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.

14 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. 😉

  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.

  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.).

  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.

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