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High German consonant shift

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Background Information

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High German subdivides into Upper German (green) and Central German (blue), and is distinguished from Low German (yellow). The main isoglosses, the Benrath and Speyer lines, are marked in black.

In historical linguistics, the High German consonant shift or second Germanic consonant shift was a phonological development ( sound change) which took place in the southern parts of the West Germanic dialect continuum in several phases, probably beginning between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD, and was almost complete before the earliest written records in the High German language were made in the 9th century. The resulting language, Old High German, can be neatly contrasted with the other continental West Germanic languages, which mostly did not experience the shift, and with Old English, which was completely unaffected.

General description

"High German" refers to the language of the mountainous south of the German-speaking area, as opposed to the Low German spoken in the coastal regions of the north.

The High German consonant shift altered a number of consonants in the Southern German dialects, and thus also in modern Standard German, Yiddish and Luxemburgish, and so explains why many German words have different consonants from the obviously related words in English and Dutch. Depending on definition, the term may be restricted to a core group of nine individual consonant modifications, or it may include other changes taking place in the same period. For the core group, there are three thrusts which may be thought of as three successive phases:

  1. The three Germanic voiceless stops became fricatives in certain phonetic environments (English ship maps to German Schiff);
  2. The same sounds became affricates in other positions (apple: Apfel); and
  3. The three voiced stops became voiceless (door: Tür).

Since phases 1 and 2 affect the same voiceless sounds, some descriptions find it more convenient to treat them together, thus making only a two-fold analysis, voiceless (phase 1/2) and voiced (phase 3). This has advantages for typology, but does not reflect the chronology.

Of the other changes which 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: dies).

This phenomenon is known as the "High German" consonant shift because it affects the High German dialects (i.e. those of the mountainous south), principally the Upper German dialects, though in part it also affects the Central German dialects. However the fourth phase also included Low German and Dutch. 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 the refinement of this known as 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. While 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 Dorp/Dorf boundaries. The shift þd 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.

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 1/2 left the language without a /t/ phoneme, as this had shifted to /s/ or /ts/. Phase 3 filled this gap (d→t), but left a new gap at /d/, which phase 4 then filled (þ→d).

Overview table

The effects of the shift are most obvious for the non-specialist when we compare 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 phonemes. (G= Grimm's law; V= Verner's law) Note that the pairs of words we use 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 Phase High German Shift
Examples (Modern German) Century Geographical Extent1 Standard
G: *b→*p 1 *p→ff schlafen, Schiff
cf. sleep, ship
4/5 Upper and Central German yes
2 *p→pf Pflug, Apfel, Pfad, Pfuhl, scharf 2
cf. plough, apple, path, pool, sharp
6/7 Upper German yes
G: *d→*t 1 *t→ss essen, dass, aus 3
cf. eat, that, out
4/5 Upper and Central German yes
2 *t→ts Zeit4, Zwei4, Zehe
cf. tide, two, toe
5/6 Upper German yes
G: *g→*k 1 *k→hh machen, brechen, ich
cf. make, break, Dutch ik "I" 5
4/5 Upper and Central German yes
2 *k→kch Bavarian: Kchind
cf. German Kind "child"
7/8 Southernmost Austro-Bavarian
and High Alemannic
G: *bʰ→*b
V: *p→*b
3 *b→p Bavarian: perg, pist
cf. German Berg "hill", bist "(you) are"
8/9 Parts of Bavarian/Alemanic no
G: *dʰ→*đ→*d
V: *t→*đ→*d
3 *d→t Tag, Mittel, Vater
cf. day, middle, Dutch vader "father"6
8/9 Upper German yes
G: *gʰ→*g
V: *k→*g
3 *g→k Bavarian: Kot
cf. German Gott "God"
8/9 Parts of Bavarian/Alemanic no
G: *t→þ [ð] 4 þ→d
Dorn, Distel, durch, Bruder
cf. thorn, thistle, through, brother
9/10 Throughout German and Dutch yes

(Notes: 1 Approximate, isoglosses may vary. 2 Old High German scarph, Middle High German scharpf. 3 Old High German ezzen, daz, ūz. 4 Note that in modern German is pronounced /ts/. 5 Old English ic, "I". 6 Old English fæder, "father"; English has shifted d→th in OE words ending in -der).

The core group in detail

Phase 1

The first phase, which affected the whole of the High German area, has been dated as early as the fourth century, though this is highly debated. The first certain examples of the shift are from Edictus Rothari (a. 643, oldest extant manuscript after 650). According to most scholars, the Pre-Old High German Runic inscriptions of about a. 600 show no convincing trace of the consonant shift. In this phase, voiceless stops became geminated fricatives intervocalically, or single fricatives postvocalically in final position.

pff or final f
tzz (later German ss) or final z (s)
khh (later German ch)

Note: In these OHG words, stands for a voiceless fricative that is distinct somehow from . The exact nature of the distinction is unknown; possibly was apical while was laminal.


Old English slǣpan : Old High German slāfan (English sleep, Dutch slapen, German schlafen)
OE strǣt : OHG strāzza (English street, Dutch straat, German Straße)
OE rīce : OHG rīhhi (English rich, Dutch rijk, German reich)

Note that the first phase did not affect geminate stops in words like *appul "apple" or *katta "cat", nor did it affect stops after other consonants, as in words like *scarp "sharp" or *hert "heart", where another consonant falls between the vowel and the stop. These remained unshifted until the second phase.

Phase 2

In the second phase, which was completed by the eighth century, the same sounds became affricates (i.e. a stop followed by a fricative) in three environments: in initial position; when geminated; and after a liquid consonant (/l/ or /r/) or nasal consonant (/m/ or /n/).

/p/ > /pf/ (also written in OHG)
/t/ > /ts/ (written or )
/k/ > /kx/ (written in OHG).


OE æppel : OHG aphul (English apple, Dutch appel, German Apfel, Low German Aupel)
OE scearp : OHG scarpf (English sharp, Dutch scherp, German scharf, Low German schoap)
OE catt : OHG kazza (English cat, Dutch kat, German Katze, Low German Kaut)
OE tam : OHG zam (English tame, Dutch tam, German zahm, Low German tom)
OE liccian : OHG lecchōn (English to lick, Dutch likken, German lecken, High Alemannic schlecke/schläcke /ʃlɛkxə, ʃlækxə/)
OE weorc : OHG werk or werch (English work, Dutch werk, German Werk, High Alemannic Werch/Wärch, Low German Woakj)

The shift did not take place where the stop 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, Low German Spoalinkj)
OE mæst : OHG mast (English mast, Dutch mast, German Mast[baum])
OE niht : OHG naht (English night, Dutch nacht, German Nacht, Low German Nacht)
OE trēowe : OHG [ge]triuwi (English true, Dutch (ge) trouw, German treu "faithful", Low German trü)

The subsequent change of /sk/ > /ʃ/, written , took place in late OHG and is not part of the Sound Shift.

These affricates (especially pf) have simplified into fricatives in some dialects. /pf/ was subsequently 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'). There was a strong tendency to simplify after /r/ and /l/, e.g. werfen < OHG werpfan, helfen < OHG helpfan, but some forms with /pf/ remain, e.g. Karpfen.

  • The shift of /t/ > /ts/ occurs throughout the High German area and is reflected in Modern Standard German.
  • The shift of /p/ > /pf/ occurs throughout Upper German, but there is wide variation in Central German dialects. In the Rhine Franconian dialects, the further north the dialect the fewer environments show shifted consonants. This shift is reflected in the Standard German.
  • The shift of /k/ > /kx/ is geographically highly restricted and only took place is the southernmost Upper German dialects. The Southern Austro-Bavarian dialects of Tyrol is the only dialect where the affricate /kx/ has developed in all positions. In High Alemannic, only the geminate has developed into an affricate, whereas in the other positions, /k/ has become /x/. However, there is initial /kx/ in modern High Alemannic as well, since it is used for any k in loanwords, for instance [kxariˈb̥ikx], and since /kx/ is a possible consonant cluster, for instance in Gchnorz [kxno(ː)rts] 'laborious work', from the verb chnorze.

Phase 3

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


Of these, only the dental shift dt finds its way into standard German. The others 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 stops would have shifted further to fricatives and affricates.

It is interesting that in those words in which an Indo-European voiceless stop 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 *māh₂ter- → Germanic *mōder → German Mutter


OE dōn : OHG tuon (English do, Dutch doen, German tun, Low German doonen)
OE mōdor : OHG muotar (English mother, Dutch moeder, German Mutter, Low German Mutta)
OE rēad : OHG rōt (English red, Dutch rood, German rot, Low German root)
OE biddan : OHG bitten or pitten (English bid, Dutch bieden, German bitten, Bavarian pitten, Low German beeden)

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

Other changes in detail

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 who see the term as a description of the whole context, but are exluded by others who use it to describe the neatness of the three-fold chain shift. Although it might be possible to see /ð//d/, /ɣ//g/ 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.

þ/ð→d (Phase 4)

What is sometimes known as the fourth phase shifted the dental fricatives to /d/. This is distinctive in that it also affects Low German and Dutch. In Germanic, the voiceless and voiced dental fricatives þ and ð stood in allophonic relationship, with þ in initial position and ð medially. These merged into a single /d/. This shift occurred late enough that unshifted forms are to be found in the earliest Old High German texts, and thus can be dated to the 9th or 10th century.

early OHG thaz → classical OHG daz (English that, Dutch dat, German das, Low German daut)
early OHG thenken → classical OHG denken (English think, Dutch denken, German denken, Low German dinken)
early OHG thegan → classical OHG degan (English thane, Dutch degen, German Degen, "warrior")
early OHG thurstag → classical OHG durstac (English thirsty, Dutch dorstig, German durstig, Low German darstijch)
early OHG bruother/bruodher → classical OHG bruoder (English brother, Dutch broeder, German Bruder, Low German Brooda)
early OHG munth → classical OHG mund (English mouth, Dutch mond, German Mund, Low German Mül)
early OHG thou/thu → classical OHG du (English thou, German du, Old Dutch thu, Low German )

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

German Dutch English
original /þ/ (→ /d/ in German and Dutch) Tode dood death
original /d/ (→ /t/ in German) Tote dood dead

(For the sake of comparison, the German forms are cited here in forms with -e to eliminate the effects of terminal devoicing - see below. The basic forms are Tod and tot - both pronounced /to:t/.) One consequence of this is that there is no dental variety of Grammatischer Wechsel in Middle Dutch.

In 1955, Otto Höfler, 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 third 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 resonance; 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.


The West Germanic voiced velar fricative /ɣ/ shifted to /g/ in Old High German in all positions. This change is believed to be an early one, completed at the latest by the 8th century. As the existence of a /g/ in the language was a prerequisite for the south German shift g→k, this must at least predate phase 3 of the core group of the High German consonant shift.

The same change occurred independently in Old English around the 10th century (changing patterns of alliteration suggest this date), but with the important exception that next to a front vowel it had earlier experienced Anglo-Saxon palatisation and become /j/ instead. Dutch has retained the original Germanic /ɣ/, though as Dutch spells this with , the difference between it and the English and German consonant is invisible in the written form.

Dutch goed (/ɣuːt/) : German gut, English good
Dutch gisteren (/ɣisterən/) : German gestern, English yesterday


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

OE lufu : OHG liob (English love, Dutch lief, German Liebe, Low German Leew)
OE hæfen : MHG habe (English haven, Dutch haven. For German Hafen see below)
OE half : OHG halb (English half, Dutch half, German halb, Low German haulf)
OE lifer : OHG libara (English liver, Dutch lever, German Leber, Low German Läwa)
OE self : OHG selbo (English self, Dutch zelf, German selbe, Low German self)
OE sealfian : OHG salbon (English salve, Dutch zalf, German Salbe)

In strong verbs such as German heben ('heave') and geben ('give'), the shift contributed to eliminating the /v/ forms in German, but a full account of these verbs is complicated by the effects of grammatischer Wechsel by which [v] 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', Dutch hebben) and leben ('live', Dutch leven), the consonant differences have an unrelated origin, being a result of the Germanic spirant law and a subsequent process of levelling.


High German experienced the shift /sp/, /st/, /sk//ʃp/, /ʃt/, /ʃ/ in initial position:

German spinnen (/ʃp/), spin.
German Straße (/ʃt/), street.
German Schrift, script.

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 /g/ at the end of a word are pronounced identically to /p/, /t/ and /k/. German Tag (day) is pronounced like English tack, not like English tag.

Nevertheless, the original voiced consonants are usually represented in modern German and Dutch spelling. This is probably because related inflected forms, such as the plural Tage, have the voiced form, since here the stop 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 phonetically: singular tac, plural tage.


Since, apart from þd, 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 mediaeval 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 ttz must precede dt, which in turn must precede þd; 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//g//k/ and /v//b//p/, it follows that /ɣ//g/ and /v//b/ must predate phase 3.

Alternative chronologies have been proposed. According to a not widely accepted theory by the German linguist Theo Vennemann, the consonant shift occurred much earlier and was already completed in the early 1st century BC. On this basis, he subdivides the Germanic languages into High Germanic and Low Germanic.

Geographical distribution

Dialects and isoglosses of the Rheinischer Fächer
(Arranged from north to south: dialects in dark fields, isoglosses in light fields)
Isogloss North South
Low German/Low Franconian
Uerdingen line ( Uerdingen) ik ich
Düsseldorfer Platt (Limburgisch-Bergisch)
Benrath line
(Boundary: Low German — Central German)
maken machen
Ripuarian ( Kölsch, Bönnsch, Öcher Platt)
Bad Honnef line
(State border NRW- RP) (Eifel-Schranke)
Dorp Dorf
Linz line ( Linz am Rhein) tussen zwischen
Bad Hönningen line op auf
Koblenzer Platt
Boppard line ( Boppard) Korf Korb
Sankt Goar line ( Sankt Goar)
( Hunsrück-Schranke)
dat das
Rheinfränkisch (e.g. Pfälzisch, Frankfurterisch)
Speyer line (River Main line)
(Boundary: Central German — Upper German)
Appel Apfel
Upper German

Roughly, one may say that the changes resulting from phase 1 affected Upper and Central German, those from phase 2 and 3 only Upper German, and those from phase 4 the entire German and Dutch-speaking region. 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/.

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

For a map of the boundaries of a number of key sounds, see a general map and the Rheinischer Fächer.


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 northern Italy, which is preserved in runic fragments of the late 6th and early 7th centuries. Unfortunately, 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: the Lombards settled until 568 in 'Tullner Feld' (about 50 km west of Vienna); some Lombard graves (excavated a few years ago when a new railway line was built) date after 568; evidently not all Lombards went to Italy in 568. The rest seem to have become part of the then newly formed Bavarian groups.

When Columban came to the Alamanni at Lake Constance shortly after 600, he made barrels burst, called cupa (English cup, German Kufe), according to Jonas of Bobbio (before 650) in Lombardy. This shows that in the time of Columban the shift from p to f had occurred neither in Alemannic nor in Lombardic. But Edictus Rothari (643; extant manuscript after 650; see above) 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.

Unshifted forms in Standard German

The High German consonant shift — at least as far as the core group of changes is concerned — is an example of a sound change which permits no exceptions, and was frequently cited as such by the Neogrammarians. However, modern standard German, though based on Central German, draws vocabulary from all German dialects. When a native German word (as opposed to a loan word) contains consonants unaffected by the shift, they are usually explained as being Low German forms. Either the shifted form has fallen out of use, as in:

Hafen ('harbour', 'haven'); Middle High German had the shifted form habe(n), but the Low German form replaced it in modern times.

or the two forms remain side-by-side, as in:

Wappen ('coat of arms'); the shifted form also exists, but with a different meaning: Waffen ('weapons')

Further examples of common German words in this category include:

Lippe ('lip'); Pegel ('water level'); Pickel ('pimple')

However, the vast majority of words in Modern German containing consonant patterns which would have been eliminated by the shift are loaned from Latin or Romance languages, English or Slavic:

Paar ('few'), Ratte ('rat'), Peitsche ('whip').
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