August 14, 2019 100

Grimm’s Law

Grimm’s Law


It’s been over two months since my last video,
but I’ve caught up on schoolwork, dealt with my finals and finally graduated high school.
Now I’m looking forward to heading off to college, but before that I’m excited to be
spending most of this summer doing what I love most: making videos for you guys. And
what better way to kick off this summer than by covering one of the most important ideas
to the history of linguistics: Grimm’s Law. If you watch my channel, odds are you’re pretty
into linguistics, so there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Grimm’s Law. All languages
in the world go through sound changes, where gradually over time some sounds in that language
change into others, and although linguists love listing classifying and sorting all of
these different sound changes, Grimm’s Law is not only by far the most famous sound change
ever described but it’s one of only a few with its own name. It describes one of the
ways Proto-Germanic changed as it evolved from Proto-Indo-European, and, at least in
my mind, Grimm’s Law isn’t just a sound change, it is THE sound change, a reputation which
springs from the fact that Grimm’s Law was quite possibly the first major Sound Change
ever described by modern linguistics. Grimm’s Law was discovered in the early 1800s,
and Linguistics, at the time, was a really, really new thing. I mean, yeah, there were
ancient traditions of linguistics that went back a long ways, Aristotle had spent no small
amount of time describing Ancient Greek phonology and in India people had been studying linguistics
for thousands of years, largely out of interest in preserving Sanskrit, the liturgical language
of Hinduism. The modern, scientific tradition of western linguistics, however, might be
said to have begun in 1786 with with Sir William Jones and a speech he gave to the Royal Asiatic
Society in Calcutta. This was during the colonial era in India, and Sir William Jones was an
Englishman who had been appointed to be a judge in Bengal. While he was in India he
became obsessed with Indian culture, and, being a well-educated Englishman who knew
a fair amount of ancient Greek and Latin, started to notice similarities between these
languages and the ancient Sanskrit that the Indians had preserved. So in his 1786 speech,
he proposed that the three languages were descended from a common ancestor, which we
now know as Proto-Indo-European. Now, this wasn’t the first time someone had
noticed similarities between languages and proposed a common ancestor. Back when Latin
and Ancient Greek were still spoken the Romans noticed that the two languages were pretty
similar, and some thought that Latin was descended from Greek. Later, during the middle ages,
the idea that every language in the world was originally descended from Hebrew was the
norm. This comes from the idea that Hebrew was the original language spoken by Adam and
Noah, and that other languages only appeared when God caused them to diverge in the whole
Tower-Of-Babel story. However, it was Sir William Jones that started the trend in Europe
of systematically comparing the vocabularies of different languages to try to figure out
if they were related or not, and it was only a few decades later that Grimm’s law was discovered.
Now, because there are written records of Ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit from way
earlier than other languages, these languages had changed the least since they had branched
off from their common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, so it was most from these three that linguists
figured out what sounds Proto-Indo-European had to begin with. What linguists reconstructed
was that PIE had fifteen “stop” consonants: p, t, ky, k, kw, b, d, gy, g, gw, bh, dh,
gyh, gh, and gwh. If you can’t tell the difference between the last two rows, don’t worry, I’m
not to good at distinguishing them and we don’t really have equivalents in English.
Just know that the third row is supposed to have a little puff of air after each sound.
They also had some nasal consonants, some liquids, some semivowels, probably just one
fricative, probably some laryngeals, and of course it had a bunch of vowels, but they’re
not as interesting or as relevant to what I’m about to talk about.
Point is, all of these fifteen stop consonants started merging with each other after all
of the different branches split off from each other, but in each branch it happened a slightly
different way. In sanskrit they started pronouncing kw, gw and gwh without the “w” after them,
merging them with the normal k, g and gh. At the same time, the sounds with the “y”
after them started being pronounced as a funky “s” sound, or a j “j” sound or as what I can
only describe as a really, really weird “h” sound. Meanwhile, in ancient greek the ky,
gy and gyh merged with the normal k, g and gh while kw, gw and ghw merged with some other
consonant depending on what vowel came after them. Also, the whole bottom row of breathy
sounds with puffs of air changed from bh, dh, and gh to ph, th and kh, again, different
from the first row only in that it’s more breathy. Finally, Latin merged its y-ish-sounds
with it’s normal ones like greek, but kept the w-ish-sounds. It also got rid of it’s
bottom row by not making it breathy anymore, merging it with the second row.
So, as you can see, there was a lot of changing around of sounds, but for the most part the
sounds in the different languages tend to match up to each other, or at least to something
really similar. Now, when you compare Greek, Latin and Sanskrit words to germanic words
you’d find a whole lot of cognates. You have Sanskrit nama, Greek onoma, latine nomen and
English name, Sanskrit mam, Greek eme, Latin me, and English me. And sanskrit, Greek, Latin
and Old English all had “mus” as their word for “mouse.” But, at the same time, you have
a lot of situations where the oldest three languages would all have similar words for
something, while the germanic languages would have something else. Sanskrit pitar, Greek
pater, Latin pater, English Father. Sanskrit Trayah, Greek treis, latin tres, English three.
Sanskrit pari, Greek peri, latin per, English far.
For a couple decades after the idea of proto-indo-european started to catch on, no one could explain
these words, and it stayed that way until Grimm’s law was discovered by Danish linguist
Rasmus Rask. Rask noticed that Proto-Indo-European bh, dh, gh and gwh correspond to the very-much-not-breathy
Proto-Germanic b, d, g, and gw, while the PIE b, d, g, and gw correspond to the Proto-Germanic
p, t, k and kw, and finally that the PIE p, t, k and kw correspond to a completely new
set of sounds, f, th, x and xw. Later, the x and xw sounds would become h and wh in English.
So, basically, the third row became the second row, the second row became the first row,
and the first row became a completely new row. Also, the ky sounds merged with the normal
k sounds like with Latin and Greek. Now, I can already hear you screaming “but
if Rasmus Rask discovered it, why is it called Grimm’s law?” Short answer, I’m not sure.
Long answer, the credit for discovering it often goes to a guy named Jacob Grimm. You
probably know him as one of the two Grimm Brothers, the guys who wrote Grimm’s Fairy
Tales, but he was also one of the earliest linguists of the modern era. By publishing
his book Deutsche Grammatik he basically founded German linguistics. In this book, he talks
about this sound shift, and this is often sighted as the discovery of Grimm’s Law even
though Rask came first. This sounds unfair, but far as I can tell it isn’t completely
unjustified, because, from what I gather Rask basically just made a big table of which consonants
corresponded to which in modern languages, while Grimm was like these groups of sounds
turned into these other sounds in proto-germanic. I wish I could present that with more certainty,
but most of the sources I found were pretty vague about who said what, and I’d go read
the originals if it weren’t for the fact that I can only ever seem to find them in the original
German. If any of you know German and feel like spending a few months reading these things,
let me know if my assessment of what happened is accurate! Either way, there’s actually
a fair number of people, including myself, who think that Grimm’s law should actually
be called Rask’s Rule, although, granted, I only like it because alliteration is awesome.
Now, all of this is interesting academically of course, at least, I hope you think so if
you’ve watched this much of the video, but I also find it interesting because it’s actually
helped me a little bit with learning Spanish. Spanish is the most common second language
spoken in the US, so I think a lot of you will also find this interesting. Notice how
English has question words that start with “wh,” who, what, when, where and why, while
Spanish has “qu” question words, “quién” “que” “cuando” and “cuantos”? That’s because
in proto-germanic, originally they started with “kw” sounds, but because of Grimm’s law
they changed to “xw,” and later they changed to “wh.” Grimm’s law also explains “house”
versus “casa,” “lips” versus “labios,” “foot” versus “pie,” “for” versus “por,” “cat” versus
“gato.” This sound change may have thousands of years ago, but you can still see its affects
in the two most most common languages in the US today.
Now, the videos about to end, so this is usually the part where I mention my next video. Problem
is, I actually have no idea what my next video will be about. I have about a dozen different
competing ideas and the list is only growing. So, catch me in a few weeks for a video that
will probably have something to do with linguistics.

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