1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > [German Language] Middle German

(Part 29)


Middle German

The transition to Middle High and Low German is conspicuously marked by a decided improvement in the poetic faculties of the nation._ While the 10th century had left only a very few specimens of poetry, and those of poor quality, the number of poems (mainy of a theological bearing) dating from the 11th century is not inconsiderable, and the 12th century shows a rapidity of literary development almost unparalleled. At first indeed religious and legendary poetry is still prevalent, but soon literature begins to take a more historical or epic turn. This tendency is clearly visible in the Kaiserchronik, or Emperor’s Chronicle, in which the first attempt is made to give a survey of universal and German history in a poetical form. The romantic tales of Alexander the Great and of the battle of Roncesvalles were translated from the French,—the Alexanderlied by the Pfaffe Lamprecht, the Rolandslied by the Pfaffe Konrad; while old national traditions contributed fitting subjects for such epic poems as that concerning the adventures of the Lombard King Rother. Lyric poetry, hitherto altogether neglected, sprung suddenly into vigour in the remote east at Austria about the middle of the century, and soon found its way to other countries. But the most decided advance was not made till about 1180, when the forms of social life that had crept in among the more cultivated classes, in imitation of the laws and customs of French chivalry, began to exercise a powerful reforming influence on all branches of poetry. The example set by the Netherlands poet, Heinrich von Veldeke (who for some time lived and partly wrote, in Germany), in his Eneit, or Aeneid, was soon followed by the three great epic masters of the period, Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strasburg, and Wolfram von Eschenbach. About the same time the Nibelungenlied and other compositions of a more national character were composed, while lyric poetry was raised to a height of excellence never attained at any other period of the Middle Ages, and best represented in the songs of Walther von der Vogelweide. It is true enough that this new chivalrous poetry was not always very original in thought ; indeed, most epic poems of this class, and many lyric stanzas, have been directly copied from French models ; but its influence on the culture of the language was immense. It was then for the first time that Germany possessed a real literary language, undoubtedly homogeneous as far as style and metre are concerned. Whether a similar unity of the outer form of speech had already been reached at that period is a poem point very difficult to decide. The question was raised for the first time as early as 1820, by Karl Lachmann, in his Auswahl aus den hochdeutschen Dichtern des XIII. Jahrh. Lachmann’s opinion was that the poets of the 13th century spoke a definite, unchangeable sort of High German, a few minor dialectal peculiarities being expected, and that uneducated scribes had been guilty of introducing older or corrupt forms of the common speech into our manuscripts. These views were at the time unanimously accepted, and are still held (though in a somewhat modified form, admitting two literary idioms, one in the south, the other in the midland) by a majority of the German philologists of the present day. As a consequence of this, most of the "critical" editions of Middle High German poetry that have appeared since Lachmann’s time do reproduce the original readings of the manuscripts, but give the texts in a "corrected" form, commonly called "correct Middle High German," which is assumed to appear in its purest form in the works of Hartmann von Aue. It is chiefly Alemannian, or Swabian with some Frankish peculiarities of spelling in the use of the consonants, in order to produce a greater resemblance to ordinary Modern High German orthography. No manuscript, however, is known to be written in exactly the same language or orthography ; nor are there any poets, except those of Swabia, who do not clearly show by their rhymes the existence of dialectal forms in their speech. All incongruities in the rhymes disappear when they are transferred to the forms peculiar to the local dialects of their authors._ It was therefore but natural that a reaction against Lachmann’s views should ultimately have set in ;4 and this reaction appears to have been right in denying that dialectal forms were purposely and studiously avoided, even by the classic authors of the period, with a view to the approximation of their language to a certain universal idiom never existing anywhere but in the fancy of certain modern writers. How injurious to the study of Middle High German dialects the views of Lachmann, had they prevailed, must have been, it is easy to see ; but on the other hand it must not be forgotten that the only method of investigating the dialects of the single authors was that followed by Lachmann, viz, to reconstruct them by a careful study of the rhymes, for the dialects of the manuscripts are often, may in most cases, clearly different from those of the writers themselves, as shown by the rhymes. It is therefore not so much the principle of reconstruction that has been resisted by Lachmann's opponents as the way in which this reconstruction had been practically carried out. For prose writings of course no such reconstruction is possible ; still, prose documents, especially such as were destined for local use only (charters, &c.), and therefore less liable to adulterations of the original, are often the main sources for German dialectology.

The prominent feature of German (Low German included) in this period is the levelling of the unaccented vowels of the inflexional and some of the derivative syllables already mentioned.

As to the former there is only one exception, viz, the retaining of the termination iu (pronounced as Modern German ü or French long u) for the nom. sing. fem. and the nom. and acc. Plur. Neutr. Of the adjective (blindiu, while all other cases have the levelled e); and even this seems to be a speciality of Upper German, the corresponding midland German. The unaccented e is frequently dropped in all dialects, especially in the south, where the dropping is almost regular after an r or l closing a short syllable, as in bern, steln , for beren, stelen, to bear, to steal ; Old High German, beran, stelan. In the Midland dialects I is often written for this e, thus berin, stelin. The accented vowels of the root syllables are greatly changed in this period by the "Umlaut," or mutation of sounds, being an assimilation of these vowels to an i or y originally following. Thus a, _, o, _, u, _, uo are changed to e, ae, ü,or ö, oe, ü, iu (long ü), üe, as may be seen in the following instances:—hant, hand, pl. hende ; r_t, council, pl. raete ; golt, gold, güldîn, golden, or mohte, I might, subj. möhte ; gr_z, great, groeze, size ; kus, a kiss, küssen, to kiss; m_s, mouse, pl. miuse ; guot, good, güete, goodness. The Umlaut, howeverf, is not always expressed in the spelling of the manuscripts, though it must have existed in the living language. Of the diphthongs, iu has been changed into long ü, but the old spelling is often retained in the MSS. (liute, modern Leute, Old High German liuti, people). As to the consonants, the th sound had nearly disappeared at the beginning of the period, and was lost entirely in its course ; sk has passed into the sh sound, written sch as in Modern German. Spelling in general is simpler, and in some points more rigidly phonetic than in Old German. Final voiced consonants, as b, d, g, are generally changed into the corresponding voiceless sounds, as p, t, c (in High German grap, grave, gen. Grabes, pfat, path, gen, pfades, tac, day, gen. dages ; in Low German graf graves, pat pades, dach dages0. Double consonants are simplified in the same position, as in Old German (bal, ball, gen. balles). The use of the latter v has greatly increased ; in High German it means simply f, and is therefore quite superfluous ; in Low German its pronunciation is f at the beginning of words, while in the middle of words it has the same sound as English v.

The leading dialects of the period are those of Old German, the most noteworthy difference being the accession of the dialects of the kingdom of Saxony (Obersächsisch, or Upper Saxon) and Silesia to the midland dialects, and those of some eastern provinces of Prussia (Niedersächsisch, or Low Saxon) to Lower German, in consequence of the German colonization of those countries. Low German, to begin, with, has retained the phonetic structure of its consonantal system unaltered, excepted by the loss of the th sound. The spelling of the vowel system is very imperfect. Umlaut is not expressed in the older manuscripts, except in the case of a and e. A long e corresponds to both High German ei and ie, a long o to High German ou, öu, and uo, üe, the only diphthong generally admitted being ou before a w, as in houwen, to hew. The pronunciation of _ and _ must, however,in these cases have been different according to their etymological values, for all the High German sounds mentioned above are distinctly kept asunder in the modern Low German dialects, and ei and u or _ are often written for _ and _ where they stand for High German ei and uo or üe, but never otherwise. It is most likely, judging from the present state of things, that open, e, o were the equivalents for High German ei, ou, öi, while close e, o corresponded to High German ie, uo, üe.the prefix ge is dropped, as in English and in the Scandinavian languages (thus bort, birth, High German geburt). But the most remarkable fact in the history of Low German sounds is the restoration of nd or nn for th after a dropped nasal sound (see above, p. 516), as in ander or anner, other, for Old Saxon óthar, or in munt, mouth, for Old Saxon múth. This transition cannot be explained by any phonetic laws, but must necessarily be ascribed to High German influence. As to the inflexional system, a similar seems to have introduced the High German terminations of the plural of verbs (wi geven, gi gevet, se geven we, you, they give). The Old Saxon –s in the nominative plural has been dropped, as in High German. The following lines quoted from the municipal laws of the town of Hamburg (written 1270) may be taken as a fair specimen of 13th-century Low German:—"Dat nement syn erue verkopen schal, he ne bede id erst synen negesten. So we syn erue vorkopen wil, dat bynnen desser stad vnde bynnen dessem wicbelde belegen is, deschal id beden twen synen negesten vrunden, dar syn erue vy vallen mach, vnde wil it erer nen kopen, so mot he syn erue wol vorkopen deme de eme dar vmme allermest geuen wil." "That nobody shall sell his inheritance, unless he offer it first to his nearest (relations). Whosoever is willing to sell his inheritance, that is situated within this town and within these precincts, shall offer it to two his nearest friends (relations), to whom his inheritance may fall, and if neither of them is willing to buy it, he must (may) well sell his inheritance to him who is willing to give him most for it."

The difference of the main dialects of High German are not very striking during the first stage of this period. Alemannian is best characterized by its rigidly keeping its original vowel qualities, some of the modern Swiss dialects showing exactly the same system as about 1200. Swabian is easily discovered by its frequent use of au for _, as in gaun, to go, for g_n. A very important change of vowel qualities is found to have taken place, at a very early time, in the Bavarian dialect. While ie, uo, üe were preserved as in Alemannian, ei, ou, öu were change into aei (or ai), eu (or _u), and three new diphthongs, ei, ou, eu, sprang up from the long vowels _, _, iu (_). In the Midland dialects again, ei, ou, and _, _, _, were kept, as in Alemannaian (although ü is generally not distinguished from u in writing, as in most Midland manuscript no special signs for the Umlaut vowels are used, except e), but ie, uo, üe were contracted to simple _, _ (_), differing from the old _, _, iu only in their open quality. The system of these changes may be illustrated by the following list:—


As to the consonants, Alemannian and Bavarian still clung to the use of ch or kch for ordinary k, as chomen, for komen, to come. P initial for b is especially Bavarian, and was rather more frequent in the 14th and 15th centuries than before; w initial is often expressed by b in Bavarian manuscript since the 13th century ; thus we find paideu, both, for beidiu or peidiu in Alemannian, or beide in the Midland dialects, and beip, wife, or even zbai, two, for ordinary w_p, zwei ; k initial for ordinary g went altogether out o use. In Mildand orthography the two sounds of Old High German z, viz. ts and ss, were expressed by cz or zc, and z or zz respectively. The following specimens of the language of this period are taken from the Schwabenspiegel, or Swebian Law, for Alemannian (13th century) ; the Spiegel deutscher Leute, or Mirror of German People, for Bavarian (14th century) ; and a Midland version of the Sachsenspiegel, or Saxon Law_ :--


"To the pope it is set (ordained) that he still judge at a certain time, (sitting) on a white horse, and the emperor shall hold the stirrup to the pope, that the saddle may not slide off. This means that whatsoever resists the pope, so that he cannot overcome it with spiritual censure, the emperor and other secular judges shall overcome with the proscription, (and the spiritual [court shall exercise discipline with the ban)."

In the 14th and 15th centuries the development of the dialects rapidly advanced. The greatest changes were those occurring in the vowel system. The new diphthongs ei, eu, for older _, _, iu, which had originated in the southeastern parts of the Bavarian district gradually spread to the north and west; even some of the South Midland dialects, as Bohemian and Silesian, began to partake of this change, while the north Midland dialects and Alemannian remained unaltered. Short root syllables ending in a single consonant began to be lengthened in almost all dialects, as g_ben, n_men. For g_ben, n_men, to give, to take. Unaccented e was dropped in the southern dialects, especially in Bavarian, to the utmost extent possible. Such forms as pschaech, gtorst, koert, for beschaehe, happened (subj.) getorste, I durst, gehaeret, heard (part), began to be quite familiar Even before a final l or nasal sound e was now and then dropped in Bavarian, as in gebm for geben, to give, gegnt for gegende country, which are exactly the forms still used in our time. Midland and Low German dialects continued to be much more conservative in all these respects. In the consonantal system we have to mention the loss of the z sound in all dialects, where it was a simple spirant (not ts) ;although the letter z was still often preserved in spelling, it was frequently confounded with s in the rhymes, a thing which never occurred in the earlier centuries. Alemannian is chiefly distinguished by its constant change of sm, sn, sl sw, sp, st into schm, schn, schl, schw, schp, scht, as in schmit, smith, schne, snow, schlahen, to slay, schwimmen, to swim, geschprochen, spoken, geischtlich, "ghostly," spiritual. Late Bavarian favours such spellings as chrankish, pekch, for krank, becke. Spelling in general was much neglected, although it was not quite so bad as often in the 16th century, when there was a strong tendency towards crowding as many letters into a word as possible.

While the 15th century was thus marked by great divergencies of the spoken dialects, important steps towards gaining a greater uniformity of literary speech were made in the same period by the invention of the art of printing, and by the development of certain Kanzleisprachen, or literary idioms of the imperial and other chanceries. There is no need to explain how the habit of reading books printed in dialects not familiar to the reader must have obliged the learned public of the time to acquire a certain amount of knowledge of dialects in general, and must have made them better aware of the peculiarities of their own idioms than was either necessary or possible at the time when manuscripts written expressly in the local dialects of the readers were the only means of conveying literary information. Besides, writers as well as printers must soon have found it profitable to publish their works in a language readily understood by readers in all parts of the country. The principal work, however, was done in Germany by the chanceries. Among these the imperial chancery naturally held the most prominent position ; and, inasmcuh as its public acts were addressed to readers of all dialects existing the empire, it obviously had all the greatest interest in calling into existence a general idiom. In the 14th century no difference between the language of the imperial chancery and the local idioms of the particular emperors was yet visible._ The public Acts of Louis of Bavaria (1314-1347) were written in the Bavarian dialect. The succession of Charles IV. (1347-1378) was accompanied by the introduction of the Bohemian dialect into the imperial charters. The dialect, as was natural from its local position, was neither purely Southern nor purely Midland. Ei, ou, eu for _, _, iu were frequently adopted from the Southern dialects, but ch for k and p for b were generally rejected ; unaccented vowels were preserved to about the same extent as in Midland German. In the reign of Wenceslaus of Bohemia (1378-1400) the same state of things was maintained ; but in the charters of Rupert, the elector palatine (1400-1410), we find the Midland dialect of the Palantine. Sigismund (1410-1437) reintroduced the Bohemian dialect, which by this time had, with the exception of a very short period, prevailed for nearly a hundred years in the imperial chancery. It was therefore but natural that Duke Frederick of Austria should exchange the Austrian dialect of his ducal chancery (which abounded with kch, kh, kg, for k, and p for b) for the Bohemian chancery dialect of his predecessors, when he succeeded to the imperial throne (1470-1493). His example was followed by Maximilian (1493-1519), but only so far as public Acts were concerned. In charters destined for local Austrian use as well as in his private correspondence he always kept his vernacular Austrian dialect, showing thus that no change of the spoken idioms had been caused as yet by the introduction of the new artificial language. In the same manner and at the same time the Midland dialect of the electoral chancery of Saxony came to be better adapted for general use by the adoption of the Southern ei, ou, eu for _, _, iu, and the abolition of several prominent Midland pecualarities.


FOOTNOTE (p. 518)

(1) See hid Denkmäler, Introduction.
(3) See W. Scherer, Geschichte der deutchen Literature, im XI. Und XII. Jahrhundert. Strasburg, 1875.
(5) This has been exemplified in a most masterly manner by W. Braune, in his Untersuchungen über Heinrich von Veldeke ; see Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, iv. p. 279 sqq. Braune has conclusively shown that Heinrich von Veldeke never tried to write German (although he wrote for German readers), as had generally been supposed before, but simply wrote in his familiar Netherlands dialect.
(7) See especially H. Paul Gab es eine mittelhochdeutsche Schriftsprache? Halle, 1873. Paul seems, however, to go too far in denying the existence of some peculiarities of style pointed out by Lachmann and his followers.

FOOTNOTE (p. 519)

1 The editions whence the extracts are taken are—for the Schwarbenspiegel, that of Lassberg, Tübingen, 1840, p. 5 ; for the Spiegei deutscher Leute, that of J. Ficker, Innsbruck, 1859, p. 35 ; and for the Sachsenspiegel, that of Hildebrand, Leipsic, 1870, p. 3.

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