Happily Ever Apter: Grimm’s Law

Chalkboard Linguistics

Sucking up to teachers is highly underrated as a method of discovering lifelong passions.

Let me back that statement up with a story. In sixth grade I decided that a great way to impress my English teacher would be to write a research paper on the history of the English language. Instant A! How could she resist?

It did end up being an A paper, but mostly because what I found was so interesting that I couldn’t help putting forth my best effort. I had always loved words and reading, so talking about Old English verb forms and pronouns and vowel shifts was a natural extension. Suddenly, even just scraping the surface of the English language’s rich history, I understood so much more. It’s made my enjoyment of English richer and helped me pick up other languages more easily, and if you’re a puzzle-solving kind of person, it’s just a lot of fun.

There’s so much great material in the field of linguistics, and I’m looking forward to subjecting you to that from time to time, but today I’m going to talk a bit about Grimm’s Law. This law describes how Germanic words have developed from the roots they share with other languages classified in the Indo-European family, and was named for the man who included it in his 1822 book Deutsche Grammatik—not to be confused with the other books he published with his brother, which involved a lot of “once upon a time” and “happily ever after”.

Yeah, that Grimm. Jakob and his brother Wilhelm did indeed collect different versions of many folk tales (somewhat edited for their own purposes, but that’s another story), and in the process listened to how German was spoken, with all of its variants, dialects, and regional eccentricities. That work helped Jakob in his analysis of modern German, using the variations he encountered to reconstruct the common changes that differentiated German and its closest relatives from more distant languages.

Grimm’s Law describes the development of German and other Germanic languages (including English) as part of the Indo-European language family. This is often imagined as a tree, with several major branches and a host of smaller branches and twigs that represent the hundreds of languages that have developed from Proto-Indo-European, the theoretical common ancestral language. (This is often abbreviated PIE. Tasty!)

IE Language Tree.png

Nutritious and Engliscious!

For several hundred years, casual tourists, historians, and yes, even linguists have been noticing the similarities between languages spread all over Europe and parts of Asia. Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit are all part of this family, which gave Western scholars a great place to start with analyzing and comparing past and present languages.

The Romance languages that derived mostly from Latin, like French, Italian, and Spanish, have tons of cognates, or related words that indicate their common ancestry. You can see some unmistakably related words even between Latin and Greek: “ten” is decem in Latin and déka in Greek. (Number words show some of the most obvious resemblances; check out the numbers one through ten in a dizzying array of Indo-European languages!) English, being the result of many different influences, contains words based on cognates from many languages, with Romance and Germanic languages being huge contributors. (Now you know one reason why we have so many synonyms!)

What Jakob Grimm, and before him von Schlegel and Rask, showed was that in Germanic languages, some of the consonants from the Proto-Indo-European roots have changed systematically in different ways from other languages. As a result, some modern cognates between Germanic and non-Germanic languages take a little more detective work to recognize, but they’re there once you know what to look for.

I’ve provided examples of this divergence for three specific patterns:

PIE bh ⇒ Romance p but Germanic f

PIE dh ⇒ Romance t but Germanic th

PIE gh ⇒ Romance k (usually written as c) but Germanic h

You can compare the Germanic-derived English words in blue with Latin cognates that have developed from the same PIE root, in red. (Remember, cognates aren’t direct descendants or ancestors, more like cousins. These English words haven’t changed from the Latin words, they developed in parallel with them…or the Proto-Germanic words did. The English words are like cousins a few times removed.)

Grimm's Law

I’m no linguist, so this is only a simplified version of Grimm’s Law, and that’s just the very tip of the iceberg of linguistic rules that have been developed during the last few centuries. It’s enough to make you think twice about words you know, though! English has a huge variety of words that have taken different tracks from PIE roots before all ending up in the same language again—paternal and father, trinity and threecornucopia and horn, just to give a few examples.

Once you know a little about language history, my experience is that you’ll want to learn more. Luckily, there are a lot of cool resources out there to start your linguistics addiction! You can find some great book recommendations here, but you probably can’t go wrong with Steven Pinker and John McWhorter. Check out a dictionary of linguists’ best guesses of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European roots here, and read up more on the hundreds of existing Indo-European languages.

In my recent reading, Written in Stone is a pretty entertaining explanation of some of the most common Proto-Indo-European roots, bringing in many of the English words that descend from these roots. Based on my reading and some reviews, it contains some folk (a euphemism for wrong) etymology, but it might spark your interest and make you think about how many words can branch out from a root meaning.

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3 thoughts on “Happily Ever Apter: Grimm’s Law

  1. Pingback: Science in Fiction: C.J. Cherryh and Sociology | Something of the Marvelous

  2. Pingback: Languages Under Construction | Something of the Marvelous

  3. Pingback: Double Featural: Tengwar and Hangul | Something of the Marvelous

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