Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Middle High German

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High Middle Ages

ISO 639-2

Early form
Old High German

ISO 639-3

Central and southern Germany (south of the Benrath line), Austria and parts of Switzerland

Language family
Indo-European Germanic West Germanic German Middle High German

Middle High German is the German language between 1050 and 1350. It is preceded by Old High German and followed by Early New High German. In some uses, the term covers a longer period, going up to 1500.


The Middle Low German and Middle Dutch areas in the North are not covered by MHG. While there is no standard MHG, the prestige of the Hohenstaufen court gave rise in the late 12th century to a supra-regional literary language (mittelhochdeutsche Dichtersprache) based on Swabian, an Alemannic dialect. However, the picture is complicated by the fact that modern editions of MHG texts have a tendency to use normalised spellings based on this variety (usually called "Classical MHG"), which make the written language appear more consistent than is actually the case in the manuscripts. It is uncertain whether the literary language reflected a supra-regional spoken language of the courts.

An important development in this period was the eastward expansion of German settlement beyond the Elbe-Saale line which marked the limit of Old High German. This process started in the 11th century, and all the East Central German dialects are a result of this expansion.

"Judeo-German", the precursor of the Yiddish language, is attested in the 13th–14th centuries as a variety of Middle High German written in Hebrew characters.


High Middle German texts are written in the Latin alphabet, in Gothic minuscules that evolved into the Fraktur typefaces of the Early Modern period.

Middle High German had no standardised spelling. Modern editions, however, generally standardise according to a set of conventions established by Karl Lachmann in the 19th century. There are several important features in this standardised orthography which are not characteristics of the original manuscripts:

  • the marking of vowel length is almost entirely absent from MHG manuscripts.
  • the marking of umlauted vowels is often absent or inconsistent in the manuscripts.
  • a curly-tailed z (⟨ȥ⟩ or ⟨ʒ⟩) is used in modern handbooks and grammars to indicate the /s/ or /s/-like sound which arose from Germanic /t/ in the High German consonant shift. This character has no counterpart in the original manuscripts which typically use <s> or <sz> to indicate this sound
  • the original texts often use <i> and <u> for the semi-vowels /j/ and /w/.
  • A particular problem is that many manuscripts are of much later date than the works they contain, with signs of later scribes modifying the spellings, with greater or lesser consistency, in accordance with the conventions of their own time. There is also considerable regional variation in the spellings of the original texts, which modern editions largely conceal.


    The standardised orthography of MHG editions uses the following vowel spellings:

  • Short vowels: ⟨a e i o u⟩ and the umlauted vowels ⟨ä ö ü⟩
  • Long vowels: ⟨â ê î ô û⟩ and the umlauted vowels ⟨æ œ iu⟩
  • Closing diphthongs: ⟨ei ou⟩; and the umlauted diphthong ⟨öu eu oi⟩
  • Opening diphthongs: ⟨ie uo⟩; and the umlauted diphthong ⟨üe⟩
  • Grammars (as opposed to textual editions) often distinguish between ⟨ë⟩ and ⟨e⟩, the former indicating the mid-open /ɛ/ which derived from Germanic /e/, the latter (often with a dot beneath it) indicating the mid-close /e/ which results from primary umlaut of short /a/. No such orthographic distinction is made in MHG manuscripts.

    The etymological distinction made in German spelling between ⟨e⟩ and ⟨ä⟩, with ⟨ä⟩ representing a lower vowel /æ/ arising from the secondary umlaut of /a/, is valid for earlier MHG texts.

    By the end of the MHG period, the vowels written ⟨a ä ë e⟩ merge in various ways, depending on the respective dialect. Modern Standard German keeps /a/ separate and has merged /æ ɛ e/ into /ɛ/ written ⟨e⟩ and ⟨ä⟩.


    The standardised orthography of MHG editions uses the following consonant spellings:

  • Stops: <p t k/c b d g q>
  • Affricates: <pf/ph tz/z>
  • Fricatives: <v f s ȥ sch ch h>
  • Nasals: <m n>
  • Liquids: <l r>
  • Semivowels: <w j>
  • The consonant ⟨ȥ⟩ most likely was [s] or [s̪], sharing its place of articulation with /t/, and remains thus in modern dialects. The consonant ⟨s⟩ was most likely [s̺]. It has been voiced word-initially and intervocally in some dialects.

    In the later MHG period or shortly after it, /s̺/ merges into /ʃ/ word-initially before consonants, and in the combination ⟨rs⟩, i.e. /rʃ/. In modern Standard German, the latter development has been partially undone, so that the combination spelled ⟨rst⟩, originally pronounced /rʃt/, is now /rst/, probably due to spelling pronunciation. On the other hand, ⟨st⟩ is still pronounced as /ʃt/ word-initially. In some dialects, notably Alemannic German, MGH /s̺/ merges into /ʃ/ in other positions as well.


    The charts show the vowel and consonant systems of classical MHG. The spellings indicated are the standard spellings used in modern editions – there is much more variation in the manuscripts.



    1. Not all dialects distinguish the three unrounded mid front vowels.
    2. It is probable that the short high and mid vowels are lower than their long equivalents, as in Modern German, but this is impossible to establish from the written sources.
    3. The ⟨e⟩ found in unstressed syllables may indicate [ɛ] or schwa [ə].


    MHG diphthongs are indicated by the spellings: ⟨ei⟩, ⟨ie⟩, ⟨ou⟩, ⟨öu⟩ and ⟨eu⟩, ⟨üe⟩, ⟨uo⟩, having the approximate values of /ei/, /iə/, /ou/, /øy/, /eu/, /yə/, and /uo/, respectively.


    1. Precise information about the articulation of consonants is impossible to establish, and will have varied between dialects.
    2. 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.
    3. MHG has long consonants, and the following double consonant spellings indicate not vowel length as in Modern German orthography, but rather genuine double consonants: pp, bb, tt, dd, ck (for /kk/), gg, ff, ss, zz, mm, nn, ll, rr.
    4. It is reasonable to assume that /x/ had an allophone [χ] after back vowels, as in Modern German.


    Middle High German pronouns of the first person refer to the speaker; those of the second person refer to an addressed person; and those of the third person refer to person or thing of which one speaks. The pronouns of the third person may be used to replace nominal phrases. These have the same gender, number and case as the original nominal phrase.

    Possessive pronouns

    The possessive pronouns mîn, dîn, sîn, ir, unser, iuwer are used like adjectives and hence takes on adjective endings following the normal rules. This includes unser and iuwer, despite the fact that they already end in -er.


    The inflected forms of the article depend on the number, the case and the gender of the corresponding noun. The definite article has the same plural forms for all three genders.

    Definite article (strong)

    The instrumental case, only existing in the neuter singular, is used only with prepositions: von diu, ze diu, etc. In all the other genders and in the plural it is substituted with the dative: von dëm, von dër, von dën.


    Middle High German nouns were declined according to four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative), two numbers (singular and plural) and three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), much like Modern High German, though there are several important differences.

    Weak nouns

    Note that ë is a short, open /ɛ/, so MHG dër /dɛr/ as opposed to modern /deːr/.


    Verbs were conjugated according to three moods (indicative, subjunctive (conjunctive) and imperative), three persons, two numbers (singular and plural) and two tenses (present tense and preterite) There was a present participle, a past participle and a verbal noun that somewhat resembles the Latin gerund, but that only existed in the genitive and dative cases.

    An important distinction is made between strong verbs (that exhibited ablaut) and weak verbs (that didn't).

    Furthermore, there were also some irregular verbs.

    Strong verbs

    The present tense conjugation went as follows:

  • Imperative: nim, nëmet
  • Present participle: nëmende
  • Infinitive: nëmen
  • Verbal noun: genitive: nëmen(n)es, dative: ze nëmen(n)e
  • The bold vowels demonstrate umlaut; the vowels in brackets were dropped in rapid speech.

    The preterite conjugation went as follows:

  • Past participle: genomen
  • Weak verbs

    The present tense conjugation went as follows:

  • Imperative: suoche, suochet
  • Present participle: suochende
  • Infinitive: suochen
  • Verbal noun: genitive: suochennes, dative: ze suochenne
  • The vowels in brackets were dropped in rapid speech.

    The preterite conjugation went as follows:

  • Past participle: gesuochet
  • Periodisation

    There are several criteria which separate MHG from the preceding Old High German period:

  • the weakening of unstressed vowels to <e>: OHG taga > MHG tage ("days")
  • the full development of Umlaut and its use to mark a number of morphological categories
  • the devoicing of final stops: OHG tag > MHG tac ("day")
  • Culturally, the two periods are distinguished by the transition from a predominantly clerical written culture to one centred on the courts of the great nobles. The rise of the Swabian Hohenstaufen and then the Luxemburg, Wittelsbach and Habsburg dynasties make the South the dominant region in both political and cultural terms.

    Linguistically, the transition to Early New High German is marked by four vowel changes which together produce the phonemic system of modern German:

  • Diphthongisation of the long high vowels /iː yː uː/ > /aɪ̯ ɔʏ̯ aʊ̯/, this change didn't occur in Alemannic dialects except for Swabian: MHG hût > NHG Haut ("skin")
  • Monophthongisation of the high centering diphthongs /iə yə uə/ > /iː yː uː/, this change didn't occur in most Alemannic and Bavarian dialects: MHG huot > NHG Hut ("hat")
  • lengthening of stressed short vowels in open syllables: MHG sagen /zaɡən/ > NHG sagen /zaːɡən/ ("say")
  • The loss of unstressed vowels in many circumstances: MHG vrouwe > NHG Frau ("lady")
  • The centres of culture in the ENHG period are no longer the courts but the towns.

    Sample text

    From the prologue of Hartmann von Aue's Iwein (c. 1200; c.f. MS B (Giessen), mid-13th century.)

    This text shows many typical features of Middle High German poetic language. Most Middle High German words survive into modern German in some form or other: this passage contains only one word (jehen 'say' 14) which has since disappeared from the language. But many words have changed their meaning substantially. Muot (6) means 'state of mind', where modern German Mut means courage. Êre (3) can be translated with 'honour', but is quite a different concept of honour from modern German Ehre; the medieval term focusses on reputation and the respect accorded to status in society.

    From the beginning of Das Nibelungenlied:


  • Minnesang
  • Codex Manesse
  • Walther von der Vogelweide
  • Heinrich Frauenlob
  • Oswald von Wolkenstein
  • Epics
  • Hartmann von Aue's Erec and Iwein
  • Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival
  • Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan
  • Nibelungenlied
  • Kudrun
  • Ulrich von Türheim's Rennewart and Willehalm
  • Rudolf von Ems's works
  • Konrad von Würzburg's works
  • Eilhart von Oberge' Tristrant
  • Chronicles
  • Annolied (Early Middle High German)
  • Jans der Enikel's Weltchronik and Fürstenbuch
  • Kaiserchronik
  • Law
  • Sachsenspiegel
  • References

    Middle High German Wikipedia

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