Consonant Shift : Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law

Consonant Shift : Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law

Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law help to explain the Consonant Shift that characterises the Germanic Languages and how it evolved out of Indo-European family.

The English language may be said to have taken its start when the Germanic tribes settled in Britain in the fifth century after the Romans had abandoned the British province in 412 A.D. These Germanic settlers were cut off from their original intercourse with their kinsmen on the continent, and the German dialects which they spoke ultimately fused into one language. By being isolated from the continent, the English language developed its own distinctive features.

The dialects spoken by the settlers of England belonged to the great Germanic (or Teutonic) branch of the Indo European (or Indo-Germanic) family of language. The characteristic variations of the Germanic languages are:

1. Consonant Shift

2. Stress Shift

3. Regularised Tense System.

Consonant Shift/ Grimm’s Law

The Germanic Group of languages tended to change certain original Indo-European consonants into other consonants. This change was done consistently and regularly. German philologist Jacob Grimm formulated a law in relation to this. According to Grimm, if a number of Latin words are placed alongside their equivalents in the Germanic languages, so that they can be easily compared, it almost invariably happens that where there is a “p” in Latin, the corresponding Germanic word has an “f”; where there is a “t” in Latin, the corresponding Germanic word has a “th”; where there is a “d” in Latin, the corresponding Germanic word has a “t” etc.

He concluded that, the Italic group of languages had kept the Indo-European consonant system almost intact, the Primitive Germanic group had changed it methodically. The law thus formulated came to be known as the “Grimm’s Law”.

Grimm’s Law can be considered a chain reaction where aspirated voice stops become regular voiced stops, voiced stops, in turn, become voiceless stops, and voiceless stops become fricatives .

In a simplified form Grimm’s Law may be stated as:

1. I.E. bh, dh, gh -> b,d,g in O.E.

2. I.E. b, d, g -> p, t, k in O.E.

3. I.E. p, t, k -> ph, th, kh (h) in O.E

I.E= Indo European  O.E.= Old English (Germanic)


Let us see some examples where Sanskrit has retained the original Proto Indo European consonants which changed in Germanic languages such as English:

Sanskrit English Shift
bhu be bh>b
bhar bear bh>b
dha do dh>d
rudhira red dh>d
sabor sap b>p
pad foot p>f
janu knee g>k

Now let us see the illustration taking example of LATIN

Latin English Shift
tres three t>th
centum hundred k>kh(h)
cornu horn k>kh(h)
pater father p>f

Grimm’s Law had certain limitations which was explained by the Verner’s Law.

Verners Law: According to Danish philologist Verner, the operation of the law of Consonant HSift depended on the position of the accent. Grimm’s Law was valid when the consonants occurred initially or were preceded by an accented vowel. For example “p” in Sanskrit “pad” changed into “f” in English “foot” because “p” in “pad” occurred at the start of the word. Again, “t” in Sanskrit “antara” was preceded by accented (stressed) vowel “a” ; therefore it changed to “th” in English “other”.

On the other hand, “p”, “t” “k”, when preceded by an originally unaccented vowel, did not shift to “ph”, “th”, “kh” but shifted further to “b”, “d”, “g” respectively. For example, in the Sanskrit word “antar”, the accent is on the second “a”. Therefore the “t” is not preceded by any accented vowel (the accent falls after the “t” and not before it). Therefore, it changed to “d” in English “under” and not “th” following Grimm’s Law.

An example showing both Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law is the shift observed from Sanskrit “tritiya” to English “third”. The accent (stress) in the original word was on the first “i”. The first T follows Grimm’s Law and becomes “th” while the second “t”, occurring after the accented “i”, follows Verner’s law and changes to “d” in “third”.

Therefore we may conclude that Verner’s Law complements Grimm’s Law and provides a better understanding of the Consonant Shift seen in Germanic Languages.

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