Grimm’s Law

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This is the fourth part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

Grimm’s Law

The Indo-European family of languages from which English has descended has eight branches including Eastern ones, like Indo-Iranian, Albanian, Armenian and Balto-Slavonic and the Western ones like Greek, Latin, Celtic and Teutonic.  It is from the last of these, namely, the Teutonic branch that English takes its origin.  This Teutonic branch is characterized by certain distinctive features which makes languages like English and German, which have descended from it, stand out from languages belonging to the other branches of the Indo-European family.  These distinguishing qualities of the Teutonic branch are its verbal system, the accent of its words, and the series of sound changes to which the name, ‘the first sound shifting’, has been given.  The sound changes involved in the first sound shifting though originally discovered by a Danish Scholar named Rask were first formulated by a German Scholar (1785 – 1863) named Jacob Grimm.  The law formulated by Grimm has been named after him and is since familiarly known to students of the history of English as Grimm’s Law.

The Danish scholar, Rask, had discovered certain correspondences between some consonant sounds occurring in the words of the classical languages like Sanskrit, Latin and Greek and those of the Teutonic languages like English and Gothic.  Grimm, who studied these correspondences more closely, stated that there is regular shifting of certain series of Indo-Germanic consonant sounds in Teutonic.  The Law as it was originally stated by Grimm referred only to the sound shifting of the Indo-Germanic voiceless stop consonants (p), (t), (k) and (kw).  It has been stated more completely and systematically as a result of the subsequent investigation of the subject.  In its present form, Grimm’s Law includes the following series of changes:

  1. Indo-European voiced aspirated stop sounds, (bh), (dh), (gh), become shifted in Teutonic to the corresponding voiced stop sounds (b), (d), (g).
  2. The Indo-European voice stopped sounds (b), (d), (g), are shifted inTeutonic to the corresponding voiceless stop sounds  (p), (t), (k).
  3. Indo-European voiceless stop sounds (p), (t), (k), (kw) become shifted in Teutonic to the corresponding voiceless open sounds (f), (o), (h), (hw).

To illustrate these sound shiftings, we can take words from classical languages like Sanskrit and Latin.   Latin and Greek are representative of Indo-European sounds because the Indo-European consonant system, as some scholars feel, is best preserved in those languages.  Words from old or modern English or Gothic may be taken to represent the Teutonic sounds.  Thus we may have the following examples for a full illustration of the first consonant shifting:

  1. (i) Indo-European ‘bh’ becomes Teutonic ‘b’

e.g. Sanskrit ‘bharata’ becomes Modern English ‘brother’

,,        ‘bhu’              ,,             ,,                 ,,      ‘be’

,,       ‘bharami’      ,,            ,,                  ,,       ‘bear’

ii)Indo-European ‘dh; becomes Tuotonic ‘d’

e.g. Sanskrit ‘mahya’ becomes Modern English ‘middle’

,,           ‘rudhira’     ,,            ,,                 ,,       ‘red’

,,           ‘dha’           ,,            ,,                 ,,        ‘do’

iii)Indo-European ‘gh’ becomes Teutonic ‘g’

e.g. Sanskrit ‘hamsa’ becomes Modern English ‘goose’

,,             ‘stigh’       ,,             Old English ‘stige’

,,           ‘nidhaga’  ,,             Old German ‘dag’

Modern German ‘tag’

  1. (i) Indo-European ‘b’ becomes Teutonic ‘p’

e.g. ‘lubricus Latin (earlier) slubricus becomes           Gothic ‘sliupan’

Old English ‘slupan’

Modern English ‘slip’

Latin ‘turba’ becomes English ‘thorp’

Sanskrit ‘kubja’ becomes English ‘hump’

(ii)               Indo-European ‘d’ becomes Teutonic ‘t’

e.g.            Latin ‘cordis’ becomes English ‘heart’

Sanskrit ‘dasha’ becomes English ‘ten’

Sanskrit ‘swadu’ becomes English ‘sweet’

(iii)Indo-European ‘g’ becomes Teutonic ‘k’

e.g.            Sanskrit ‘Janu’ becomes Teutonic ‘kniu’ Old English ‘cneo’

Latin ‘genu becomes English ‘knee’

Latin ‘gelu’ becomes Gothic ‘kalds’ English ‘cold’

Sanskrit ‘jna’ becomes Modern English ‘know’

Sanskrit ‘h’ represents Indo European ‘gh’

Sanskrit ‘j’ represents Indo European ‘g’

  1. (i) Indo-European ‘p’ becomes Teutonic ‘f’

e.g.      Sanskrit ‘pita’ becomes English ‘father’

Sanskrit ‘pancha’ becomes English ‘five’

Greek ‘kleptis (thief)’ becomes Old English ‘hfliftus’

(ii)Indo-European ‘t’ becomes Teutonic ‘th’

e.g.      Sanskrit ‘pita’ becomes English ‘father’

Latin ‘tris’ becomes English ‘three’

Sanskrit ‘antara’ becomes English ‘other’

(iii)Indo-European ‘k’ becomes Teutonic ‘h’

e.g.      Sanskrit ‘kva’ becomes Old English ‘hwa’, Modern English ‘how’

Latin ‘canis’ becomes Old English ‘hund’

Sanskrit ‘pacu’ becomes Gothic ‘faihu’, Old English ‘feoh’, Modern English ‘fee’

Grimm’s Law however did not operate under certain conditions, especially when combinative factors were at work to prevent the operation of the law.  For instance, if Indo-European ‘p’ or ‘k’ happened to be followed by ‘t’, the ‘t’ remained unchanged do that from the combination ‘pt’, ‘kt’ we have in Teutonic ‘ft’ and ‘ht’ (Indo-European ‘p’ and ‘k’ being changed by the operation of Grimm’s Law).

For example,   Greek ‘kleptes’ becomes Old English ‘hliftus’

Greek ‘octo’ becomes Old English ‘eahta’

Also if (p, t or k) were preceded by an ‘s’ in Indo-European the combinations remained unchanged in Teutonic as in the following examples:

Sanskrit ‘stigh’ becomes Old English ‘stige’

Latin ‘scrinium’ becomes Old English ‘scrin’

The causes of the sound shifting involved in Grimm’s Law are not clearly known.  It is assumed that the sound shifting was the result of the contacts which the Teutonic people had with the non-Germanic population after the segregation of their dialect from the neighbouring dialects of the parent language.  The contact could have occurred through the migration of the Germanic tribes to fresh territories or from the penetration of a foreign population into Germanic territory.  Whatever it be, the Germanic sound shift which was still occurring as late as the 5th century b.c. is the most distinguishing characteristic marking off the Teutonic languages from the languages to which they were related.

After the formation of Grimm’s Law, it was found that there were certain apparent exceptions to it.  In a pair of words like ‘centum’ and ‘hundred’, the correspondence between the ‘c(k)’ and the ‘h’ was according to Grimm’s Law, but there was no correspondence between the ‘t’ of ‘centrum’ and  the ‘d’ of ‘hundred’.  We should have had a ‘o’ sound according to Grimm’s Law.  Grimm himself was puzzled by the existence of many pairs of words in which the Indo-European (p, t, k) were not represented in Teutonic by the corresponding voiceless open consonants.  As sound laws do not admit of exceptions, it was evident that the presence of the voiced sounds was the result of some  combinative factor at work.  It was left for Karl Verner, a disciple of Grimm, to discover this combinative factor forty years later.