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Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V11, Page 781 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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THE MIDDLE HIGH GERMAN PERIOD The following are the chief changes in sounds and forms which mark the development of the language in the Middle High German period. The orthography of the MSS. reveals a much more extensive employment of mutation (Umlaut) than was the case in the first 'period; we find, for instance, as the mutation of o, o, of o, cc, of u, iu (a), of uo, tie, of ou, ou, and eu (cf. holer, bcese, hiuser, giiete, boume), although many scribes, and more especially those of Middle and Low German districts, have no special signs for the mutation of its, u, and o. Of special interest is the so-called " later (or weaker) 6 Cf., for a hypothesis of two Umlauts perioden during the Old High German time, F. Kauffmann, Geschichte der schwabischen Mundart (Strassburg, 1890), S. 152. mutation " (jiingerer oder schwticherer Umlaut) of a to a very open e It has been a much debated question how far Germany in Middle sound, which is often written a. Cf. mahte (O.H.G. mahti), magede (O.H.G. magadi). The earlier mutation of this sound produced an e(~), a closed sound (i.e. nearer i). Cf. gesle (O.H.G. gesti). The various Old High German vowels in unstressed syllables were either weakened to an indifferent e sound (geben, O.H.G. geban; bole, O.H.G. bolo; sige, O.H.G. sigu) or disappeared altogether. The latter phenomenon is to be observed after 1 and r, and partly after n and m (cf. ar(e), O.H.G. are; zal, O.H.G. zala; wundern, O.H.G. wuntaron, &c.); but it by no means took place everywhere in the same degree and at the same time. It has been already noted that the Alemannic dialect (as well as the archaic poets of the German national epic) retained at least the long unstressed vowels until as late as the 14th century (gemarterot, gekriuzegoi, &c.), and Low and Middle German preserved the weakened e sound in many cases where Upper German dropped it. In this period the beginnings are also to be seen in Low and Middle German (Heinrich von Veldeke shows the first traces of it) of a process which became of great importance for the formation of the Modern German literary language. This is the lengthening of originally short vowels in open syllables,' for example, in Modern High German Tages, Wages, lobe (Middle High German Tages, wages, lobe). In Austria, on the other hand, there began as far back as the first half of the 12th century another movement of equal importance for Modern High German, namely, the conversion of the long vowels, i, u, into ei (ou), au, eu (au).2 It is, therefore, in MSS. written in the south-east that we find forms like zeit, tauter (Toter), heute, &c., for the first time. With the exception of Low German and Alemannic—Swabian, however, follows in this respect the majority—all the German dialects participated in this change between the 14th and. 16th centuries, although not all to the same degree. The change was perhaps assisted by the influence of the literary language which had recognized the new sounds. In England the same process has led to the modern pronunciation of time, house, &c., and in Holland to that of tijd, huis, &c. F. Wrede (Zeitschrift fur deutsches Altertum xxxix. 257 ff.) has suggested that the explanation of the change is to be sought in the apocope and syncope of the final e, and the greater stress which was in consequence put on the stem-syllable. The tendency to a change in the opposite direction, namely, the narrowing of diphthongs to monophthongs, is to be noticed in Middle German dialects, i.e. in dialects which resisted the apocope of the final e, where ie, uo, lie become ii; thus we have for Brief, brif, for huon, hen, for briietler, briider, and this too was taken over into the Modern High German literary language.' No consonantal change was so widespread during this period as that of initial s to sch before 1, n, m, w, p and t. Cf. slingen, schlingen; swer (e) n, schworen, &c. The forms scht- and schp- are often to be met with in Alemannic MSS., but they were discarded again, al-though modern German recognizes the pronunciation schp, scht.' With regard to changes affecting the inflections of verbs and nouns, it must suffice here to point out that the weakening or disappearance of vowels in unstressed syllables necessarily affected the characteristic endings of the older language; groups of verbs and substantives which in Old High German were distinct now become confused. This is best seen in the case of the weak verbs, where the three Old High German classes (cf. nerien, salbon, dagen) were fused into one. Similarly in the declensions we find an increasing tendency of certain forms to influence substantives belonging to other classes; there is, for instance, an increase in the number of neuter nouns taking -er (-ir) in the plural, and of those which show mutation in the plural on the model of the i- stems (O.H.G. gast, pl. gesti; cf. forms like ban, benne; hals, helse; wald, welde). Of changes in syntax the gradual decay in the use of the genitive case dependent on a noun or governed by a verb (cf. constructions like eine briinne rotes goldes, or des todes wunschen) towards the end of the period, and also the disappearance of the Old High German sequence of tenses ought at least to be mentioned. In the Middle High German period, the first classical period of German poetry, the German language made great advances as a vehicle of literary expression; its power of expression was increased and it acquired a beauty of style hitherto unknown. This was the period of the Minnesang and the great popular and court epics, of Walther von tier Vogelweide, Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg; it was a period when literature enjoyed the fostering care of the courts and the nobility. At the same time German prose celebrated its first triumphs in the sermons of Berthold von Regensburg, and in the mystic writings and sermons of Meister Eckhart, Tauler and others. History (Eike von Repkow's Weltchronik) and law (Sachsenspiegel, Schwabenspiegel) no longer despised the vernacular, and from about the middle of, the 13th century German becomes, in an ever-increasing percentage, the language of deeds and charters. ' Cf. W. Wilmanns, Deutsche Grammatik, i. (2nd edition) pp. 300-304. Wilmanns, l.c. pp. 273-280. It might be mentioned that, in Modern High German,these new diphthongs are neither in spelling nor in educated pronunciation distinguished from the older ones. ' Cf. Wilmanns, pp. 280-284. Ibid. pp. 129-132. High German times possessed or aspired to possess a Schriftsprache or literary language.' About the year 1200 there was undoubtedly a marked tendency towards a unification of the literary language on the part of the more careful poets like Walther von derVogelweide, Hartmann von Aue and Gottfried von Strassburg; they avoid, more particularly in their rhymes, dialectic peculiarities, such as the Bavarian dual forms es and enk, or the long vowels in unstressed syllables, retained in Alemannic, and they do not make use of archaic words or forms. We have thus a right to speak, if not of a Middle High German literary language in the widest sense of the word, at least of a Middle High German Dichtersprache or poetic language, on an Alemannic-Franconian basis. Whether, or in how far, this may have affected the ordinary speech of the nobility or courts, is a matter of conjecture; but it had an undeniable influence on Middle and Low German poets, who endeavoured at least to use High German forms in their rhymes. Attempts were also made in Low German districts, though at a later stage of this period, to unify the dialects and raise them to the level of an accepted literary language. It will be shown later why these attempts were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, however, the efforts of the High German poets to form a uniform language were also shortlived ; by the end of the 13th century the Dichtersprache had disappeared, and the dialects again reigned supreme.

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