Grimm's law  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Grimm's law (also known as the First Germanic Sound Shift or the Rask's-Grimm's rule), named for Jacob Grimm, is a set of statements describing the inherited Proto-Indo-European (PIE) stops as they developed in Proto-Germanic (PGmc, the common ancestor of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family) in the 1st millennium BC. It establishes a set of regular correspondences between early Germanic stops and fricatives and the stop consonants of certain other centum Indo-European languages (Grimm used mostly Latin and Greek for illustration). As it is presently formulated, Grimm's Law consists of three parts, which must be thought of as three consecutive phases in the sense of a chain shift:

  1. Proto-Indo-European voiceless stops change into voiceless fricatives.
  2. Proto-Indo-European voiced stops become voiceless stops.
  3. Proto-Indo-European voiced aspirated stops become voiced fricatives; ultimately, in most Germanic languages these voiced fricatives become voiced stops.

The chain shift can be abstractly represented as:


Here each sound moves one position to the right to take on its new sound value.

The voiced aspirated stops may have first become voiced fricatives before hardening to the voiced unaspirated stops "b", "d", and "g" under certain conditions; however, some linguists dispute this. See Proto-Germanic phonology.

Grimm's law was the first non-trivial systematic sound change to be discovered in linguistics; its formulation was a turning point in the development of linguistics, enabling the introduction of a rigorous methodology to historical linguistic research. The "law" was discovered by Friedrich von Schlegel in 1806 and Rasmus Christian Rask in 1818. It was elaborated (i.e. extended to include standard German) in 1822 by Jacob Grimm, the elder of the Brothers Grimm, in his book Deutsche Grammatik.


In detail

Further changes following Grimm's Law, as well as sound changes in other Indo-European languages, can sometimes obscure its effects. The most illustrative examples are used here.

Change Germanic (shifted) examples Non-Germanic (unshifted) cognates
*p→f English: foot, West Frisian: foet, German: Fuß, Gothic: fōtus, Icelandic, Faroese: fótur, Danish: fod, Norwegian, Swedish: fot Ancient Greek: πούς (pūs), Latin: pēs, pedis, Sanskrit: pāda, Russian: под (pod), Lithuanian: pėda, Latvian pēda
*t→þ Template:IPA English: third, Old Frisian: thredda, Old Saxon: thriddio, Gothic: þridja, Icelandic: þriðji Ancient Greek: τρίτος (tritos), Latin: tertius, Welsh: trydydd, Sanskrit: treta, Russian: третий (tretij), Lithuanian: trečias, Albanian: tretë
*k→h Template:IPA English: hound, Dutch: hond, German: Hund, Gothic: hunds, Icelandic, Faroese: hundur, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish: hund Ancient Greek: κύων (kýōn), Latin: canis, Welsh: ci (pl. cwn)
*Template:PIE→hw Template:IPA English: what, Gothic: Template:Unicode ("hwa"), Icelandic: hvað, Faroese: hvat, Danish: hvad, Norwegian: hva Latin: quod, Irish: cad, Sanskrit: kád, Russian: ко- (ko-), Lithuanian: kas
*b→p English: warp, West Frisian: werpe, Dutch: werpen; Icelandic: verpa, varpa, Faroese: verpa, Swedish: värpa, Gothic wairpan Latin: verber "rod", Homeric Greek: ῥάβδος (rabdos) "rod, wand", Lithuanian: virbas
*d→t English: ten, Dutch: tien, Gothic: taíhun, Icelandic: tíu, Faroese: tíggju, Danish, Norwegian: ti, Swedish: tio Latin: decem, Greek: δέκα (déka), Irish: deich, Sanskrit: daśan, Russian: десять (desyat'), Lithuanian: dešimt
*g→k English: cold, West Frisian: kâld, Dutch: koud, German: kalt, Icelandic, Faroese: kaldur, Danish: kold, Norwegian: kald, Swedish: kall, Latin: gelū, Greek: gelandrós, Lithuanian: gelmenis, gelumà,
*Template:PIE→kw English: quick, West Frisian: kwik, kwyk, Dutch: kwiek, Gothic: qius, Icelandic, Faroese: kvikur, Danish: kvik, Swedish: kvick, Norwegian kvikk Lithuanian: gyvas,
*Template:Unicode→b English: brother, West Frisian, Dutch: broeder, German: Bruder, Gothic: broþar, Icelandic, Faroese: bróðir, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian: broder Sanskrit: bhrātṛ
*Template:Unicode→d English: mead, East Frisian: meede, Dutch: mede, Danish/Norwegian: mjød Icelandic: mjöður Sanskrit: mádhu 'honey', Homeric Greek: μέθυ methu
*Template:Unicode→g English: goose, West Frisian: goes, guos, Dutch: gans, German: Gans, Icelandic: gæs, Faroese: gás, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish: gås Ancient Greek: χήν (khēn), Sanskrit: hamsa (swan)
*Template:Unicode→ngw (→ng except in Gothic) Gothic: tungwō, English: tongue, West Frisian: tonge, Dutch: tong, German: Zunge, Danish, Norwegian: tunge, Icelandic, Swedish: tunga Irish: teanga, Latin: lingua
*Template:Unicode→gw→w English: warm, West Frisian: waarm, Dutch, German: warm, Swedish: varm Sanskrit: gharmá-, Avestan: garəmó, Old Prussian: gorme,
  • Note: Proto-Germanic *gw from Proto-Indo-European *Template:Unicode has undergone further changes of various sorts. After *n it was preserved as *gw, but later changed to *g except in Gothic. Elsewhere, it became either *w or *g during late Proto-Germanic.

This is strikingly regular. Each phase involves one single change which applies equally to the labials (Template:Unicode) and their equivalent dentals (Template:Unicode), velars (Template:Unicode) and rounded velars (Template:Unicode). The first phase left the phoneme repertoire of the language without voiceless stops, the second phase filled this gap but created a new one, and so on until the chain had run its course.


There are three main systematic exceptions.

1. The voiceless stops did not become fricatives if they were preceded by *s (itself a fricative).

Change Germanic examples Non-Germanic examples
*sp English: spew, West Frisian: spije, Dutch: spuwen, German: speien, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish: spy, Icelandic: spýja, Faroese: spýggja, Gothic: speiwan Latin: spuere, Lithuanian: spjáuti
*st English: stand, Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian: standa, Gothic: standan; West Frisian: stean, Dutch: staan, German: stehen, Danish, Swedish: stå Latin: stāre, Irish: stad, Sanskrit: sta, Russian: стать (stat'), Lithuanian: stoti, Persian: ايستادن (istâdan)
*sk English: short, Old High German: scurz, Icelandic: skorta Lithuanian: skurdus
*Template:Unicode English: scold, Icelandic: skáld, Norwegian: skald; West Frisian: skelle, Dutch: schelden, German: schelten Irish: scéal


  • Some linguists dispute the origin of the word "scold", but Julius Pokorny among others proposed *skwetlo as the assumed root.
  • Dutch has *k → *h (ch) even after *s, though this is a separate development.

2. The voiceless stop *t did not become a fricative if preceded by *p, *k, or Template:Unicode (themselves voiceless stops). The voiceless stop it was preceded by did fricativize, however. This is sometimes treated separately under the heading Germanic spirant law:

Change Germanic examples Non-Germanic examples
*pt→ft Gothic: hliftus "thief" Ancient Greek: κλέπτης (kleptēs), Old Prussian: au-klipts "hidden"
*kt→ht English: eight, West Frisian, Dutch, German: acht, Gothic: ahtáu, Icelandic: átta (pronounced Template:IPA-is) Ancient Greek: οκτώ (oktō), Irish: ocht, Latin: octō
*Template:PIE→h(w)t English: night, West Frisian, Dutch, German: nacht, Gothic: nahts, Icelandic: nótt (pronounced Template:IPA-is) Irish: anocht, Latin: nox, noct-, Greek: νύξ, νυκτ- (núks, nukt-), Sanskrit: नक्तम् (naktam), Lithuanian: naktis, Hittite (genitive): nekuz (pronounced Template:IPA)

3. The most recalcitrant set of apparent exceptions to Grimm's Law, which defied linguists for a few decades, eventually received explanation from the Danish linguist Karl Verner (see the article on Verner's law for details). (This is not necessarily an actual exception: the traditional dating of Verner's Law occurring after Grimm's would mean that the consonants affected did undergo Grimm's Law, and were only changed later.)

Correspondences to PIE

The Germanic "sound laws", combined with regular changes reconstructed for other Indo-European languages, allow one to define the expected sound correspondences between different branches of the family. For example, Germanic (word-initial) *b- corresponds regularly to Latin *f-, Greek Template:Unicode, Sanskrit Template:Unicode, Slavic, Baltic or Celtic b-, etc., while Germanic *f- corresponds to Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Slavic and Baltic p- and to zero (no initial consonant) in Celtic. The former set goes back to PIE *Template:Unicode (faithfully reflected in Sanskrit and modified in various ways elsewhere), and the latter set to PIE *p- (shifted in Germanic, lost in Celtic, but preserved in the other groups mentioned here).

See also

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