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Helping you to remember German words: the consonant shift

First of all I am not a linguist. Some things I will write about the consonant shift might be inaccurate (a more accurate description can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_consonant_shift). But that's not that important because I will focus on the consequences of the shift and not the shift itself. Because these consequences will help you seeing the connections between English and German words and therefore help you to remember them. Want an example?

that - das

They look quite different, don't they? I mean the only similarity is the "a", right? Not quite right. And you will soon realise that they are in fact the very same word... just a little shifted ;)

So what is this consonant shift? It happened quite some time ago (over a thousand years) and slowly changed the consonants in words. And therefore seperated the other Germanic languages from what we call German today. Not all of them of course and fortunately not randomly.

So what happened was that certain consonants in Germanic words changed towards other certain consonants. These changed words later became "German" words.

Now that the stage is set, let us begin!

"th" changed to "d"
"t" changed to "ts"(z) or "s"
"p" changed to "pf" or "f"

Now that's not all of them. The whole list would just be too long, but these will already help you.

Back to "that". Do you see how "th" shifted to "d" and "t" changed to "s"? Apply that to "that" and you get.... "das". Quite easy, right? :)

I bet you want more examples.
Let's start with p --> f

to hope - hoffen
sharp - scharf
harp - Harfe
ship - Schiff
open - offen to help - helfen
pepper - Pfeffer
apple - Apfel

th --> d

brother - Bruder
thorn - Dorn this - dies
thanks - Dank
thing - Ding
feather - Feder
leather - Leder
to think - denken

t --> s/z

to eat - essen
out - aus
cat - Katze
heat - Hitze
better - besser
heart - Herz
water - Wasser

Well, that's enough I guess. There are more, as I mentioned, like d-->t (middle - Mitte, to do - tun) but I only wanted to give you a slightly changed perspective on things. Looking at words differently and realising that with some adjustments words might not be as different as they appear.

Hope that helps :)

September 16, 2014



Wow, how have I never know this??? This is great, thanks! Or should I say Dank.... ;-)


I love this :) Note that English also underwent the great vowel shift. Also worth looking up on wikipedia. Often you can take an English word, change a vowel and get the Dutch word. Then you change a consonant and you got the German word.


das ist interessant!


Ha! I already found it easy to remember the words that followed the rule (because the English/German seemed so similar), but I hadn't really realized there was such a large-scale pattern. That's awesome!


Thanks for your contribution, I have been learning German for several months and for sure it will be very useful for me. Take a lingot. Danke!


if this is your kind of thing you've got to check out this book. http://books.google.de/books?id=qkU5AQAAMAAJ&source=gbs_similarbooks its comprehensive and really helpful.


Great job qfish! I actually am a linguist and find linguistic theories very useful for remembering certain words! I have written a little about this in one discussion board thread, so for anyone interested, here is a linguistic rule which can help you remember how to spell in genitive (I'll write a dedicated post for it this afternoon - gfish has inspired me!). I also intend to answer discussion board questions with linguistic explanations wherever I can, because it really helps!



Thank you. That is very helpful.


I didn't realize it ever. Thanks for it.


I was trying to use text replacement once to get a picture of what German might look like had it never gone throught the consonant shift, but the process was a bit unwieldly... I can't think of a good logical way to do it. Once you start filtering two letter pairs it gets messy...

But even the limited results were quite interesting, reading German through transmogrification goggles. In a peculiar way, it instantly becomes familiar, like suddenly bumping into a long lost relative.


woah, that's cool! this definitely does make a lot of this easier to remember, thank you!


Thank you for all the Lingots. I am glad you liked the post and it helped you :)


ausgezeichnet und danke


That is so incredibly helpful! Thank you so much!!!


I used to study Yiddish before I decided to make a switch to German, it's practically the same language save for some words in German being replaced with Hebrew and Aramaic words and the pronunciation is slightly different though the two are actually mutually intelligible. I've met some New Yorkers from Jewish Orthodox families who spoke Yiddish and they said that they could talk to people during their visits to Switzerland and Austria.

I noticed the similarity with English long ago with sounds like the THs being instead Ds and Ts turning into Ss.


Wow, awesome! I've only heard about this, but I'm so glad I've had it explained!


Excellent information for me.


Danke, that's helpful.

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