Mysteries of my field of study revealed: the Birth of Historical Linguistics

The third of a three part series. See the others here:

Part 1: The Indo-Europeans

Part 2: The Tools of the Trade

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Earlier I made mention of the consistency of sound changes, what the nineteenth-century German grammarians called the Ausnahmslosigkeit der Lautgesetze (the “exceptionlessness of sound change”) . The catalyst for this principle, which was in turn the catalyst for the existence of the discipline of historical linguistics, was the product of the work of two men, the first of whom was a German named Jakob Grimm (one of the Brothers Grimm who compiled the German folktales) in 1820.

Grimm, like others, recognized that the Germanic languages (among which are German, Dutch, Gothic, the Scandinavian languages, and English) share a common ancestor with Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, based on a large number of vocabulary words whose phonetic similarities are too similar to be coincidental. Grimm’s important insight was that, in almost every word that appears to be related among Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and the Germanic languages, words that had the consonants p, t, or k in the non-Germanic languages showed up in Germanic with the consonants f, þ (the “th” in think) or χ (as in German Bach) instead. He also noted that Gk/Lat/Skt b, d, g generally corresponded with Gmc p, t, k. The Gk, Lat, and Skt consonants that we now know come from Indo-European *bh, *dh, *gh he saw as corresponding with Gmc b, d, g (simplified here from a close phonetic variant). All three correspondences make up what we now call Grimm’s Law: in other words, he saw a method to the madness and was able to accurately predict the sorts of sounds that made Germanic the odd man out where Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit agreed with one another. Here’s an example.

Skt. pitar-, Lat. pater, and Gk. pater obviously correlate in some way with English father and German Vater (the “v” is pronounced like an f): so we have relationship between Gk/Lat/Skt p and the phonetically similar Gmc f, which was originally pronounced with both lips together. Likewise, Skt bhratar, whose first consonant bh continues Indo-European *bh, shows up in Germanic in the English word brother; bh vs. b.

Grimm’s Law explains one way in which Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit (most of all) better reflected the original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) pronunciation of the stops *p, *t, *k, *b, *d, *g, *bh, *dh, and *gh. One of the defining markers of the Germanic subgroup was this sound change that turned all those original consonants above into f, þ, χ, p, t, k, b, d, and g respectively. In tabular format:

First series: PIE *p, *t, *k > Gmc *f, *þ, *χ

Second series: PIE *b, d, *g > Gmc *p, *t, *k

Third series: PIE *bh, *dh, *gh > Gmc *b, *d, *g

This sound law accounts for many, many consonant differences between Gmc and Indo-European, but not all. The voiceless stops *p, *t, and *k occasionally did not show up as *f, *þ, and *χ as expected from the first series, but as *b, *d, and *g (the output of the third series)! It was not until 1875 that the Dane Karl Verner explained that all those exceptions to Grimm’s Law had their very own systematic explanation. The times when the PIE consonants did not undergo the expected sound change were cases in which 1) the consonant was not at the beginning of the word or 2) the vowel in the syllable immediately preceding the consonant carried the accent. This is now called Verner’s Law.

With the discovery that even the “exception” to the otherwise very regular (consistent) Grimm’s Law was itself regular, these early linguists were handed exciting evidence that sound change is carried out very regularly and systematically throughout the language, and hence can be reverse-engineered, “reconstructed” with a significant level of certainty that what is reconstructed will be accurate. Thus was the science of the comparative method born, and so the discipline of historical linguistics.

Is sound change truly exceptionless? Perhaps not, but no one ever really claimed it was: there are many cases in which the sound change for a few isolated words seems to have been reworked or replaced by other forms to make things seem uniform (the process called “analogy”). These exceptions are usually explainable on their own terms, and do not invalidate the sound change that took place on a broad scale for the vast majority of words; for instance, a particular word can be adopted from another language or dialect in which the sound change was absent or not as thorough-going. Nonetheless, instead of “exceptionlessness”, we now speak about the regularity of sound change that allows us to create sound laws that occasionally admit an exception here or there.

* In case anyone came down here to look for what the asterisks stood for, let me explain that unattested (reconstructed) sounds and words are marked by a preceding asterisk. Any word, root, or affix cited as being a PIE form should have an asterisk, since no one ever wrote anything down in PIE.

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The third of a three part series. See the others here:

Part 1: The Indo-Europeans

Part 2: The Tools of the Trade

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  • Really interesting stuff. I just love those huge German words. Exceptionlessness. Cool.

  • Really interesting stuff. I just love those huge German words. Exceptionlessness. Cool.

  • Yeah, I wish we could get away with such things.

    I had an American professor impossibly fluent in German. His command of Hochdeutsch (the standard dialect) was startlingly good for someone who didn’t begin learning the language until college, and he has even picked up a lot of the various (quite distinct) dialects of German. He once told us that it is common for native speakers to form compounds like “Ausnahmslosigkeit” and no one seems to bat an eye. One time when he was in Germany, he casually composed a compound in conversation. The Germans he was in dialogue with shook their heads at him in a way that communicated that when a non-native speaker tries to coin a compound, it just doesn’t work. He never tried that again.

  • Yeah, I wish we could get away with such things.

    I had an American professor impossibly fluent in German. His command of Hochdeutsch (the standard dialect) was startlingly good for someone who didn’t begin learning the language until college, and he has even picked up a lot of the various (quite distinct) dialects of German. He once told us that it is common for native speakers to form compounds like “Ausnahmslosigkeit” and no one seems to bat an eye. One time when he was in Germany, he casually composed a compound in conversation. The Germans he was in dialogue with shook their heads at him in a way that communicated that when a non-native speaker tries to coin a compound, it just doesn’t work. He never tried that again.