The Brothers Grimm: Rockstar Linguists

The next time you watch Snow White, remember that Grimm’s Fairy Tales may be what made the Grimm name famous in popular culture, but Jacob Grimm was also one of the giants of early linguistics.

Mignon Fogarty,

Grimm's Law

When I talk about the Grimm brothers, you probably think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales such as Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella; or maybe you think of the TV show Grimm. (As a complete aside, I recently read the original Cinderella, and it’s a lot darker than the Disney version.)

The brothers names were Wilhelm and Jacob. Together, they collected and published folklore stories in the 1800s, but they were also interested in dictionaries—they worked on a German language dictionary for many years—and they were interested in linguistics. Jacob, in particular, published The History of the German Language and German Grammar, and he is the namesake of Grimm’s Law, which he first explained in that grammar book, German Grammar.

Grimm’s Law describes how consonant sounds changed in a systematic way between very early languages called Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic. Proto-Indo-European is the precursor to languages including Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, German, French, English, Gaelic, Hindi, Dutch, Russian, Pashto, and more. The list goes on and on, and Grimm, building on the work of Rasmus Rask, was the first person to describe the predictable pattern of changes you could see in certain consonant sounds as Proto-Indo-European became Proto-Germanic.

For example, Grimm realized that the p-sound in Proto-Indo-European tended to become an f-sound in Proto-Germanic. Grimm’s Law explains why we have the related words fatherly and paternal, fish and Pisces, and fire and pyro. It describes a lot of other sound changes too. The phenomenon Grimm described is also known as the first consonant shift, and it was a monumental discovery in early linguistics.

So the next time you watch Snow White with your kids or watch the TV show Grimm, remember that Grimm’s Fairy Tales may be what made the Grimm name famous in popular culture, but Jacob Grimm was also one of the giants of early linguistics.

Grimm’s Law is actually pretty complicated linguistics. Below is a YouTube video that helped me understand it better. Neal Whitman also helped me make sense of Grimm's Law and come up with simple examples. He also pointed me to a second helpful video: Verner’s Law, Part 1 of 3 (The Grimm’s Law section begins around the 4:45 mark.) 

[Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Jacob as Joseph in some places.]


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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