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I am no professional Linguist (nor have I ever studied it) so there might be a straightforward explanation to this which I could't find searching in ordinary places.

I was analysing a few words from English that from what I am aware of derive their pronunciation from the Great Vowel Shift. I've noticed that some of them, when compared to their cognates in German, for instance, have a very similar pronunciation. Here are some examples:

EN: Hight / DE: Heissen

EN: White / DE: Weiss

EN: Wine / DE: Wein

EN: Dike / DE: Deich

My question is why is that? Wasn't the "i" in these English words pronounced as the "i" in "this" before the GVS? If they've always had this pronunciation, why is the spelling like this? If they changed with the GVS, why would one expect to be similar pronunciation in German?

My hypotheses:

a) I do not have a proper understanding of GVS. b) The sound was actually like it's pronounced today in Proto Germanic, it shifted to "i" in Old English and then shifted back. c) The pronunciation was always like today but the English spelling changed to match the effects of the GVS.

Thanks in advance.

  • I can see at least a possible d) This particular sound change (at least in environments that apply to the words given) occurred both in English and German independently. Coincidences do happen... a lot, in languages. – LjL Dec 7 '19 at 0:12
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    Some counterexamples that may help: Heide:heath, Weide:wathe, Seife:soap, light:Licht (as opposed to light:leicht), fight:fechten, knight:knecht, right:recht, and also the later loanwords, so in English even a word like rhyme, mine, indict or tribal has this shift. – Adam Bittlingmayer Dec 7 '19 at 8:39
  • Your first word pair looks odd to me (as a native speaker of German): German "heiss", if spelled "heiß", means "hot". There is also "heißen" (to be called), which seems closer to English "hight" (named, called; archaic), but as far as I can see, "heiss" is not a form of "heißen". – jochen Dec 7 '19 at 12:35
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    Jochen, it was a mistake. Thanks for correcting. – Vitor C Goergen Dec 7 '19 at 15:15
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The mainstream hypothesis is that the vowel found in words like white was pronounced as something like [iː] (a long close front vowel, like that in Modern German bieten) in Common Germanic, and then it diphthongized to [aɪ] in both English and German after the two languages had already split from each other. In English, the diphthongization is often considered to be part of a set of sound changes referred to as the "Great Vowel Shift"; I don't know of a similar special name for this and other vowel changes in German.

The details of these vowel changes (steps, timing) are disputed (at least for English), and I don't know whether it is currently thought plausible that either the English or German sound change influenced the other.

(Some of the other specific words that you mentioned have more complicated etymologies than white, but I think that is a side issue.)

Proto-Germanic is reconstructed as having had a diphthong [ai] distinct from the long vowel [iː]. The reflex of this Proto-Germanic diphthong merged with the diphthongized reflex of [iː] in Standard German, but not in English. Proto-Germanic *ai had other outcomes in English, commonly [oʊ], as in loaf and stone (cognate with German Laib and Stein).

Heißen and hight are related, but not derived from exactly the same forms: hight is from a reduplicated past-tense form that was spelled "heht" in Old English, while heißen is from the non-reduplicated present-tense forms of the same verb, which had [ai] in Proto-Germanic. So this pair of words, although related, cannot be used as evidence for vowel change rules. An archaic form of the infinitive in English is "hoten" (from Old English hātan, from Proto-Germanic *haitan- ) as in "Þis child shal hoten godes prophete" ( MS Trin. Cambr. in R. Morris Old Eng. Homilies (1873) 2nd Ser. 127 (MED); reproduced in OED entry for "hight").

  • Interesting that the German is spelled Laib and not Leib, though. Does that generally apply to German words that kept [ai] as opposed to acquiring it from [i:]? – LjL Dec 7 '19 at 2:22
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    @LjL: They are not generally distinguished in spelling; the spelling of "Laib" is exceptional. "Ei" is used for the vowel from PG [ai] in most words, such as ein, zwei, Stein, breit, klein, and -heit. – ewawe Dec 7 '19 at 6:04
  • @LjL Leib means body, so the distinction to Laib in writing is useful, to say the least, but since Brot had replaced Laib, it inly appears as ein Laib Brot/Käse, which--by everyone--upon hearing must be understood, unlike a loaf of bread [/cheese], as "Leib", "one complete [wheel of cheese]" similar to "a body of work". I still can't tell the difference in der L?ib Christi (corpus Christi); the communal cake is bread (panes Christi?)!? Also cp leben "to live*, Leben "life" am Leben/leben "alive". However, *hlaif shows remnants of a velar. The ety of bread is "unknown" – vectory Dec 8 '19 at 10:14
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This is a historical accident, but probably not a phonetic one. Diphthongization of long vowels is found as a historical sound change across the world, and it continues to happen in Modern English (many monosyllables of norther American English are disyllables in southern dialects, e.g. "head" → [hɛjəd]). It is widespread in Germanic, also found in Romance, in Saami languages, Sakha. and so on. This paper surveys some of the examples of this process in languages.

In the case of "wine", the earlier form of the word would have a long vowel [i:]. We have no records of the actual phonetics of those ancient phonemes, but it is reasonable to assume that it was pronounced something like [ɪj]. Subsequent vowel changes resulted in [ai] in German and English, but the exact vowels found in these diphthongs in these two languages are a coincidence.

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Part of the picture as written out by Ewawe can be seen when comparing the words you have to their counterparts in Low German, the native dialects of northern Germany. These are more closely related to modern Dutch and English than standard (and High) German, as they did not participate in the High German Consonant Shift. However, there are also a number of vowel shifts (not emphasised as frequently when studying German) which applied to High German but not Low German – and it is also educating to see what High German dialects have made of these sounds.

The words I have looked up on the Low German Wikipedia (not being a speaker of Low German in any way myself) are:

  • White / Witt / Weiß
    Note: The colour does not have an article (yet) but the form is attested in the article for the German flag in the history section where the pre-1918 colours (black/white/red) are discussed.

  • Wine / Wien / Wein

  • Dike / Diek / Deich

The form witt has entered standard German as part of the name of Snow White (Schneewittchen); the original Low German form was Sneewittchen while the first published version by the Grimm brothers was titled Schneeweißchen.

It’s notable that these words all preserved the [i] sound in Low German with the spelling of two of them implying a long [iː] sound as was reconstructed for Proto-Germanic. Without having confirmed this hypothesis by searching for further examples, it seems reasonable to assume that this pattern is found across a number of other words, too. Thus, the original [iː] changed into [aɪ] in English as part of the Great Vowel Shift. Independently (and possibly earlier as spellings similar to the modern ones are already found in Luther’s Bible translation), the Middle and High German dialects underwent a similar sound change to give the modern German forms. In Low German, the vowels did not change but remained as they were before.

The High German dialects, especially Bavarian, underwent some further changes. There are at least three sounds that at some point were [aɪ] in Bavarian:

  • In some places where modern German has [aɪ], Bavarian (usually) has an [ɔa] diphthong
    (e.g: German: eins, Bavarian: oans)
  • In some places, both modern German and Bavarian have [aɪ]
    (e.g: German: drei, Bavarian: drei)
  • In some places, Bavarian has [aɪ] where modern German something else such as [ɔɪ]
    (e.g: German: neu, Bavarian: nei)

The first forms represent sounds that used to be [aɪ] in German but which changed in Bavarian. The second represents sounds that changed from something else (typically [iː]) into [aɪ] in German; these were not affected by the first group’s change. And the third are Bavarian sound change innovations.

Looking at the words mentioned in the question and repeated in this answer, these all retain their [aɪ] sound in Bavarian indicating them belonging to the second group.

The question remains why the vowel white seems to have been shortened in Low German (the spelling suggests that) but that is one I cannot answer.

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    Don't Bavarian speakers use [ɔa] in their cognate to heißen? I don't have personal experience, but this webpage gives "Via hoassn si?" as a Bavarian equivalent to Standard German "Wie heißen Sie?": the-voyaging-viking.webflow.io/blog/… The short vowel in "Witt" is interesting; that also occurs in Dutch wit, which Wiktionary suggests might come from a Proto-Germanic collateral form *hwittaz. – ewawe Dec 9 '19 at 9:47
  • @ewawe In the present tense, that is correct. In the perfect tense, standard German geheißen is retained. Preterite is not used in Bavarian except for two verbs but standard German preterite is hieß. I decided not to dive into the rabbit hole of that word also in part because I am entirely unaware of the English cognate in that list, so I silently left it out. – Jan Dec 9 '19 at 9:53
  • Oh, that makes sense. The conjugation of the verb is rather unusual, and all forms are archaic in English, so I think isn't a very illuminating example – ewawe Dec 9 '19 at 9:59
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The words you mention cannot be dealt with as a whole.
Hight is not cognate with German heiss, heat is. Anyway, the diphthong in hight comes from a long i: resulting from an older ih with a throaty fricative h. Compare with German hoch, which still has the fricative.
White and weiss are cognate, from an older *hwi:t- "white". Note that the long u: of *hu:s is also a diphthong in house and Haus. Note dialectal hus and hüs with no diphthong.
Wine is from Latin and it indeed has a long i: in Latin vi:num. The word is probably a very old borrowing into Germanic languages. Note dialectal winstub with no diphthong. Dike and Deich are cognate, from an older *di:k-. This pair is similar to white / weiss.

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