Old High German (OHG, German: Althochdeutsch, German abbr. Ahd.) is the earliest stage of the German language, conventionally covering the period from around 700 to 1050. Coherent written texts do not appear until the second half of the 8th century, and some treat the period before 750 as "prehistoric" and date the start of Old High German proper to 750 for this reason. There are, however, a number of Elder Futhark inscriptions dating to the 6th century (notably the Pforzen buckle), as well as single words and many names found in Latin texts predating the 8th century.
During the Migration Period, the High German-speaking tribes settled in what became Alamannia, the Duchy of Bavaria and the Kingdom of the Lombards. At the same time the Franconian-speaking tribes settled the area between those two rivers before crossing the Rhine to conquer Northern Gaul, where, under the Merovingians, they created the Frankish kingdom, Francia, which eventually stretched down to the Loire.
Old High German comprises the dialects of these groups which underwent the Second Sound Shift during the 6th Century, namely all of Elbe Germanic and most of the Weser-Rhine Germanic dialects.
The Franks in the western part of Francia (Neustria and western Austrasia) gradually adopted Gallo-Romance by the beginning of the OHG period, with the linguistic boundary later stabilised approximately along the course of the Meuse and Moselle in the east, and the northern boundary probably a little further south than the current boundary between French and Flemish. North of this line, the Franks retained their language, but it was not affected by the Second Sound Shift, which thus separated their Low Franconian variety (the ancestor of Dutch) from the more easterly Franconian dialects which formed part of Old High German.
The Saxons and the Frisians along the shores of North Sea were likewise not affected by the Second Sound Shift and a bundle of isoglosses in a similar location to the modern Benrath line marked the Northern limit of the sound shift and separated the dialect of the Franks from Old Saxon.
In the south, the Lombards, who had settled in Northern Italy, maintained their dialect until their conquest by Charlemagne in 774. After this the Germanic-speaking population, who were by then almost certainly bilingual, gradually switched to the Romance language of the native population (the ancestor of Italian), so that Langobardic had died out by the end of the OHG period.
At the beginning of the period, no Germanic language was spoken east of a line from Kieler Förde to the rivers Elbe and Saale, earlier Germanic speakers in the Northern part of the area having been displaced by the Slavs. This area did not become German-speaking again until the German eastward expansion ("Ostkolonisation") of the early 12th century, though there was some attempt at conquest and missionary work under the Ottonians.
The Alemannic polity was conquered by Clovis I in 496, and in the last twenty years of the 8th century Charlemagne subdued the Saxons, the Frisians, the Bavarians, and the Lombards, bringing all continental Germanic-speaking peoples under Frankish rule. While this led to some degree of Frankish linguistic influence, the language of both the administration and the Church was Latin, and this unification did not therefore lead to any development of a supra-regional variety of Frankish nor a standardized Old High German; the individual dialects retained their identity.
Old High German literacy is a product of the monasteries, notably at St. Gallen, Reichenau Island and Fulda. Its origins lie in the establishment of the German church by Saint Boniface in the mid 8th century, and it was further encouraged during the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th. The dedication to the preservation of Old High German epic poetry among the scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance was significantly greater than could be suspected from the meagre survivals we have today (less than 200 lines in total between the Hildebrandslied and the Muspilli). Einhard tells how Charlemagne himself ordered that the epic lays should be collected for posterity. It was the neglect or religious zeal of later generations that led to the loss of these records. Thus, it was Charlemagne's weak successor, Louis the Pious, who destroyed his father's collection of epic poetry on account of its pagan content.
The main difference between Old High German and the West Germanic dialects from which it developed is that it underwent the High German consonant shift (also called the second consonant shift in relation to the similar but much earlier Grimm's law). This is generally dated approximately to the late 5th and early 6th centuries—hence dating its start to around 500. The result of this sound change is that the consonantal system of German remains different from all other West Germanic languages, including English and Low German. Grammatically, however, Old High German remained very similar to Old English, Old Dutch, and Old Saxon.
By the mid 11th century the many different vowels found in unstressed syllables had all been reduced to /ə/. Since these vowels were part of the grammatical endings in the nouns and verbs, their loss led to radical simplification of the inflectional grammar of German. For these reasons, 1050 is seen as the start of the Middle High German period, though in fact there are almost no texts in German for the next hundred years.
Examples of vowel reduction in unstressed syllables:
|Old High German||Middle High German||English|
|machôn||machen||to make, do|
(the Modern German forms of these words are broadly the same as in Middle High German)
There was no standard or supra-regional variety of Old High German—every text is written in a particular dialect, or in some cases a mixture of dialects. Broadly speaking, the main dialect divisions of Old High German seem to have been similar to those of later periods—they are based on established territorial groupings and the effects of the Second Sound Shift, which have remained influential until the present day. But because the direct evidence for Old High German consists solely of manuscripts produced in a few major ecclesiastical centres, there is no isogloss information of the sort on which modern dialect maps are based. For this reason the dialects may be termed "monastery dialects" (German Klosterdialekte).
In addition, there are two poorly attested dialects:
The continued existence of a West Frankish dialect in the Western, Romanized part of Francia is uncertain. Claims that this might have been the language of the Carolingian court or that it is attested in the Ludwigslied, whose presence in a French manuscript suggests bilingualism, are controversial.
The charts show the vowel and consonant systems of the East Franconian dialect in the 9th century. This is the dialect of the monastery of Fulda, and specifically of the Old High German Tatian. Dictionaries and grammars of OHG often use the spellings of the Tatian as a substitute for genuine standardised spellings, and these have the advantage of being recognizably close to the Middle High German forms of words, particularly with respect to the consonants.
Old High German had five phonemic long vowels and six phonemic short vowels. Both occurred in stressed and unstressed syllables.
Old High German diphthongs are indicated by the digraphs ⟨ei⟩, ⟨ie⟩, ⟨io⟩, ⟨iu⟩, ⟨ou⟩, ⟨uo⟩.
|Plosive||p b||t d||c, k /k/ g /ɡ/|
|Affricate||pf /p͡f/||z /t͡s/|
|Fricative||f, v /f/ /v/||th /θ/||s, ȥ /s̠/, /s/||h, ch /x/||h|
|Approximant||w, uu /w/||j, i /j/|
Germanic had a simple two-tense system, with forms for a present and preterite. These were inherited by Old High German, but in addition OHG developed three periphrastic tenses: the perfect, pluperfect and future.
The periphrastic past tenses were formed by combining the present or preterite of an auxiliary verb (wësan, habēn) with the past participle. Initially the past participle retained its original function as an adjective and showed case and gender endings - for intransitive verbs the nominative, for transitive verbs the accusative. For example:
After thie thö argangana warun ahtu taga (Tatian, 7,1)
"When eight days had passed", literally "After that then passed (away) were eight days"
Latin: Et postquam consummati sunt dies octo (Luke 2:21)
In time, however, these endings fell out of use and the participle came to be seen no longer as an adjective but as part of the verb, as in Modern German.
This development is generally taken to be the result of a need to translate Latin forms, but parallels in other Germanic languages (particularly Gothic, where the Biblical texts were translated from Greek, not Latin) raise the possibility that it was an independent development.
Germanic also had no future tense, but again OHG created periphrastic forms, using an auxiliary verb skulan (Modern German sollen) and the infinitive, or werden and the present participle:
Thu scalt beran einan alawaltenden (Otfrid's Evangelienbuch I,5,23)
"You will bear an almighty"
Inti nu uuirdist thu suigenti' (Tatian 2,9)
"And now you will start to fall silent"
Latin: Et ecce eris tacens (Luke 1:20) 
The present tense continued to be used alongside these new forms to indicate future time (as it still is in Modern German).
The following is a sample conjugation of a strong verb, nëman "to take".
|2nd sg||nimis (-ist)||nëmēs (-ēst)||nim|
|1st pl||nëmemēs (-ēn)||nëmemēs (-ēn)||nëmamēs, -emēs (-ēn)|
|2nd sg||nāmi||nāmīs (-īst)||—|
|1st pl||nāmumēs (-un)||nāmīmēs (-īn)||—|
The early part of the period saw considerable missionary activity, and by 800 the whole of the Frankish Empire had, in principle, been Christianized. All the manuscripts which contain Old High German texts were written in ecclesiastical scriptoria by scribes whose main task was writing in Latin rather than German. Consequently, the majority of Old High German texts are religious in nature and show strong influence of ecclesiastical Latin on the vocabulary. In fact, most surviving prose texts are translations of Latin originals. Even secular works such as the Hildebrandslied are often preserved only because they were written on spare sheets in religious codices.
The earliest Old High German text is generally taken to be the Abrogans, a Latin–Old High German glossary variously dated between 750 and 780, probably from Reichenau. The 8th century Merseburg Incantations are the only remnant of pre-Christian German literature. The earliest texts not dependent on Latin originals would seem to be the Hildebrandslied and the Wessobrunn Prayer, both recorded in manuscripts of the early 9th century, though the texts are assumed to derive from earlier copies.
The Bavarian Muspilli is the sole survivor of what must have been a vast oral tradition. Other important works are the Evangelienbuch (Gospel harmony) of Otfrid von Weissenburg, the short but splendid Ludwigslied and the 9th century Georgslied. The boundary to Early Middle High German (from c. 1050) is not clear-cut.
An example of Early Middle High German literature is the Annolied.
The Lord's Prayer is given in four Old High German dialects below. Because these are translations of a liturgical text, they are best not regarded as examples of idiomatic language, but they do show dialect variation very clearly.
|Alemannic, 8th century
The St Gall Paternoster
|South Rhine Franconian, 9th century
|East Franconian, c. 830
Old High German Tatian
|Bavarian, early 9th century
Pater noster, qui in caelis es,
Fater unseer, thu pist in himile,
Fater unsēr, thu in himilom bist,
Fater unser, thū thār bist in himile,
Fater unser, du pist in himilum.
|Look up old high german in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Old High German test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator|
|For a list of words relating to Old High German, see the Old High German category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|