Really Old German

If you’re interested highlights of historical German literature there is one very excellent book,“Sternstunden: Große Texte deutscher Sprache,” by Josef Kraus and Walter Krämer, IFB Verlag Deutsche Sprache GmbH, ISBN 978-3-942409-74-2. Most of it covers relatively modern German texts but the most interesting parts, as far as I am concerned, are the two most ancient ones, before the modern German language had fully formed. So in this post I present to you some small excerpts of the initial chapters where German was already extant but barely recognizable to our ears.

Das Wessobrunner Gebet

An unknown author wrote the oldest German text known to us, around 790 AD. It concludes with the following Christian prayer:

Cot almahtico, du himil enti erda gauuorahtos enti du mannun so manac coot forgapi forgip mir in dina ganada rehta galaupa enti cotan uuilleon uuistom enti spahida enti craft tiuflun za uuidarstantanne enti arc za piuuisanne enti dinan uuilean za gauurchanne.

Gott Allmächtiger, der Du Himmel und Erde erschaffen hast und den Menschen so viele gute Gaben gegeben hast, gib mir in Deiner Gnade rechten Glauben und guten Willen, Weisheit und Klugheit und Kraft, dem Teufel zu widerstehen, und das Böse zu meiden und Deinen Willen zu verwirklichen.

Now this is pretty far remote from modern German but a few clues render the original text somewhat legible. The sequence “uu” is obviously equivalent to “w” which is still with us in the English spelling of “double-u” for that letter. Likewise, the sequence “oo” in “coot” is probably equivalent to the English sound in “good” and would eventually be rendered “u” in German. Lastly, many “h” letters would be pronounced “ch” in modern German.

Der von Kürenberg

Fast forward to 1150 and the medieval Minnesang. Here’s one prolific Middle High German poet known only as von Kürenberg.

Nû bring mir her vil balde mîn ros, mîn îsengewant, wan ich muoz einer frouwen rûmen diu lant. Diu wil mich des betwingen, daz ich ir holt sî. Si muoz der mîner minne iemer darbende sîn.

Nun bring mir schnell mein Ross, mein Eisengewand [Rüstung], denn ich muss einer Frau das Land räumen, die mich zwingen will, sie zu lieben. Nach meiner Liebe muss sie immer darben.

Here we have strange new accents but the transliteration is actually quite straightforward: the “^” is a kind of precursor to the umlaut. “Mîn” means “mein” and “rûmen” means “räumen.” By the way, “vil balde” means “viel bald” in bad modern German which does translate to “schnell.” (For the record, von Kürenberg was a Minnesänger which is basically a medieval PUA. Either he wanted to avoid marriage or the lady’s husband had strongly encouraged him to leave.)

Johannes von Saaz

In 1404 Johannes von Saaz, a Bohemian “Ackermann der Feder” (farmer of the pen = professional writer) directed a polemical dialog against Death who had just taken his beloved wife. The book no longer provides translations here even though the language is still somewhat removed from modern German, so I picked a passage where I’m fairly sure that my own translation is correct.

Wann nach großem leide große klage billich sol folgen, unmenschlichen tete ich, wo ich solich löbliche gabe, die niemand dann got allein geben mag, nicht beweinet.

Wenn nach großem Leid große Klage billig folgen soll, wäre [täte] ich unmenschlich, wo ich solch löbliche Gabe, die niemand denn Gott allein geben kann, nicht beweine.

This is almost exactly modern German. However, for a more difficult example from the same writer, here is the chapter’s initial quote that I’m not quite sure how to translate:

Grimmiger vertilger aller leut, schedlicher durchechter aller werlt, freissamer mörder aller menschen, her Tot, euch sei verflucht! Got, euer tirmer, hasse euch, unselden merung wone euch bei, ungelück hause gewaltiglich zu euch! Zumale geschant seit immer!

Grimmiger Vertilger aller Leute, schädlicher Verächter (?) aller Welt, willkürlicher (?) Mörder aller Menschen, Herr Tod, ihr seid verflucht! Gott, euer Schöpfer (?), hasse euch, Vermehrung von Unglück wohne euch bei, Unglück suche euch gewaltig heim! Seid auf immer geschändet!

I consulted a Middle High German dictionary for a few terms, so I think I got it generally correct. The next chapter has one anonymous excerpt from 1468 that is barely different from modern high German, and then we’re already with Martin Luther in 1530, so no more big surprises.

2 thoughts on “Really Old German”

  1. Nice post, German is such a great language. There seems to be a certain dearth of dissident German authors online, I guess due to strict censorship laws in Germany.

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