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.


73 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.

      • Actually it’s the same sound as, but as Mr. Poldy wrote, it feels unnatural because we’ve had little or no practice uttering the sound that way.

        • I have re-recorded this episode since the original comment was posted. So I think the current description is correct.

      • Hi Kevin you can really hear how the open-mouth ending to a ‘p’ sound can turn to a ‘pfff’ sound by slackening the mouth and not allowing the lips to open much; the top teeth settle on the lower lip and a small amount of air is let through. It comes out when you say ‘provided’ or ‘prophetic’ when you don’t empathise the ‘r’. Some people who have trouble with their ‘r’s speak this way.

    • I actually do both of these. upper against lower is casual F sound … but lower against upper is more forceful and angry sounding… pronunciation is often in the attitude of the speaker

  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.

      • However, one can look at the re-enforcement of teachings in a different light if you consider that, unlike a lecture, a podcast can be replayed, either in whole or part, by the listener when s/he feels it’s necessary. The advantage of taking advantage of the technology/medium would be that the lesson would need to be only a third as long. This, in turn, would enable both teacher and listener to save time, with all its attendant advantages…
        BTW: A fascinating adventure!

  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.

      • As a child at primary school in the UK in the 50s, there were a few teachers who pronounced the “h” as an initial sound in “what” and “where”. At the time I just thought it was posh, but it may well have been their dialect.

    • 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.”

    • Yes, we have some accents in UK like this too which still pronounce “wh” as “hw”. Someone like the political commentator, Andrew Marr does this a lot.

  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.


  9. Wonderful podcasts, thanks for sharing your knowledge. Somewhere a linguist historian will link this information with the nascent science of genomic migrations.

    You mentioned Etruscan connections with Greek city states. Can’t recall why, but I thought Etruscans had connections with Phoenicia.

    • It has been several years since I prepared the early episodes which included the Etruscans. I don’t recall all of my research from that period, but I don’t think I came across a connection to the Phoenicians.

  10. It’s really interesting how the text based meme of misspelling a word actually follows these shifts in spoken language, like gotdamn instead of goddamn, or spelling what as hwat. It’s honestly really neat that there are similarities there when you’d think it’s just random. Language is cool in that it can evolve for ages into varying sounds and patterns and then have it reversed without even knowing you’re reversing it for a joke.
    It’s pretty neat how history is reflected.

  11. I had just finished an audiobook called The Adventure of English by Melvin Bragg a few days ago and was fascinated. Then yesterday I hear Michael Berry talking about your podcast! Well, needless to say after the first episode I was hooked. I do have a question. In the Info-European tree you have, I noticed no mention of Hebrew. So close to the Anatolian and Indo-Iranian area was it so separate/different?

    • Hebrew is part of the Semitic language family – along with Arabic. There was considerable contact between the Semitic and Indo-European language families in the Near East over the centuries. I discuss some of this contact in Episode 12 and Episodes 90-91.

  12. Love this series and I’m getting so much out of it.

    This episode made me realise the similarities between modern-day Hindi and French & Spanish in its words for ‘what’ and ‘who’, respectively ‘kya’ and ‘kaun’ (transliterated, of course).

  13. Oh, thank you Kevin, for your delightful and clear podcast. I was recently introduced to your material by my daughter, a primary grade teacher, and am enjoying it so much. You are explaining so many of the questions I have muddled over for many years.

      • I speak some Indonesian and see some similarities with perhaps Indo-European roots, although Indonesian doesn’t appear to be from proto Indo-European at all. I’m guessing they’re just loan words somehow, since India isn’t all that far away (although it’s decently far).
        Some examples: ‘Satu’, which kind of sounds like the root for a hundred (although satu means one). ‘Seratus’ is a hundred, and perhaps the se- prefix comes from the same root as ‘satu’. Another is ‘dua’, which means two. I think the similarity here is rather stunning. And then maybe a bit of a stretch, but ‘tiga’ is three, and it kind of has a similar sound to ‘tres’, ‘three’, and ‘trois’.

        • Hi Ruth. I can’t address the Indonesian language specifically, but many speakers of multiple languages notice similarities in vocabulary with other non-related languages. Most of the time, that is simply a product of coincidence. Sometimes, it is the result of borrowing. But it is worth noting that most linguists believe that human language began with a specific tribe in Africa over 100,000 years ago. Based on that origin, there is a widespread view that all (or almost all) human languages are ultimately derived from this common source language. We can probably never reconstruct or know the true nature of that earlier ‘proto’ language, but it could explain some modern similarities in vocabulary between otherwise non-related languages. That view is obviously controversial and unprovable, but it is fascinating nevertheless. I actually did a bonus episode at Patreon.com/historyofenglish about that topic.

  14. I just found this podcast and I love it. Is there a visual anywhere for Grimm’s Law in the simple way you explain it or do I have to make one myself?

    I can’t wait to listen to the rest. Thanks.

    • Sorry, I don’t have an illustration. I am sure there are some on the internet. If you find one (or make one), include the link here.

  15. I just started listening to podcasts while walking the dog, and I am loving yours! I alternate between you and the History of China since I’m a total history nerd.
    I’m wondering if you’re from the Intermountain West of the US since you keep pronouncing “important” with a d for the first t. I have rarely heard that pronounciation outside of the area.
    Anyway, keep tham coming, I’m enjoying the podcast a ton.

    • I’m from eastern North Carolina. I think the pronunciation of “important” with a ‘d’ is quite common in American English, so I don’t think it limited to specific regions. However, I definitely have certain pronunciations that are unique to the region where I acquired my accent. Glad you’re enjoying the podcast!

      • I grew up in what was then a small rural town between Philadelphia and Lancaster. A new boy from New York state joined us in 2nd grade. He immediately noticed that I would ask for a cup of “wudder”, which he found endlessly amusing. I teased him back by calling it “waater”, which was only a slight exaggeration of how he sounded to me.
        Later, I found that “wudder” is distinct enough to identify people who grew up not far from my town.

  16. Very interesting!
    In the Hebrew alphabet, which is very close to the phoenician, there is one letter for both the p and f sound. it will change from p to f if a letter is added before the beginning of the word for grammatical addditions. it can be differenciated by a diacritic, which was added much later in history, and still not written in most uses.

  17. Wonderful, wonderful podcast. What a labour of love. Your repetition of basics is so helpful and so naturally delivered. I dipped my toe into the sea of linguistics at university decades ago and am loving this series. It was recommended by a young friend, who, as far as I know, has no background in languages. Your podcasts are reaching a wide audience. I am only at the beginning and I’m looking forward to many enjoyable hours to come.

  18. I fell in love with this podcast. I just love it! I’m a English learner originally from Colombia and I love the English language. Thank you very much Kevin!

  19. So the ‘k’ in Indo-European often becomes an ‘h’ in the germanic languages. Lots of examples; fine. But I’m confused by the word ‘head’: That it Grimmly changed from ‘kaput’ is not hard to see — but the German word is ‘kopf’. I thought that the k –> h shift (when it occurs in a word) is common to all germanic languages. Clearly that’s not so. Is there a way to understand and map this variability in a consistent and historical way?

    • This appears to be a case of the old saying ‘appearances can be deceiving.’ Based on my sources, the German word “Kopf” is unrelated to the English word “head,” and more importantly, is unrelated to the Latin word “caput.” The Modern German word that is cognate with English “head” and Latin “caput” is “Haupt.”

      With respect to “Kopf,” the ultimate origin of the word is unknown. It appears to be a completely separate word derived from another source. One theory is that it was a Germanic borrowing from the Latin word “cuppa” meaning ‘bowl.’ That Latin word gave us the English word “cup” meaning a drinking vessel and may have produced German “Kopf” meaning ‘head’ because the cranium resembles an upside-down bowl or cup. Note the following quote from the etymonline.com entry for “cup”:

      cup – ‘small vessel used to contain liquids generally; drinking vessel,’ Old English “cuppe,” Old Northumbrian “copp,” from Late Latin “cuppa” (cup) . . . De Vaan writes that all probably are from “a non-IE loanword *kup- which was borrowed by and from many languages.” The Late Latin word was borrowed throughout Germanic: Old Frisian “kopp” (cup, head), Middle Low German “kopp” (cup), Middle Dutch “coppe,” Dutch “kopje” (cup, head). German cognate “Kopf” now means exclusively ‘head.’

  20. This is a fabulous podcast. On episode four and loving it. I am currently teaching kids to read and to spell, and this podcast has been very enlightening. English is hard!

  21. In sanskrit ‘pitr’ (father in English) is not pronounced this way. Sanskrit has a very rich accent. It is very hard for English speaking people to pronounce sanskrit words. I do not anything about other languages though but comparing such sophiisticated language like this is not fair in my views. It is believed in Indian culture that the Sanskrit is a language spoken by Gods. We do not have any language prior to this. I still do not understand how Sanskrit could have an anscestor.

  22. This is fantastic – detailed, yet comprehensible. Thanks so much for doing this!

    Do you know if there is a “Grimm’s Law” for shifts between one Chinese dialect and another? Something I have always wondered.

    Thanks again!

  23. A propos the Latin word cornu, horn: the Hebrew (not Indo-European but Semitic) word for horn is keren, very similar to cornu. Is this coincidence, or borrowing, or what?

  24. I’ve just learned of this splendid podcast series and am diving in today for the first time. Fascinating and I hope to listen to them all.
    I’m also reading the comments to this Ep 4 – and have skipped to the end to comment on some consonant shifts I’ve noticed in my own lifetime. I’m a New Zealander and in my 80s. Ignoring the issue of the Kiwi accent, I have been surprised to find two noticeable changes that have occurred since I was at school. My cohort pronounced the sh sound in ‘equation’ as unvoiced, but my children – born when I was in my twenties – all pronounce it as voiced ‘zh’. I’ve asked others of their age or younger and they do the same. Furthermore I always pronounce the wh in ‘when’ where what etc, but my kids (and theirs) think that’s hilarious and say instead ‘wen’ and ‘were’ etc and ignore the ‘h’. I presume such changes can be localised and frequent, but these surprised me.

  25. I am totally hooked with your podcast Kevin. I began listening to it backwards but have now started from the beginning. With each episode, I learn something new about both the language I speak and the history of its many speakers. The beautiful thing about this process is that I feel closer to my own language and better understand the people who once spoke it. I hope that makes sense! Thank you.

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