Grimm’s Law is a handy linguistic rule to know when it comes to figuring out whether words are related to one another, that is, are in the same linguistic family. Jacob Grimm, while he and his brother Wilhelm listened to different dialects as they were collecting fairy tales throughout the German countryside, noticed that particular consonants shifted from one to another, so that words which appeared to be different were actually thinly disguised variations on a theme.
In the first of a series on Grimm's law, I spoke about the interchangeability of the bilabials "b," "v," "f," and "p." Another aspect of Grimm’s Law stipulates that the dental (simply a consonant that is sounded by touching the tip of the tongue to the back of the front teeth) consonants "t," "d" and "th" can shift between each other, representing virtually equivalent letters. Examples of this phenomenon follow, focusing primarily upon the striking similarity between the English and German languages.
Here are examples across languages that illustrate how the dentals “d,” “t,” and “th” shift or interchange among words (note: all dental shifts will be shown in blue):
English: father, Spanish: padre; Latin: pater, Dutch: vader: German: Vater* (keep in mind the bilabial shifts here as well: b, f, v, + b are interchangeable; bilabials will subsequently be shown in red).
English: mother; Spanish: madre; Latin: mater; Dutch: moeder; German: Mutter*
English: thief; German: Dieb*
er; Latin: frat
er; German: Brud
*note that all German nouns are capitalized.
Knowing this aspect of Grimm’s Law is very helpful when learning German, and hence when learning English, since English is, at base, a Germanic language. Consider the following examples:
German: gut; English: good
German: danke; English: thanks
German: trinken; English: drink
German: salat; English: salad
Can you guess what the following German words mean based on Grimm’s Law? (see answers in parentheses below–but don’t look until you’ve given this a legitimate shot!)
(1. three; 2. leather; 3. bath; 4. cold; 5. door)
The following two pose more of a challenge: you will also have to take into account Grimm’s Law for interchangeability of bilabials in addition to that of dentals (answers will appear below in parentheses–don’t look, but play with these words a bit first!).
bilabials: b, v, f, p
dentals: d, t, th
(1. forbidden; 2. devil)
Grimm’s Law can be exceedingly helpful not only in learning English, but also in learning other languages. My next post on Grimm’s Law will discuss the gutturals, or interchangeability of the consonants “c,” “ch,” “k,” “q,” “g,” and “h.”