHG bruothar/bruodhar > classical OHG bruodar (English brother, Icelandic bróðir : Dutch broeder, German Bruder, West Frisian broer)
early OHG munth > classical OHG mund (English mouth, Old Norse múðr : Dutch mond, German Mund)
early OHG thou/thu > classical OHG , du (English thou, Icelandic þú : Low German , German du, West Frisian do)

In dialects affected by phase 4 but not by the dental variety of phase 3 (Central German, Low German, and Dutch), two Germanic phonemes merged: þ becomes d, but original Germanic d remains unchanged:

German Low German English
original /θ/ ( > /d/ in German and Low German) Tod dod death
original /d/ ( > /t/ in German) tot dod dead

One consequence of this is that there is no dental variety of grammatischer Wechsel in Middle Dutch.

A peculiar development took place in stems which had the onsets dw- and tw- in OHG. They merged in MHG tw- and were later joined to the large group of stems with initial zw-. Those stems therefore appear to have undergone the High German consonant shift several times, e.g. modern zwingen ("to force") < MHG twingen < OHG dwingan < Germanic *þwengan.

In 1955, Otto Höfler[9] suggested that a change analogous to the fourth phase of the High German consonant shift may have taken place in Gothic (East Germanic) as early as the 3rd century AD, and he hypothesised that it may have spread from Gothic to High German as a result of the Visigothic migrations westward (c. 375–500 AD). This has not found wide acceptance; the modern consensus is that Höfler misinterpreted some sound substitutions of Romanic languages as Germanic, and that East Germanic shows no sign of the second consonant shift.

Most dialects of Norwegian and Swedish show a shift that is much like the one in Frisian, with /ð/ > /d/ and /θ/ > /t/. This shift reached Swedish only around the 16th century or so, as the Gustav Vasa Bible of 1541 still shows the dental fricatives (spelled th). This shift may be part of the same development as in the West Germanic languages, or it may have occurred independently. Danish – geographically between West Germanic and Swedish/Norwegian areas – would have had to experienced this shift first, before it could have spread further northwards. However, Danish does not form a dialect continuum with the West Germanic languages, and the shift occurred only word-initially in it, while it retains /ð/ medially. On the other hand, Danish exhibits widespread lenition phenomena, including shifts from plosives to fricatives and further to approximants word-medially, so it's conceivable that these changes counteracted the earlier hardening of the dental fricatives that had reached Danish from the south (thus initially /ð/ > /d/, followed by lenition /d/ > /ð/), but only after these changes had propagated further north to the remaining Scandinavian dialects.

/β/ > /b/

West Germanic *ƀ (presumably pronounced [β]), which was an allophone of /b/ used in medial position, shifted to (Upper German) Old High German /b/ between two vowels, and also after /l/. Unshifted languages retained a fricative, which became /v/ between vowels and /f/ in coda position.

OE lēof : OHG liob, liup (obs. English †lief, Dutch lief, Low German leev : German lieb)
OE hæfen : MHG habe(ne) (English haven, Dutch haven, Low German Haven; for German Hafen, see below)
OE half : OHG halb (English half, Dutch half, Low German halv : German halb)
OE lifer : OHG libara, lebra (English liver, Dutch lever, Low German Läver : German Leber)
OE selfa : OHG selbo (English self, Dutch zelf, Low German sülve : German selbe)
OE sealf : OHG salba (English salve, Dutch zalf, Low German Salv : German Salbe)

In strong verbs such as German heben 'heave' and geben 'give', the shift contributed to eliminating the [β] forms in German, but a full account of these verbs is complicated by the effects of grammatischer Wechsel by which [β] and [b] appear in alternation in different parts of the same verb in the early forms of the languages. In the case of weak verbs such as haben 'have' (cf. Dutch hebben) and leben 'live' (cf. Dutch leven), the consonant differences have an unrelated origin, being a result of the West Germanic gemination and a subsequent process of levelling.

This shift also is only partly completed in Central German, with Ripuarian and Moselle Franconian retaining a fricative pronunciation. For example: Colognian hä läv, Luxembourgish hie lieft, meaning "he lives".

/ð/ > /d/

The Proto-Germanic voiced dental fricative [ð], which was an allophone of /d/ in certain positions, became a plosive [d] in all positions throughout the West Germanic languages. Thus, it affected High German, Low German, Dutch, Frisian and Old English alike. It did not spread to Old Norse, which retained the original fricative. Because of its much wider spread, it must have occurred very early, during Northwest Germanic times, perhaps around the 2nd century.

English has partially reversed this shift through the change /dər/ > /ðər/, for example in father, mother, gather and together.

In phase 3 of the High German consonant shift, this /d/ was shifted to /t/, as described above.

/ɣ/ > /ɡ/

The West Germanic voiced velar fricative [ɣ] shifted to [ɡ] in Upper German dialects of Old High German in all positions. This change is believed to be early and complete by the 8th century at the latest. Since the existence of a /ɡ/ was necessary for the south German shift /ɡ/ > /k/, this must at least predate phase 3 of the core High German consonant shift.

The same change occurred independently in Anglo-Frisian (c. 10th century for Old English, as suggested by changing patterns of alliteration), except when preceding or following a front vowel where it had earlier undergone Anglo-Frisian palatalisation and ended up as /j/. Dutch has retained the original /ɣ/, despite the fact it is spelled with g, rendering it indistinguishable in writing from its counterparts in other languages.

Dutch goed /ɣut/ : German gut /ɡuːt/, English good /ɡʊd/
Dutch gisteren /ˈɣɪstərə(n)/ : German gestern /ˈɡɛstɐn/ : English yesterday /ˈjɛstərd/, West Frisian juster /ˈjɵstər/

The shift is only partly complete in Central German. Most Central German dialects have fricative pronunciation for g between vowels (/ʒ/, /ʝ/, /j/, /ʁ/) and in coda position (/ʃ/, /ç/, /x/). Ripuarian has /j/ word-initially, e.g. Colognian jood /joːt/ "good".

In standard German, fricative g is found in coda position in unstressed -ig (selig /ˈzeːlɪç/ "blessed" but feminine selige /ˈzeːlɪɡǝ/). One will still very frequently hear fricative g in coda position in other cases as well in standard German as pronounced by people from northern and central Germany. For example, Tag and Weg are often pronounced /tax/ and /veːç/. Compare German phonology. This pronunciation reaches as far south as Franconia, thus into Upper German areas.

/s/ > /ʃ/

High German experienced the shift /sk/ > /ʃ/ in all positions, and /s/ > /ʃ/ before another consonant in initial position (original /s/ may in fact have been apical [s̺], as OHG and MHG distinguish it from the reflex /t/ > /s/, spelled ⟨z⟩ or ⟨ȥ⟩ and presumed to be laminal [s̻]):

German Schrift, script
German Flasche, flask
German spinnen (/ʃp/), spin
German Straße (/ʃt/), street
German Schlaf, sleep
German Schmied, smith
German Schnee, snow
German Schwan, swan

Likewise /rs/ became /rʃ/, except before /t/:

German Barsch, perch or bass (Dutch baars)
German Kirsch, cherry (Dutch kers)
but German erste, first; bersten, burst

The /sk/ > /ʃ/ shift occurred in most West Germanic dialects but notably not in Dutch, which instead had /sk/ > /sx/. The two other changes did not reach any further than Limburgish and some southern dialects of Low German:

Limburgian sjpinne /ˈʃpɪnə/, sjtraot /ʃtʁɔːt/, sjrif /ʃʁɪf/
Dutch spinnen /ˈspɪnə(n)/, straat /straːt/, schrift /sxrɪft/ (although note that Dutch /s/ is usually apical).

Terminal devoicing

Other changes include a general tendency towards terminal devoicing in German and Dutch, and to a far more limited extent in English. Thus, in German and Dutch, /b/, /d/ and /ɡ/ (German), /ɣ/ (Dutch) at the end of a word are pronounced identically to /p/, /t/ and /k/ (German), /x/ (Dutch). The g in German Tag [taːk] (day) is pronounced as ck in English tack, not as g in English tag. However, this change is not High German in origin but is generally thought to have originated in Frankish,[10] as the earliest evidence for the change appears in Old Dutch texts at a time when there was still no sign of devoicing at all in Old High German or Old Saxon. Terminal devoicing also occurred in the strongly Frankish-influenced Old and Middle French (and to a limited extent in Modern French, where final consonants have otherwise largely been lost).

Nevertheless, the original voiced consonants are usually represented in modern German and Dutch spelling. This is because related inflected forms, such as the plural Tage [ˈtaːɡə], have the voiced form, since here the plosive is not terminal. As a result of these inflected forms, native speakers remain aware of the underlying voiced phoneme, and spell accordingly. However, in Middle High German, these sounds were spelled differently: singular tac, plural tage.


Since, apart from þ > d, the High German consonant shift took place before the beginning of writing of Old High German in the 9th century, the dating of the various phases is an uncertain business. The estimates quoted here are mostly taken from the dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache (p. 63). Different estimates appear elsewhere, for example Waterman, who asserts that the first three phases occurred fairly close together and were complete in Alemannic territory by 600, taking another two or three centuries to spread north.

Sometimes historical constellations help us; for example, the fact that Attila is called Etzel in German proves that the second phase must have been productive after the Hunnish invasion of the 5th century. The fact that many Latin loan-words are shifted in German (e.g., Latin strata > German Straße), while others are not (e.g., Latin poena > German Pein) allows us to date the sound changes before or after the likely period of borrowing. However the most useful source of chronological data is German words cited in Latin texts of the late classical and early medieval period.

Precise dating would in any case be difficult, since each shift may have begun with one word or a group of words in the speech of one locality, and gradually extended by lexical diffusion to all words with the same phonological pattern, and then over a longer period of time spread to wider geographical areas.

However, relative chronology for phases 2, 3, and 4 can easily be established by the observation that t > tz must precede d > t, which in turn must precede þ > d; otherwise words with an original þ could have undergone all three shifts and ended up as tz. By contrast, as the form kepan for "give" is attested in Old Bavarian, showing both /ɣ/ > /ɡ/ > /k/ and /β/ > /b/ > /p/, it follows that /ɣ/ > /ɡ/ and /β/ > /b/ must predate phase 3.

Alternative chronologies have been proposed. According to a theory by the controversial German linguist Theo Vennemann, the consonant shift occurred much earlier and was already completed in the early 1st century BC.[11] On this basis, he subdivides the Germanic languages into High Germanic and Low Germanic. Apart from Vennemann, few other linguists share this view.

Geographical distribution

Dialects and isoglosses of the Rhenish fan
(Arranged from north to south: dialects in dark fields, isoglosses in light fields)[12]
Isogloss North South
Low German
Unity plural line wi maakt wi maken
Uerdingen line (Uerdingen) ik ich
Benrath line
(Boundary: Low German — Central German)
maken machen
Ripuarian Franconian (Cologne, Bonn, Aachen)
Bad Honnef line
(State border NRW-RP) (Eifel-Schranke)
Dorp Dorf
West Mosel Franconian (Luxemburgish, Trier)
Linz line (Linz am Rhein) tussen zwischen
Bad Hönningen line op auf
East Mosel Franconian (Koblenz, Saarland)
Boppard line (Boppard) Korf Korb
Sankt Goar line (Sankt Goar)
dat das
Rhenish Franconian (Pfälzisch, Frankfurt)
Speyer line (River Main line)
(Boundary: Central German — Upper German)
Appel Apfel
Upper German
The Rhenish fan: 1 Dutch (West Low Franconian),
2 Limburgian (East Low Franconian),
3 Ripuarian Franconian,
4 & 5 Mosel Franconian,
6 Rhenish Franconian

Roughly, the changes resulting from phase 1 affected Upper and Central German, as did the dental element of phase 2 (t- > z-). The other elements of phase 2 and all of phase 3 impacted only Upper German, while those changes from phase 4 affected the entire German and Dutch-speaking region (the West Germanic dialect continuum). The generally accepted boundary between Central and Low German, the maken-machen line, is sometimes called the Benrath line, as it passes through the Düsseldorf suburb of Benrath, while the main boundary between Central and Upper German, the Appel-Apfel line can be called the Speyer line, as it passes near the town of Speyer, some 200 kilometers further south.

However, a precise description of the geographical extent of the changes is far more complex. Not only do the individual sound shifts within a phase vary in their distribution (phase 3, for example, partly affects the whole of Upper German and partly only the southernmost dialects within Upper German), but there are even slight variations from word to word in the distribution of the same consonant shift. For example, the ik-ich line lies further north than the maken-machen line in western Germany, coincides with it in central Germany, and lies further south at its eastern end, although both demonstrate the same shift /k/ > /x/.

Rhenish fan

The subdivision of West Central German into a series of dialects, according to the differing extent of the phase 1 shifts, is particularly pronounced. It known as the Rhenish fan (German: Rheinischer Fächer, Dutch: Rijnlandse waaier) because on the map of dialect boundaries, the lines form a fan shape.[13] Here, no fewer than eight isoglosses run roughly West to East and partially merge into a simpler system of boundaries in East Central German. The table on the right lists the isoglosses (bold) and the main resulting dialects (italics), arranged from north to south.


Some of the consonant shifts resulting from the second and third phases appear also to be observable in Lombardic, the early mediaeval Germanic language of Italy, which is preserved in runic fragments of the late 6th and early 7th centuries. However, the Lombardic records are not sufficient to allow a complete taxonomy of the language. It is therefore uncertain whether the language experienced the full shift or merely sporadic reflexes, but b > p is clearly attested. This may mean that the shift began in Italy, or that it spread southwards as well as northwards. Ernst Schwarz and others have suggested that the shift occurred in German as a result of contacts with Lombardic. If, in fact, there is a relationship here, the evidence of Lombardic would force us to conclude that the third phase must have begun by the late 6th century, rather earlier than most estimates, but this would not necessarily require that it had spread to German so early.

If, as some scholars believe, Lombardic was an East Germanic language and not part of the German language dialect continuum, it is possible that parallel shifts took place independently in German and Lombardic. However the extant words in Lombardic show clear relations to Bavarian. Therefore, Werner Betz and others prefer to treat Lombardic as an Old High German dialect. There were close connections between Lombards and Proto-Bavarians. For example, the Lombards settled in Tullner Feld (about 50 km west of Vienna) until 568, but it is evident that not all Lombards went to Italy after that time; the rest seem to have become part of the then newly formed Bavarian groups.

According to Jonas of Bobbio (before 650) in Lombardy, when Columban came to the Alamanni at Lake Constance shortly after 600, he made cupa ("barrels", English cup, German Kufe) burst. This shows that in the time of Columban the shift from p to f had occurred neither in Alemannic nor in Lombardic. But the Edictus Rothari (643; surviving manuscript after 650) attests the forms grapworf ('throwing a corpse out of the grave', German Wurf and Grab), marhworf ('a horse', OHG marh, 'throws the rider off'), and many similar shifted examples. So it is best to see the consonant shift as a common Lombardic—Bavarian—Alemannic shift between 620 and 640, when these tribes had plenty of contact.

Sample texts

As an example of the effects of the shift one may compare the following texts from the later Middle Ages, on the left a Middle Low German citation from the Sachsenspiegel (1220), which does not show the shift, and on the right the equivalent text from the Middle High German Deutschenspiegel (1274), which shows the shifted consonants; both are standard legal texts of the period.

Sachsenspiegel (II,45,3) Deutschenspiegel (Landrecht 283)
De man is ok vormunde sines wives,
to hant alse se eme getruwet is.
Dat wif is ok des mannes notinne
to hant alse se in sin bedde trit,
na des mannes dode is se ledich van des mannes rechte.
Der man ist auch vormunt sînes wîbes
zehant als si im getriuwet ist.
Daz wîp ist auch des mannes genôzinne
zehant als si an sîn bette trit
nâch des mannes rechte.
First lines identical: "The man is also guardian of his wife / as soon as she is married to him. / The wife is also the man's companion / as soon as she goes to his bed".

Last line of the Sachsenspiegel is "After the man's death, she is free of the man's rights"; that of the Deutschenspiegel "according to a man's rights".

Irregularities in modern Standard German

The High German consonant shift – at least as far as the core group of changes is concerned – is an example of an exceptionless sound change and was frequently cited as such by the Neogrammarians. Modern standard German is a compromise form between East Central German and northern Upper German, mainly based on the former but with the consonant pattern of the latter. However, individual words from all German dialects and varieties have found their way into the standard. When a German word contains unshifted consonants, it is usually considered to be a loanword from either Low German or, less often, Central German. Either the shifted form has become obsolete, as in:

Hafen "harbor", from Low German (15th century), replacing Middle High German habe(ne);
Pacht "lease", from West Central German, replacing Middle High German pfaht;

or the two forms are retained as doublets, as in:

Wappen "coat of arms", from Low German, alongside native Waffe "weapon";
sich kloppen "to fight", from either Low German or Central German, alongside native klopfen "to knock".

Many unshifted words are borrowed from Low German:

Hafer "oat" (vs. Swiss, Austrian Haber); Lippe "lip" (vs. Lefze "animal lip"); Pegel "water level"; Pickel "pimple"

However, the majority of unshifted words in German are loaned from Latin, Romance, English or Slavic:

Paar "pair, couple" (← Medieval Latin pār), Peitsche "whip" (← Old Sorbian/Czech bič).

Other ostensible irregularities in the sound shift, which we may notice in modern Standard German, are usually clarified by checking the etymology of an individual word. Possible reasons include the following:

See also


  1. See also Fausto Cercignani, The Consonants of German: Synchrony and Diachrony, Milano, Cisalpino, 1979.
  2. Scholars who restrict the term "High German Consonant Shift" to the core group include Braune/Reiffenstein, Chambers & Wilkie, von Kienle, Wright (1907), and Voyles (1992). Those who include other changes as part of the shift or who treat them as connected with it include Penzl (1975), dtv-Atlas, Keller, Moser/Wellmann/Wolf, and Wells.
  3. Scholars who make a two-fold analysis include Bach, Braune/Reiffenstein, Eggers, Gerh. Wolff, Keller, Moser/Wellmann/Wolf, Penzl (1971 & 1975), Russ, Sonderegger (1979), von Kienle, Voyles (1992), and Wright (1907). Scholars who distinguish three phases include Chambers & Wilkie, dtv-Atlas, Waterman, and Wells.
  4. See the definition of "high" in the Oxford English Dictionary (Concise Edition): "... situated far above ground, sealevel, etc; upper, inland, as ... High German".
  5. Recent work suggests that future scholars may analyse German dialects in new ways, which will have consequences also for the understanding of the shift. Schwerdt (2000) has argued that the name 'High German consonant shift' is misleading and perhaps even inappropriate, as it does not adequately reflect the areal discrepancies of the individual changes undergone by the affected West Germanic dialects.
  6. Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, TF Hoad (Ed)
  7. As a general rule, Low German, Dutch, and German have all undergone final-obstruent devoicing so that the modern reflexes are all pronounced with final /t/ regardless of spelling.
  8. Manlio & Michele Cortelazzo, L'etimologico minore 2003, p. 929f.
  9. Otto Höfler, Die zweite Lautverschiebung bei Ostgermanen und Westgermanen, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 77 (Tübingen 1955)
  10. B. Mees, The Bergakker inscription and the beginnings of Dutch, in: Amsterdamer beiträge zur älteren Germanistik: Band 56- 2002, edited by Erika Langbroek, Annelies Roeleveld, Paula Vermeyden, Arend Quak, Published by Rodopi, 2002, ISBN 90-420-1579-9, ISBN 978-90-420-1579-1
  11. Vennemann, Theo (1994): "Dating the division between High and Low Germanic. A summary of arguments". In: Mørck, E./Swan, T./Jansen, O.J. (eds.): Language change and language structure. Older Germanic languages in a comparative perspective. Berlin/New York: 271–303.
  12. The table of isoglosses is adapted from Rheinischer Fächer on the German Wikipedia.
  13. Rheinischer Fächer – Karte des Landschaftsverband Rheinland Archived February 15, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.


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