The High German Consonant Shift and How to Use It

If you already know English and are in the process of learning German, you may be struck by how similar words in the two languages can be. It can surprise novices that English sentences like ‘I have two cats and six books‘ or ‘it drinks water‘ are so close to their German counterparts ‘ich habe zwei Katzen und sechs Bücher‘ and ‘es trinkt Wasser‘. These similarities can be of great help as aide-mémoires for learning vocabulary.

However, we can do better than this; historical linguistics can offer us handy theories that explain the correspondences between German and English, and show us how regular they are. In brief, with the help of these learnable rules, we can use English to work out German.

I worry that I will sound like a broken record when I state once again that the ultimate reason for the two languages’ similarities is that they come from a common, prehistoric ancestor. English and German are related languages, and their resemblance is the result of linguistic conservativism – the ways in which the two have not changed since prehistoric times. They also have much in common with the rest of the Germanic family, a large group of languages, which, even before the colonial expansions of the modern era, were spoken from Iceland to the Alps.

The Background: The Multifaceted German Language

The Germanic family counts among its members not only Standard German but also all the varieties of German that do not enjoy official status in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, including Bavarian, Swiss, Swabian and Upper Saxon German – all of which are umbrella terms that hide lots of variety.

There are no clear linguistic boundaries that separate the areas where these are each spoken. To capture this fluidity, it is better to see the German-speaking countries as forming a large continuum of language that stretches from Austria and northern Italy to the Netherlands and the border with Denmark, with Standard German (and Standard Dutch) imposed from above on it all. I like to think of it as a great sheet of rolled-out dough, whole and seamless until the effects of national borders, which made divisions like cookie cutters.

The German varieties native to Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and southern Germany are known collectively as High German. This term has nothing really to do with prestige, but is used to group together those varieties that underwent a series of significant sound changes. Together these are known as the High (or Second) German Consonant Shift.

This article focuses on three sounds affected by the shift – namely, [p], [t] and [k] (as in the English words pink, tea and kick). It primarily concerns Standard German, with some reference to non-standard dialects. I should also mention here and now that when referring to or denoting these sounds, I do not indicate the presence or absence of aspiration, for the sake of simplicity.

Different varieties of German were affected by the shift to different degrees. For instance, some dialects of Switzerland are seen as having ‘completed’ the changes to an extreme extent. Walser German, spoken across the central Alps, is even said to belong to the small family of ‘Highest Alemannic’ dialects. The further north you go, the less the language was affected. In northern Germany, Low German, which is usually thought of as a language separate from Standard German, was barely affected at all, and so has much more in common with English and Dutch.

A map approximately showing the traditional areas for Hochdeutsch and Plattdeutsch. Taken from here.

Standard German, the language our textbooks teach us in schools, finds its origins among the Central German dialects spoken across central Germany. The reasons for its adoption and promulgation as a national standard are historical and political, having much to do with the Reformation and Martin Luther.

Central German is also included under the term of ‘High German’, having also been affected by the High German Consonant Shift. However, unlike its neighbouring dialects to the south, it was not affected by the sound changes to the same extent. This means that learning about the shift can illuminate links between Standard English, Standard German and other German dialects further south.

A map of Central German. Taken from here.

The Mechanics

The High German Consonant Shift was a prehistoric series of changes; we do not have written evidence of the language that would become German before the shift. When languages that are recognisably ‘German’ first enter the historical record, the changes are well established. They would have progressed in stages and each, as mentioned already, affected German-speaking areas of different sizes. Not all changes included in the shift made it into Standard German.

Let’s dive in and start with the consonants [p], [t] and [k]. To be precise, we should refer to these sounds as *p, *t and *k, because the story begins at a point before the written record, so these sounds are theoretical reconstructions – though very safe ones. *p, *t and *k were sounds in Proto-Germanic, the common ancestor of English, Dutch, Low German and Standard German.

In the first three languages, *p, *t and *k on the whole stayed strong. This is why English has the words pepper, water and book, Dutch has peper, water and boek and Low German has Peper, Water and Book. The consonants /p/, /t/ and /k/ in each word have survived well since Proto-Germanic times, though with some dialectal variation (American English being one example).

However, in Standard German, these words are Pfeffer, Wasser and Buch.

What we see is that the Proto-Germanic plosives *p, *t and *k have become the fricative sounds /f/, /s/ and /x/ through the High German Consonant Shift. This is the first of our useful rules. It occurred through a simple change in the manner in which the original sounds were produced. Their place of production in the mouth has roughly stayed the same. The original *k and the later /x/ are both velar sounds for example.

Comparing the words pepper and Pfeffer tells us something very important though – that we must refine our rule and consider particular contexts, if we are to understand why English /p/ corresponds to both German /f/ and /p͡f/.

*p has become German /f/ between two vowels in the middle of the word, but /p͡f/ at the beginning. /p͡f/ is not a fricative sound, but rather an affricate. Moreover, when part of some pairs of consonants like a double *pp, *p became the affricate /p͡f/ in High German, regardless of word position.

For example, English and Dutch have apple and appel, while German has Apfel. All three words go back to a common ancestor with *pp. The same variations apply to Proto-Germanic *t, which has become /s/ in its medial position in Wasser and at the end of words like was, but /t͡s/ at the beginning of words like zu, zehn and Zunge (English: to, ten and tongue).

So, we need to improve on the rule above to accommodate the different contexts in which *p, *t and *k could find themselves:

  1. in the middle of words between vowels (‘medial’)
  2. at the end of words (‘final’)
  3. at the beginning of words (‘initial’)
  4. as the second in a pair of consonants

In the first two contexts, *p, *t and *k have become fricatives in Standard German. In the latter two, they have become affricates, with some exceptions).

Here’s how it looks:

The Proto-Germanic sound:… in word-initial position or as part of a double consonant, becomes Standard German:… in word-medial position or word-final position, becomes Standard German:
*k/k͡x/ (/k/*)/x/

This is all looking very technical, but before we turn to examples, there are two important points to mention. First, the symbols in the table above follow the International Phonetic Alphabet convention for denoting sounds. German has its own system for writing down the sounds:

  • /s/ and /f/ are written ss/ß/s and ff/f, partly according to their position in the word.
  • /x/ is written ch (as in Buch)
  • /t͡s/ is written z (as in zehn)

Second, the affricate /k͡x/ is rare in German and confined to the south. Instead, we find original *k preserved as /k/ in Standard German. This unshifted sound may be the result of interference from northern Low German, as well as perhaps its having a more limited distribution in the first place. Meanwhile, in varieties of Swiss German, *k has in fact developed into /x/ in all word positions. This difference means that a word like Standard German Küche ‘kitchen’ is Chuchi in Switzerland. It can demystify famously challenging Swiss words like Chuchichäschtli ‘kitchen cupboard’ and Chäschüechli ‘little cheese tart’ (the two parts of which would be Käse and Kuchen in Standard German).

The examples!

Now for some examples! Let’s begin by comparing the progress of the ancestral sound *t in sister words across the four Germanic languages that we’re now familiar with. The English, Dutch and Low German will be very similar, while the Standard German word will diverge according to the rules what we have seen in the table above.

PG SoundEnglishDutchLow GermanGerman
Initial *ttwotweetweezwei
Initial *ttidetijdTiedZeit
Initial *ttaletaalTahlZahl
Medial *twaterwaterWaterWasser
Medial *tstreetstraatStraatStraße
Medial *teatetenetenessen
Final *twhatwatwatwas
Final *tithetites
Final *tthatdatdatdas
Final *toutuitutaus

Time now for the descendants of *p.

PG SoundEnglishDutchLow GermanGerman
Initial *ppanpanPannePfanne
Initial *ppoundpondPuntPfund
Medial *psleepslapenslapenschlafen
Medial *popenopenopenoffen
Final *pupopopauf
Final *pdeepdiepdeeptief
Final *pshipschipSchippSchiff

Last are the various developments of Proto-Germanic *k, bearing in mind the unchanged /k/ where we might expect the affricate /k͡x/.

PG SoundEnglishDutchLow GermanGerman
Initial *kcookkokenkokenkochen
Initial *kkingkoningKönigKönig
Medial *kmakemakenmakenmachen
Medial *kkinkenkenchen
Medial *kseekzoekenkensuchen
Final *kIikikich
Final *kbookboekBookBuch

A Couple More Changes

The developments of *p, *t and *k outlined here are canonical changes of the High German Consonant Shift. If you’ve kept reading and are still keen for more, I should say that there are more sound changes that are considered either part of the shift or closely associated with it.

One is the change of an original *þ fricative (as in English thin) into /d/ (as in dinner). This was something that also began in southern, High German-speaking areas in the early medieval period, although it is seen as only a change adjacent to the High German Consonant Shift. It also affected a much larger area, changing *þ into /d/ in Dutch and Low German, as well as in High German. English and Scots alone remained unaffected among West Germanic languages, which is why English has that and thank, but German has das and danken, and Dutch has dat and danken.

A final change that is indeed considered part of the shift is the change of *d into /t/ in High German. This process, technically known as devoicing, has had a great effect on the vocabulary of Standard German. It filled the gap left behind by the aforementioned earlier change of *t into /s/ and /t͡s/. We can set sister words side by side again to appreciate this change.

EnglishDutchLow GermanGerman
*I believe the Dutch and Low German word met ‘with’ changed *d into /t/ later and for a different reason. English preserves the original consonant.

This is a lot of information, but I sincerely hope it is both intelligible and of some use! I must also express my apologies to speakers and fans of Low German for any mistakes I have made here – I only know the language in an academic capacity, and finding authoritative resources for both its vocabulary and spelling has been difficult.

This look at the ways the Proto-Germanic sounds *p, *t, *d and *k developed is just a small glimpse into the relationship between English and German, but these changes are certainly significant. The rules given here can be a useful start to further linguistic adventures – with their help, more and more links in sound and word will start to appear.


8 thoughts on “The High German Consonant Shift and How to Use It

  1. (native speaker of Dutch and fan of Low German here): This is marvellous! Only one small nit to pick: in the very last entry in the table, the Dutch word is “met”, not “med”. Those would be pronounced the same anyway because Dutch devoices final consonants, but the rest of your survey is so accurate that I couldn’t resist helping to make it even more so 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Irina! Thank you for letting me know! I appreciate it and I’ll change the word now. It’s certainly a relief to know that you, as a speaker/fan, think it’s up to scratch.


    2. You may be interested to know that for “widow”, Swiss German still also uses “Witfrau”, similar to Dutch “weetfro”. It is still listed in DUDEN Rechtschreibung der deutschen Sprache, 21st edition, 1996. page 834.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Some corrections for the Low German examples…

    – opp → op (unstressed preposition, written with single ‹p›)
    – stamplen → stampen
    – Kjennich → König (this is identical in L and H German)
    – drinkjen → drinken
    – ‘widow’ is usually Weetfro (literally ‘wid[ow]-wife’)
    – met → mit

    The rest is correct and fine 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Axel! Thank you very much for this – I really appreciate it and, if you don’t mind, I’ll add in your corrections now.


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