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Middle High German

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Middle High German
diutsch, tiutsch
RegionCentral and southern Germany, Austria and parts of Switzerland
EraHigh Middle Ages
Early form
Language codes
ISO 639-2gmh (c. 1050–1500)
ISO 639-3gmh (c. 1050–1500)
ISO 639-6mdgr
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Middle High German (MHG; German: Mittelhochdeutsch (Mhdt., Mhd.)) is the term for the form of German spoken in the High Middle Ages. It is conventionally dated between 1050 and 1350, developing from Old High German and into Early New High German. High German is defined as those varieties of German which were affected by the Second Sound Shift; the Middle Low German and Middle Dutch languages spoken to the North and North West, which did not participate in this sound change, are not part of MHG.

While there is no standard MHG, the prestige of the Hohenstaufen court gave rise in the late 12th century to a supra-regional literary language (mittelhochdeutsche Dichtersprache) based on Swabian, an Alemannic dialect. This historical interpretation is complicated by the tendency of modern editions of MHG texts to use normalised spellings based on this variety (usually called "Classical MHG"), which make the written language appear more consistent than it actually is in the manuscripts. Scholars are uncertain as to whether the literary language reflected a supra-regional spoken language of the courts.

An important development in this period was the Ostsiedlung, the eastward expansion of German settlement beyond the Elbe-Saale line which marked the limit of Old High German. This process started in the 11th century, and all the East Central German dialects are a result of this expansion.

"Judeo-German", the precursor of the Yiddish language, is attested in the 12th–13th centuries, as a variety of Middle High German written in Hebrew characters.


German territorial expansion in the Middle High German period (adapted from Walter Kuhn)
  Germanic peoples before AD 700
  Ostsiedlung, 8th–11th centuries
  Expansion in the 12th century
  Expansion in the 13th century
  Expansion in the 14th century
German territorial expansion before 1400 from F. W. Putzger

The Middle High German period is generally dated from 1050 to 1350.[1][2][3][4] An older view puts the boundary with (Early) New High German around 1500.[4] [5]

There are several phonological criteria which separate MHG from the preceding Old High German period:[6]

Culturally, the two periods are distinguished by the transition from a predominantly clerical written culture, in which the dominant language was Latin, to one centred on the courts of the great nobles, with German gradually expanding its range of use.[2][10] The rise of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in Swabia makes the South West the dominant region in both political and cultural terms.[11]

Demographically, the MHG period is characterised by a massive rise in population,[12] terminated by the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death (1348).[13] Along with the rise in population comes a territorial expansion eastwards (Ostsiedlung), which saw German-speaking settlers colonise land previously under Slavic control.[14][15]

Linguistically, the transition to Early New High German is marked by four vowel changes which together produce the phonemic system of modern German, though not all dialects participated equally in these changes:[16]

  • Diphthongisation of the long high vowels /iː uː/ > /aɪ̯ ɔʏ̯ aʊ̯/: MHG hût > NHG Haut ("skin")
  • Monophthongisation of the high centering diphthongs /iə uə/ > /iː uː/: MHG huot > NHG Hut ("hat")
  • lengthening of stressed short vowels in open syllables: MHG sagen /zaɡən/ > NHG sagen /zaːɡən/ ("say")
  • The loss of unstressed vowels in many circumstances: MHG vrouwe > NHG Frau ("lady")

The centres of culture in the ENHG period are no longer the courts but the towns.[17]


Middle High German dialect boundaries

The dialect map of Germany by the end of the Middle High German period was much the same as that at the start of the 20th century, though the boundary with Low German was further south than it now is:[18][19]

Central German (Mitteldeutsch)[20]

Upper German (Oberdeutsch)[21]

With the exception of Thuringian, the East Central German dialects are new dialects resulting from the Ostsiedlung and arise towards the end of the period.[18][22]

Writing system[edit]

Middle High German texts are written in the Latin alphabet. There was no standardised spelling, but modern editions generally standardise according to a set of conventions established by Karl Lachmann in the 19th century.[23] There are several important features in this standardised orthography which are not characteristics of the original manuscripts:

  • the marking of vowel length is almost entirely absent from MHG manuscripts.[24]
  • the marking of umlauted vowels is often absent or inconsistent in the manuscripts.[25]
  • a curly-tailed z (ȥ or ⟨ʒ⟩) is used in modern handbooks and grammars to indicate the /s/ or /s/-like sound which arose from Germanic /t/ in the High German consonant shift. This character has no counterpart in the original manuscripts, which typically use ⟨s⟩ or ⟨z⟩ to indicate this sound.[26]
  • the original texts often use ⟨i⟩ and ⟨uu⟩ for the semi-vowels /j/ and /w/.[27]

A particular problem is that many manuscripts are of much later date than the works they contain; as a result, they bear the signs of later scribes having modified the spellings, with greater or lesser consistency, in accord with conventions of their time.[28] In addition, there is considerable regional variation in the spellings that appear in the original texts, which modern editions largely conceal.[29]


The standardised orthography of MHG editions uses the following vowel spellings:[24]

  • Short vowels: ⟨a e i o u⟩ and the umlauted vowels ⟨ä ö ü⟩
  • Long vowels: ⟨â ê î ô û⟩ and the umlauted vowels ⟨æ œ iu⟩
  • Diphthongs: ⟨ei ou ie uo⟩; and the umlauted diphthongs ⟨öu eu oi üe⟩

Grammars (as opposed to textual editions) often distinguish between ⟨ë⟩ and ⟨e⟩, the former indicating the mid-open /ɛ/ which derived from Germanic /e/, the latter (often with a dot beneath it) indicating the mid-close /e/ which results from primary umlaut of short /a/. No such orthographic distinction is made in MHG manuscripts.[24]


The standardised orthography of MHG editions uses the following consonant spellings:[26]


The charts show the vowel and consonant systems of classical MHG. The spellings indicated are the standard spellings used in modern editions; there is much more variation in the manuscripts.


Short and long Vowels[edit]

  front central back
unrounded rounded
short long short long short long short long
close i y ⟨ü⟩ ⟨iu⟩   u
close-mid e        
mid ɛ ɛː ø ⟨ö⟩ øː ⟨œ⟩   o
open-mid æ ⟨ä⟩ æː ⟨æ⟩      
open   a  


  1. Not all dialects distinguish the three unrounded mid front vowels.
  2. It is probable that the short high and mid vowels are lower than their long equivalents, as in Modern German, but that is impossible to establish from the written sources.
  3. The ⟨e⟩ found in unstressed syllables may indicate [ɛ] or schwa [ə].


MHG diphthongs are indicated by the spellings ⟨ei⟩, ⟨ie⟩, ⟨ou⟩, ⟨öu⟩ and ⟨eu⟩, ⟨üe⟩, ⟨uo⟩, and they have the approximate values of /ei/, /iə/, /ou/, /øy/, /eu/, /yə/, /uə/, respectively.


  Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p  b   t  d     k ⟨k, c⟩  ɡ  
Affricates p͡f   t͡s ⟨z⟩        
Nasal m   n     ŋ ⟨ng⟩  
Fricative   f ⟨f⟩ v ⟨v⟩ s ⟨ȥ⟩  z ⟨s⟩ ʃ ⟨sch⟩   x ⟨ch, h⟩ h
Approximant w       j    
Liquid     r  l        
  1. Precise information about the articulation of consonants is impossible to establish and must have varied between dialects.
  2. In the plosive and fricative series, if there are two consonants in a cell, the first is fortis and the second lenis. The voicing of lenis consonants varied between dialects.
  3. There are long consonants, and the following double consonant spellings indicate not vowel length, as they do in Modern German orthography, but rather genuine double consonants: pp, bb, tt, dd, ck (for /kk/), gg, ff, ss, zz, mm, nn, ll, rr.
  4. It is reasonable to assume that /x/ has an allophone [χ] after back vowels, as in Modern German.



Middle High German pronouns of the first person refer to the speaker; those of the second person refer to an addressed person; and those of the third person refer to a person or thing of which one speaks. The pronouns of the third person may be used to replace nominal phrases. These have the same genders, numbers and cases as the original nominal phrase.

Personal pronouns[edit]

Personal Pronouns
1st sg 2nd sg 3rd sg 1st pl 2nd pl 3rd pl
Nominative ich du ër siu ëȥ wir ir sie / siu
Accusative mich dich in sie ëȥ uns(ich) iuch sie / siu
Dative mir dir im ir im uns iu in
Genitive mîn dîn sîn ir sîn unser iuwer ir

Possessive pronouns[edit]

The possessive pronouns mîn, dîn, sîn, ir, unser, iuwer are used like adjectives and hence take on adjective endings following the normal rules.


The inflected forms of the article depend on the number, the case and the gender of the corresponding noun. The definite article has the same plural forms for all three genders.

Definite article (strong)

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative dër daȥ diu die / diu
Accusative dën daȥ die die / diu
Dative dëm dër dën
Genitive dës dër dër
Instrumental diu

The instrumental case, only existing in the neuter singular, is used only with prepositions: von diu, ze diu, etc. In all the other genders and in the plural it is substituted with the dative: von dëm, von dër, von dën.


Middle High German nouns were declined according to four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative), two numbers (singular and plural) and three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), much like Modern High German, though there are several important differences.

Strong nouns[edit]

dër tac
day m.
diu gëbe
gift f.
daȥ wort
word n.
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dër tac die tage diu gëbe die gëbe daȥ wort diu wort
Genitive dës tages dër tage dër gëbe dër gëben dës wortes dër worte
Dative dëm tage dën tagen dër gëbe dën gëben dëm worte dën worten
Accusative dën tac die tage die gëbe die gëbe daȥ wort diu wort
dër gast
guest m.
diu kraft
strength f.
daȥ lamp
lamb n.
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dër gast die geste diu kraft die krefte daȥ lamp diu lember
Genitive dës gastes dër geste dër kraft/krefte dër krefte dës lambes dër lember
Dative dëm gaste dën gesten dër kraft/krefte dën kreften dëm lambe dën lembern
Accusative dën gast die geste die kraft die krefte daȥ lamp diu lember

Weak nouns[edit]

dër veter
(male) cousin m.
diu zunge
tongue f.
daȥ herze
heart n.
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dër veter die veteren diu zunge die zungen daȥ herze diu herzen
Genitive dës veteren dër veteren dër zungen dër zungen dës herzen dër herzen
Dative dëm veteren dën veteren dër zungen dën zungen dëm herzen dën herzen
Accusative dën veteren die veteren die zungen die zungen daȥ herze diu herzen


Verbs were conjugated according to three moods (indicative, subjunctive (conjunctive) and imperative), three persons, two numbers (singular and plural) and two tenses (present tense and preterite) There was a present participle, a past participle and a verbal noun that somewhat resembles the Latin gerund, but that only existed in the genitive and dative cases.

An important distinction is made between strong verbs (that exhibited ablaut) and weak verbs (that didn't).

Furthermore, there were also some irregular verbs.

Strong verbs[edit]

The present tense conjugation went as follows:

to take
Indicative Subjunctive
1. sg. ich nime ich nëme
2. sg. du nim(e)st du nëmest
3. sg. ër nim(e)t er nëme
1. pl. wir nëmen wir nëmen
2. pl. ir nëm(e)t ir nëmet
3. pl. sie nëment sie nëmen
  • Imperative: 2.sg.: nim, 2.pl.: nëmet
  • Present participle: nëmende
  • Infinitive: nëmen
  • Verbal noun: genitive: nëmen(n)es, dative: ze nëmen(n)e

The bold vowels demonstrate umlaut; the vowels in brackets were dropped in rapid speech.

The preterite conjugation went as follows:

genomen haben
to have taken
Indicative Subjunctive
1. sg. ich nam ich næme
2. sg. du næme du næmest
3. sg. ër nam er næme
1. pl. wir nâmen wir næmen
2. pl. ir nâmet ir næmet
3. pl. sie nâmen sie næmen
  • Past participle: genomen

Weak verbs[edit]

The present tense conjugation went as follows:

to seek
Indicative Subjunctive
1. sg. ich suoche ich suoche
2. sg. du suoch(e)st du suochest
3. sg. ër suoch(e)t er suoche
1. pl. wir suochen wir suochen
2. pl. ir suoch(e)t ir suochet
3. pl. sie suochent sie suochen
  • Imperative: 2.sg: suoche, 2.pl: suochet
  • Present participle: suochende
  • Infinitive: suochen
  • Verbal noun: genitive: suochennes, dative: ze suochenne

The vowels in brackets were dropped in rapid speech.

The preterite conjugation went as follows:

gesuocht haben
to have sought
Indicative Subjunctive
1. sg. ich suochete ich suochete
2. sg. du suochetest du suochetest
3. sg. ër suochete er suochete
1. pl. wir suocheten wir suocheten
2. pl. ir suochetet ir suochetet
3. pl. sie suochetent sie suocheten
  • Past participle: gesuochet


In the Middle High German period, the rise of a courtly culture and the changing nature of knighthood was reflected in changes to the vocabulary.[30] Since the impetus for this set of social changes came largely from France, many of the new words were either loans from French or influenced by French terms.

The French loans mainly cover the areas of chivalry, warfare and equipment, entertainment, and luxury goods:[31]

  • MHG âventiure < OF aventure (NHG Abenteuer, "adventure")
  • MHG prîs < OF pris (NHG Preis, "prize, reward")
  • MHG lanze < OF lance (NHG Lanze, "lance")
  • MHG palas < OF palais (NHG Palast, "palace")
  • MHG fest, veste < OF feste (NHG Fest, "festival, feast")
  • MHG pinsel < OF pincel (NHG Pinsel, "paint brush")
  • MHG samît < OF samit (NHG Samt, "velvet")
  • MHG rosîn < OF raisin (NHG Rosine, "raisin")

Two highly productive suffixes were borrowed from French in this period:

  • The noun suffix -îe is seen initially in borrowings from French such as massenîe ("retinue, household") and then starts to be combined with German nouns to produce, for example, jegerîe ("hunting") from jeger ("huntsman"), or arzatîe, arzenîe ("medicine ") from arzat ("doctor"). With the Early New High German diphthongization the suffix became /ai/ (spelling <ei>) giving NHG Jägerei, Arznei.[32]
  • The verb suffix -îeren resulted from adding the German infinitive suffix -en to the Old French infinitive endings -er/ir/ier. Initially, this was just a way of integrating French verbs into German syntax, but the suffix became productive in its own right and was added to non-French roots: MHG turnîeren is based on OF tourner ("to ride a horse"), but halbieren ("to cut in half") has no French source.[33][34]

Sample texts[edit]


Manuscript B of Hartmann von Aue's Iwein (Gießen, UB, Hs. 97), folio 1r

The text is the opening of Hartmann von Aue's Iwein (c. 1200)

Middle High German[35] English translation

Swer an rehte güete
wendet sîn gemüete,
dem volget sælde und êre.
des gît gewisse lêre
künec Artûs der guote,
der mit rîters muote
nâch lobe kunde strîten.
er hât bî sînen zîten
gelebet alsô schône
daz er der êren krône
dô truoc und noch sîn name treit.
des habent die wârheit
sîne lantliute:
sî jehent er lebe noch hiute:
er hât den lop erworben,
ist im der lîp erstorben,
sô lebet doch iemer sîn name.
er ist lasterlîcher schame
iemer vil gar erwert,
der noch nâch sînem site vert.






Whoever to true goodness
Turns his mind
He will meet with fortune and honour.
We are taught this by the example of
Good King Arthur
who with knightly spirit
knew how to strive for praise.
In his day
He lived so well
That he wore the crown of honour
And his name still does so.
The truth of this is known
To his countrymen:
They affirm that he still lives today:
He won such fame that
Although his body died
His name lives on.
Of sinful shame
He will forever be free
Who follows his example.

Commentary: This text shows many typical features of Middle High German poetic language. Most Middle High German words survive into modern German in some form or other: this passage contains only one word (jehen 'say' 14) which has since disappeared from the language. But many words have changed their meaning substantially. Muot (6) means 'state of mind' (cognates with mood), where modern German Mut means courage. Êre (3) can be translated with 'honour', but is quite a different concept of honour from modern German Ehre; the medieval term focuses on reputation and the respect accorded to status in society.[36]


Manuscript C of the Nibelungenlied, fol. 1r

The text is the opening strophe of the Nibelungenlied (c. 1204).

Middle High German[37]

Uns ist in alten mæren    wunders vil geseit
von helden lobebæren,    von grôzer arebeit,
von freuden, hôchgezîten,    von weinen und von klagen,
von küener recken strîten    muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen.

Modern German translation[38]

In alten Erzählungen wird uns viel Wunderbares berichtet
von ruhmreichen Helden, von hartem Streit,
von glücklichen Tagen und Festen, von Schmerz und Klage:
vom Kampf tapferer Recken: Davon könnt auch Ihr nun Wunderbares berichten hören.

English translation[39]

In ancient tales many marvels are told us
of renowned heroes, of great hardship
of joys, festivities, of weeping and lamenting
of bold warriors' battles — now you may hear such marvels told!

Commentary: All the MHG words are recognizable from Modern German, though mære ("tale") and recke ("warrior") are archaic and lobebære ("praiseworthy") has given way to lobenswert. Words which have changed in meaning include arebeit, which means "strife" or "hardship" in MHG, but now means "work", and hôchgezît ("festivity") which now, as Hochzeit, has the narrower meaning of "wedding".[36]


The text is from the opening of Hartmann von Aue's Erec (c. 1180–1190). The manuscript (the Ambraser Heldenbuch) dates from 1516, over three centuries after the composition of the poem.

Original manuscript[40] Edited text[41] English translation[42]





nu riten ſÿ vnlange friſt
nebeneinander baide
Ee daz ſy über die haÿde
verre jn allen gahen
zureÿten ſahen
ein Ritter ſelb dritten
Vor ein Gezwerg da einmitten
ein Jŭnckfrawen gemaÿt
ſchon vnd wolgeklait
vnd wundert die kunigin
wer der Ritter moachte ſein
Er was ze harnaſch wol
als ein guot knecht ſol
Eregk der iunge man
ſein frawen fragen began
ob ers erfarn ſolte

nû riten si unlange vrist
neben einander beide,
ê daz si über die heide
verre in allen gâhen
zuo rîten sâhen
einen ritter selbedritten,
vor ein getwerc, dâ enmitten
eine juncvorouwen gemeit,
schœne unde wol gekleit.
nû wunderte die künegîn
wer der ritter möhte sîn.
er was ze harnasche wol,
als ein guot kneht sol.
Êrec der junge man
sîn vrouwen vrâgen began
ob erz ervarn solde.

Now they had not been riding together
with one another very long
when they saw, riding across the heath
from afar, in all haste,
towards them,
a knight and two others with him —
in front of him a dwarf, and between the two there
a comely damsel,
fair and well clad,
and the Queen wondered
who this knight might be.
He was well armed,
as a good knight ought to be.
Young Erec
asked his lady
if he should find out the knight's identity.


The following are some of the main authors and works of MHG literature:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keller 1978, p. 236.
  2. ^ a b Lindgren 1980, p. 580.
  3. ^ Waterman 1976, p. 83.
  4. ^ a b Rautenberg 1985, p. 1120.
  5. ^ Roelcke 1998, pp. 804–811: tabulates the various periodisations.
  6. ^ Roelcke 1998, p. 812.
  7. ^ a b Waterman 1976, p. 85.
  8. ^ Keller 1978, p. 276.
  9. ^ Brockhaus 1995, p. 6.
  10. ^ Waterman 1976, pp. 87f..
  11. ^ Keller 1978, p. 337.
  12. ^ Keller 1978, pp. 237: "the population appears to have increased about fivefold."
  13. ^ Keller 1978, pp. 336.
  14. ^ Keller 1978, pp. 238–239.
  15. ^ Rautenberg 1985, p. 1121.
  16. ^ Waterman 1976, p. 103.
  17. ^ Eggers1985, p. 1300: "Zu Beginn der frnhd. Periode ist die Stadt längst zum Kultur-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialfaktor geworden."
  18. ^ a b Schmidt 2013, p. 278.
  19. ^ Keller 1978, p. 257.
  20. ^ Paul 2007, pp. 8–9.
  21. ^ Paul 2007, pp. 6–7.
  22. ^ Paul 2007, p. 9.
  23. ^ Paul 2007, pp. 23ff.
  24. ^ a b c Paul 2007, p. 27.
  25. ^ Paul 2007, p. 72–73.
  26. ^ a b Paul 2007, p. 28.
  27. ^ Paul 2007, p. 142–144.
  28. ^ Paul 2007, p. 25.
  29. ^ Paul 2007, p. 17.
  30. ^ Wießner 1959, p. 205.
  31. ^ Keller 1978, pp. 321–323.
  32. ^ Tschirch 1975, pp. 60–61.
  33. ^ Keller & 19978, p. 322.
  34. ^ Tschirch 1975, p. 60.
  35. ^ Edwards 2007, p. 2.
  36. ^ a b Lexer 1999.
  37. ^ Bartsch & De Boor 1998.
  38. ^ Brackert 1970.
  39. ^ Edwards 2010.
  40. ^ Edrich 2014. The text from the Ambraser Heldenbuch, 1516
  41. ^ Leitzmann 1985. Standardised classical MHG.
  42. ^ Edwards 2014, p. 5.


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  • Freytag, Hartmut (1959). "Frühmittelhochdeutsch 1065–1170". In Maurer, Friedrich; Rupp, Heinz (eds.). Deutsche Wortgeschichte. Vol. 1 (3rd ed.). Berlin, New York: de Gruyter. pp. 165–188. doi:10.1515/9783110841916.165. ISBN 3-11-003627-4.
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  • Rautenberg U (1985). "Soziokulturelle Voraussetzung und Sprachraum des Mittelhochdeutschen". In Besch W, Reichmann O, Sonderegger S (eds.). Sprachgeschichte. Vol. 2. Berlin, New York: Walter De Gruyter. pp. 1120–29. ISBN 3-11-009590-4.
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  • Brackert, Helmut, ed. (1970). Das Nibelungenlied. Mittelhochdeutscher Text und Übertragung. Frankfurt-am-Main: Fischer. ISBN 3436013137.
  • Edrich, Brigitte, ed. (2014). "Hartmann von Aue: Erec, Handschrift A" (PDF). Hartmann von Aue Portal. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  • Edwards, Cyril, ed. (2014). Hartmann von Aue. Erec. Arthurian Archives. German Romance. Vol. V. Cambridge: D.S.Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-378-8.
  • Edwards, Cyril, ed. (2007). Hartmann von Aue. Iwein or the Knight with the Lion. Arthurian Romances. Vol. III. Cambridge: D.S.Brewer. ISBN 978-0-19-923854-5.
  • Edwards, Cyril, ed. (2010). The Nibelungenlied. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-1-84384-084-8.
  • Leitzmann, Albert, ed. (1985). Erec. Altdeutsche Textbibliothek. Vol. 19 (6th ed.). Tübingen: Niemeyer. ISBN 3-484-20139-8.

Further reading[edit]

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