Middle High German

Middle High German
Middle High German
diutsch, tiutsch
Spoken in southern Germany (south of the Benrath line), parts of Austria and Switzerland
Era developed into Early New High German from the 14th century
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-2 gmh
ISO 639-3 gmh

Middle High German (German: Mittelhochdeutsch), abbreviated MHG (Mhd.), is the term used for the period in the history of the German language between 1050 and 1350. It is preceded by Old High German and followed by Early New High German. In some uses, the term covers a longer period, going up to 1500.[1]



Middle High German is not a unified written language and the term covers two main dialect areas:[2]

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. However, the picture is complicated by the fact that modern editions of MHG texts have a tendency to use normalised spellings based on this variety (usually called "Classical MHG"), which make the written language appear more consistent than is actually the case in the manuscripts. It is uncertain whether the literary language reflected a supra-regional spoken language of the courts.

An important development in this period was 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" is the precursor of the Yiddish language which is attested in the 13th-14th centuries as a variety of Middle High German written in Hebrew characters.

Writing system

Middle High German texts are written in the Latin alphabet, in Gothic minuscules that evolved into the Fraktur typefaces of the Early Modern period.

Middle High German had no standardised spelling. Modern editions, however, generally standardise according to a set of conventions established by Karl Lachmann in the 19th century.[3] 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.
  • the marking of umlauted vowels is often absent or inconsistent in the manuscripts.
  • 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 <sz> to indicate this sound
  • the original texts often use <i> and <u> for the semi-vowels /j/ and /w/.

A particular issue is that many manuscripts are of much later date than the works they contain, with signs of later scribes modifying the spellings, with greater or lesser consistency, in accordance with the conventions of their own time. There is also considerable regional variation in the spellings of the original texts, which modern editions largely conceal.


Middle High German vowels
Short Long
Front Central Back Front Back
Close i  y u   
Mid e/ɛ  ø ə o   øː
Open a
Middle High German diphthongs
Front Back
Closing ɛi  œy ɔu

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

  • 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>
  • Closing diphthongs: <ei ou> and the umlauted diphthong <öu/eu/oi>
  • Opening diphthongs: <ie uo> and the umlauted diphthong <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. No such orthographic distinction is made in MHG manuscripts.

The etymological distinction made in the standardised spelling between <e> and <ä>, with <ä> representing a lower vowel arising from the secondary umlaut of /a/, may well be valid for the earlier texts, but the distinction between these two front vowels was lost by the end of the period (as in Modern German).


Middle High German consonants
  Labial Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p  b t  d k  ɡ
Affricate p͡f t͡s        
Fricative f  v s  z ʃ x h
Nasal m n (ŋ)
Trill r
Approximant j w
Lateral l

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

  • Stops: <p t k/c b d g q>
  • Affricates: <pf/ph tz/z>
  • Fricatives: <v f s ȥ sch ch h>
  • Nasals: <m n>
  • Liquids: <l r>
  • Semivowels: <w j>



Middle High German pronouns of the first person refer to the speaker; those of the second person refer to an addressed person. The pronouns of the third person may be used to replace nominal phrases. These have the same gender, number and case as the original nominal phrase. This goes for other pronouns, too.

Personal pronouns

Personal Pronouns
1st sg 2nd sg 3rd sg 1st pl 2nd pl 3rd pl
Nominative ich du ër sie ëz wir ir sie
Accusative mich dich in sie ëz uns iuch sie
Dative mir dir im ir im uns iu in
Genitive* mîn dîn sîn ir sîn unser iuwer ir
  • Note: the genitive form is used as an adjective and hence takes on adjective endings following the normal rules. This includes 'unser' and 'iuwer', despite the fact that they already end in -er.


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

dër tac
diu zît
daʒ wort
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dër tac die tage diu zît die zîte daʒ wort diu wort
Genitive dës tages dër tage dër zît dër zîte dës wortes dër worte
Dative dëm tage dën tagen dër zît dën zîten dëm worte dën worten
Accusative dën tac die tage die zît die zîten daʒ wort diu wort

Weak nouns

dër veter
(male) cousin
diu zunge
daʒ herze
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dër veter die veteren diu zunge die zungen daʒ 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 daʒ herze diu herzen

Note that ë is a short, open /ɛ/, so MHG dër /dɛr/ as opposed to modern /deːr/.


Middle High German articles have a feature called "strength", which influences the declension of the adjectives. There are strong articles, weak articles, and articles that have strong and weak cases. Sometimes this feature is not constant in literature.

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

Definite article (strong)

Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative dër daʒ diu die/diu
Genitive dës dës dër dër
Dative dëm dëm dër dën
Accusative dën daʒ die die/diu
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.


Verbs were conjugated according to three moods (indicative, subjunctive 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 was made between strong verbs (that exhibited ablaut) and weak verbs (that didn't).

Furthermore, there were also some irregular verbs.

Strong verbs

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: nëmente Infinitive: nëmen Verbal noun: Genitive: nëmennes, dative: ze nëmenne

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 na'men wir næmen
2. pl. ir na'met ir næmet
3. pl. sie na'men sie næmen

Past participle: genomen

Weak verbs

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: suochente 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


There are several criteria which separate MHG from the preceding Old High German period:

  • the weakening of unstressed vowels to <e> - OHG taga > MHG tage ("days")
  • the full development of Umlaut and its use to mark a number of morphological categories
  • the devoicing of final stops - OHG tag > MHG tac ("day")

Culturally, the two periods are distinguished by the transition from a predominantly clerical written culture to one centred on the courts of the great nobles. The imperial court in Vienna and the rise of the Swabian Hohenstaufen and then the Habsburg dynasties make South Germany the dominant region in both political and cultural terms.

Linguistically, the transition to Early New High German is marked by four vowel changes which together produce the phonemic system of modern German:

  • Monophthongisation of some of the MHG diphthongs: MHG huot> NHG Hut ("hat")
  • Diphthongisation of long vowels MHG hût > NHG Haut ("skin").
  • 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.


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.


  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 this 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>, having the approximate values of /ei/, /iə/, /ou/, /øy/, /eu/, /yə/, and /uo/, 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 v <f, v> s  z <ȥ> 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 will have varied between dialects.
  2. In the plosive and fricative series, where there are two consonants in a cell, the first is fortis the second lenis. The voicing of lenis consonants varied between dialects.
  3. MHG has long consonants, and the following double consonant spellings indicate not vowel length as 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/ had an allophone [χ] after back vowels, as in Modern German.

Sample text

From the prologue of Hartmann von Aue's Iwein (circa 1200; c.f. MS B (Giessen), mid 13th c.)





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.

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', 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 focusses on reputation and the respect accorded to status in society.

From the beginning of Das Nibelungenlied:

Middle High German original High (Modern) German translation Shumway translation

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

Uns wird in alten Erzählungen viel Wunderbares berichtet,
von rühmenswerten Helden, großer Kampfesmühe,
von Freuden, Festen, von Weinen und von Klagen;
von den Kämpfen kühner Helden könnt ihr nun Wunderbares erzählen hören.

Full many a wonder is told us in stories old,
of heroes worthy of praise, of hardships dire,
of joy and feasting, of weeping and of wailing;
of the fighting of bold warriors, now ye may hear wonders told.


See also


  1. ^ so defined by ISO 639-3.
  2. ^ Hermann Paul, Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik, 23rd edition, revised by Peter Wiehl and Siegfried Grosse, Tübingen 1989, pp. 167ff.
  3. ^ Hermann Paul, Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik, 23rd edition, revised by Peter Wiehl and Siegfried Grosse, Tübingen 1989, pp. 26ff.

External links


  • Hermann Paul, Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik, 23rd edn, edited by Peter Wiehl and Sigfried Grosse (Niemeyer, 1989) ISBN 3-484-10233-0
  • M.O'C. Walshe, A Middle High German Reader: With Grammar, Notes and Glossary (Oxford University Press, 1974) ISBN 0-19-872082-3
  • Joseph Wright, Middle High German Primer, 5th edn revised by M.O'C. Walshe (Oxford University Press, 1955)

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