|Writing system Runic, Latin|
ISO 639-3 goh
|ISO 639-2 goh|
|Region southern Germany (south of the Benrath line), parts of Austria and Switzerland, Southern Bohemia, Sporadic communities in Eastern Gaul|
Era developed into Middle High German from the 11th century
Language family Indo-European Germanic West Germanic Old High German
Old High German (OHG, German: Althochdeutsch, German abbr. Ahd.) is the earliest stage of the German language, conventionally covering the period from around 700 to 1050. Coherent written texts do not appear until the second half of the 8th century, and some treat the period before 750 as "prehistoric" and date the start of Old High German proper to 750 for this reason. There are, however, a number of Elder Futhark inscriptions dating to the 6th century (notably the Pforzen buckle), as well as single words and many names found in Latin texts predating the 8th century.
The Franks conquered Northern Gaul as far south as the Loire; the linguistic boundary later stabilised approximately along the course of the Maas and Moselle, with Frankish speakers further west being romanised.
With Charlemagne's conquest of the Lombards in 776, nearly all continental Germanic speaking peoples had been incorporated into the Frankish Empire, thus also bringing all continental West Germanic speakers under Frankish rule. However, since the language of both the administration and the Church was Latin, this unification did not lead to any development of a supra-regional variety of Frankish nor a standardized Old High German.
Old High German literacy is a product of the monasteries, notably at St. Gallen, Reichenau and Fulda. Its origins lie in the establishment of the German church by Boniface in the mid 8th century, and it was further encouraged during the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th. The dedication to the preservation of Old High German epic poetry among the scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance was significantly greater than could be suspected from the meagre survivals we have today (less than 200 lines in total between the Lay of Hildebrand and the Muspilli). Einhard tells how Charlemagne himself ordered that the epic lays should be collected for posterity. It was the neglect or religious zeal of later generations that led to the loss of these records. Thus, it was Charlemagne's weak successor, Louis the Pious, who destroyed his father's collection of epic poetry on account of its pagan content.
Hrabanus Maurus, a student of Alcuin's and abbot at Fulda from 822, was an important advocate of the cultivation of German literacy. Among his students were Walafrid Strabo and Otfrid of Weissenburg. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) towards the end of the Old High German period was among the greatest stylists in the language, and developed a systematic orthography.
The main difference between Old High German and the West Germanic dialects from which it developed is that it underwent the High German consonant shift (also called the second consonant shift in relation to the similar but much earlier Grimm's law). This is generally dated approximately to the late 5th and early 6th centuries—hence dating its start to around 500. The result of this sound change is that the consonantal system of German remains different from all other West Germanic languages, including English and Low German. Grammatically, however, Old High German remained very similar to Old English, Old Dutch, and Old Saxon.
By the mid 11th century the many different vowels found in unstressed syllables had all been reduced to /ə/. Since these vowels were part of the grammatical endings in the nouns and verbs, their loss led to radical simplification of the inflectional grammar of German. For these reasons, 1050 is seen as the start of the Middle High German period, though in fact there are almost no texts in German for the next hundred years.
Examples of vowel reduction in unstressed syllables:
(the Modern German forms of these words are broadly the same as in Middle High German)
There was no standard or supra-regional variety of Old High German—every text is written in a particular dialect, or in some cases a mixture of dialects. Broadly speaking, the main dialect divisions of Old High German seem to have been similar to those of later periods—they are based on established territorial groupings and the effects of the Second Sound Shift, which have remained influential until the present day. But because the direct evidence for Old High German consists solely of manuscripts produced in a few major ecclesiastical centres, there is no isogloss information of the sort on which modern dialect maps are based. For this reason the dialects may be termed monastery dialects.
The main dialects, with their bishoprics and monasteries:
There are some important differences between the geographical spread of the Old High German dialects and that of Modern German:
The charts show the vowel and consonant systems of the East Franconian dialect in the 9th century. This is the dialect of the monastery of Fulda, and specifically of the Old High German Tatian. Dictionaries and grammars of OHG often use the spellings of the Tatian as a substitute for genuine standardised spellings, and these have the advantage of being recognizably close to the Middle High German forms of words, particularly with respect to the consonants.
Short and long vowels
Old High German had five phonemic long vowels and six phonemic short vowels. Both occurred in stressed and unstressed syllables.
- All back vowels likely had front-vowel allophones as a result of Umlaut. The front-vowel allophones likely became full phonemes in Middle High German. In the Old High German period, there existed [e] (possibly a mid-close vowel) from the Umlaut of /a/ and /e/ but it probably wasn't phonemicized until the end of the period. Manuscripts occasionally distinguish two /e/ sounds. Generally, modern grammars and dictionaries use ⟨ë⟩ for the mid vowel and ⟨e⟩ for the mid-close vowel.
- The short high and mid vowels may have been articulated lower than their long counterparts as in Modern German. This cannot be established from written sources.
- Short vowels followed later by long vowels tended to be reduced to ⟨e⟩ in unstressed syllables. The ⟨e⟩ may have represented [ɛ] or schwa [ə].
- Vowel length was indicated in the manuscripts inconsistently (though modern handbooks are consistent). Vowel letter doubling, a circumflex, or an acute accent was generally used to indicate a long vowel.
Old High German diphthongs are indicated by the digraphs ⟨ei⟩, ⟨ie⟩, ⟨io⟩, ⟨iu⟩, ⟨ou⟩, ⟨uo⟩.
- There is wide variation in the consonant systems of the Old High German dialects arising mainly from the differing extent to which they are affected by the High German Sound Shift. Precise information about the articulation of consonants is impossible to establish.
- 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.
- Old High German distinguished long and short consonants. Double-consonant spellings don't indicate a preceding short vowel as in Modern German but true consonant gemination. Double consonants found in Old High German include pp, bb, tt, dd, ck (for /kk/), gg, ff, ss, hh, zz, mm, nn, ll, rr.
- /θ/ changes to /d/ in all dialects during the 9th century. The status in the Old High German Tatian (c. 830), reflected in modern Old High German dictionaries and glossaries, is that th is found in initial position, d in other positions.
- It is not clear whether Old High German /x/ had already acquired a palatalized allophone [ç] following front vowels as in Modern German.
- A curly-tailed z (ȥ) is sometimes used in modern grammars and dictionaries to indicate the alveolar fricative which arose from Common Germanic t in the High German consonant shift, to distinguish it from the alveolar affricate, represented as z. This distinction has no counterpart in the original manuscripts, except in the OHG Isidor, which uses tz for the affricate.
- The original Germanic fricative s was in writing usually clearly distinguished from the younger fricative z that evolved from the High German consonant shift - the sounds of these two graphs seem not to have merged before the 13th century. Now seeing that s later came to be pronounced /ʃ/ before other consonants (as in Stein /ʃtaɪn/, Speer /ʃpeːɐ/, Schmerz /ʃmɛrts/ (original smerz) or the southwestern pronunciation of words like Ast /aʃt/), it seems safe to assume that the actual pronunciation of Germanic s was somewhere between [s] and [ʃ], most likely about [s̠], in all Old High German up to late Middle High German. A word like swaz, "whatever", would thus never have been [swas] but rather [s̠was], later (13th century) [ʃwas], [ʃvas].
Here are enumerated the sound changes that transformed Common West Germanic into Old High German, not including the Late OHG changes which effected Middle High German
The following is a sample conjugation of a strong verb, nëman "to take".
The early part of the period saw considerable missionary activity, and by 800 the whole of the Frankish Empire had, in principle, been Christianized. All the manuscripts which contain Old High German texts were written in ecclesiastical scriptoria by scribes whose main task was writing in Latin rather than German. Consequently, the majority of Old High German texts are religious in nature and show strong influence of ecclesiastical Latin on the vocabulary. In fact, most surviving prose texts are translations of Latin originals. Even secular works such as the Hildebrandslied are often preserved only because they were written on spare sheets in religious codices.
The earliest Old High German text is generally taken to be the Abrogans, a Latin–Old High German glossary variously dated between 750 and 780, probably from Reichenau. The 8th century Merseburg Incantations are the only remnant of pre-Christian German literature. The earliest texts not dependent on Latin originals would seem to be the Hildebrandslied and the Wessobrunn Prayer, both recorded in manuscripts of the early 9th century, though the texts are assumed to derive from earlier copies.
The Bavarian Muspilli is the sole survivor of what must have been a vast oral tradition. Other important works are the Evangelienbuch (Gospel harmony) of Otfrid von Weissenburg, the short but splendid Ludwigslied and the 9th century Georgslied. The boundary to Early Middle High German (from c. 1050) is not clear-cut.
An example of Early Middle High German literature is the Annolied.
The Lord's Prayer is given in four Old High German dialects below. Because these are translations of a liturgical text, they are best not regarded as examples of idiomatic language, but they do show dialect variation very clearly.