Monday, 2 May 2016

Middle High German: An attempted definition

Anyone tasked with defining Middle High German – or Mittelhochdeutsch – could do far worse  than begin with the specific identifiers that the term itself offers: that is to say, the fact that it helpfully locates the language’s chronological (“Middle”/“mittel”), geographical (“High”/“hoch”) and functional linguistic specifics (“German”/“Deutsch”)[1]. Of course, such a concise, tightly-packed nexus of meaning needs some considerable degree of unpacking; to obtain a firm grasp of what Middle High German [hereafter MHG] is, we must delve into each of these in turn, addressing the multifarious issues and problems that will arise along the way.
Besch et al. identify “Middle” as being used, after the classifications of Jacob Grimm[2], to mean the second of three major time periods in the history of the German language (“Old”, “Middle” and “New”), falling in what is typically described as the Middle Ages or medieval period (traditionally agreed upon as lasting from 1050 to 1500). As they go on to argue, however, and broadly in line with the views of C.J. Wells[3], this classification is in many respects too simplistic; posited instead is an overlap between MHG and the so-called “Early New High German” [hereafter ENHG] transitional period, in which MHG has been subsumed into ENHG by around 1450/1500. The latter phase of MHG is in this schematic christened Spätmittelhochdeutsch or “Late Middle High German”, lasting from around 1350 to 1500. Schmidt, however, takes a slightly different approach[4], splitting post-4th century German (that is to say, post-Old High German/Althochdeutsch) into two oversized divisions – one covering c.500 AD to c.1450/1500, which he terms Deutsch des Mittelalters, and one covering c.1450/1500 to the present day, in his terminology Deutsch der Neuzeit. Within the former of these two ‘umbrella terms’, Schmidt identifies Frühmittelalters (c.500-1050), Hochmittelalters (1050-1250) and Spätmittelalters (1250-1450/1500), and the latter he takes the step of splitting into four – frühen Neuzeit (1450/1500-1650), mittleren Neuzeit (1650-1800), jüngeren Neuzeit (1800-1950), and jüngsten Neuzeit (1950 to the present day), within which last period German continues to develop.

Attempting a Periodisierung[5] of the German language means running up against the problem faced by any historian of any kind, let alone one trying to define something as amorphous and often as abstract as linguistic history – and that is that human history does not easily subdivide into “stages”. As Salmons puts it, ‘speech of individuals and communities on December 31, 1650 did not differ appreciably from the speech of those same individuals and communities on January 1, 1651’[6]; we can fall foul of over-categorization. It is thus a point of some contention how best we are to define “Middle High German” – as a helpful catch-all agglomerate for several different phases? As an increasingly unspecific and therefore increasingly meaningless term? – but major linguisticians do at least agree that, in its broadest terms, MHG is used to refer to the spoken and written form of the German language as it existed in a plethora of dialects and regional variations between 1050 and 1500 AD, after the so-called zweite Lautverschiebung or Second Sound Shift affected the pronunciation of a number of German consonants. The term is in any case now far too widespread to be revoked.
Concerning the “hoch” part of the equation – “High German” [hereafter HG] as opposed to Plattdeutsch/Niederdeutsch or Low German [hereafter LG] – there is still considerable variation and ambiguity. Wells discusses the Benrath Line/Benrather Linie, ‘the traditional boundary between HG and LG’[7], as being a useful geographical marker. The line runs from Benrath (Düsseldorf) and Aachen to the area near Frankfurt an der Oder; above it, we find dialects such as Sächsisch which developed into Altniederdeutsch; below it, a variety of different regional forms such as Fränkisch, Alemannisch, Bairisch and Langobardisch developed into Althochdeutsch which eventually develops into MHG and, finally, Neuhochdeutsch or New High German [hereafter NHG]. Much like the subdivisions of linguistic stages, these dialect forms do not, of course, neatly coalesce at a given point; Alemannisch does not disappear overnight, and it is precisely their overlapping which lends the MHG period its vibrant variety – to some extent preserved in the literature and manuscripts which still survive. Schmidt identifies[8] further subdivisions within HG (Hochdeutsch), resulting in Central German [hereafter CG] consisting of West and East Central German, a narrow band just below the Benrath Line, and Upper German or Oberdeutsch [hereafter UG], consisting of Alemannisch and Bairisch; CG and UG are further divided by the Speyer line, just to complicate matters further.
Deutsch, too, is at this stage a difficult word to truly pin down, given how Low German/Flemish/Dutch and Old French are also flowing into the language at this point, loaning new words with reckless abandon. Population growth and social complexity of the era – the rise of urban dwellings (reflected neatly in the lexical example of stat/stadt shifting its meaning from ‘place’ to ‘town’); hierarchical divisions; the influence of the mystics; the phenomenon of Laienemanzipation[9] and general reclaiming of German by secular texts rather than religious ones; – also complicate the notion of a supra-regional MHG. There is no “German” as such, merely ‘a kind of historical scatterplot across time and space’[10] which takes into account Alemannisch, Bairisch, Ostfränkisch, and so on and so forth. Phonological shifts and differences between West and East varieties of UG once again make it difficult to generalise; one source claims that Bairisch and Schwäbisch were practically the same thing, whilst another says there were more differences between Westalemannisch and Ostalemannisch than there were between Ostalemannisch and Bairisch[11]. The number of variables and factors involved means a definitive linguistic consensus for this area in this period is almost certainly impossible to reach.
For the numerous reasons stated above, we cannot properly label MHG a coherent, holistic supra-regional language; Grimm’s overzealous term idealises MHG’s regularity and ignores complexities and aberrations. Part of the difficulty with accepting Grimm’s overarching label – and thus with defining a variety such as MHG in general – is that so much of his (and indeed our) MHG sources stem from the höfische Dichtersprache tradition of 1170-1230; that is to say, they exist predominantly in verse. There are a number of problems that arise from relying on höfische Dichtersprache. For one, the texts of which it is comprised (the Nibelungenlied, Parzival, Iwein, Erec, Tristan, and the lyrics of Heinrich von Morungen and Walther von der Vogelweide) are predominantly centred in the southern or south-western tradition, and assumptions about the German of the time will thus exclude the written language in the North that flourished as the koiné, or regional dialect, of the Hanseatic League[12], or indeed the koinés which came about as a result of Ostkolonisation from the 12th century to the second half of the 14th, whereby the movement of a variety of speakers from diverse backgrounds into new areas eastwards resulted in new linguistic varieties and dialects – engineered more by levelling and suppression of differences than by creating new forms as such[13]. To look to the stylistically relatively homogenous language of the literarische Blütezeit in order to define MHG is to limit ourselves to only the one iteration of MHG. Such general uniformity as exists reflects the poets’ provenance; their need to appeal to a broader audience; and general avoidance of regional forms which could potentially limit their texts’ popularity (and even within these texts, there are significant differences: a number of them, such as the Alexanderroman of Pfaffe Lamprecht, mix CG and UG features[14]; the Nibelungenlied contains a number of deliberately archaic forms[15]).
In terms of limiting the degree to which we can define MHG, perhaps even more dramatic than the original differences in dialect is the sheer artificiality of the versions we can read today. What we read in MHG texts in the year 2016 is very far from reflecting the reality of what was spoken by ordinary people, as stated above; but in many respects we also read an artificial take on what was written. The ‘Lachmann method’ (dating from the 19th century, after philologist Karl Lachmann) was something of a two-edged sword; though Lachmann edited these MHG texts into what he saw as a ‘correct’ and harmonious Literatursprache which he called Normalmittelhochdeutsch, making them much easier to read, it meant deviating from, perhaps even whitewashing, the variety of the different manuscripts which existed, in order to create his own Funktiolekt. Schmidt uses the example of Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein to illustrate this point[16]: the Lachmann version has relatively standard punctuation, including commas to separate clauses and the circumflexes and Umlaut graphic conventions we now associate with MHG, and it is laid out in a traditional verse format, but the text’s original Handschrift-B is quite different, and Handschrift-A more different still, doing away with verse format altogether and appearing on the page almost as prose; Schmidt concludes “insgesamt zeigen schon diese wenigen Verse, dass das Mittelhochdeutsche durch eine große graphische Vielfalt charakterisiert ist[17]”. Lachmann, then, has added these ‘standardised’ details in for readers’ convenience, producing regularity but eschewing accuracy (rather pre-empting Sturtevant’s 1947 Paradox of analogic creation, that aiming for regularity produces irregularities).
That is not, of course, to say that the task of defining MHG is futile, since linguisticians can identify, and indeed have identified, a sizeable number of significant MHG features. Of particular interest are the phonological features of MHG and how the language as spoken differs from the NHG of today; the phonology of any historical language is inevitably more elusive than its morphology or its graphology, since these latter disciplines need mere written examples but spoken recordings from the 13th century are somewhat thin on the ground (cf. the ongoing pendulum-swinging debate about how the Romans pronounced Latin – whether veni, vidi, vici should be pronounced with three hard ‘v’ sounds or three soft ‘w’ sounds). Volksmundarten, how ordinary people spoke as opposed to Dichtersprache, are generally unknown to us, as illustrated in the ‘Sprachliche Pyramide des hochmittelalterlichen Deutschs’ created by G. Schieb in 1969[18]. We are aided, of course, by verse formation; when, in the early 13th century, Heinrich von dem Türlîn rhymes zît with geleit or hiute with freute, for instance[19], we can thus identify the old monophthong [î] and the old diphthong [iu] as having shifted phonetically to resemble newer diphthongs [ei] and [eu] respectively; with time the change in spelling will follow suit.
Over the period we are discussing, a variety of factors including monophthongization, diphthongization, the lengthening of short vowels in open syllables, syncope, apocope, consonantal change and the shift from sibilants to shibilants, Grammatischer Wechsel, Auslautverhärtung, and the i-Umlaut all variously make their impact on the development of the language, and specifically on how it sounds. While there is no time here to fully expound each and every one of these processes, it is worth stating that the phonological changes and mutations taking place within MHG during this period of 1050-1500 are of course both what distinguishes it from, but also binds it to, the NHG which will later develop. Bavarian diphthongization started in the south and spread northwards, leaving northern Frankish/UG unaffected; existing diphthongs such as ei, öu, ou were merged with new ones to form what we have now (ei, eu, au, in words such as Freiheit, Leute, Haus)[20]; unstressed syllables were lost via syncope (genade > gnaden) or apocope (unde > und), or were weakened into the modern-day schwa [ɘ]; vowel sounds shifted as part of the significant i-Umlaut development (a, for instance, was increasingly written and said as ‘e’, leading to the Sekundärumlaut ä as in mägede and Gäste, reflecting the predominance of the Umlaut in NHG; sibilants become shibilants (e.g. sl > [ʃ] in modern day Schlag); and Auslautverhärtung saw lenis (voiced) obstruents spelled and pronounced as fortis in their final position (tage becomes tac in MHG, then back to tag in NHG).
As suggested earlier, the term MHG is now too widespread to be completely denounced, and its continued use by linguisticians points to the degree to which it still functions – albeit as a slightly baggy, catch-all, term – in describing the linguistic family of Germanic languages which were developing alongside each other between 1050 and 1500. There are many problems in defining a variety such as MHG, as detailed above, but that does not prevent its continued use in the study of linguistics from having a certain degree of merit.


  1. Besch, Werner et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, de Gruyter, 1998-2004.
  2. Besch, Werner & Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009.
  3. der Gärtner, Wernher, Helmbrecht, Reclam, 2011.
  4. Nübling, Damaris, Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen, Narr, 2013.
  5. Ozment, Stephen, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People, Harper Perennial, 2005.
  6. Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012.
  7. Sanders, Ruth, German: Biography of a Language, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  8. Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000.
  9. Walshe, M.O’C., A Middle High German Reader, Oxford University Press, 1974.
  10. Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.

[1]Besch, Werner et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, de Gruyter, 1998-2004, p.1294.
[3]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.26.
[4]Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000, p.33.
[5]Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000, p.30.
[6]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012, p.175.
[7]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.42.
[8]Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000, p.241.
[9]Besch, Werner et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, de Gruyter, 1998-2004, p.1301.
[10]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012, p.186.
[11]Besch, Werner et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, de Gruyter, 1998-2004, p.1308.
[12]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.96.
[13]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012, p.179.
[14]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.109.
[15]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.123.
[16]Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000, p.97.
[17]Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000, p.99.
[18]Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000, p.99.
[19]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012, p.192.
[20]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.112.

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