Verner’s Law

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This is the fifth 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

Verner’s Law

Karl Verner discovered that the variable Indo-Germanic accent was responsible for the hitherto unaccountable voicing of the Germanic voiceless open consonants.  This discovery has been formulated into a law which has been named after him as Verner’s Law.

Verner’s Law satisfactorily explains “the apparent exceptions to Grimm” Law.  Grimm had stated that Indo-Germanic voiceless stop sounds (p, t, k) become voiceless open consonants (f, o, h) in Germanic, in positions other than initial.  Bu these sounds are sometimes seen to be voiced in Germanic.

Stop Consonants:

Consonant sounds produced by the sudden release of air that have been held back (e.g.) p, b, k, g,f, d,; plosive




Verner explained that the reason for this voicing was the position of the Indo-Germanic accent.  According to this Law, when the Indo-Germanic accent did not fall on the vowel immediately preceding the consonants in question become voiced in Germanic.  In West Germanic, the resulting voiced open sound was changed into a voiced stop sound.  Thus the Indo-Germanic ‘t’ in ‘centum’ becomes the West Germanic ‘d’ in ‘hund(red)’ instead of the corresponding voiced open sound which is to be expected according to Grimm’s Law.

For example, the old English verb ‘weoroan’, which is derived from Germanic ‘weroan’ we find the operation of Grimm’s Law because the Indo-Germanic word ‘wert’ has the accent preceding the ‘t’.  But in the third and fourth stems of this verb Old English has the form ‘wurdon’ and ‘worden’ containing ‘d’ sound in place of the voiceless open sound in the first two stems.  This has happened because Old English ‘wurdon’ is derived from Germanic ‘wurtum’ which is, in turn, derived from Indo-Germanic ‘wrutum’.  Thus in the third and fourth stems of the verb, the Indo-Germanic accent, instead of preceding the voiceless stop consonant, follows it.  Therefore it becomes a voiced open sound in Germanic and is, in turn, changed into a voiced stop sound in West Germanic.  This is true of all the voiceless stop consonants of Indo-Germanic as represented in Germanic when the consonants in question are not preceded by the Indo-Germanic accent.  English words illustrating Verner’s Law therefore contain the voiced stop sounds instead of the voiced open sounds in primitive Germanic, because in the West Germanic branch the voiced open sounds at a very early date became changed into voiced stop sounds.

Under the same conditions in which Indo-Germanic (p, t, k) become voiced open sounds in Germanic, Primitive Germanic (s) was voiced to (z).  This in West Germanic usually appears as ®.  Hence we have in the four stems of the verb ‘ceosan’ (ceosan, ceas, curon, corent) the first two stems with an (s) and the last two stems with an  (r ) sound.  The “r ‘ in the modern form ‘were’ is also formed in this way while ‘was’ has an ‘s’.  Verner’s law is thus seen to be of great importance in accounting for the forms of the preterite tense in many strong verbs of English.  Again, we find the operation of Verner’s Law in many causative verbs in English because the Indo-Germanic forms of these had their accent on the ending and not on the stem.  Thus from the verb ‘rise’ we have the causative form ‘rear’.

Verner, by providing an explanation for the apparent exceptions to the sound changes formulated by his master Grimm, has been able to vindicate the claim of regularity for the sound shifting involved in Grimm’s Law.  By pointing out the changed in the conditions in which the two Laws operate, he was able to establish that usually sound laws do not admit of exceptions.