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GE8: History of the German Language

*This paper also serves as Paper 22 of the Linguistics Tripos


Teaching and examining for the paper are suspended in 2023–24, but topics in German(ic) linguistics will continue to be available by Optional Dissertation.


Students who are interested in taking a Part II paper which looks at the history of German in the context of the other Germanic languages can borrow Paper 11, ‘Germanic Philology’ from the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Tripos. The paper is co-taught by Professor Richard Dance and Dr Sheila Watts and offers text classes in Gothic, Old High German, Old English and Old Norse alongside a core course in comparative historical linguistics. For a reading list see here: [add:]


This course explores the history and relationships of the Germanic languages, from their origins in Indo-European to the major early medieval textual evidence.  By the end of the year, students should have acquired a detailed knowledge of the principal linguistic developments within the Germanic family as a whole, and become versed in the identification and discussion of features proper to the individual branches of Germanic, from amongst which they will have chosen particular languages in which to take a special interest.


Candidates from MML will normally have taken one of the History of German papers (currently GE7 at Part IB). 


More information is available on the course's Moodle page.


Every student of German as a foreign language runs into questions which the language teacher can only answer by saying 'Because that's how it is'. Why is the plural of Tag Tage, while the plural of Nacht is Nächte and the plural of Wort is Wörter? Why is the past tense of singen sang, when the past tense of bringen is brachte? If we compare German with English, how can we account for the correspondence we find in Pfeffer-pepper, Pfeife-pipe, Pfad-path, but not in Pilger-pilgrim or Partei-party? Why do some words which have the same form not have the same meaning, like weil and while or klein and clean? Why does German still have gender, when English does not? The only intellectually satisfying way to explore these issues is to look at the development of the German language in the past, considering both continuity – shared features between German and related languages – and variation and change. Drawing on data derived from a close analysis of texts from earlier periods and varieties of German, we can consider innovations like the role of Umlaut in phonology and morphology, the development of future marking and the fixing of the V2 word order pattern.

This paper may be taken as a follow-up to GE7, German: A Linguistic Introduction, or as a stand-alone paper. It will complement the borrowed Germanic Philology paper, the papers on the history of any of the other languages offered in the Faculty, or the general Historical Linguistics paper. It also gives an overview of German language through culture which would make it a good foil for any of the literary or historical papers in Part II German.

For students from other triposes who wish to take this paper, a good reading knowledge of German is required (at least AS-level or equivalent).



The paper is structured around four thematic areas. In 2020-21, those themes will be distributed as follows:

Michaelmas Term

Morphosyntactic Change in the History of German

Old High German and Old Saxon


Lent Term

Middle High German

Standardization, Purism and Sprachkritik since the 19th century


1. Morphosyntactic Change in the History of German

The historical development of German grammar is outlined in a series of longitudinal studies looking at the whole span of the history of the language, supported with material available in digital corpora as well as print text collections. The key topics are auxiliaries and the rise of the two-verb phrase; the marking of number, gender and case in the noun phrase; negation, and V2 and the verbal brace. The reasons why German is generally less grammatically innnovative than related languages such as English and Dutch are explored, and there is an opportunity to look at closely related languages and dialects to see how some changes are favoured while others (such as the do-auxiliary) are not. This discussion dovetails with the overall topic of standardization which is a key element in topic areas 1 and 4.  

Introductory reading

  • Axel, Katrin (2007) Studies on Old High German Syntax. Left sentence periphery, verb placement and verb-second. John Benjamins: Amsterdam.
  • Besch, Werner and Norbert Richard Wolf (2009) Geschichte der deutschen Sprache. Längsschnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien. Berlin: Erich Schmidt.
  • Jäger, Agnes (2008) History of German negation. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
  • Nübling, Damaris (2000) Prinzipien der Irregularisierung. Eine kontrastive Analyse von zehn Verben in zehn germanischen Sprachen. Niemeyer: Tübingen.
  • Nübling, Damaris, Antje Dammel, Janet Duke and Renata Szczepaniak (2006)  Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen. Eine Einführung in die Prinzipien des Sprachwandels. Tübingen: Narr.
  • Szczepaniak, Renata (2009) Grammatikalisierung im Deutschen. Eine Einführung. Narr: Tübingen.


2. Old High German and Old Saxon

This module focuses on the earliest stage of German, considering the regional and temporal diversity of the period from 800- 1000. We look at the representation of key sound changes in the earliest forms of written German, at the contrast between inheritance and innovation in German morphology, and at the emergence of characteristic word order patterns. These phenomena are illustrated through data from a range of early texts, looking particularly at early religious texts which allow a comparison between different regions, including northern texts in Old Saxon. Text classes enable the study of longer texts in Old High German.

Introductory reading

  • Bostock, J. Knight. 1976. A Handbook on Old High German Literature. Oxford: OUP.
  • Braune, Wilhelm.1994. (17th ed.). Althochdeutsches Lesebuch. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Braune, Wilhelm and Ingo Reiffenstein. 2004 (17th ed.). Althochdeutsche Grammatik 01. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Fischer, Hanns. 1966. Schrifttafeln zum althochdeutschen Lesebuch. Tübingen : Niemeyer. (S760.a.96.3 - order to West Room)
  • Gerdes, Udo and Gerhard Spellerberg. 1972. Althochdeutsch - Mittelhochdeutsch. Grammatischer Grundkurs zur Einführung und Textlektüre. Frankfurt: Fischer.
  • Meineke, Eckhard and Judith Schwerdt. 2001. Einführung in das Althochdeutsche. Paderborn: Schöningh.
  • Schrodt, Richard. 2004. Althochdeutsche Grammatik II. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Sonderegger, Stefan. 1987. Althochdeutsche Sprache und Literatur. Berlin: de Gruyter.


Set Texts for Old High German and Old Saxon

The following texts will be studied in detail, and passages for commentary will be set from them in the exam.
The Freisinger Paternoster (Bavarian, 9th c.) and Weissenburger Katechismus, Pater noster section (South Rhenish Franconian 9th c.), both in Wilhelm Braune, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch Tübingen: Niemeyer, pp 34–5 (any edition).
Three versions of the story of the feeding of the five thousand.

  • From Tatian, chapter 80, 1–8 , in: Tatian. Lateinisch und altdeutsch mit ausführlichem Glossar ed. Eduard Sievers (18922/1966) Paderborn: Schöningh. (East Franconian 9th c.)
  • From Otfrid, Book III, 6 from Otfrids Evangelienbuch (= Altdeutsche Textbibliothek 49), ed. Oskar Erdmann / Ludwig Wolff (19736) Tübingen: Niemeyer. (South Rhenish Franconian 9th c.).
  • From the Hêliand, ll. 2799–2874 from Heliand und Genesis (= Altdeutsche Textbibliothek 4), ed. Otto Behaghel Erdmann / Burkhard Taeger (19849) Tübingen: Niemeyer. (Old Saxon 9th c.)


3.  Middle High German

In the period 1050-1350 the German language witnessed a vast expansion, geographically and functionally. Colonization of lands east of the Elbe resulted in a large increase of German-speaking territory; economic and social changes associated with a growing population encouraged the increased use of the written vernacular alongside Latin, and for a variety of uses. Although courtly romances and lyrics by authors such as Hartmann von Aue and Walther von der Vogelweide are nowadays the most widely known products of the explosion of written text-production in the Middle High German period, these literary texts represent only a small proportion of the total corpus, which covers religious writing, law and administration, and practical handbooks of all kinds. This module will examine important and often controversial aspects of Middle High German: the much-debated existence of a standard form of the written language; the phonological and morphological development of the language over time; regional varieties of written MHG.

Introductory reading

  • “Einleitung” in Hermann Paul, Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik, 25th edn, rev. by Thomas Klein, Hans-Joachim Solms and Klaus-Peter Wegera, with Syntax by Ingeborg Schröbler, rev. by Heinz-Peter Prell, Tübingen 2007, pp. 1-33.
  • R.E. Keller, The German language, London 1978, ch. 5 “The Hohenstaufen Flowering.”
  • C.J. Wells, German. A linguistic history to 1945, Oxford 1987, ch. III–IV.
  • M.O’C. Walshe, A Middle High German Reader, Oxford 1972

Set texts for Middle High German

The following texts will be studied in detail, and passages for commentary will be set from them in the exam.


4. Standardization, Purism and Sprachkritik since the 19th century

The 19th century has long been neglected in German linguistic historiography as a consequence of the widely-held view that standardization had already been accomplished by the end of the 18th century, and that after the grammar of Gottsched and dictionary of Adelung, there was little left to be done. More recently, though, the concept of Sprachgeschichte von unten introduced by Stefan Elspaß has cast a new light on the linguistic and national debates of the 19th century, when industrialization, urbanization and the spread of literacy to all sectors of society created clashes over the role of the German language in the creation of a unified national identity. From the late 19th century to the present, the German language has at times become a political football, with a strong tradition of journalistic and academic Sprachkritik challenging the role of loanwords, changes in spelling, and prescription vs. description in the widest sense. We will focus on discourse about German as a standard language, though purism in lexicography from Campe to the Anglizismus-Index, notions of ‘correct spelling’ from the late nineteenth century to the present, and the current disaster–narrative of the position of German in globalization.

Introductory reading

  • Davies, Winifred (2009) 'Standard German in the Nineteenth Century', in: Landmarks in the History of the German Language, ed. G. Horan, N. Langer and S.Watts. Bern, etc.: Peter Lang.
  • Eichhoff-Cyrus, Karin and Rudolf Hoberg (eds.). 2000. Die deutsche Sprache zur Jahrtausendwende. Sprachkultur oder Sprachverfall? Mannheim, etc.: Dudenverlag.
  • Elspaß S. (2005), Sprachgeschichte von unten. Untersuchung zum geschriebenen Alltagsdeutsch im 19 Jahrhundert, Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Gardt, Andreas and Bernd Hüppauf (eds.) (2004) Globalization and the Future of German. Berlin : Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Johnson, Sally. 2005. Spelling trouble? Language, ideology and the reform of German orthography. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Limbach, Jutta. (2008) Hat Deutsch eine Zukunft? Unsere Sprache in der globalisierten Welt. Munich: C.H.Beck.
  • Mattheier, K. J. (2000), 'Die Durchsetzung der deutschen Hochsprache im 19. und beginnenden 20. Jahrhundert: sprachgeographisch, sprachsoziologisch', in: Sprachgeschichte. Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung,, edited by W. Besch, A. Betten, O. Reichmann and S. Sonderegger, vol. 2.2, 2nd, completely revised ed., Berlin and New York: de Gruyter. 1951-66.
  • Mattheier, K. J. (2003), 'German', in: Germanic Standardizations. Past to present, edited by A. Deumert, and W. Vandenbussche, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 211-44.
  • Polenz, P. von (1999) Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. Bd III: 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.
  • Sick, Bastian (2004 and later volumes). Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod. Ein Wegweiser durch den Irrgarten der deutschen Sprache. Hamburg/Köln: Spiegel Online and Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
  • Wiese, Heike (2012). Kiezdeutsch: Ein neuer Dialekt entsteht. Beck.
Preparatory reading: 

See reading lists above.


Teaching and learning: 

The teaching for this paper is delivered via a weekly lecture, supplemented with text classes for the Old and Middle High German modules.
Supervisions are held fortnightly throughout the year.

For the GE8 Moodle site, please see here (Raven password).

Course Contacts: 
Dr Sheila Watts