The History of English Podcast - Episode 4: A Grimm Brother Resurrects the Dead (…language)

Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English


In this episode, we’re going to look at how a fairy tale collector helped to resurrect

a dead language, specifically the Indo-European language.

In the last couple of episodes, we’ve looked at William Jones’ discovery that almost

all the languages of Europe, as well as several languages of Central Asia, were all descended

from an ancient common ancestor.

And in the last episode, we looked at the various languages that descended from that

ancestral language, and which are part of the Indo-European family tree.

But keep in mind that even though early linguists concluded that all of those languages had

evolved from an ancient ancestor, they actually knew very little about that original language.

They didn’t really know what it sounded like, where it was spoken, or when it was


There were some early guesses, but that was about it.

In this episode, we’re going to look at how early linguists actually began to reconstruct

large portions of that original Indo-European language.

And this is actually a fascinating story as it relates to English, because much of the

initial research in the area of Indo-European languages was conducted in Northern Europe,

and especially in Germany.

And this naturally included a great deal of research into the early Germanic languages.

And since English is a Germanic language, this research revealed a great deal about

the history of English as well.

And in fact, one of the most important researchers in this area was a well-known collector of

German folktales, Jacob Grimm of Brothers Grimm fame.

So in this episode, we’ll turn our attention to Germany and the set of rules which are

known today as Grimm’s Law.

We’ll also look at how linguists have used Grimm’s research to reconstruct large portions

of the original Indo-European language, which hasn’t been spoken for over 4,000 years.

So let’s pick up where we left off back in Episode 2.

In that episode, we saw how a British judge in India named Sir William Jones determined

that a wide array of languages were related.

This included most of the languages of Europe and several important languages in the Near

East and the Indian subcontinent.

And as we saw in the last episode, this family of languages includes many extinct languages,

known as dead languages, in the same regions.

Jones’s lectures sparked an intense interest in the study of the Indo-European languages

and the ways in which they were connected.

The entire discipline of linguistics was developed in the 1800s in large part to determine which

languages belonged to the Indo-European family and which did not.

In the early 1800s, a German linguist named Franz Bopp studied the conjugation and structure

of Sanskrit in relation to European languages, and it was soon confirmed that Sanskrit was

indeed a relative of Latin, Greek, Modern English, and most other European languages.

These researchers also concluded that the ancestors of the Europeans and those of the

Hindus were at one time living together, and they spoke this common, shared language.

Now I mentioned that Franz Bopp was German, because the study of linguistics and Indo-European

ancestry was as intense in Germany during this period as anywhere else in the world.

And not surprisingly, many of the most important early linguists were German or Austrian.

And as I said, this is actually a good thing from the perspective of English history, because

these linguists were looking primarily at the Germanic languages, of which English is


So why was Germany the source of so much early research in linguistics?

Well, we can probably boil it down to one famous name, and he wasn’t even German.

He was a Frenchman named Napoleon Bonaparte.

In the late 1700s, Germany didn’t really exist, at least not as a unified state in

the sense that we know it today.

It was a conglomeration of around 300 separate political units, cities, independent states,

and provinces.

Neighboring France was really the dominant power in continental Europe, and by contrast,

Germany was a bit of a rough, disorganized backwater.

There was little industry and a very small urban population in Germany as compared to


And during Napoleon’s reign, he invaded and conquered the Germanic territories.

And as a result, these territories came to be occupied by French armies.

And while Germany was under the control of Napoleonic France, and in the wake of that

occupation, a sense of German nationalism started to emerge.

It began as a resistance movement against the French, but it soon blossomed into a pan-German

movement which sought to unify the historic German peoples.

The Germans began to embrace a national unity, and they rejected all things French, including

the ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

Instead, they advocated for a common Germanic literature, thought, and culture.

This meant a return to native German roots.

A German national character was encouraged, and foreign elements, especially French influences,

were rejected, and in some cases, outright prohibited.

Now this may seem very reasonable and innocent during this early period in the early 1800s,

but it ultimately led to an extreme and very dark place in the 20th century with the rise

of fascism and Nazism.

And in fact, the evolution of the term Aryan, from its original use as the term for the

first Indo-Europeans, to its 20th century association with racism, is part of that misapplication

of linguistic research to perpetuate notions of racial superiority.

Unfortunately, language and ethnicity started to be mixed together and confused.

And it’s a warning to all of those who are not careful to distinguish language and ethnicity.

But that dark period came later.

For now, I want to focus on this earlier, more innocent period of German nationalism

in the early and mid-1800s.

During this period, scholarship and study into the history of the German language exploded.

Remember that during the period in which there was no unified German state, the one thing

that most of these people had in common was a shared language, and a general sense that

at some time in the ancient past they had been part of a larger, more unified Germanic


But the exact nature of that common Germanic character was unknown.

What did it mean to be German?

It was into this period of self-discovery that a couple of brothers appeared as collectors

of Germanic folktales.

These were, of course, the famous Brothers Grimm.

In many ways, they were a product of this early, burgeoning German nationalism.

Jacob Grimm confirmed this when he wrote in a letter that, quote,

All my works relate to the fatherland, from whose soil they derive their strength, end


So we can look at the collection of folktales by the Brothers Grimm as part of this larger

attempt to rediscover the native German culture and spirit.

And these collections of folktales were immediately and immensely popular, not just in Germany.

Closely tied to the collection of these German folktales was the study of the history of

the German language and German literature.

As I’ve said, one of the few unifying factors of the German people was their shared language.

It’s therefore easy to see why this particular area was the subject of extensive research

and investigation to determine exactly what the German nature was.

I mentioned earlier in this episode that some of the early work in this area was conducted

by a German linguist named Franz Bopp, who studied the conjugation and structure of Sanskrit

in relation to European languages.

But as you’ll see, there were many others contributing to this research.

They were all part of this burgeoning field of study called comparative linguistics.

That just means comparing different languages to identify common features and to discern

from those similarities certain things about the history of the languages.

Much of this early work concerned sound changes from early versions of a language through

later versions.

In other words, linguists were looking at different languages and trying to identify

how the pronunciation of certain words and sounds had changed over time.

Much of the early work in this area was conducted by Friedrich von Schlegel and Rasmus Rask.

But it was Jacob Grimm, the fairy tale collector, who built upon their earlier work and is the

most famous researcher today because he documented the specific sound changes in detail.

Jacob spent an extensive amount of time studying the Germanic languages.

His brother Wilhelm appears to have been more involved in the actual collection of the folktales,

and Jacob eventually focused more on the study of the language itself.

He was a renowned linguist, and he lived in the first half of the 1800s in a society in

which there was this burgeoning sense of German nationalism and in which there was

an exploding interest in the German language and linguistics.

Prior to Grimm’s work, it was difficult to determine with any certainty whether two or

more similar words in different languages were cognates, meaning that they had evolved

from a common word spoken in a common ancient ancestral language.

The problem is that similar words occur quite often between different languages.

Sometimes it’s just a coincidence.

Sometimes it’s because the word was borrowed into a language from another language.

That’s why English has so many words that look like French words.

English isn’t a Romance language like French, but it borrowed a lot of words from French.

And so lots of English words resemble French words.

But it doesn’t mean that English came from French.

So similar words in different languages didn’t really prove anything.

And it certainly didn’t prove that the languages had evolved from a common ancient ancestor.

But it also didn’t rule out that possibility either.

There was a lot of guesswork and speculation during this time period.

But Jacob Grimm helped to create a mechanism by which we can determine with reasonable

certainty if the similarities are in fact the result of inheritance, as opposed to borrowing

or coincidence.

Once we can identify with some degree of certainty that similar words in different languages

are in fact the result of inheritance, we can then begin the process of actually reconstructing

that earlier language.

So let’s look at Grimm’s work and see how he began to figure things out.

Grimm’s work began by comparing thousands of words in the Germanic languages with words

in other languages.

This was a tedious and painstaking process.

And he looked for similarities.

But more importantly, he looked for patterns.

He didn’t just identify words that resembled each other.

He looked for systematic patterns to explain the similarities and the differences.

And he wasn’t just looking at the words as a whole.

He was also looking at the specific sounds within those words.

To put it another way, he was looking at the way in which sounds, especially consonants,

changed over time within the Indo-European languages.

And after comparing thousands of words, he concluded that there were indeed specific

sound differences in words found in the Germanic and non-Germanic languages.

But more importantly, he discovered that these sound differences were part of a systematic

change which had occurred within the Germanic-speaking tribes after they had become separated from

the other Indo-European groups.

Now all of this sounds very technical.

So let’s look at some examples.

The first example should already be familiar to you if you’ve listened to the first few

episodes of the podcast.

In the earlier episodes, I talked about how the P sound in many of the ancient Indo-European

words had shifted to an F sound in the words in the Germanic languages.

This was one of the changes which Grimm noticed after comparing thousands of Germanic words

with words in other Indo-European languages.

The example I used in the earlier episodes of the podcast were the words for father.

As you may recall, the Sanskrit word for father was pitar.

The Latin word for father was pater, and the Greek word was very similar, pronounced pater.

But the English word is father from the Old English word fader.

So pitar, pater, pater, and father.

So there you can see the F sound in the Germanic languages where the P sound is in the other


I also gave the example of foot in an earlier episode.

The Sanskrit word for foot was pod.

The Latin word was ped.

The Greek word was pus.

But the modern English word is foot.

And in all the Germanic languages, the word for foot began with an F sound.

So pod, ped, pus, and foot.

Once again, we see the shift to an F sound in the Germanic languages.

And there are lots of other examples of this sound change.

For example, the Latin word for fish was piscis, which is the origin of the zodiac sign Pisces.

Again, we see evidence of the shift from the Latin piscis with the P sound to English fish

with the F sound.

We can also see that same sound change in the Latin word pyre, as in a funeral pyre,

and in the word pyromania.

The English equivalent is the word fire.

Both words basically mean fire or flames.

So from pyre to fire, we can hear the P to F sound shift.

Another interesting example of this P to F sound change can be seen in the English word

pen, as in the writing instrument P-E-N.

The word comes to us via French from the original Latin word pena.

But pena meant feather in Latin.

By the time Norman French brought the word into English as pen, it had come to mean a

quill, as in a feather used for writing.

So Latin pena and English feather are cognate.

And we see that the P sound from Latin, which was inherited from the earlier Indo-European

language, has shifted to an F sound in the Germanic word feather.

And as I said, there are many examples of this sound change.

And let me be clear, even though I’m comparing English words to Latin words, I don’t mean

to imply that Latin was the original form of English or that English came from Latin.

I’m merely using Latin as an example of another Indo-European language, one which

happens to be quite old and was being spoken over 2,000 years ago.

So it existed at a time that was much closer to the original ancient Indo-European language.

And thus, not surprisingly, Latin has some strong similarities to that language.

But make no mistake, Latin and English each evolved separately from this ancient source


So I’ve given you a few examples of what Jacob Grimm was observing as he looked at

and compared thousands of words.

And this P to F phenomenon was not the only systematic difference he observed.

There were others too.

In fact, he noted nine specific changes, which I’ll look at in more detail in a minute.

But here was the key.

Grimm looked at all of these systematic differences and he concluded that the differences exist

because the sound had changed within the Germanic language family.

In other words, at some point in the distant past, a common group of early Indo-European

speaking people spoke these words with a P sound, as is still represented in all of the

other Indo-European language families.

Over time, they began to migrate and spread out.

And they carried their language with them.

And as they migrated, these various tribes became isolated from each other.

And their languages continued the natural course of evolution that all languages experience.

So that over time, these languages evolved into distinct dialects and eventually into

distinct languages.

That accounts for the various language families we have today.

Within these various isolated tribal groups, as the original language began to evolve,

words started to be pronounced differently.

And part of the change was a systematic change in the way certain consonants were pronounced.

And this is what happened within the early Germanic speaking tribes before they too spread

out over Central and Western Europe and carried the Germanic dialects with them.

And those dialects eventually evolved into the various Germanic languages we have today,

including English.

So these consonant differences that Grimm observed, like the P and the F that I’ve

This represents a sound change.

Within the very early Germanic speaking tribes, there was a change in the way these words

were pronounced.

So that the original P sound began to be pronounced as an F sound.

And that’s why all of the Germanic languages today have these words with an F instead of

a P.

It’s also important to note that not every P sound shifted to an F sound in the Germanic


I mean, the Germanic languages still have inherited words with a P sound.

So whether or not the P shifted to an F in a particular word depended on several factors,

like the position of the P sound in the word.

For example, the P sound tended to make this shift if it occurred at the beginning of a


And that’s why most of the examples I’m giving here feature the sound as the initial


It took other linguists after Jacob Grimm to figure out exactly why this shift happened

in some words and not in other words.

Again, all of that was figured out later.

But the key is that Grimm identified that in fact this P sound did routinely shift to

an F sound in many Germanic words.

Now before we look at some of the other sound shifts that Jacob Grimm identified, let’s

look at this P to F sound shift a little closer and see what’s going on mechanically.

I think this initially seems like more of a change than it really is.

We can get distracted subliminally by the names we give to the letters that represent

the sounds P and F. Because the letter name P doesn’t really sound anything like the

letter name F. But those are just names we give to those sounds.

So forget about the names of the letters for a second and just think about the sounds

they represent, P and F. And think about the mechanical differences.

A P is made by putting the upper and lower lips together.

And an F is made by shifting the lower lip backward and instead of touching the top lip,

you touch the top teeth.

Now there are some other technical differences between the two sounds that I’m not going

to focus on because this is not a course in linguistics.

But I just want you to see that the two sounds are not that different mechanically.

And I think you can start to see how certain groups of speakers might make this change

over time.

And in fact, if we look closely enough, we can see this change in other languages as


In fact, we still have in English today a remnant of the same sound change that occurred

in Greek during the time of the ancient Greeks.

Think about the words we have in English that are spelled with a PH but are pronounced

as an F sound.

Words like phone, philosophy, elephant, and so on.

All of these words came from Greek.

So let’s look at this PH business for a minute and see what’s going on there.

In a future podcast episode, I’m going to talk about the alphabet.

But for now, just understand that English borrowed the alphabet from the Romans, who

likely borrowed it from the Etruscans, who were neighbors of the Romans in Northern Italy.

The Etruscans traded with the Greeks, and it appears that the Etruscans borrowed the

alphabet from the Greeks as part of the regular trade between the two peoples.

And the Greeks themselves borrowed the alphabet from people that they routinely traded with

called the Phoenicians.

So the alphabet is the product of much borrowing.

The Phoenicians were a Semitic people from the Middle East.

They did not speak an Indo-European language.

So when the Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians had letters

for sounds which the Greeks didn’t use.

And the Greeks had sounds which the Phoenicians didn’t have in their language.

So the Greeks had to invent letters for those sounds.

One sound which the Greeks had that the Phoenicians did not have was a sound which is often described

as an aspirated P sound, as in upward.

Others describe it as more akin to an F sound, perhaps an in-between P-F sound.

Now there were no audio tapes from this period, obviously, so no one can say for certain what

it sounded like.

And remember that Greece was divided into separate city-states during this period, like

Athens and Sparta.

So the sound could have varied among the various regional Greek dialects.

Regardless of what it actually sounded like at the time, it was not a straightforward

P sound because the Phoenicians had a letter for that sound, which the Greeks adopted as

the letter pi.

So when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, they had to create their own letter

for this aspirated P or P-F sound.

This later became the letter phi, spelled as P-H-I today.

It was probably pronounced as phi by the Greeks, but I’ll use the more modern pronunciation

phi, as in the fraternity and sorority names.

Part of the difficulty in identifying the exact sound of this letter is that it was

probably in transition between the traditional P sound and the F sound at the time the Greeks

adopted the alphabet from the Phoenicians.

That’s why they invented a separate letter for the sound.

When the Etruscans adopted the Greek version of the alphabet a few centuries later, they

apparently still detected a difference between the sound of Greek phi and the F sound because

the Etruscans made their own modifications to the Greek alphabet which included the addition

of the letter F as distinguished from the Greek letter phi.

So the Etruscans used both phi and F, but by the time the Romans adopted the same alphabet

from the Etruscans, they no longer detected much difference between the pronunciation

of the letters phi and the F which the Etruscans used.

In other words, by the time the Romans got hold of the alphabet, the sound had completed

its transition to the F sound, but the Romans chose to retain the P-H spelling in words

borrowed from Greek which had used the letter phi.

But as far as we can tell, the pronunciation of both letters was the same in Latin and

has essentially been the same ever since, including in modern English.

By the way, it also appears that the letter phi completed the same sound change within

Greek itself as it also came to represent an F sound in Greek.

The Romans probably noticed that there was no longer any distinction being made by the

Greeks themselves.

So we now have two different ways to represent the F sound in English.

So what we’re seeing in words like philosophy, which are spelled with P-H, is this same P

to F sound shift that was occurring within ancient Greek at the time when they first

adopted the alphabet, and which still exists today as a relic in the P-H spelling which

now represents a fully transitioned F sound.

So again, this is not within the Germanic family.

This is within a completely separate language family.

But it’s the same sound shift that Jacob Grimm had noted and identified within the

Germanic languages.

Now as I mentioned, the P to F sound shift was one of the sound shifts which he identified.

He actually identified nine separate sound shifts.

And just to summarize them, he noticed that the D sound had shifted to a T sound, and

the K sound had shifted to an H sound, the T sound had shifted to a TH sound, the B sound

had shifted to a P sound, and the G sound had shifted to a K sound.

And then there were three other changes from sounds that we don’t really have in modern

English today.

A very aspirated B sound had evolved into a B sound.

And an aspirated D sound had become a D sound.

And a very aspirated G sound had become a G sound.

Now I want to look at each of these a little closer before we move on, because it actually

makes for some interesting etymology.

And one of the changes that Grimm noticed was this change from the D sound to the T


And I actually mentioned this in an earlier episode of the podcast.

I gave the example of the Latin and Greek word duo and the English word to.

They both mean to.

In that example, we can see that transition from the original D sound, which is reflected

in Latin and Greek in the word duo, and the T sound, which is reflected in the English

word to.

We can also see it in the Latin word decum and the English word ten.

Both of those mean ten.

I think I also gave the example of the Latin word dentist, which means tooth, and the English

word tooth.

And again, we can see that sound shift from the D sound to the T sound.

All of those pairs of words are cognate.

They were once the same word, but they’ve evolved into separate words over time.

This D to T sound shift is quite obvious, and it’s easy to see.

Think about the pronunciation of English words like bitter and latter.

In American English, those words are usually pronounced with a D sound.

So bitter becomes bitter, and latter becomes latter.

So that shift happens routinely.

Also think about words like hitter, fatter, and later, which also have the D sound in

American English.

Also consider kindergarten, which literally means child’s garden in German.

In English, and especially in American English, it’s pronounced with a D sound.

So kindergarten becomes kindergarten, despite the fact that it’s still spelled with a T.

Now all of those examples represent a shift in the opposite direction, from T to D.

But Grimm noticed a shift from D to T, from the original Indo-European language to Germanic


And this is a little harder to find in modern English, but think about words in past tense,

like walked, which is usually pronounced with a T sound.

So we do see it sometimes, though not as often as the T to D shift.

Also once again, in the examples I’ve given in this episode and in the earlier episodes,

we see how words came into English from multiple sources, especially Germanic root words and

Latin borrowed words, which mean basically the same thing.

And we have the same Indo-European root, which started it all.

So we have father from Germanic, and pater from Latin, which results in words like paternal

and patriarch.

And we have the English word ten from Germanic, and the Latin word decum, which produced words

like decade and decathlon in modern English.

Again, these words come from the same Indo-European root word.

So let’s look again at that Latin and Greek word duo.

As I’ve mentioned, this word is cognate with the English word to, meaning that both words

came from the same root word.

And in this case, we see the shift that Grimm identified from the original D sound to the

Germanic T sound.

Now the Latin and Greek forms of the word were borrowed into English and appear in a

variety of modern English words like duo, duet, and duel, meaning two.

But interestingly, duel, meaning a fight between two people, is only indirectly related to


The original word duo, or duo, eventually led to a separate word in Old Latin, dwellum,

meaning war or conflict, since a conflict required at least two parties.

Dwellum is the direct ancestor of duel, d-u-e-l.

So duel with an e came from dwellum, and duel with an a came from duo.

Over time, the Old Latin word dwellum evolved into the word bellum in Classical Latin, which

also meant the same thing, war or conflict.

The word bellum is found in many modern English words like antebellum, meaning before the

war, and typically used in reference to the American South before the Civil War.

It also appears in bellicose and belligerent and even rebellion.

All of these words involve some sort of conflict, and all ultimately derive from the Latin word

bellum, which came from dwellum, which came from duo, which, remember, came from the same

original Indo-European root word that produced the word to in English, thanks to Grimslaw.

So I think you can start to see how interconnected a lot of our words are.

But you can also see how one or two basic words in the original Indo-European language

produced many words in modern English, some of them coming in directly from the original

Germanic language, Old English, and others coming in from other Indo-European languages

like Greek and Latin, which were borrowed into the language later.

So let’s take a quick look at one of the other sound changes that Grim identified.

He noted that the k sound in the original Indo-European language had shifted to an h

sound in the Germanic languages, including English.

So here we see lots of words in Latin and Greek that have a k sound where English has

an h sound.

So for example, in English we have the word heart.

But in Latin, the word was cord, which becomes cur in French and corazon in Spanish.

In Greek, the word was cardia, which comes into English through medical use.

Terms like cardiac arrest and cardiology refer to heart-related medical issues.

Again, here we have the original Indo-European k sound, which still exists in some English

words which have been borrowed in from Latin and Greek.

But it’s represented by the h sound in the native Germanic Anglo-Saxon word heart.

Another example of this sound change is in the English word horn, which was cornu in


And again, the Latin version finds its way into English in the word cornucopia, which

literally means horn of plenty.

Again, the Latin word cornu and the Germanic word horn come from the same root word in

the original Indo-European language.

The original sound was k and it shifted to an h in the Germanic languages.

Another example of this is the English word hundred and the Latin word centum, which meant

hundred in Latin.

Centum was spelled c-e-n-t-u-m in Latin because the c represented the k sound in Latin.

But later, the c developed into an s sound in French and many other Latin-derived languages.

So the word centum eventually dropped the Latin um suffix at the end and changed the

c to an s at the beginning, producing the French word cent.

That word came into English in many ways, century, centennial, centimeter, centipede,

and even the word cent, which represents one one-hundredth of a dollar.

Again, the Latin-derived words, which mean hundred, came from the same original Indo-European

source as the Germanic English word hundred.

Under Grimm’s Law, the sound had shifted from the original k sound in Latin to the

h sound in the Germanic languages.

Now let me digress here for a second and mention a couple of things about the example I just


First, in the next episode of the podcast, I’m actually going to explore this k sound

in greater detail, because early linguists noted that most of the Indo-European languages

have a word for hundred that begins with a k sound like the Latin word centum.

As I just said, the Germanic languages are an exception because the k had shifted to

an h sound.

But there was another whole group of Indo-European languages, spoken primarily in Asia and Eastern

Europe, where the word for hundred began with an s sound.

That was best represented by the Sanskrit word satam, which meant hundred in that language.

So early linguists noticed a geographical divide.

The Eastern Indo-European languages had a word for hundred that began with an s sound,

and the Western Indo-European languages had a word for hundred which began with a k sound,

or the shifted h sound in the Germanic languages.

So they concluded that this division probably represented an early division of the Indo-European

tribes, with those in the East developing the shift from the k sound to the s sound.

The Western languages were called the kentum languages after the Latin word kentum, and

the Eastern languages were called the satam languages after the Sanskrit word satam.

Now this distinction was once very important to linguists, and it’s still important to

a certain extent, which I’ll explain in the next episode.

But the real interesting part of this is the relationship between the k sound and the s

sound, which we see in the modern English letter c, which sometimes is pronounced like

a k and sometimes like an s.

And yes, there are some connections here.

So in the next episode, I’m going to explore this connection, and we’ll see how the modern

English letter c came to have two different pronunciations.

Okay, so let’s go back to Grimms’ Law for a minute.

This k sound, which shifted to an h sound in native English words like hundred and heart,

can be seen in a few other examples as well.

I just wanted to point these out to you because they’re interesting.

The modern English word head is cognate with the Latin word coppet.

Again, we have the same sound change that Grimm identified here.

The old English version of head was hafud.

So here we see two of Grimms’ Laws at work.

The Latin word coppet was probably very close to the original Indo-European word for head.

It has two consonants that shifted under Grimms’ Law.

The k sound at the beginning shifted to an h sound, and the p sound in the middle shifted

to an f sound under the first rule we talked about earlier.

So coppet compared with hafud in Old English.

And hafud was eventually shortened to one syllable in English by dropping the f sound

in the middle and thereby becoming head.

Once again, there are a ton of words in modern English which come from the Latin word coppet

for head.

It produced the words capital C-A-P-I-T-O-L and capital C-A-P-I-T-A-L, both meaning the

head place.

It also produced a massive number of words in French, which ultimately came into English.

So it produced words like decapitation.

There we can see that word coppet almost in its original form.

Decapitation means to remove the head.

The word captain, meaning head of troops, comes from that same Latin root word.

The word chieftain, meaning the head of a clan, also came from that same root word.

The word chief comes from that word.

And the word chef, meaning the head of a kitchen, comes from the same word.

Corporal, which was originally caporal, meant the head of troops, and it also comes from

the same root word.

The term cadet, meaning a junior head or military trainee, is cognate with the same original


The term caddy, from cadet, as used in golf courses, also comes from that word.

Other words include mischief, literally meaning a bad head, as in something being brought

to a bad head, and kerchief, meaning a head covering, and neckerchief, meaning a French

head covering but worn by Englishmen around their necks, and handkerchief, meaning a French

head covering but held by Englishmen in their hands.

And of course the word cap, meaning a head covering, also came from the same root.

Again we can see how English borrowed heavily from Latin.

All of those words which meant head or having to do with the head, all come from a Latin

word that meant head, and is in fact derived from the same Indo-European root as the English

word head.

So they all come from the same Indo-European source.

Let me give you one more example of this K to H sound shift.

If you’ve ever studied a Romance language like Spanish or French, you’ll know that

the words for who and what are quite different in those languages.

So in English we have the word what.

In Spanish it’s que.

In French it’s que.

And in the case of the English word who, the Spanish version is quien, and the French version

is qui.

So there’s a very clear difference between the Germanic-derived English word and the

Latin-derived Romance words.

It may not appear that those words have anything in common, but in fact all of those words

meaning what are cognate, and all of those words meaning who are cognate.

So first, let’s look at the word what.

In the original Indo-European language, the word was quad.

Over time, within Latin, the W sound in the word fell away, and eventually the D sound

at the end also fell away.

And so we ended up with the modern Spanish word que and the French word que.

But in English, we have Grimm’s Law at work.

So that K sound in quad shifted to an H sound.

So it went from quad to whad.

So very close to what, but not what, because the H sound was still at the beginning.

Over time, since this is a bit awkward, the H sound fell away, and the pronunciation just

became what.

And eventually, as spelling became more standardized, the H and W were shifted around, so that in

modern English we actually spell it WHAT.

And that’s really just an indication by the people who created the first dictionaries

that it was the W that was the primary consonant at the beginning, no longer the H.

What we’re seeing in that example is the same rules at work.

We come from the same original source word, but under Grimm’s Law, these words changed.

Similarly, the original Indo-European word for who was quos.

And again, the same thing happened.

The W sound fell away, and the S sound fell away at the end in the Latin words, and you

end up with quen in Spanish and qui in French.

But within the Germanic languages, that original K sound shifted to an H sound, and quos became


And eventually, the W sound disappeared, and that produced the modern word who.

So again, we’re coming from the same source.

With the application of Grimm’s Law, we can see that words that appear to have nothing

in common actually came from the same source word.

Now just to finish out Grimm’s sound changes, the T sound had shifted to a TH sound.

We see that in the Latin word trace and the English word three.

He mentioned also that the B sound became a P sound.

The B sound was actually very unusual and infrequent in the Indo-European languages,

so we don’t have a lot of examples of that sound change.

But there is a Lithuanian word dubas, which means the same thing as the English word deep.

So here we see the original B sound in the Lithuanian word, and the later Germanic P

sound in the English word.

Grimm also noted that the G sound had shifted to the K sound.

So we have the Latin word genus, which is the source of English words like genetics

and genealogy.

That original Latin root word was originally pronounced with that hard G sound at the beginning.

And that Indo-European G sound shifted to a K sound in the Germanic languages and produced

the English word kin.

So the Latin root word genus and its offspring genetics and genealogy are cognate with the

English word kin.

Again to emphasize the point, the English word didn’t come from the Latin word.

They each evolved separately.

And we see Grimm’s Law at work in how these two sets of words evolved from the same source


We can also see this same sound shift in the Latin word agar, which meant field or land,

and the English word acre, which means a certain portion of land.

Again, the Indo-European G sound shifted to a K sound in the English word.

So in summary, Grimm identified this series of sound changes, which has occurred in a

systematic way from the original Indo-European language through the Germanic languages into

the modern Germanic languages that we have today.

And the changes became known as Grimm’s Law.

But Grimm did not actually call them a law.

While he noticed that these consonants usually shifted in the way he described, they did

not always shift that way.

Sometimes they remained the same as the original consonants.

And he didn’t even attempt to explain the changing sounds of the vowels.

So for Grimm, these were general rules, but not laws.

Fortunately, other linguists took up Grimm’s work, and they explained the exceptions to

the general rules that Grimm had identified.

The German linguist Hermann Grassmann and the Danish linguist Carl Werner essentially

completed Grimm’s work, and they left us with a set of rules which could explain every

sound shift between words found in the original Indo-European language and the Germanic languages.

So this brings us to the major point of this episode.

Thanks to the work of linguists like Jacob Grimm and Carl Werner, and specifically the

rules we know today as Grimm’s Law and Werner’s Law, linguists could explain every consonant

shift between the original Indo-European language and the early Germanic languages.

Other linguists also worked out vowel shifts as well.

And this same process of identifying sound shifts was conducted by other linguists in

the other Indo-European languages as well, so that we have specific rules for sound changes

in all of the major Indo-European language families, not just the Germanic languages.

And with those rules in place, linguists could now reconstruct substantial portions

of the original Indo-European language, known as Proto-Indo-European.

But how could they do this?

Well, it’s actually quite simple.

Sound changes, like Grimm’s Law and Werner’s Law, can be used both ways.

They can show us how modern words evolve from older words, but they can also be applied

in reverse to take a modern word and determine what it originally looked and sounded like.

You just take a modern English word and apply Grimm’s Law and Werner’s Law in reverse,

and you can reconstruct what the original version of the word sounded like.

But how do you know if the reconstructed word is accurate?

Well, you follow the same process for the related word in the other Indo-European languages.

So you can reconstruct the word father in English.

And using the rules of sound change for Latin, you can reconstruct the Latin word pater.

And you can do the same using the rules of sound change in Sanskrit for the Sanskrit

word pitar.

And when you do that, you should end up with the same or almost the exact same word.

If they all match, you can reasonably conclude that you have cognates, modern words that

evolved from a common shared word.

And that’s in fact what you get when you follow that process for the various versions

of the word for father.

But if the reconstructed words don’t match, then you probably have words that were not

inherited from the same original word.

Instead, you probably have words that were borrowed at some point from the other language,

or words that are similar due to coincidence.

And here’s the key.

The more cognate words we have to compare, the more accurate the reconstructed Indo-European

word will be.

For example, the Indo-European word for hundred has been reconstructed as kemptum from cognates

from eight different Indo-European branches.

So it’s very reliable.

But sometimes we only have cognate words in a couple of the branches of the Indo-European

family tree.

So in those cases, the reconstructed word may not be as reliable.

Linguists have even predicted historical sound changes for which there was no evidence at

the time, but which were actually discovered and confirmed later by using these rules.

So now you can see how linguists have been able to reconstruct an ancient language which

was spoken but never written down.

We will now begin to turn our attention to that language and see what it can tell us

about the evolution of English from that early ancestral language to the modern English

language of today.

But before we look at the original Indo-European language, there’s one last aspect of sound

shifts that I want to explore.

As I mentioned earlier, there is one set of sound shifts that is reflected in our letter

C and the way in which it can be used to represent both the K sound and the S sound in modern


So in the next episode, I want to explore the fascinating history of the letter C.

Now before I conclude this episode, let me invite you to provide a rating or leave a

comment on iTunes if you download this podcast via iTunes.

That type of feedback is very helpful.

Also, you can visit the website for the podcast at

So that’s it for now.

Until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.

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