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The Power of Cognates, Part 1: Introduction to High German

Many a beginner learner of German, or more correctly High German, is surprised to discover that the language shares a number of traits with English. This is in large part owing to the fact that both languages have a common ancestor language whence the dialects that would eventually become English and those that would eventually become High German diverged between 200 and 700AD. This common ancestor is referred to as Proto-West-Germanic (PWG) and has been largely re-constructed by linguists using runic inscriptions and the observable patterns that distinguish its modern offshoots among which we also find Dutch, Frisian, Low German and Scots.  

While both English and German have borrowed a vast number of words from other languages (and each other) over the past millennium and a half, their core vocabulary is still dominated by words they inherited from their common ancestor. Perhaps unfortunately, the vast majority of these PWG words have evolved in different, albeit systematic, ways, making a large number of them unintelligible to the uninitiated. For instance, while there is little confusion as to the meaning and relatedness of words like Arm (“arm”), Hammer (“hammer”) and Nest (“nest), it is perhaps far less obvious that Stein is related to stone or that Schlaf is related to sleep.

The linguistic development that caused the sharp separation between different PWG dialects is known as the High German Consonant Shift, a phenomenon of sound changes that did not occur all at once but rather in a series of steps over the course of hundreds of years. Beginning roughly in the 4th century, PWG speakers in what is today southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland introduced the earliest of these sound changes. In reference to the relatively mountainous nature of the terrain in this part of Europe, the resulting language became known as High German.

In future posts I aim to break down the High German Consonant Shift and illustrate how we can use it to our advantage when navigating the German language.

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