High German consonant shift

The High German consonant shift is a series of sound changes involving consonants that occurred in the southernmost part of the West Germanic dialect continuum between the 3rd and 8th centuries. Sound changes radiated out a certain way into the rest of the West Germanic dialects from there, with numerous isoglosses existing to describe the point at which different sound changes “stopped”. The shift occurred in three main phases:

  1. 4th to 5th century: Three voiceless stops became fricatives in certain positions (word-finally, and intervocalically if the consonant was not geminate)
    • /p/ → /ff/
    • /t/ → /ts/ → /ss/
    • /k/ → /x/
  2. 5th to 8th century: The same three voiceless stops became affricates in different positions (word-initially, intervocalically if the consonant was geminate, and after nasals and liquids)
    • /p/ → /pf/
    • /t/ → /t:s/ → /ts/
    • /k/ → /kx/
  3. 7th to 8th century: Three voiced stops became voiceless
    • /b/ → /p/
    • /d/ → /t/
    • /g/ → /k/

A later, fourth change, sometimes grouped in with the High German consonantal shift, is the change of /θ/ → /d/, which affected all continental Germanic languages (but did not affect English).

Phases 1 and 2 affected all High German dialects, with the only change from those phases that didn’t become universal across the entire group being the /k/ → /kx/ one, which was restricted to the southernmost Alemannic (Swiss) and Bavarian (Austrian) dialects. Phase 1 and the /t/ → /ts/ change of phase 2 affected Luxembourgish, but did not penetrate so far into the Istvaeonic area as to affect Dutch. Phase 3 was much more restricted to the Alemannic and Bavarian dialects, with only /d/ → /t/ being adopted broadly by High German dialects; the other changes occurred only in geminates.

Some further changes associated with this shift:

  • /β/ → /b/ (in High German)
  • /ð/ → /d/ (throughout West Germanic)
  • /ɣ/ → /g/ (in High German, although the same change occurred independently later in English and Frisian)
  • /s/ → /ʃ/ (in High German, /sk/ → /ʃ/ in all postions, /sC/ → /ʃC/ in initial postion, and /rs/ → /rʃ/; in most other West Germanic languages, only /sk/ → /ʃ/ occurred, but it did not occur in Dutch (which got /s/ → /sx/ instead) or West Frisian (which retained /sk/))