High German consonant shift

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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.
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 dialects of the West Germanic 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 neatly be 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

The High German consonant shift altered a number of consonants in the Southern German dialects, and thus also in modern Standard German, and so explains why many German words have different consonants from the obviously related words in English. Briefly, there are four thrusts which may be thought of as four successive phases:

  1. Germanic voiceless stops became fricatives in certain phonetic environments (English ship maps to German Schiff);
  2. The same sounds became affricates in other positions (appleApfel);
  3. Voiced stops became voiceless (dayTag); and
  4. /θ/ became /d/ (thisdies).

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.

Note that the geographical boundary between two varieties of a word is called an isogloss.

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)

PIE→Germanic Phase High German Shift
Examples (Modern German) Century Geographical Extent Standard
G: *b→*p 1 *p→ff schlafen, Schiff
cf. sleep, ship
4/5 Upper and Central German yes
2 *p→pf Pflug, Apfel, Kopf,1 scharf 2
cf. plough, apple, cup, sharp
6/7 Upper German yes
G: *d→*t 1 *t→zz essen, dass, aus 3
cf. eat, that, out
4/5 Upper and Central German yes
2 *t→tz Zeit "time", Katze
cf. tide, cat
5/6 Upper German yes
G: *g→*k 1 *k→hh machen, ich
cf. make, Dutch ik "I" 4
4/5 Upper and Central German yes
2 *k→kch Bavarian: Kchind, Alemannic: Stokch
cf. German Kind "child", Stock "stick"
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, Vater
cf. day, Dutch vader "father" 5
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 4 þ→d Dorn, Distel, durch, drei, Bruder
cf. thorn, thistle, through, three, brother
9/10 Throughout German and Dutch yes

(Notes: 1 Kopf originally meant "cup", but in Modern German means "head". 2 Old High German scarph, Middle High German scharpf. 3 Old High German ezzen, daz, ūz. 4 Old English ic, "I". 5 Old English fæder, "father"; English has shifted d→th in OE words ending in -der).

The four phases in detail

Phase 1

The first phase, which may have begun in the fourth century and affected the whole of the High German area, saw the voiceless stops become 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, <z> stands for a voiceless fricative that is distinct somehow from <s>. The exact nature of the distinction is unknown; possibly <s> was apical while <z> 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

The second phase, which was completed by the eighth century and concentrated on the Upper German area, saw the same sounds become affricates in initial position, when geminated, and when following a liquid consonant (l or r).

ppf (also spelled <ph> in OHG; after a liquid this later became f)
ttz (in Modern German often spelled <z> and pronounced /ts/)
kkch (pronounced /kx/; this step has not been completed by standard German).

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.


OE æppel : OHG aphul (English apple, Dutch appel, German Apfel)
OE scearp : OHG scarpf (English sharp, Dutch scherp, German scharf, High Alemannic scharff)
OE catt : OHG kazza (English cat, Dutch kat, German Katze, High Alemannic Chatz)
OE tam : OHG zam (English tame, Dutch tam, German zahm)
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)

In the following combinations, however, the shift did not take place: sp, st, sk, ft, ht, tr.

OE spearwa : OHG sparo (English sparrow, Dutch spreeuw, German Sperling)
OE mæst : OHG mast (English mast, Dutch mast, German Mast[baum])
OE niht : OHG naht (English night, Dutch nacht, German Nacht)
OE trēowe : OHG [ge]triuwi (English true, Dutch (ge) trouw, German treu "faithful")

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 Swiss German, and to Austrian and Bavarian dialects. This shift must have begun after the first and second phases ceased to be productive, or else the resulting voiceless stops would have shifted further to fricatives and affricatives. We are therefore thinking of the 8th or 9th century.

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:

PIE *māh₂ter- → Germanic *mōder → German Mutter


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

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

Phase 4

Finally, the fourth phase shifted þd. This differs from the other phases in that it affects a single consonant rather than a group of three in parallel. It is also distinctive in that affects Low German and Dutch. For this reason some authorities bracket it separately from the High German consonant shift, though most see it in the same context. This shift must have begun after the third phase ceased to be productive, or else the resulting d would have shifted further to t.

This phase is precisely datable, beginning in the south in the 9th century and reaching Low German in the 10th, as the history of literacy in Old High German began before the fourth phase was completed. Thus early Old High German texts often show þ where classical OHG shows d. A particularly famous example, because of its striking semantic shift, is early OHG thiorna (virgin) → Modern German Dirne (whore). Further examples:

early OHG thaz → classical OHG daz (English that, Dutch dat, German das)
early OHG thenken → classical OHG denken (English think, Dutch denken, German denken)
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)
early OHG bruather → classical OHG bruoder (English brother, Dutch broeder, German Bruder)
early OHG munth → classical OHG mund (English mouth, Dutch mond, German Mund)
early OHG thou → classical OHG du (English thou, German du, Old Dutch thu)

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. One consequence of this is that there is no dental variety of Grammatischer Wechsel in Middle Dutch.


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. The phenomenon that an early phase of a sound shift leaves a gap (in this case voiceless stops) which a later phase then fills by means of a chain shift is familiar enough; Grimm's law proceeds in a similar sequence.

Alternative chronologies have been proposed. According to a not widely accepted theory by the German linguist Theo Vennemann, the consonant shift occured much earlier and was already completed in the early 1st century BC. Based on that, 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, although both demonstrate the same shift /k/→/x/. Furthermore, the exact line can move over a period of time. Since German reunification, a northward movement of the eastern end of the Benrath line has been observed.

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 these external links:
General map
Rheinischer Fächer

East Germanic hypotheses

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. However, as Lombardic was an East Germanic language and not part of the German language dialect continuum, it is equally possible that parallel shifts took place there independently.

Similarly, Waterman shows that a change analogous to the fourth phase of the High German consonant shift may have taken place in Gothic (also East Germanic) as early as the third century AD, and suggests that it may have spread from Gothic to High German as a result of the Visigothic migrations westward (c. 375-500 AD). Like the Lombardic hypothesis, this is an interesting possibility but the present state of knowledge does not allow firm conclusions.

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