Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > Old High German

The West Germanic branch is often subdivided into Ingvaeonic, Istvaeonic and Irminonic, based on tribes mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus in the 1st C. The Irminones, also called the Elbe Germans, migrated from the Elbe towards the higher lands of what is now southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and further on to what is now Lombardy. It was their particular variety of Germanic that ultimately developed into modern Standard German.

Old High German (althochdeutsch) is a collected term for several related dialects, including Bavarian, Alamannic and some eastern and central forms of Franconian. The major distinguishing feature of these from other W Gmc dialects is the High German Consonant Shift, which largely affected plosives (voiced and voiceless) and fricatives (Konig & Van Der Auwera, 1994: p90). Shifts include p > pf, t > ts, k > kh, b > p, and d > t, among others; for example, OSax dag, OLF dag > OHG tag; OSax gôd, OE gōd > OHG guot. Moreover, the southerly varieties naturally show more evidence of the shift than central German forms, eg East Franconian bluot > Bavarian pluot. The shift marks Modern High German's difference to this day, as demonstrated in many dialect maps.

The orthography between the dialects therefore bears substantial differences, as can be seen in the examples below. Most OHG dictionaries will confuse those learning the language, as many words beginning with ch or v will be listed respectively under g or f; this spelling system reflects the variant pronunciations within OHG. While the modern standard derived from a mixture of these dialects, it is important to remember that they also led to their own individually recognized modern forms, such as Bavarian (Bairisch), Swiss German or High Alemannic (Schwyzertüütsch) and Alsatian or Low Alemannic (Elsæssisch).

The oldest High German text is known as the Abrogans, a Latin-German word-book from the mid 8th C, written in the Bavarian dialect. Later on other regional works appeared, mostly translations of Christian texts such as the East Franconian Tatian (9th C) or the reworking of Isidore of Seville's De Fide Catholica (c.800). Original works included the Bavarian Muspilli and the mixed-dialect Hildebrandslied.

examples of old high german

In anaginne uuas uuort inti thaz uuort uuas mit gote inti got selbo uuas thaz uuort.
Thaz uuas in anaginne mit gote.
Alliu thuruh thaz vvurdun gitān inti ūzzan sīn ni uuas uuiht gitānes thaz thār gitān uuas;
thaz uuas in imo līb inti thaz līb uuas lioht manno.
Into thaz lioht in finstarnessin liuhta inti finstarnessi thaz ni bigriffun.
'Tatian', I.John i.1-5, East Franconian, c.9th C, author unknown.
(Translation: "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and God himself was the word. That was in the beginning with God. All was made through the word and without it nothing was made that there existed. There was life in Him, and that life was the light of Men. And that light shone in darkness and darkness did not understand it.")

2.6. Ih faru dhir for a endi chidhuuingo dhir aerdhriihhes hruomege, erino portun ih firchnussu, iisnine grindila firbrihhu, endi dhiu chiborgonun hort dhir ghibu, endi ih uuillu dhazs dhu firstandes heilac chiruni, huuanda ih bim druhtin dher dhih nemniu Israelo got.
3.1. In dhemu nemin Cyres ist Christ chiuuisso chiforabodot, for a dhemu sindun dheodun ioh riihhi chihneigidiu in ghilaubin. In andra uuiis ni uuardh eo einic in Israhelo rihhe Cyrus chinemnit.
'Isidor', transl. of Isidore of Seville 'De Fide Catholica', S. Rhenish Franconian, c.800.
(Translation: "I will go before you and subdue to you the proud races of the earth, I will smash bronze doors, break iron bolts, and give to you the hidden treasures, and I want you to understand the holy secret, for I am the Lord who calls you the God of Israel. In the name of Cyrus is Christ surely prophesied, before whom the peoples and the realm are subjugated by faith. There was not anyone other than this called Cyrus in the kingdom of Israel.")

Ik gihorta dat seggen,
dat sih urhettun ænon muotin,
Hiltibrant enti Hadubrant untar heriun tuem.
Sunufatarungo iro saro rihtun.
Garutun se iro gudhamun, gurtun sih iro suert ana,
helidos, ubar hringa, do sie to dero hiltiu ritun,
Hiltibrant gimahalta [Heribrantes sunu]: her uuas heroro man,
ferahes frotoro; her fragen gistuont
fohem uuortum, hwer sin fater wari
fireo in folche.
'Das Hildebrandslied', mixed dialect, c. late 8th C. (Translation: 'I have heard tell,that two chosen warriors, Hildebrand and Hadubrand,met one another, between two armies.Father and son, the champions examined their gear,prepared their armor, and buckled their swordsover their chain mail, before riding out to battle.Hildebrand, the older and more experienced man, spoke first,asking, with few words who his father wasand from which family he came.' DL Ashliman)

a short old high german bibliography
  • Joseph Wright, Old High German Primer (Oxford: 1906)
  • Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and its Closest Relatives (Routledge, London: 1992)
  • E. Konig & J. Van Der Auwera, The Germanic Languages (Routledge, London: 1994)
  • more to follow

some old high german links


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