Grimm's Law - Indo-European Languages


by Jayaram V

Grimm's law (also known as the First Germanic Sound Shift or the Rask's rule), named after Jacob Grimm, is a set of statements describing how the sounds of consononts shifted or developed once in English and the other Low German languages, and twice in German and the other High German languages, as these languaged developed from the inherited Proto-Indo-European (PIE) in the 1st millennium BC.

The law was the result of a systematic forumulation of the patterns with examples recognized earlier by the Danish philologist Rasmus Kristian Rask in 1814.

It establishes clearly a set of regular correlations between early Germanic stops and fricatives and the stop consonants of certain other centum Indo-European languages (Grimm used mostly Latin and Greek for illustration) and proves beyond doubt that the shift was neither a random development nor an exceptional case confined to a limited vocabulary.

There are three parts to Grimm's law, which may be regarded as the three consecutive phases in the phonetic shift that happened in the development of these languages.

  1. Proto-Indo-European voiceless stops change into voiceless fricatives.
  2. Proto-Indo-European voiced stops become voiceless stops.
  3. PProto-Indo-European voiced aspirated stops become voiced stops or fricatives (as allophones).

The shift can be abstractly represented as:


Here each sound moves one position to the right to take on its new sound value. Notice that the new sound value entails the loss of a feature at each of the three steps. First the aspiration feature is lost, then voice and finally stop leaving a continuant.

The voiced aspirated stops may have first become voiced fricatives before hardening to the voiced unaspirated stops "b", "d", and "g" under certain conditions; however, some linguists dispute this. See Proto-Germanic phonology.

Grimm's law was the first non-trivial systematic sound change to be discovered in linguistics; its formulation was a turning point in the development of linguistics, enabling the introduction of a rigorous methodology to historical linguistic research.

The correspondences between Latin p and Germanic was first noted by Friedrich von Schlegel in 1806. In 1818 Rasmus Christian Rask elaborated the set of correspondences to include other Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit and Greek, and the full range of consonants involved.

In 1822 Jacob Grimm, the elder of the Brothers Grimm, in his book Deutsche Grammatik, formulated the law as a general rule (and extended to include standard German).


Further changes following Grimm's law, as well as sound changes in other Indo-European languages, can sometimes obscure its effects. The most illustrative examples are used here.

Non-Germanic (unshifted) cognates Change Germanic (shifted) examples
Ancient Greek: πούς (poús), Latin: pēs, pedis, Sanskrit: pāda, Russian: под (pod) "under; floor", Lithuanian: pėda, Latvian pēda *p→f [ɸ] English: foot, West Frisian: foet, German: Fuß, Gothic: fōtus, Icelandic, Faroese: fótur, Danish: fod, Norwegian, Swedish: fot
Ancient Greek: τρίτος (tritos), Latin: tertius, Welsh: trydydd, Sanskrit: treta, Russian: третий (tretij), Lithuanian: trečias, Albanian: tretë *t→þ [θ] English: third, Old Frisian: thredda, Old Saxon: thriddio, Gothic: þridja, Icelandic: þriðji
Ancient Greek: κύων (kýōn), Latin: canis, Welsh: ci (pl. cwn) *k→h [x] English: hound, Dutch: hond, German: Hund, Gothic: hunds, Icelandic, Faroese: hundur, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish: hund
Latin: quod, Irish: cad, Sanskrit: kád, Russian: ко- (ko-), Lithuanian: kas *→hw [xʷ] English: what, Gothic: ƕa ("hwa"), Icelandic: hvað, Faroese: hvat, Danish: hvad, Norwegian: hva
Latin: verber "rod", Homeric Greek: ῥάβδος (rabdos) "rod, wand", Lithuanian: virbas *b→p [p] English: warp, West Frisian: werpe, Dutch: werpen, Icelandic: verpa, varpa, Faroese: verpa, Gothic wairpan
Latin: decem, Greek: δέκα (déka), Irish: deich, Sanskrit: daśan, Russian: десять (desyat'), Lithuanian: dešimt *d→t [t] English: ten, Dutch: tien, Gothic: taíhun, Icelandic: tíu, Faroese: tíggju, Danish, Norwegian: ti, Swedish: tio
Latin: gelū, Greek: γελανδρός (gelandrós), Lithuanian: gelmenis, gelumà *g→k [k] English: cold, West Frisian: kâld, Dutch: koud, German: kalt, Icelandic, Faroese: kaldur, Danish: kold, Norwegian: kald, Swedish: kall
Lithuanian: gyvas *→kw [kʷ] English: quick, West Frisian: kwik, kwyk, Dutch: kwiek, Gothic: qius, Icelandic, Faroese: kvikur, Danish: kvik, Swedish: kvick, Norwegian kvikk
Sanskrit: bhrātṛ *→b [b]/[β] English: brother, West Frisian, Dutch: broeder, German: Bruder, Gothic: broþar, Icelandic, Faroese: bróðir, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian: broder
Sanskrit: mádhu 'honey', Homeric Greek: μέθυ methu *→d [d]/[ð] English: mead, East Frisian: meede, Dutch: mede, Danish/Norwegian: mjød, Icelandic: mjöður , Swedish: mjöd
Ancient Greek: χήν (khēn), Sanskrit: hamsa (swan) *→g [ɡ]/[ɣ] English: goose, West Frisian: goes, guos, Dutch: gans, German: Gans, Icelandic: gæs, Faroese: gás, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish: gås
Homeric Greek: ἐάφθη (eáphthē) "sang, sounded", ὀμφή (omphē) "voice" *gʷʰ→gw [ɡʷ]
(After n)
English: sing, West Frisian: sjonge, Dutch: zingen, German: singen, Gothic: siggwan, Old Icelandic: syngva, syngja, Icelandic, Faroese: syngja, Swedish: sjunga, Danish: synge/sjunge
Sanskrit: gharmá-, Avestan: garəmó, Old Prussian: gorme *gʷʰ→gw→b, g or w
(Otherwise merged with existing g and w)
English: warm, West Frisian: waarm, Dutch, German: warm, Swedish: varm, Icelandic: varmur

Note: Proto-Germanic * from Proto-Indo-European *gʷʰ has undergone further changes of various sorts. After *n it was preserved as *, but later changed to *g in West Germanic. Following vowels, it seems to have become *w, presumably through a fricative stage *ɣʷ. Word-initially, the most plausible reflex is a labiovelar stop * at first, but the further development is unclear. In that position, it became either *w, *g or *b during late Proto-Germanic. The regular reflex before *u would likely have been *g, due to loss of the labial element before a labial vowel. Perhaps the usual reflex was *b (as suggested by the connection of bid < *bidjana- and Old Irish guidid), but *w appears in certain cases (possibly through dissimilation when another labial consonant followed?), such as in warm and wife (provided that the proposed explanations are correct). Apparently, Proto-Germanic * voiced by Verner's law fell together with this sound and developed identically, compare the words for 'she-wolf': from Middle High German wülbe and Old Norse ylgr, one can reconstruct Proto-Germanic nominative singular *wulbī, genitive singular *wulgijōz, from earlier *wulgʷī, *wulgʷijōz.

This is strikingly regular. Each phase involves one single change which applies equally to the labials (p, b, bʰ, f) and their equivalent dentals (t, d, dʰ, þ), velars (k, g, gʰ, h) and rounded velars (kʷ, gʷ, gʷʰ, hʷ). The first phase left the phoneme repertoire of the language without voiceless stops, the second phase filled this gap but created a new one, and so on until the chain had run its course.


There are three main systematic exceptions.

1. The voiceless stops did not become fricatives if they were preceded by *s (itself a fricative).

Non-Germanic examples Change Germanic examples
Latin: spuere, Lithuanian: spjáuti *sp English: spew, West Frisian: spije, Dutch: spuwen, German: speien, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish: spy, Icelandic: spýja, Faroese: spýggja, Gothic: speiwan
Latin: stāre, Irish: stad, Sanskrit: sta, Russian: стать (stat'), Lithuanian: stoti, Persian: ايستادن (istâdan) *st English: stand, Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian: standa, Gothic: standan; West Frisian: stean, Dutch: staan, German: stehen, Danish, Swedish: stå
Lithuanian: skurdus *sk English: short, Old High German: scurz, Icelandic: skorta
Irish: scéal *skʷ English: scold, Icelandic: skáld, Norwegian: skald; West Frisian: skelle, Dutch: schelden, German: schelten
  • Some linguists dispute the origin of the word "scold", but Julius Pokorny among others proposed *skwetlo as the assumed root.
  • Dutch has *k → *h (ch) even after *s, though this is a separate development.

2. The voiceless stop *t did not become a fricative if preceded by another stop, but the preceding stop was generally devoiced and then fricativised. This also happened to stops before *s, but that sound was not affected by Grimm's law.

Combined with the previous exception it is therefore most convenient to say that in a series of two obstruents, the second does not become a fricative but the first does. This is sometimes treated separately under the heading Germanic spirant law:

Non-Germanic examples Change Germanic examples
Ancient Greek: κλέπτης (kleptēs), Old Prussian: au-klipts "hidden" *pt→ft Gothic: hliftus "thief"
Latin: atta, Greek: ἄττα (átta) *tt→tt Old High German: atto, Gothic: atta "father"
Ancient Greek: οκτώ (oktō), Irish: ocht, Latin: octō *kt→ht English: eight, West Frisian, Dutch, German: acht, Gothic: ahtáu, Icelandic: átta (pronounced [ˈauhta])
Irish: anocht, Latin: nox, noct-, Greek: νύξ, νυκτ- (núks, nukt-), Sanskrit: नक्तम् (naktam), Lithuanian: naktis, Hittite (genitive): nekuz (pronounced /nekʷts/) *kʷt→ht English: night, West Frisian, Dutch, German: nacht, Gothic: nahts, Icelandic: nótt (pronounced [ˈnouht])

Note: Icelandic nótt comes from Proto-Germanic *naht-, with the /ht/ regularly becoming /tt/, which was originally pronounced [tː] before pre-aspirating. Thus, the [h] of the modern Icelandic form is not a direct descendant of ancient /h/ The same ancestry holds for the /tt/ of Icelandic átta as well

3. The most recalcitrant set of apparent exceptions to Grimm's law, which defied linguists for a few decades, eventually received explanation from the Danish linguist Karl Verner (see the article on Verner's law for details). (This is not necessarily an actual exception: the traditional dating of Verner's Law occurring after Grimm's would mean that the consonants affected did undergo Grimm's law, and were only changed later.)

Correspondences to PIE

The Germanic "sound laws", combined with regular changes reconstructed for other Indo-European languages, allow one to define the expected sound correspondences between different branches of the family. For example, Germanic (word-initial) *b- corresponds regularly to Latin *f-, Greek pʰ-, Sanskrit bʰ-, Slavic, Baltic or Celtic b-, etc., while Germanic *f- corresponds to Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Slavic and Baltic p- and to zero (no initial consonant) in Celtic. The former set goes back to PIE *bʰ- (faithfully reflected in Sanskrit and modified in various ways elsewhere), and the latter set to PIE *p- (shifted in Germanic, lost in Celtic, but preserved in the other groups mentioned here).

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: This article is adapted from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License with suitable modifications. Depending upon which browser you may use, the language specific characters may not appear correctly. In case of doubt, please refer to the original article at Wikipedia

Translate the Page