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Although I might be wrong, I assume that German used to be rhotic (simply said, just like British English used to, and American English still is) because there are still some rhotic German dialects today. By rhotic, I mean that each letter R that is spelled in a word is always fully pronounced as a consonant (not omitted or turned to a vowel).

The history of English on this topic is quite well documented, but I can't find anything about it for German. So was German really rhotic in the past? If so, when and why did it stop being? If not, how did rhotic German dialects develop?

  • Related question. I'm not convinced of your hypothesis that it was once globally present and degraded locally. I assume, that it is mostly regionally dependent. – guidot Aug 26 '16 at 7:03
  • @guidot Well, it's still hard for me to image that a non-rhotic dialect (with rhotic spelling) didn't develop from a rhotic one, because it doesn't make sense to me. That makes me think that each dialect was originally rhotic. – Jiri Vaclavik Aug 26 '16 at 14:20
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    I have the strong feeling the op is ignoring an important fact: the German we speak today as a standard is called Hochdeutsch. The Hoch refers to its Southern origins. Now, I am not linguistically trained, but I feel that many Southerners speak in a rhotic manner. That doesn't mean the ancestors of many other Germans, who spoke Niederseutsch, ever did! – Ludi Aug 26 '16 at 19:35
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    I believe that what you asked applies to some dialects and not others, so a better question might be, how did some dialects move in this direction? – Tom Au Aug 28 '16 at 14:23
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    @JiriVaclavik i am not expert enough to say that. The popular tale is that Hochdeutsch was the language of (somewhat) southern people but today's pronunciation was basically picked by people who spoke Niederdeutsch. So, if you will, it stopped being rhotic when it became more "universal" welt.de/kultur/article7062279/… There are details on many things, but not, I think, on the rhoticness. – Ludi Aug 29 '16 at 15:17
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Specialist literature (Renata Szczepaniak, "Der phonologisch-typologische Wandel des Deutschen von einer Silben- zu einer Wortsprache", 2007) writes for this purpose:

"... Die nhd. Regelung hängt mit der Entwicklung des Binde-r (engl. linking r) im Mhd. zusammen. Als solches wird ein wortauslautendes r bezeichnet, das in den Silbenonset des folgenden, vokalisch anlautenden phonologischen Wortes verschoben wird ... Zur Erklärung der heutigen Formvariation von da(r)-, wo(r)- muss bis ins Ahd. zurückgeblickt werden. Seit dem Spätahd. gibt es die Tendenz, das r in einsilbigen Wörtern mit Langvokal zu tilgen ... Es wird nur dann erhalten, wenn das Folgewort vokalisch anlautet. ... bezeichnet einen solchen Zustand als nicht-rhotisch (engl. non-rhotic). Im Gegensatz dazu ist das Deutsche ca. bis Ende des 10. Jhs. als rhotisch (engl. rhotic) einzustufen, weil das wortauslautende r unabhängig von der Umgebung ausgesprochen wird ..."

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    Diese Antwort würde von Beispielen enorm profitieren! – Ludi Sep 7 '16 at 9:00
  • Das ist schon einmal super, weil es eine Quelle angibt, aber für die Frage wirklich relevant scheint mir nur der letzte Satz zu sein, der Rest ist bruchstückhaft. – Carsten S Sep 11 '16 at 22:13
  • Bitte einfach mal bei google.books danach suchen bzw. sich das Fachbuch kaufen – äüö Sep 13 '16 at 22:12
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Okay. let me try an answer.

Although I might be wrong, I assume that German used to be rhotic

There you mainly have to look at the language history. I think the "used to be" would end in a controversial debate. Mainly because "Hochdeutsch" were "invented" and "defined" in Parts and so you have to ask the inventor about it, if it "used to be" rhotic.

What I can say so far. That it isn't now. For example. "sterben" and "Herd" are pronounced with [ɛɐ], not [eːɐ]. Also the word Oktoberfest is pronounced with an "a" [ɔkˈtoːbɐˌfɛst].

So was German really rhotic in the past? If so, when and why did it stop being? If not, how did rhotic German dialects develop?

"Neuhochdeutsch" was developed about ~1750 but it was first in common use about 1900+. Why? Because a lot of people moved arround in this time for work and needed a language which was commonly spoken. To this time the dialect was more common. You maybe can compare Deutsch from this time with English today.

The history of English on this topic is quite well documented, but I can't find anything about it for German.

PS: Maybe because "rhotic" is mainly from the english linguistics

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    The pronunciation of sterben and Herd varies by region. Not everywhere are the rs rendered as a-shwa. – Jan Sep 6 '16 at 21:24

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