ArticleA short history of the German language
AuthorHelmut Richter
published / modified /
Article URL
This page
containscontinuation of article

Old, Middle, and New High German

The German language has undergone a number of changes in history. The main phases are called Old High German (Althochdeutsch, AHD), Middle High German (Mittelhochdeutsch, MHD), and New High German (Neuhochdeutsch, NHD). Roughly, MHD was used between 1050 and 1350; but the sound shifts from AHD to MHD and from MHD to NHD took centuries to spread over Germany, so that these dates are to be taken with a big grain of salt.

Old High German

Old High German was spoken until the 10th or 11th century. When we compare it with NHD, its most interesting feature is that it contains a full-fledged noun declension and no (or only optional) articles, and also a verb conjugation with distinctive endings and only optional pronouns. In contrast to that, MHD and NHD declension and conjugation endings may be awkward to learn for the foreigner,but they are not sufficiently distinctive to allow case markers (articles) and person markers (pronouns) to be dispensed with. In this respect, AHD grammar resembles Latin and today’s Slavic languages. – There are lots of full vowels -a-, -i-, and -u-, in contrast to the prevailing -e- in MHD and NHD. AHD is mostly unintelligible to speakers of NHD who might guess many words but could hardly understand anything in context. Here is an example of a late – and thus a somewhat more understandable – text in AHD:

Trohtin almahtiger, tu der pist einiger trost unta euuigiu heila aller dero di in dih gloubant iouh in dih gidingant, tu inluihta min herza, daz ih dina guoti unta dina gnada megi anadenchin, unta mina sunta iouh mina ubila, unta die megi so chlagen vora dir, also ih des bidurfi. Leski, trohtin, allaz daz in mir, daz der leidiga viant inni mir zunta uppigas unta unrehtes odo unsubras, unta zunta mih ze den giriden des euuigin libes, daz ih den also megi minnan unta mih dara nah hungiro unta dursti also ih des bidurfi. Dara nah macha mih also fron unta kreftigin in alle dinemo dionosti, daz ih alla die arbeita megi lidan die ih in deser werolti sculi lidan durh dina era unta durh dinan namon iouh durh mina durfti odo durh iomannes durfti. (Otloh’s Prayer; 11th century)

Middle High German

Middle High German was the language of the minstrels. Although the time of its oldest documents nearly overlaps with AHD times, it is quite thoroughly different from AHD. The concentration of the word stress on the word stem is now complete, leaving prefixes and suffixes with an unspecific vowel written as -e-. As a consequence, declension and conjugation endings have disappeared except for small residues, so that pronouns (when there is no other subject) and articles are now obligatory. But the old vowels have left their traces: when in an AHD suffix there was an -i- which became an -e- or disappeared in MHD, it had modified a preceding -a-, -o-, -ou-, -u- or -uo- in the word stem to become -ä-, -ö-, -öu-, -ü- or -üe-, for example gibâridagebærde(→Gebärde), scônischœne(→schön), guotigüete(→Güte). In AHD, these umlauts were just pronunciation variations of the vowels in a specific context (allophones) with little need to reflect them in spelling, whereas in MHD and later, they were more and more distinctive and increasingly rendered in writing.

MHD is similar enough to NHD that, at least after getting accustomed to it, speakers of NHD should get the story line of a MHD text, although they will certainly miss many of the details. Of course, knowing the sound shifts between MHD and NHD to be explained in the next section helps a lot in recognising the words. Here is an example from the most famous of the MHD songs, “Der Nibelunge Nôt”. The NHD translation below, deliberately literal and thus in no way acceptable as fluent NHD, seeks to find NHD cognates even when they do not quite fit; when this would result in wrong translation they are bracketed and followed by a more appropriate NHD word.

Dô sprach ûzer Metzen   der degen Ortwîn:
„welt ir mit vollen êren   zer hôchgezîte sîn,
sô sult ir lâzen schouwen   diu wünneclichen kint,
die mit sô vollen êren   hie zen Burgonden sint."
Da sprach aus Metz der Degen Ortwin:
„wollt ihr mit vollen Ehren zur [Hochzeit] Festlichkeit sein,
so sollt ihr lassen schauen die [wonniglichen Kinder] bezaubernden jungen Leute,
die mit so vollen Ehren hier zu Burgund sind.
Waz wære mannes wünne,   des vreute sich ir lîp,
ez entæten schœne mägede   und hêrlîchiu wîp?
ir lâzet iuwer swester   für iuwer geste gân.“
der rât was ze liebe   vil manegem degene getân.
Was wäre Mannes Wonne, des freute sich ihr Leib,
[es täten außer] wenn nicht schöne Mädchen und herrliche [Weiber] Frauen?
[Ihr] lasst eure Schwester vor eure Gäste [gehn] treten.“
Der Rat war zuliebe [viel] manchem Degen getan.
„Des wil ich gerne volgen“,   sprach der künec dô,
alle diez erfunden,   die wârens harte vrô;
man saget ouch daz froun Uoten   und ir tohter wolgetân,
daz si mit ir mägeden   hin ze hove solde gân.
„Dem will ich gerne folgen“, sprach der König da,
alle die es [erfanden] erfuhren, die waren dessen [hart] sehr froh;
man sagt auch das Frau Ute und ihrer Tochter [wohlgetan] schön,
dass sie mit ihren Mägden hin zum Hofe sollte gehen.
Then the warrior Ortwin from Metz said: “If you want to take pride in the festivity, you should present the charming young people who are so much cherished here in Burgundy. What would be a man’s delight in which his body rejoices, if not pretty girls and gorgeous women? Now let your sister appear before your guests.” This advice was given for the sake of many a warrior. “I will gladly comply”, said the king. All who heard it were very pleased about it. They told that Lady Ute (the king’s mother) and her beautiful daughter that they should go to the court with the girls.

The spelling of the above MHD text – and indeed of most MHD texts printed in modern times – contains a lot of linguistic detail that was hardly ever represented in the original manuscripts, in particular the long vowels marked with circumflex accents or the short umlauts written with two dots on top as in modern German spelling. In the manuscripts, length of vowels was not normally indicated, and umlauts only sometimes as ligatures or with an e on top of the base vowel but very often not at all; only the usage of -e- for short -ä- and of -iu- for long -ü- was more common. The normalised Middle High German as in the text was developed many centuries later by Karl Lachmann (1793–1851); it is useful for learning MHD and representing it in a way where words and grammar are easily recognised, but rather misleading when mistaken to be the MHD language or spelling. Spelling habits were rather diverse across different manuscripts; here is an example with the quoted passage:

manuscript in Middle High German
Photo: © Badische Landesbibliothek

This is from the manuscript C of the Song of the Nibelungs, written in the first half of the 13th century, now in the Badische Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe. On their Web site the entire text of this manuscript can be viewed together with a transcript of the original spelling. For the above excerpt, proceed to page 11r of Aventiure 5.

New High German

New High German had developed out of MHD at the end of the Middle Ages. Besides the unavoidable shift in meaning of many words which always takes place over so long a time, the differences between MHD and NHD are:


Early NHD looks awkward to today’s readers, but mostly because of the unusual spelling. Modern readers have no problems in understanding it, except for the words that have become obsolete or have changed their meaning dramatically. Comparing the versions of 1545 and 1912 of Luther’s Bible translation shows that the words have remained nearly the same over the 367 years but the spelling has changed a lot. However, one has to take into acount that the language was quite archaic in 1912, especially the word order with the verb early in the subordinate clause. The text is Matth.6:1–4.

Habt acht auff ewer Almosen, das jr die nicht gebt fur den Leuten, das jr von jnen gesehen werdet, Jr habt anders keinen Lohn bey ewerm Vater im Himel. Habt acht auf eure Almosen, daß ihr die nicht gebet vor den Leuten, daß ihr von ihnen gesehen werdet; ihr habt anders keinen Lohn bei eurem Vater im Himmel.
Wenn du nu Almosen gibst, soltu nicht lassen fur dir posaunen, wie die Heuchler thun, in den Schulen vnd auff den gassen, Auff das sie von den Leuten gepreiset werden, Warlich ich sage euch, sie haben jren Lohn dahin. Wenn du Almosen gibst, sollst du nicht lassen vor dir posaunen, wie die Heuchler tun in den Schulen und auf den Gassen, auf daß sie von den Leuten gepriesen werden. Wahrlich ich sage euch: Sie haben ihren Lohn dahin.
Wenn du aber Almosen gibst, So las deine lincke hand nicht wissen, was die rechte thut, Wenn du aber Almosen gibst, so laß deine linke Hand nicht wissen, was die rechte tut,
Auff das dein Almosen verborgen sey, vnd dein Vater, der in das verborgen sihet, wird dirs vergelten öffentlich. auf daß dein Almosen verborgen sei; und dein Vater, der in das Verborgene sieht, wird dir’s vergelten öffentlich.