Grimm’s Law – Part 1

So, this is my first delve into writing about something solely on linguistics and I felt that starting on a topic such as Grimm’s Law would be a great way to begin this blog! Here it goes:

Grimm’s Law is a law/theory in linguistics stating how a series of stop-consonants changed moving from Proto-Indo-European (PIE from now on) to Proto-Germanic. The law is accountable for the differences in words between the Germanic Languages and their PIE relatives such as the Romance Languages.

Grimm’s Law is named after Jacob Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm, who were German writers who wrote many now-famous fairytales, Märchen. The law is attributed to Jacob Grimm because he formalised the statement and linguistic theory in his Deutsche Grammatik, however Grimm was not the first to discover this connection. The Romans and Greeks were aware of the similarities between roots in their languages and before Grimm came Rasmus Rask, a Danish linguist who realised the sound changes that took place into Proto-Germanic and wrote them down in tables.

These sound changes are:
Grimm Law

Which shows how the aspirated consonants, as still found in languages such as Hindi, disappearing during the shift.

Examples of this law in action are:

  • Ancient Greek πούς (poús), Latin pēs/pedis, Sanskrit pāda→English foot, Icelandic fótur with this change being p→f
  • Latin quod, Sanskrit kád, Irish cadEnglish what, Icelandic hvað, Danish hvat where the change is kʷ→hw (this is an extra change from the diagram, all of the right branch also had the aʷ forms), there is the further change of d→t and in Icelandic, this evolves again over time t→θ
    *
    In English, there has been a gradual decline in the use of the hw sound in words, only some dialects still keep this in Northern Scotland and in some American dialects. The hw sound used to be the standard for pronouncing words such as “Who, what, why, where, when”.

    • This same same shift of t→θ is responsible for the difference in question words/interrogative pronouns between Romance Languages and their Germanic counterparts. Note: In Spanish, these words are spelt with a cu but pronounced in a similar fashion to the qu forming the k sound that follows Grimm’s Law.
    • Examples of this are: Spanish CuálCuándo Latin QualisQuando → English How, When

This change was noted not just amongst the ancient languages, but with languages such as Russian, Lithuanian, Irish, Welsh, Albanian etc. being a feature of PIE descendents. As shown:

  • Ancient Greek δέκα (déka), Latin decem, Irish deich, Sanskrit daśan, Russian десять (desyat’), Lithuanian dešimt English ten, Dutch tien, Icelandic tíu, Norwegian ti, here the change is, again, d→t

It should be noted that often endings are lost because they are usually declined grammatically and during the development of language.

Here is a list of the changes that took place, comprehensively:

  • p|f    Latin pater English father (also has t→θ)
  • t|θ    Latin tenuis English thin
  • k|h   Latin cord- English heart (also has d→t)
  • b|p   The b sound was probably rare in PIE so there are few examples of this
  • d|t    Latin dent- English teeth (also has t->θ)
    • In English, there is often the loss of n– a nasal sound before a fricative, i.e θ
  • g|k    Latin gel English cool
    • There are also the set of aspirated consonants that are shifted:
    • bh|b    Sanskrit bhrātr English brother (also has t→θ)
    • dh|d    Sanskrit mádhu English mead
    • gh|g    Greek χήν (khén) English goose (again the nasal sound lost)

However, Grimm’s Law is by no means perfect and examples such as oculus (eye) in Latin, the c (k sound) should’ve become an h sound, yet it didn’t. This change is explained in part 2 of this post on Grimm’s Law, Verner’s Law.

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