The Cause of the High German Consonant Shift

The High German Consonant Shift or Second Germanic Sound Shift (Zweite Deutsche Lautverschiebung) is a linguistic phenomenon which sets the High and Upper German Dialects apart from their Northern counterparts as well as from Dutch, English, Frisian and the Scandinavian Languages, or, in short, virtually all of the other Germanic languages.

German Dialects after WW2
German Dialects after WW2. Yellow (Low German), Blue (Dutch) and Purple (Frisian) coloured dialects have not been affected by the second Germanic sound shift. By Rex Germanus – This map has been uploaded by Electionworld from to enable the Wikimedia Atlas of the World . Original uploader to was Rex Germanus, known as Rex Germanus at Electionworld is not the creator of this map. Licensing information is below., Public Domain,

This article aims to deal with the origins and causes of this sound shift. To clarify it should be stated in the beginning that historical linguistics is a controversial field because of the high degree of reconstructions used, meaning that some of the theories in the field are based on words that may have never existed. Nevertheless, we can assume that there is at least some degree of accuracy in the most well established of these reconstructions. Because the High German Consonant shift occurred relatively recently (probably from around the year 600 CE onwards), and because of the comparatively large amounts of text available in this earliest form of the German language, this isn’t a particularly big problem here. Caution is still advised, however: Even if Old High German is known relatively well, it’s direct ancestor, Proto-Germanic, is mostly known by reconstruction and a few early runic inscriptions found across Northern and Central Europe. Furthermore, although sound shifts, in general, can be understood somewhat methodically and seem to follow rules (for the most part), it is rarely known what exactly “caused” any particular sound shift.

Thus it should be clear that the theories presented in this article are just that: Theories. And it remains doubtful, whether a consensus on this issue will ever be reached. Despite this, historical linguistics and how sound shifts shape a language remain fascinating topics, and theorizing about the causes that gave rise to the languages we speak today could yield a better understanding of the processes which led to the formation of these languages yet.

The High German Consonant Shift

As mentioned in the introduction, the HGCS occurred from about the year 600 onwards. Some of the major changes included a shift in pronunciation of the following sounds: p > f, pp > pf, t > ts (spelled “z” in modern German), ss, k > x (spelled “ch” in modern German) b > p, d > t. Thus German has words like “Wasser” instead of English, Dutch and Low German “Water” or “Apfel” instead of “Appel/Apple”, “sitzen” instead of “sit(en)”, “Tag” instead of “Dag/Day”.

The Lombards

The HGCS’s earliest attestation is found within Langobardian, an extinct Germanic language spoken by the Lombards or Langobards, in the northern half of the Italian peninsula around 650 CE. Unfortunately, our knowledge about this language is too poor to even safely classify it as a West or East Germanic language, although most scholars nowadays believe it belongs to the former group and is probably most closely related to the Bavarian and Alemannic Dialects of Southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Interestingly, the Langobards as well as the majority of the ancestors of the Bavarians and Alemanni seem to have originated in the Northeastern part of Magna Germania and probably belonged to a group known as Elb-Germanic. At first glance, it is tempting to assume that the HGCS was a strictly Elb-Germanic phenomenon and possibly was set in motion even before these peoples migrated southwards. This seems unlikely, however, seeing as Runic finds from the Alemannic area dating to the 6th and early 7th century show no signs of this sound shift.

The Franks and Gallo-Romans

It has been postulated that the second sound shift originated with the Gallo-Roman population on the western banks of the River Rhine when the Franks settled there on mass early during the migration period. Apparently, these local Latin speakers had a hard time pronouncing the West Germanic language of the newcomers and changed some of the sounds subconsciously, as often happens as a result of creolization. With the increasing prestige and political influence as well as military conquest of the Franks these changes in pronunciation may have spread southwestwards towards the territories of the Alemanni, Bajuwari, and Langobardi. If this scenario was true, however, we would expect to find the earliest attestations of the HGCS among the Franconians, followed by the Alemanni and Bajuwari and finally the Langobardi. We have seen, however, that the opposite is true and the characteristic High German sound shifts are attested in Langobardian first.

Frankish Empire
The Frankish Empire and its provinces in the 8th century. Source: (48) Pinterest

The Origin of the Second Germanic Sound Shift

It thus seems more likely that the sound shift in fact originated with the Langobardians in Northern Italy, especially seeing as the indigenous population is Gallo-Roman in origin as well. From there on it spread northwards and eventually came to a standstill in Northern Germany. The fact that there was a substantial Gallo-Roman population left in Southern Germany probably helped intensify these developments, although the proportion seems to have been smaller than in the far south, as can be seen by the absence of some of these changes. This would also explain why the Swiss regions closest to modern Lombardy show the greatest amount of change.

Intensity Map Consonant Shift
The intensity of the HGCS with dark green being the most intense and light yellow being the least intense. Source: Zweite Lautverschiebung in Deutsch | Schülerlexikon | Lernhelfer

The Lombards, alongside the Franks, were also one of the first Continental West Germanic tribes to convert to Christianity. This may have helped in the spread of the sound shifts to monasteries across the Germanic world as well, with the notable exception of the Saxons, who, at the time, still firmly believed in the old gods.

The political influence of the Lombards in the 6th and 7th centuries could have also played a role in the development of the HGCS in Southern Germany. Political unions such as weddings are attested between the Lombards and the Bajuwari, which may be one of the reasons why modern Bavarian retained the shift from b to p, other than the rest of the High and Central German dialects.

As I have stated at the beginning of this article this theory can’t be proven, as there simply isn’t enough Langobardian material left. Given what little knowledge we possess, however, I assume this to be the most likely scenario. This may change with research over the coming years and decades. Especially interesting would be a genetic analysis of past and present populations of the Southern German-Speaking and Northern Italian populations to establish an estimate of the Gallo-Roman vs. the Germanic populations. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any large scale study in this field regarding Southern Germany as of yet, however. Thus we have to solely rely on the historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence, a small part of which has been presented here.


4 thoughts on “The Cause of the High German Consonant Shift

  1. Pingback: Origins and Culture of the Ancient Germanic Tribes – European Origins

  2. Pingback: The Origin of the Elder Futhark – European Origins

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