Episode 4: A Grimm Brother Resurrects the Dead (…language)

The famous fairy-tale collector Jacob Grimm formulated the rules which help modern linguists reconstruct the ancient Indo-European language.  In this episode, we look at Grimm’s Law and how the Germanic languages evolved from the original ancestral language.

22 thoughts on “Episode 4: A Grimm Brother Resurrects the Dead (…language)

  1. I think there is an error in the description of how we make the “f” sound. I put my lower lip against my upper teeth, not my upper lip againt my lower teeth. I can do the latter, and it does sound like an “f”, but it feels most unnatural.

    • You are correct, my description of the ‘f’ sound is off. The sound I described doesn’t really exist in the English language (or any other language that I am aware of). I realized it shortly after I posted the episode. I never fixed the statement because it wasn’t really essential to the episode. I just assume that if anyone catches it, they must really be paying attention. 😉

      • I heard the episode today while driving and found myself trying this out and looking in the rear vision mirror to ser how it looked. Hilarious. I am really enjoying the podcasts and quite excited that there are another 90 or so to go. What an incredible project, thank you Kevin.

  2. Wonderfully enlightening podcast. I knew some but not nearly all about the sound shifts from Indo-European to Germanic. I also agree with Franz Poldy about the wrong way the “f” sound is actually pronounced. Other than that, I learned much.

    • Thanks. I am slowly going back though the old episodes and re-recording a few of them to clean up some minor errors here and there. This episode is on my list. I’ll correct the description of the “f” sound when I re-record it.

      [Just a quick update: As of October of 2017, I have re-recorded this episode and corrected the description of the ‘f’ sound. All should be good with the world now. 😉 ]

      • I’m not sure, but I’ve just heard this episode on Apple’s Podcasts app (I found out about this blog only recently, great work!), and I also noticed the mistake in the ‘f’ sound.
        So… either it is really a coincidence (and I just didn’t understand it correctly), or the feed in Apple’s Podcast app is out dated.

        • Hi Yaniv. Your reply was posted just a few hours after I updated the episode. So I assume the feed was not completely updated when you listened to the episode. It should be updated by now.

  3. I’m a writer and a word nerd, so I’m loving this podcast series. Fascinating. I also appreciate that you repeat the key thoughts several times during the podcast. It’s easy to get lost in the details and by repeating, you help drive home the main point. Excellent example of the writing mantra “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.” Thanks so much

    • Thanks! That is definitely my approach to the podcast. I focus a lot on the content, but I probably spend as much time trying to figure out how to present the material in a simple and orderly way. Glad you noticed.

  4. Hi- I just stumbled upon your podcast and am thoroughly enjoying it. I’m posting this comment on this episode because I think it’s the most relevant spot for it- due to the description of sound shifts from harder consonants to sibillants.

    Tl;dr- thanks to the information in your podcast I suspect the “d” in Brazilian Portuguese is currently undergoing a sound shift to a sibillant version when used before “i” or “e”.

    When I was a child my family moved to Brazil and lived there for several years. My father is Brazilian and his whole family is there, we were also enrolled in Brazilian schools and so picked up the language in about 5 months.

    One thing I remember noting at the time was that sometimes the letter “d” is pronounced like the “d” in dog, and sometimes it is pronounced more like the “g” in the Italian giorno. As I kid I labeled these sounds as hard and soft respectively.

    What’s interesting is that the “rule” for the pronunciation difference follows the one for “c” (sounds like s before i/e, and like k before a/o/u). So the “d” in Dom or dançar will always be hard, but the “d” in de or dia is often, but not always, soft (meaning you could pronounce it either way and both would be considered correct).

    The reason I put rule in quotes above is because this is purely a usage rule. Unlike the pronunciation of “c” it’s not codified, it’s not even really acknowledged. But it *is* real. So thank you for your awesome podcast because it explains something I’ve been wondering about for 30 years. Namely- that the “d” pronunciation in Brazilian portuguese is likely undergoing a sound shift at this very moment in history.

    • Thanks for the information. Each language has its own set of sound changes, and many of them have sounds that are currently in the process of changing – even if listeners do not recognize that the change is taking place.

  5. Just FYI, there are some accents of American English that still pronounce “wh” as “hw” – not in all cases, but in most. I pronounce “white” and “wight” differently, as I do “what” and “watt”, or “when” and “wen”, or “whale” and “wail”. This is probably most famously referenced in the TV show King of the Hill because Hank Hill makes the same distinction. My mostly-Mid-Atlantic friends in college remarked upon it with astonishing regularity, far more than they did my use of “y’all” or Southern colloquialisms (with the notable exception of “I’m all over that like white on rice”, which has the same meaning as “… like a duck on a June bug”. Refined rice is literally white all over. I strongly suspect my “hwite” was hwat drew their attention.).

      • I certainly pronounce the /h/ in who, what, and most other cases. I thought I was normal! My accent is Michigan, with some German influence.

    • Technically, “wh” or “hw” is not H+W, but rather a separate sound known as a voiceless w, or Voiceless labialized velar approximant. The “hw” symbol helps us to visualize how to pronounce it.
      It’s symbol is /ʍ/ but somtimes /w̥/ is used. And yes, some American, British and other dialects maintain it.
      Historically, this is also the “hv” of Old Norse, although modern Icelandic pronounces it /kv/.
      Some early Middle English texts wrote it as “qu” because that voiceless /k/ helped to do the same thing that “h” did. So “quen” can be seen for “when.”
      OE used the H+ formula for other voiceless sounds too, like “hr” “hl” and “hn.”

  6. a small comment aprops my name….. there are two words in German for Field (and, also in English)

    Acker – a field under cultivation (witness AGROS/AGER)
    Feld – a field lying fallow

    Additionally, having some Frisian speakers in my (distant) family I was long ago fascinated by the word for cheese (TSISS) it’s the only cognate I’ve found for cheese in any European Language.

    Bob “A”

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the notes. I also discuss Frisian in more detail in Episode 28.

      By the way, it appears that the Germanic tribes borrowed the word “cheese” from the Romans at a very early date. So believe it or not, the English word “cheese” is actually cognate with the Spanish word “queso.” I actually discuss that etymology in Episode 34.

  7. I’m just starting this podcast. I’m 43 and I love etymology and I think this is one of the best resources out there. I’m not a trained linguist, but I speak English, French, German, and Danish (In order of acquisition from birth to Age 20. Learning the languages, you don’t get but a smattering of linguistics, so this it awesome. I loved the book The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson (and its companion Made In America) so I think that’s how I learned to love this field. I’m just so ecstatic that there is this resource, thank you! PS. I was flummoxed to learn that out of our first 50 commonly used words that “to use” is the only non-germanic word. What was the Old-English/ Middle-English word for that?

    • Hi Kris. Thanks for the comments. I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. To answer your question, Old English used the word ‘brucan’ which meant ‘to use, spend or enjoy.’ There were also a few other Old English words with similar meanings.

  8. Very cool.

    I can see how the sound shifts would work to construct the earlier vocabulary, but language is more than just vocabulary. How confident are linguists that the meaning didn’t shift as the sound shifted.

    Example: You cited the g -> k sound in gens to kin — and yes they both have to do with genetic relationships. But somehow I don’t think that a norhtern european tribesman thought of ‘kin’ the way a Roman thought to gens.

    What about grammar? What about world view? I live in Alberta. Winter has a very different meaning to me than to someone who grew up in Florida. We use the same word. We say it more or less the same way. (I can’t do the charming accent from the southern U.S.) and declaratively they have at least one meaning in common.

    But experience tells: My Florida friend doesn’t understand the connotations of winter: “Cabin fever” ‘seasonal affective disorder’ *really, really cold.” Nor have they experienced shoveling the driveway just in time to have the city plow barricade the end of the driveway; the fear that you actually could die if your car breaks down on a lonely road; the pain of frostbite thawing; the need to put on several layers; of consulting the weather before going anywhere.

    I remember reading an essay about, I think, Tlingit language which is an aglutinative language. The sentence was simple in English: The boat landed on the shore. The transliteration of what was said in Tlingit was something like ‘pointwise on sand debarkation’ There was no word for boat — that as assumed. No word for shore. That was assumed.

    How do you reconstruct the rest of the language beyond vocabulary.

    Can you realistically reconstruct a dead language well enough to actually communicate in it?

    • Hi Sherwood,

      I am not a historical linguist, so I am not sure I can really answer your question. It is my understanding that linguists reconstruct the actual words base upon linguistic developments in the language. As to the ultimate meaning of those words, that can also be reconstructed to a certain extent if the modern meaning in consistent among the various Indo-European languages. So for example, linguists are confident that the Indo-European root of “father” and “pater” meant ‘father’ since that word has that meaning in all of the modern Indo-European languages. For many other Indo-European root words, the original meaning is less certain because the current meanings are more variable.

      It is important to keep in mind that Proto-Indo-European is ultimately a ‘theoretical’ language since it was never attested during the period in which it was spoken. The PIE period covers a couple of thousand years, so it is likely that there was never a specific group of people who spoke all of the words in the reconstructed PIE vocabulary with the specific meanings given today. So I agree that we have to be flexible in working with the concept of a reconstructed language.

      • Interesting points. I did grow up in a cold climate, however have chosen skin cancer and bugs over snow. It’s always difficult to describe to someone in, for example, Alberta, that we do in the summer, exactly what he or she does in winter. We do however use the words to describe the time of year. We also have the added “Monsoon Season”. so yes. everything is relative. It’s like asking an accountant any question at all, the answer is always, “it depends”.

        When i’m thinking about all of this, in my mind it follows the same rule that everything else in the world seems to follow. Time equals Specialization. I like to imagine that the PIE’s were frustratingly vague. In fact, I think that our wonderful, articulate, language is what makes it so difficult to learn foreign languages (if English is your first). I’m learning hungarian at the moment and there is no gender, no ‘he’, no she’, you never say ‘I’. it seems like half of the language is implied. drives me up a wall.

        All of that said, as the new epoch emerged after the last glacial period, I’d gather that lots of things had very different definitions. Human history has had so many swings in weather, climate, years without summer from volcanic eruptions, crop failures that have contributed to revolutions. I think that people of the past had more solidarity, therefor less need to articulatly detail the fine anatomy of a complex position. they had kings who took their stuff, and stuff that the kings took. You didn’t need too much to show displeasure. remember, Human history is cold, wet, infected with plagues, full of child mortality and sadness. There’s good stuff too, but back in the days of kings, I don’t think you needed to even bother with a word for some widget.

        So in my hobbyist opinion, yes, you probably could reconstruct a dead language well enough to communicate, but I think that the word “communicate” itself would need some loosening in definition to what we, as modern, articulate people, in a complicated world, would find satisfying.

        -Paul

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