Deutsch and Scouse

Posted on April 2, 2011 by


Was ist das? Some of you may know dass das (that that) means what is that. It’s German. Sounds kinda similar right? Well that’s no coincidence, because around 1,700 years ago English and German were the same language. Indeed English could be described as an island offshoot of German, though German as we knew it today didn’t really exist back then. Indeed all the Germanic languages formed one big “dialect continuum” – even after this “German” had reached Britain and Old English (surprisingly, the oldest form of English, spoken between around 400 and 1100 AD) was written down, Danish invaders (speaking Old Norse) could converse with the English without changing languages (like Swedes and Danes today). But back to the point: why do Germans say “s”s where we say “t”s? Indeed it’s not just us who say “t”s. The Dutch say “wat is dat?”. The reason the Germans say “s” is because of a thing called the High German consonant shift.

File:German dialectal map.PNG
“t”s, “p”s and “k”s became “s”s, “f”s and “ch”s, spreading up from the south. In the Netherlands and in Low German they say “wat” (and English “what”!), in the rest of Germany “was”, and in the deep south “Chind” for “Kind” (child). The Benrath line marks the change from “maken” to “machen” (to do/make), and the Speyer from “Appel” to “apple” (apple).

Sounds change all the time. American and British English have also for example come to sound different (British English probably changed more indeed), when only a few hundred years ago they were the same. But the High German consonant shift is especially interesting because several changes all happened together, because things changed to varying degrees in different places, and because it mirrors earlier and later patterns in other languages.

So what’s so shifty?

Well, in modern High German (it was originally called “High” because it was spoken in the hillier areas in Germany’s south and Austria, but now people tend to think “High” means “correct”) most of the “t”s we have in native English words (i.e. most of the ones which were in Old English) have changed to “z” (pronounced “ts”, /ts/ in phonetics) at the start of words and an “s” sound like in “six” (/s/) at the end or middle, spelt “s” or “ß” (“ess-zed”, originally a double “s”). Examples:

English German
water /’wɔ:tə(r)/ Wasser /’vasɐ/ “vasser”
street /’stri:t/ straße /’ʃtra:sə/ “strahsa”
to /tu:/ zu /tsu:/ “tsoo”
tide /taɪd/ Zeit (means “time”) /tsaɪt/ “tsite”

“t” is called a stop phonetically (you stop the airflow when you say it), and “s” a fricative (you only half stop it, causing friction). This shift of stop to fricative or stop with fricative (affricate) happens for other sounds which are still all stops in English:

English German Shift
make /meɪk/ machen /’maxən/ “makh-un” k-> x (“kh” like “ch”  in “loch”)
break /breɪk/ brechen /’brɛxən/ “brekh-un” k-> x (“kh”
path /pɑ:θ/ Pfad /pfa:t/ “pfaht” p->pf
weapon /’wɛpən/ Waffen /’vafən/ “vaff-un” p->f

The pairs “t” /t/ and “s” /s/, “k” /k/ and “ch” /x/, and “p” /p/ and “f” /f/ are all said in the same place in the mouth, but the first is a stop and the second a fricative in each case.

So do all English stops become fricatives or affricates in High German?

Well no, only the unvoiced ones (your throat doesn’t buzz when saying them and they sound “harder”), so not “d”, “g” and “b”. Also, the “k” sound in “can” stays the same in German: “kann”. This is because only “k” at the end or in the middle of words changed to “ch”. However in the most South-Westerly dialects (Swiss/Alemannic), these “k”s did change, so where “child” is “Kind” in standard German, in parts of Switzerland it’s “Chind” /xint/ – they take the shift a step further. Listen to this Swiss (Bern dialect) song if you have time, by the fantastic ska band Two Left Feet. They say “Chirschi” (the name of the song) when standard would be “Kirschen”:


Click here to hear the excerpt from the song “Chirschi”

Why do some stops become fricatives and some affricates (stop+fricative)?

 Because it happened in two “goes”:

Part 1: single (not double or “geminate”) /p/, /t/ and /k/ between vowels or at end of words become /f/, /s/, /k/…

i.e. wapen->Waffen (weapon), etan -> essen (eat), makan->machen (make)

Part 2: /p/, /t/ and /k/ when doubled, at the start or words, not after a fricative and after /l/, r/ (“liquids”), /n/ and /m/ (“nasals”) become /pf/, /ts/, /kx/ (“kch”)…

i.e. appul->Apfel (apple), path->Pfad (path), tuo->zu (to), kind->Chind (last didn’t happen in standard German)

but not


this actually stayed as Mast (meaning “mast”!) because it’s after a fricative. “tr” also didn’t change, so

triuwi->treu (“true”)

Part 3? There is one other last bit to the shift. Because “t” became a /ts/ or /s/ sound, /d/s were “free” to become /t/s. So “Taube” in German, but “dove” in English. The same happened with /g/ and /b/ in some dialects, but not standard German. So standard German “Gott” and “beissen” (/gɔt/, /’baɪsən/ –“got”, “bysun”) for “god” and “to bite”, but some in the very south say “Kott” and “peissen” (allegedly! ..I’ve never heard it). Another change was “th” /θ/ to “d” /d/ – so “das” and “Ding” in German and “that” and “thing” in English. This was allegedly helped by the disappearance of original “d”s (i.e. change to “t”), but it happened in Dutch and Scandinavian too, and they kept the old “d”s, so I’m sceptical.

…and one important exception: words borrowed after the shift didn’t change. So “Palast” (palace) has a p.

Why is all this interesting?

Well, for one because it explains why German words sound different to English ones. When learning German it becomes easy to see why “Hilfe” (help) has an “f”.. And for another, because you can see a clear change from north to south. In English, Dutch, Swedish, and in Low German, the original dialect of northern Germany, they still say “apple” with “p”, but in High (southern) German they say “Apfel” with a p (stop) and an “f” (fricative). Even further South in Switzerland they go a step further. The other interesting this is wondering…

The Speyer line (see above) is also called the Weißwurstäquator (white sausage equator) because they eat Weißwürste (white sausages), preferably mit Brezn und Süßem Senf (with pretzel and sweet mustard) below it (for breakfast!). Will the equator one day move North and engulf Sweden and the UK? I for one hope so. White sausages are very tasty.

Why the flipping heck did this happen?

Was it suddenly cool to say your “t”s a bit “s”-like in the 6th century? An interesting parallel may be Liverpudlian or “Scouse” English (from Liverpool in Northwest England). Someone with a thick Scouse accent says /bax/ (”bakh”) for “back”, pretty much like the composer Bach. They also say “water” with a bit of a “hiss” (extreme aspiration – the puffing of air out which happens with t, p, and k in English), quite possibly how the shift to “Wasser” started. But why? Time to try to identify some common social features between 5th century southern Germany and contemporary Liverpool? Well, the jury is still out, but there are some interesting ideas, at least for German. There appears to have been a desire to make all stressed syllables “bimoraic”, i.e. long. In the northern Germanic dialects short vowels followed by short consonants were lengthened. In the more southerly ones the consonant turned into an affricate to lengthen the syllable (but not just be a straight double consonant) (Davis 2008). The details thereafter are complicated, but it basically spread from there. The affricates became fricatives because they’re easier to say. Oh and “t” may have shifted first, and more widely because it’s more aspirated, i.e. more air comes out when you say it (Iverson and Salmons 2006). Most Germanic languages today (unlike Romance, so Spanish for example) aspirate all their voiceless stops (t, k and p), and probably did for a long time, and this aspiration is certainly key. In ancient Germanic (before the different languages split up), a similar shift (“Grimm’s law”) happened, with /k/ becoming /x/ then /h/, and /p/ becoming /f/, /d/ to /t/ and other things.  That’s why the Romans said “quod” (and the French “quoi”) and the Old English said “hwæt” (“h” now lost in most pronunciation – “what”), the Romans said “pedis” (and French “pied”) and the Old English sad “fot” (foot), and the Romans said “decem” and the Old English “tiene” (ten). Seems like it’s something about Germanic. …So will we all say “wasser” one day then? Well maybe not the Dutch, as they don’t aspirate their stops anymore. Look out everyone else though!


Davis GW (2008) Towards a Progression Theory of the Old High German Consonant Shift. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 20.3, 197-241

Iverson GK and Salmons JC (2006) Fundamental Regularities in the Second Consonant Shift. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 18.1, 45-70

Thanks to Wikipedia for photos and some info

Posted in: Linguistics