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Grimm Scholarship: The First Sound Shift


One of the first major puzzles 18th and 19th century scholars faced with proto-Indo-European was explaining certain sound shifts. The shift between Latin pater ("father") and Spanish padre is fairly clear to see in Romance languages--basically the /t/ has changed to a /d/. That's a fairly small step linguistically. Both /t/ and /d/ are alveolar stops, so they are basically the same sound. The only difference is that /d/ is voiced (i.e., the vocal cords vibrate) and /t/ is unvoiced (i.e., the vocal cords don't vibrate).

However, a great number of words in Indo-European languages have what at first looked like inexplicable shifts with no perceivable simple pattern--especially those in the Germanic branches. How could a single source word develop into both the Old English faeder ("father") and the Latin pater? The letters /f/ and /p/ aren't closely related at all in pronunciation--since /p/ is a bilabial stop and requires lip articulation rather than a spirant or fricative like /f/. It was quite the brain-boggle for many decades.

Luckily, a scholar of fairy-tales came in to save the day and rescue the puzzled philologists. The unlikely savior was the folklorist Jakob Grimm. He, along with his brother Wilhelm, studied märchen, or fairy tales. You probably have heard of Grimms' Fairy Tales or the Brothers Grimm. This Jakob Grimm fellow is the same scholar who collected them--along with his brother. The Grimm brothers were multilingual (scholars had to be to collect folklore from all over Europe in the 19th century), and they had an excellent background in philology. Jakob Grimm saw a pattern in the consonant shifts. Along with a Danish contemporary named Rask, Grimm came up with a theory in 1822 to account for correspondences between consonants found in Germanic languages with different consonants found in Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. This rule is called Grimm's Law: Here it is in all its tripartite philological glory:

Grimm's Law #1: (a) A word beginning a voiceless stop such as /p/ in most Indo-European languages has for its cognate sound an aspirant /f/ in Germanic languages. (b) A word beginning in a voiceless stop such as /t/ in most Indo-European languages has as its cognate sound an aspirant // ("th") in Germanic languages. (c) A word beginning in a voiceless stop such as /k/ in most Indo-European languages has as its cognate sound an /h/ in Germanic languages.

This is not as complex as it looks. Basically, the rule can be summarized as follows:

Germanic Words Beginning With . . . Will Have Indo-European Cognate Words Beginning With the Sound of . . .
f
p
th ()
t
h
k
The idea is that initial sounds such as /t/, /p/, and /k/ in most Indo-European languages (and the initial letters <f>, <th>, and <k> in Germanic Indo-European languages) originally came from now-vanished aspirated vocal stops such as /bh/, /dh/, and /gh/, which we no longer use much in modern languages, but which must have appeared in proto-Indo-European. In these examples, the <h> after each initial letter represents a puff of air or aspiration blown out after the consonant. While it is linguistically unlikely for a /p/ to change into an /f/ under normal conditions, it is fairly easy for a /bh/ to change into either a /f/ or a /p/, and so on. This would easily explain certain disparities and simultaneously give us a fairly good idea of how certain words were pronounced in the lost language of proto-Indo-European.

Let us now test-drive Grimm's Law. Here are some examples that illustrate his rule about /f/ and /p/ as cognates. In the column for proto-Indo-European, the initial asterisk indicates a hypothetical reconstruction, and a hyphen at the end indicates the word is the stem only--in normal use it would have a declension attached on the end to indicate its part of speech.

Original proto-Indo-European word Latin, Greek Cognates Germanic Cognate
*pisk ("fish")
pisces (Lat. "fish")
(cf. pesco in Spanish)
fish (English)
fisc (Anglo-Saxon)
*peter ("father")

pater, pater ("father")

(cf. padre in Spanish)

father
*pel ("skin")
pellis ("pelt")

fell (German, "animal hide")

cf. English felt

*pur- ("fire")
pyr- (Greek, "fire")
(cf. pyromania in English)
fire
*portu- ("passage")
portus (Lat. "entryway")
(cf. portal and port in English)
ford
*pulo- ("bird")
pullus (Lat. "rooster")
(cf. poultry in English)
fowl
*ped- ("foot")

pes / ped(em) (Lat. "foot")
pod-, pos- (Greek, "foot")

(cf. English pedal, pedometer, bipedal, podiatry, and cephalopod, or pie in Spanish and French)

foot

Here are some examples that illustrate Grimm's rule about /t/ and /th/ as cognates.

Original proto-Indo-European word Latin, Greek Cognates Germanic Cognate
*treyes ("three")
tres (cf. tres in Spanish)
trios (Greek)
three
*ters- ("thirsty, dry")
torrere (Lat, "to dry")
thirst
*tonuh- ("loud")

tonare (Lat. "to make noise")

(cf. tone and tune in English)

thunder
*tu ("you," familiar)
tu (cf. tu in Spanish and French)

u (Old English "you")

thou (Middle English)

*tum- ("fat" or "swollen")

tumere (Lat. "to swell")
tumor ("a swelling")

(cf. tumescent, tummy, stomache)

thumb (i.e., "the fat finger")

Here are some examples that illustrate his rule about /k/ and /h/ as cognates.

Original proto-Indo-European word

Latin, Greek Cognates Germanic Cognate
*korn- ("horn")

cornu (Lat. "horn")

cf. Modern English cornucopia ("horn of plenty") and coronet ("crown")

horn
*kap- (a taking or grabbing?)

capere (Lat. "to take, to seize")

cf. Modern English captive

have, heave

*kerd- ("center" or "heart")

cor, cordis (Lat. "heart")

(cf. cardiac, cordial, core)

heart
*ker- ("beast," "deer")
cervus (Lat. "hart")

hart

*kwod ("what")
quod (Lat. "what")
what (Old English hwaet)
*kel- ("covering," or "sealed in")

celare (Lat. "to hide")

(cf. English cellar)

hall, hell
*kemtom ("hundred")

centum (Lat. "hundred")

(cf. English century, percent)

hundred

 

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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2014. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated September 3, 2014. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.