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German has for more than 1000 years been in contact with West Slavic languages, notably Polish and Czech. This is highly likely to have led to borrowing or interference between these languages, in both directions. It seems that discussion of this is usually restricted to influence from German on Polish and Czech. For example, the Polish dialect spoken in the Poznań region is reported to be heavily influenced by German. There is also a great number of German loanwords in Polish, such as malować from G. malen (both to paint).

I'm interested in influence in the opposite direction, from Polish and/or Czech to German (standard or other dialects), particularly on pronunciation. There is a Euromosaic study alluding to some influence of Polish on Silesian and East Prussian dialects, but it doesn't give any details or sources.

Possible influence

The rounded vowels /y/ and /ø/ are realised as /i/ and /e/ in the Saxon dialect and used to be pronounced this way in Silesian and East Prussian dialects of German:

  • 'Kühe' as 'Kihe', 'Süden' as 'Siden'
  • 'Höhle' as 'Hehle'

This is, incidentally, also the way many learners of German with Polish as first language pronounce these vowels. These rounded vowels do not exist in Polish.

The Slavic influence on some German dialects might have occurred as early as the 10th c. as this is the time German eastward expansion into (not only) Slavic territory started. The relevant Wikipedia article states that old and new population frequently mixed, so there were many opportunities for contact between people.

The following Wikipedia map shows the time frame for different regions: Wikipedia map on time frame of German eastward expansion

Q: Can anybody confirm Polish influence on (East) German dialects, in general and in particular for these vowels?

Influence of Polish on varieties of German spoken in the Ruhr region has been documented, but this influence was more restricted in time. There was Polish migration to the Ruhr region in western Germany in the 19th c., and influence also seems to be restricted to some lexical items.

  • Most of the influence is to be expected from the Slavic that used to be spoken in present-day Germany (Sorbian). Bremen (west of Hamburg, off your map!) started out as a Slavic name. – reinierpost Sep 12 '16 at 15:14
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Areal features are often under-appreciated, especially the more subtle structural and semantic ones, as opposed to the more superficial lexical and phonological ones.

And the contact between Slavic and Germanic was certainly significant, and started before the written record, which therefore makes it difficult to fully understand.

And there are more commonalities between Slavic and German phonology than chance alone would yield.

But the concrete example you give is provably not an example of Slavic influence on German.

'Kühe' as 'Kihe', 'Süden' as 'Siden', 'Höhle' as 'Hehle'

This phenomenon, Entrundung, is widespread in the Southwest too, including Alsatian in France, far away from Slavic influence. Quoting Wikipedia: Im Deutschen gilt Entrundung der mittelhochdeutschen Umlaute „ö“, „ü“ und „eu/äu“ zu „e“, „i“ und „ai“ in den meisten Dialekten des Oberdeutschen und des Mitteldeutschen.

That's also why Yiddish has it. The reason Polish and Czech have it for loanwords like Miller is because of local learned convention, perhaps based on the dialects with which they were in contact. Other Slavic languages like Russian and Bulgarian work differently, they tend to palatalise instead, so ü and ö become ju and jo. Some Slavic languages take the entrundung approach for German and French loanwords but just drop the umlaut for Ottoman ones, which again suggests a learned convention. Also note that in no Slavic language is there entrundung of eu (to aj) like in German dialects or Yiddish. And this pattern is not unique to Slavic languages - in Armenian and Georgian it is like in Russian and Bulgarian.

As a rule, German dialects vary much more North to South than East to West, historically and today.

Consider also that there were third groups, notably Baltic and Celtic, which were absorbed en masse into both Slavic and Germanic, which could explain some commonalities.

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The rounded vowels /y/ and /ø/ are realised as /i/ and /e/ in the Saxon dialect and used to be pronounced this way in Silesian and East Prussian dialects of German:

This sound change is universal and happens everywhere around the world. It's just a simple delabialization. Taken alone, it doesn't prove anything. English had same reflexes, hence we have some irregularities:

Old English mūs > Modern English mouse

Old English (*mūsi >) mȳs > Modern English mice

[y:] > [i:] > [əi] > [aɪ]

Same for foot vs. feet where in the latter [i:] stems from [e:] which stemmed from [ø:] which stemmed from [o] + umlaut.

Greek had -y- > -i-

Proto-Slavic itself had -ju- > -jy- -> -ji-

Etc. Etc.

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  • Thanks, that's a good point. But I'm not convinced this totally explains the phenomenon. First, those dialects of German that were not in contact with Slavic languages don't have this sound change. Second, the fact that this sound change also occurred in other languages doesn't mean that it had to occur in the German dialects in question. Actually, if you take any sound change from any language, there's a good chance that you will find that a similar change has occurred earlier in some other languages(s). – robert Feb 20 '14 at 18:33
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    "First, those dialects of German that were not in contact with Slavic languages don't have this sound change." Au contraire, many many do. Furthermore, plenty of dialects that were in contact with Slavic do not have this sound change, and some Saxon dialects even add umlaut. – Adam Bittlingmayer Aug 15 '18 at 15:54
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I have no knowledge about other German dialects, but the dialect of Vienna has been influenced by Czech because there were so many Czechs in the city in times of Austria-Hungary. The pronounciation of ü/ö as i/e is an example of this influence.

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    Thanks, but is there any evidence that this doesn't go back to much earlier times? The Vienna region was settled between the 8th and 11th century by German speakers who then mixed with the earlier Slavic population. Could the crucial influence have occurred already during that time? – robert Sep 13 '13 at 22:22
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    Even in the far west, the rheno-franconian dialects of German don't have the sounds ö and ü. – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 10 '16 at 15:08
  • Unlikely, as @jknappen noted. – Adam Bittlingmayer Aug 15 '18 at 15:33
  • @robert Bavarians, Slavs and Avars converged on the Celts around Vienna at roughly the same time. It is even theorised that Bavaria and Bohemia come from the same Celtic tribe name. – Adam Bittlingmayer Aug 15 '18 at 15:44

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