High German Consonant Shift

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The High German Consonant Shift or the Second German Consonant shift was a series of sound changes which separates the Upper High German dialects from other West Germanic languages such as Modern English, Dutch, and Low German. There are four major steps of this sound shift, and then there are other shifts which separate High German from other languages.

The Phases of the Shift

The 4 stages of the shift could be defined as follows:

  1. Non-geminated voicless stops became fricatives,
  2. Geminated, nasal-adjacent and liquid-adjacent voiceless stops became affricates,
  3. Voiced stops became voiceless stops, and finally
  4. All interdental fricatives (/ð/ and /θ/) became the dental stop and/or Alveolar stop // and /d/.

The last stage was shared by Low German and Dutch.

The shift occured in the period before Old High German existed, and in fact was the marker of Old High German.

Phase 1

The first stage is where the three voiceless stops, when not in the cases of phase 2, became weakened into the closest fricative equivalents. This means:

  • /p/ → /f/
  • /t/ → /s/
  • /k/ → /x/

The Old High German forms of these are not always spelt the same way. The spelling for /f/ was <ff> or <f>, /s/ is <zz> or <z>, and /x/ was commonly <hh>. The first one was retained into New High German, but <zz> became <ss> and <hh> became <ch>.

Phase 2

The second stage of the shift involved the same voiceless stops as the first stage. However, this only affected geminated, liquid-adjacent and nasal-adjacent forms. Those stops became Affricates rather than fricatives in this part of the shift. This has several reasons. For Geminated sounds, the first sound would remain unshifted, but the second part would go through the first shift, resulting in an affricate. Nasals for one, are actually partially stops themselves, resulting in a pattern to the Geminated ones. The sound shift is as follows:

  • /p/ → /pf/
  • /t/ → /ʦ/
  • /k/ → /kx/

The first two are common in standard High German, however, the third one only occurs in the Upper German dialects. In Old High German the first affricate was spelt <ph> (Modern pf) and the second was spelt <z> or <tz> which is the same as the modern forms.

There are exceptions to this rule, especially when these sounds were combined with others, such as st, sp, sk (which became sch), ht (which becomes cht), ft, and tr.

Phase 3

The third part of the stage involves the Voiced stops becoming voiceless stops. This involves the following:

  • /b/ → /p/
  • /d/ → /t/
  • /g/ → /k/

Unfortunately the only part of this shift which made it into standard High German was the shift of /d/ → /t/. The other forms of this shift do exist in the Upper German dialects, as well as in Pennsylvania German.

Phase 4

But in replacing the lost /d/ sounds, the fourth part of the shift involved the inter-dental sounds /ð/ and /θ/ becoming /d/. This is occurs in all forms of German including Low German and Dutch. This shift occurred in the three major North Germanic languages: Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. Because this part occurred in the other forms of German, it is sometimes not included in the High German Consonant Shift. It would look as follows:

  • þ/ð→d
    • /θ/→/d/
    • /ð/→/d/

This shift did not happen in Anglo-Saxon, thus resulting in Modern English having those two sounds, and Old Norse, although the decedents of the latter did have this shift. Icelandic is one of the larger spoken languages, decended from Old Norse which did not have this shift and today still has the symbols þ/ð.

Examples of the Shift

Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3 Phase 4
High German Schiff essen machen Apfel Herz Werk (Werch †) Bitten (pitten ‡) Tag Gott (Kot ‡) das denken
Dutch Schip eten maken Appel Hart Werk bieden Dag God dat denken
English Ship eat (A.S. etan) make Apple Heart Work bid Day God that think (A.S. þencan or þyncan)
Low German Schipp eten maken Aupel Hert Woakj beeden Dag Gott dat denken

A.S. = Anglo-Saxon

Other shifts


The labio-dental fricative /v/, written f and/or v in the original Germanic languages became /b/, b, in High German. Some of the dialects of Low German and Dutch have this shift, but it's mostly in High German and its Upper German forms.

The /s/ shift

This was the shift of the alveolar fricative of /s/ to /ʃ/ when the /s/ was in front of other consonants in combinations such as sp, st, sl (which often becomes schl), sr (which often becomes schr), sw, amongst others.

All other /s/ sounds became /z/s before vowels.

Examples of the Other Shifts

/v/→/b/ /s/→/ʃ/
High German haben halb Schlafen Schwein
Dutch hebben half slapen Zwijn
English Have half sleep Swine
Low German hebben haulf slapen Swien


This page is by Timothy Patrick Snyder