Changes in Grimm’s Law and the Slow Death of Celtic Languages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The Indo-European languages originated not in southern Europe, but in what is now Turkey. Why has the genetic evidence pinned Indo-European speakers to the southern steppes of Russia, thus disagreeing with the Turkey theory?

Photograph of a Russian steppe.
It is believed that Indo-European may have originated from Turkey, but the genetic evidence pins the Indo-European speakers to the southern steppes of Russia.
(Image: Seryogin Dmitry/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Common Yet Deviated

The Indo-European languages had a lot in common but diverged over time. It was almost 6,000 years ago, without writing when people were not thinking the language should change as much, but that it should just move on. For example, one of the groups of Indo-European was Germanic and the languages in Germanic included German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, which were all the same but the speakers unaware of it. Also included were Icelandic, English, and some lesser-known ones like Frisian and Faeroese. Germanic had almost 16 languages in it with a strange sound change from Proto-Indo-European to Germanic that took place known as Grimm’s Law. It was named after Jacob Grimm who helped collect the folk tales.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Grimm’s Law

What happened with Grimm’s Law was that Proto-Indo-European had certain consonants with a shift in them for some unknown reason. For example, if Proto-Indo-European had a p, so that the word for father in a normal Indo-European language like Latin was pater, in a Germanic language it always came out as an f. That’s why it is not pather, but father, German had Vater, and in Sanskrit it was pitár. That’s what a father was supposed to look like in Indo-European language. That is Grimm’s Law doing that.

Painting of the Grimm brothers, with Jacob Grimm on the right.
Grimm’s Law was named after Jacob Grimm (right) who helped collect folk stories. (Image: Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann/Public domain)

If Proto-Indo-European had a t, so that came out as, tenuous in Latin, for us it’s a th, a (th) sound. So, tenuous is thin. Or, for tricolor, that’s one of the Latin-y words, tri-, but for us, it’s three, not tree. If Proto-Indo-European had a d, so that the word for ten in Latin came out as decem, and then borrowed from it is decimal, then the word for it was ten because it went to t. The rules were complicated. There was Grimm’s Law accompanied by a couple of other processes, which meant that Germanic was a strange-sounding language compared to other Indo-European languages.

English is also a strange language in many ways. Being English speakers is like being handicapped and thinking of that as the default language because so many peculiar things have happened. One of them was Grimm’s Law, which really distorted the sound system. So, there were new sounds and languages. One of the reasons that Germanic was a new language is due to Grimm’s Law.

Learn more about the earliest discernible roots in Proto-Indo-European.

Celtic Languages

Vector image which has classification of the Celtic languages.
Celtic languages, a dominant group, were spoken in much of Europe and Turkey. (Image: Elevatorrailfan/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Then, there are the Celtic languages, which are now few and under threat. There is Irish Gaelic and Scotch Gaelic, which are basically different languages. There is Welsh, a Celtic language, and Breton which is spoken across the Channel in France. There were a few, like Cornish and Manx which have died out or have tenuous revival movements.

The Celtic languages were spoken in much of Europe even as far as Turkey. It was a dominant group, but now they’re shoved over into the British Isles and part of France, unlikely to live as everyday spoken languages for more than another few generations.

Learn more about the language ability of humans.

Mutations in Languages

The Celtic languages are interesting languages with verb-first and are famous for their mutations, a peculiar aspect. The order to speak those languages properly is to switch the consonant at the beginning of the word, sometimes conveying the entire meaning. For example, cat is cath. There is a word for his and her, it is one of the many languages that doesn’t distinguish gender. In this language, both his and her are ngh. But, for his cat, it is not ngh cath, but ei gath. For her cat, it is ei chath not ei cath, or ei gath. One cat is just cath.

Hallmarks of the Celtic Language

Reviving one and mastering that is quite difficult to acquire. That is one of the hallmarks of the Celtic languages. There was Proto-Indo-European with no mutation in that language. In Germanic, where it was like somebody with a speech defect passed on the way they spoke to a whole world of people. That’s Grimm’s Law. In Celtic, there were mutations that bedeviled anybody learning that language.

Learn more about Black English and its roots to regional English spoken in Britain.

Holding on to Things

Some Indo-European languages were very conservative, wanting to hold on to their things the way someone holds on to things in their closet that are not of value. There were some Indo-European languages like that; holding on to as much of Proto-Indo-European as they could.

Common Questions about Human Language

Q: What is a consonant shift?

Proto-Indo-European had certain consonants with a shift in them. For example, if Proto-Indo-European had a p, so that the word for father in a normal Indo-European language like Latin was pater, in a Germanic language it always came out as an f. German had Vater, in Sanskrit it was pitár.

Q: What languages are Germanic languages?

German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, and English are Germanic languages, also including some lesser-known ones like Frisian and Faeroese. Germanic had almost 16 languages in it.

Q: What are the six Celtic languages?

The six Celtic languages are Irish Gaelic, Scotch Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and Manx.

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