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Middle High German (abbreviated MHG, German: Mittelhochdeutsch, abbr. 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 is actually the case 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, sees attestation in the 12th–13th centuries, as a variety of Middle High German written in Hebrew characters.


The Middle High German period is generally dated from 1050 to 1350.[2][3][4][5] An older view puts the boundary with (Early) New High German around 1500.[5] [6]

There are several phonological criteria which separate MHG from the preceding Old High German period:[7]

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.[3][11] The rise of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in Swabia makes the South West the dominant region in both political and cultural terms.[12]

Demographically, the MHG period is characterised by a massive rise in population,[13] terminated by the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death (1348).[14] Along with the rise in population comes a territorial expansion eastwards (Ostsiedlung), which saw German-speaking settlers colonise land previously under Slavic control.[15][16]

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:[17]

  • Diphthongisation of the long high vowels /iː yː uː/ > /aɪ̯ ɔʏ̯ aʊ̯/: MHG hût > NHG Haut ("skin")
  • Monophthongisation of the high centering diphthongs /iə yə uə/ > /iː yː 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.[18]


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:[19][20]

Central German (Mitteldeutsch)[21]

Upper German (Oberdeutsch)[22]

With the exception of Thuringian, the East Central German dialects are new dialects resulting from the Ostkolonisation and arise towards the end of the period.[19][23]

Writing system

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.[24] 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.[25]
  • the marking of umlauted vowels is often absent or inconsistent in the manuscripts.[26]
  • 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.[27]
  • the original texts often use ⟨i⟩ and ⟨uu⟩ for the semi-vowels /j/ and /w/.[28]

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.[29] In addition, there is considerable regional variation in the spellings that appear in the original texts, which modern editions largely conceal.[30]

The standardised orthography of MHG editions uses the following vowel spellings:[25]

  • 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.[25]

The standardised orthography of MHG editions uses the following consonant spellings:[27]


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.


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 /uə/, respectively.


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 person or thing of which one speaks. 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.

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)

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.

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.

The present tense conjugation went as follows:

  • Imperative: nim, 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:

  • Past participle: genomen

The present tense conjugation went as follows:

  • Imperative: suoche, 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:

  • Past participle: gesuochet


Sample texts

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

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', 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.[32]

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

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".[32]

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.


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

See also

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