I’ve been looking at early (e.g. 1827) published editions of Goethes Wandrers Nachtlied II (also known as Ein Gleiches), and I don’t understand the significance of the apostrophe after Ruh in line 2:

Ueber allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh’,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

There are a few differences between these early editions and most of the current ones I’ve seen, but except for Ruh’ (which I’ve usually seen as Ruh, sans apostrophe, in modern editions), these make sense to me as minor spelling/orthography changes (e.g. Ueber vs. Über, Wandrers vs. Wanderers).

I don’t understand what the meaning of the apostrophe is in the earlier version. Does it signify an omitted word-ending, e.g. affecting case? The modern apostrophe-less Ruh seems to make perfect (and very uncomplicated) grammatical sense, so I don’t understand why some versions print Ruh’ with an apostrophe.


2 Answers 2


When you omit a letter (very often an e at the end of an word), you mark this with an apostrophe:

Ruh’ = Ruhe (calm/peace)
Wo ich geh’ und steh’ = Wo ich gehe und stehe.

But very often this apostrophe is taken as optional, so it is omitted too. But when being strict this is not correct:

Ruh = Ruh’ = Ruhe
Wo ich geh und steh = Wo ich geh’ und steh’ = Wo ich gehe und stehe.

  • 4
    Actually, when taken strictly, the apostrophe is wrong according to the 2006 spelling rules. It is only allowed when a shortened form is schwer lesbar oder missverständlich (§ 96 (2)) or undurchsichtig (§ 97), which is hardly the case here.
    – chirlu
    May 31, 2015 at 20:59
  • 1
    I think this makes sense. (Certainly it made me suddenly realize, after having been thinking about this for some time, that there is usually an -e on Ruh(e).) Is the reason for omitting the final -e essentially just poetic (e.g. for meter's sake)? Or would this ever happen in prose? May 31, 2015 at 21:06
  • It's purely for meter's sake. Sometimes, an -e is also added (Im Hause muss beginnen // was leuchten soll im Vaterland), and that is also sometimes done to add extra gravitas to rhetoric (In diesem unserem Lande). None of these devices enjoy a high reputation in contemporary poetry anymore. May 31, 2015 at 22:34
  • 3
    @microtherion: The dative -e was considered obligatory until not so long ago. Certainly Goethe and his contemporaries would have felt that im Haus was missing an -e. See german.stackexchange.com/questions/7906 and german.stackexchange.com/questions/4579
    – chirlu
    Jun 1, 2015 at 3:11

Hubert’s answer nicely explains the pre-reformed orthographic situation. Anything pre-1996 is likely to follow one of the two former standards (or no standard at all) and would therefore prefer to use an apostrophe here to replace the missing e.

Following the reform, a large number of formerly required apostrophes were either disallowed completely or made optional. Compare the official rules (translated by me):

§ 96: An apostrophe is written in three types of cases:

These include:

(1) Proper nouns whose nominative end in an s-sound (-s, -ss, -ß, -z, -tz, -x, -ce) are given an apostrophe in the genitive case if they do not have an article, a possessive pronoun or similar with them.

  • Aristoteles’ Schriften

E1: But: Die Schriften des Aristoteles

E2: The apostrophe is also used if the -s, -z, -x of the nominative is silent: Cannes’ Filmfestspiele.

(2) Words with omissions that would be hard to read or misunderstandable without the apostrophe:

  • Das Wasser rauscht’, das Wasser schwoll

(3) Words with inside parts omitted as in:

  • *D’dorf (= Düsseldorf), Ku’damm (= Kurfürstendamm).

§97: One may write an apostrophe if words of spoken language with omissions are not clear in written language.

  • Der Käpt’n mit’m Fahrrad; Bitte nehmen S’ Platz!

E: To be distinguished from the apostriophe as omission marker is the occasional use of this punctuation mark to clarify the basic form of a proper noun before the genitive’s ending -s or the adjectiv suffix -sch

  • Carlo’s Taverne, Einstein’sche Relativitätstheorie.

Omitting the final e in Ruhe does not qualify for any of these cases. The Duden rules go into slightly more detail, by also saying which cases can be considered ‘easy to read’:

  1. An unstressed -e- (translator’s note: shwa) in the inside of a word is dropped:

    • Ich wechsle
    • trockner Boden
  2. Final -e of certain verb forms are dropped:

    • Das hör ich gern.
    • Ich lass das nicht zu.
    • Leg den Mantel ab.
  3. It is a shortened form of the noun or adjective (translator’s note: or adverb) that is in common use:

    • öd (next to *öde)
    • Bursch (next to Bursche)
    • trüb (next to trübe)
    • heut (next to heute)
  4. Phrases which make use of an uninflected adjective or pronoun:

    • um gut Wetter bitten
    • ruhig Blut bewahren
    • Wir wollen sein ein einzig Volk von Brüdern …

I boldfaced the case 3 which is relevant here: Everybody would understand that Ruh is missing an e at the end, so the apostrophe is not required by today’s orthography.

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