1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > [German Language] Old German

(Part 28)


[German Language] Old German

The inflexional characteristics of Old German are almost identical with those of Old English. Nouns had the same five cases,—nominative, accusative (only in a few instances kept distinct), genitive, detive, and instumental. Strong and weak declensions of nouns and their subdivisions are likewise the same. The dual of the first and second pronouns is almost extinct of Old High German, but is quite common in Low German. In the verb we find the same distinction of the subjunctive from the indicative mood, and the same two inflected tenses, present and past,—former also used for the future, the latter for all shades of past time. The order of the sentence corresponds generally to the modern use, but is not kept so strictly as now, especially in the oldest prose texts, which are often materially influenced by the Latin sources from which they have been derived or translated.

The earliest extant specimen of Lower German belong to the beginning of the 9th century. It is a short formula of renunciation of the devil to be used before the ceremony of baptism._ It begins thus:—"Forsachistu diobole? Et respondeat : ec forsacho diabole. End allum diobolgelde? respondeat : end ec forsacho allum diobolgelde. End allum dioboles uuercum? Respondeat : end ec forsacho allum dioboles uuercum and uuordum, Thuner ende Uuoden ende Saxnote ende allum them unholdum the hira genotas sint." "Forsakest thou (the) devil? I forsake (the devil). And all devils-sacrifice? And I forsake all devil-sacrifice. And all (the) devil’s works? And I forsake all the devil’s works and words, Thuner and Woden and Saxnot and all the uncouth (beings) that their companions are."

We cannot, unfortunately, tell what special dialect of Low German this piece belonged to, nor even whether it was originally written in German, as several forms occurring in it have rather an Old English look. No more certain are the place of origin and the dialect of the most important relic of the Old Saxon language, the great poem of the Héliand, or the History of our Saviour, composed in the old alliterative verse by a Saxon cleric or monk, about the year 830. We quote as a specimen the following lines from the Munich MS._:--

"Quamun managa
Iudeon an thene gastseli ; uuard in im thar gladmod hugi,
blidi an iro breostun: gisahun iro baggebon
uuesen an uunneon. Drog man uuin an flet
skiri mid scalun, scenkeon huurbun,
gengun mid goldfatun ; gaman uuas thar inne,
hlud an thero hallu, helidos drunkun."

"(There) came many Jews to the guest-hall ; became to them there glad (their) mind, blithe in their breasts : (they) saw their ring-giver be in joy. Wine was borne into (the) hall bright in cups ; cup-bearers walked about, went with golden vessels, joy was therein loud in the hall, the knights drank."

Much more numerous and various in age and dialect are the documents of Old High German, some of which date as far back as the 8th century. Welcome as they may be to the student of grammar, not much can be said for their intrinsic value. Almost all the prose pieces are mere translations (many of them could not be worse) from the Latin ; and even such poetical works as Otfrid’s Life of Christ_ are no more than prose thoughts forced into bad verse. Only a very few relics of true poetry have reached us, among which the Hildebrandslied (in a mixed dialect), the fragments of the Múspilli (a poem about the Last Judgment, in the Bavarian dialect, belonging, like the Hildebrandslied, to the beginning of the 9th century, and also written in alliterative verse), and the Ludwigslied (881 or 882, in one of the Frankish dialects) may be mentioned here._

High German, as already hinted, is chiefly distinguished from the other Teutonic languages by a certain transformation of its mute system. The ordinary changes,—that it to say, those received in the modern High German literary language,—are the following:—d is changed to a t in all positions ; t to z (either pronounced ts or ss); p to pf, ff, or f according to its position in the word ; k initial and following a consonant is kept, but after a vowel k passes into ch (pronounced as Scotch or Modern German ch). Thus we get the following comparisons:—


This is the state of things in the High Frankish or Eastern dialect, spoken in the south-east of the Frankish territory. In the earliest period, as may be seen from the above list, it still preserved the th sound in many cases ; in the later stages is found to have been substituted, as in Modern High German. The Upper German dialects show the same change at a much earlier time, and, in addition to this, they have also changed k initial and following a consonant into ch, and b and g initial p and k (representing most likely voiceless soft stops, as still pronounced in South Germany and Switzerland) ; Bavarian admits p for b even in the middle of words. Thus we have, for instance, denchen for Frankish thenken, to think ; pitten for Frankish bitten, to bid : keban, or Bavarian kepan, for Frankish geban to give. In illustration of these distinctions and some other variations of spelling we may quote three contemporaneous versions of the Lord’s Prayer which have fortunately been preserved4 :—


It is impossible to give here a sufficient idea of the variability of Old High German, as, indeed, out of several hundred pieces that have come to our knowledge, there are not two representing exactly the same dialect to all its shades or at least in exactly the same spelling. We shall therefore ourselves to a short notice of the more important documents. South-western Frankish is best represented by a very old translation of a treatise by Isidorus Hispalensis, De Fide Catholica, 5 and Otfrid’s Life of Christ, mentioned above. The chief source of Eastern Frankish is a translation of the Harmony of the Gospels erroneously ascribed to the Syrian father Tatianus.6 For Bavarian we may quote some old glossaries,7 for Alemannian the interlineary versions of the Benedictine Rule8 and some Latin church hymns,9 besides several glossaries. For later Old High German, the works of Notker Labeo, or Teutonicus, a monk of St Gall who died in 1022, are the fundamental sources.10 What Ormin did for English phonetics, Notker may be said to have done, even, more completely, for those of Germany. He not only carefully marks the quantities of vowels, but also points out the phonetics difference such diphthongs as ei, ou, iu, and ie, uo by his way of accentuating them (éi, óu, íu, and îe, ûo); even such phonetic minutiae as the change of initial voiced stop consonants into voiceless steps after a pause or a voiceless consonant are duly registered, as may be seen from the following specimen.

"Sanctus paulus kehîen tîen in sînên zîten uuândon des sûonetagen, taz er êr nechâme êr romanum imperium zegîenge únde antichristus rîchesôn begóndi. Uuér zuîuelôt romanos îu uuêsen állero rîcho hêrren únde íro guuált kân ze énde dero uuérlte?" "St Paul assured those who in his time expected the day of jugdment that it would not come before the Roman Empire was dissolved, and Antichrist began to reign. Who doubts that the Roman are the masters of all kingdoms, and that their power reaches to the end of the world?"

It will be clear from what has been said above that the main feature of the Old High German period is the total absence of a common literary language. No voluntary modifications of the form of speech are to be found, but such as are naturally involved in any attempt to adapt a spoken idiom to literary use. Nevertheless it has been suggested by K. Müllenhoff_ and others that idioms of a more refined character ordinary popular dialects were spoken at the principal courts of the empire, and especially at the imperial court itself, and that the authority of these Hofsprachen was great enough to exercise a modifying influence on the literary productions throughout the empire, or in those parts of least where High German was the vernacular speech. But how these suppositions can be proved does not appear, or how they can be reconciled with the fact all literary documents of the period are dialectal.


FOOTNOTE (p.516)

(1) See article ENGLISH LANGUAGE, vol. viii. p. 391.

(2) It has been published, along with all the minor pieces of Old Saxon still extant, by M. Heyne, Kleinere altniederdeutsche Denkmäler, 2d edit., Paderborn, 1877. See also K Müllenhoff and W. Scherer, Denkmäler deutscher Poesie und Prosa, 2d edit., Berlin, 1873.

FOOTNOTES (p. 517)

(1) This MS. gives the poem in a pure Saxon dialect, while the dialect of the Cotton MS. in some respects resembles the Frankish idiom. Both texts are printed in the latest edition by E. Sievers, Halle, 1878.

(2) Otfrid, a monk of Weissenburg, in Alsace, formerly a pupil of Hrabanus Maurus, at Fulda, wrote his work (in the South-Frankish dialect) in 867 or 868. It is for the most part due to him that the rhymed stanza (imitated from that of the Latin Church hymns) was introduced into German poetry, instead to the earlier alliterative metre. The latest editions are by J. Kelle, Ratisbon, 1856, 1869, and by P. Piper, Paderborn, 1878.

(3) The minor pieces of Old High German, both verse and prose, are collected in Müllenhoff and Scherer’s Denkmäler, 1873.

(4) Ten different versions of the Lord’s Prayer (down to the 14th century) are given, in a synoptical order, by Massmann, Die deutschen Abschwörungs-s, Beicht-, und Betformeln, Quedlinburg and Leipsic, 1839, p. 158 sq.

(5) K. Weinhold, Die altdeutschen Bruchstücke des Bischof Isidorus von Sevilla de fide Catholica, Paderborn, 1874.

(6) Latest edition by E. Sievers, Paderborn, 1872.

(7) E. Steinmeyer und E. Sievers, Althochdeutsche Glossen, i., Berlin, 1879.

(8) H. Hattemer, Denkmahle des Mittelalters. i., St Gall, 1844.

(9) E. Sievers, Die Murbacher Hymnen, Halle, 1874.

(10) Hattemer, op. Cit., vols. Ii., iii.

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