What spelling reform added "h" before sonorant (l, m, n, r)?

jar > Jahr
zan > Zahn
lam > lahm
zal > Zahl

  • 2
    My understanding is that the 'h' tells you that it's a long vowel.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 18:49
  • 1
    @RDBury: This is correct, but Jack asked, when people used to add this Dehnungs-H, because in Middle High German this h did not exist. There must have been a moment when peoples started to write this h. Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 19:04
  • @Hubert Schölnast -- Thanks, that wasn't clear to me. I know there were several spelling reforms in the 20th century, and of course the Luther Bible did a lot to standardize spelling, I thought the h=long rule was more or less universal in Modern German though.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 19:20

1 Answer 1


Short answer:

At non of the spelling reforms.

Long answer:

The very first spelling "reform" of German orthography was the Orthographische Konferenz von 1876. This was not a reform, but the very first attempt to standardize German orthography. Before this year there was no standard. Everybody was writing how they liked. Famous writers (Luther, Goethe, Schiller, ...) stated quasi-standards, but non of them was binding for anybody.

Later reforms happened in the years 1901 and 1996, followed by some minor changes. But the Dehnungs-H was left untouched in all of these reforms.

Before 1876 German orthography was not officially standardized, but as mentioned before, there was quasi-standards (often with regional or social variations): Everybody tried to write like most of the other writers.

Wikipedia has a long and very interesting article about the German Dehnungs-h. It talks about many different aspects of this strange irregularity. Regarding your question, a sub-paragraph titled »Etymologische Zuordnung« might be interesting for you. It lists different words which have been started to be written with this h in different centuries. The list begins in the 8th century with words like »Ähre, Bohne, Fahne, lehren« etc. and ends with »Ihle« that only in 20th century acquired its h. And for every century between them there is at least one word that added this h.

So, the correct answer is this:

Over the centuries here and there someone thought it was a good idea, to add an h between a vowel that was spoken long and a sonor consonant to mark the length of the vowel (which btw. is redundant in all 128 word stems that have this h), and some other people read it and thought »oh, it looks good with an additional h. I will use it too.«

  • 1
    It could be added that in some cases a spoken h which had become silent was reused as a Dehnungs-h. The Wikipedia article lists a number of examples, among them zehn (ahd. zehan, mhd. zehen).
    – RHa
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 22:00
  • 3
    It lists different words which have been started to be written with this h in different centuries. The century says when the word entered the German language, not when h was used a marker of vowel length.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 22:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.