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Brothers Grimm – A Tale on the Origin of an Ancestral Language

Brothers Grimm – A Tale on the Origin of an Ancestral Language

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If you’ve ever heard of the Grimm brothers, odds are it’s not for their highly insightful contributions to the field of linguistics – but for their personally-collected, traditional fairy tales instead.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you only were familiar with the light versions of their folktales either. From watching Disney movies, such as Cinderella, Hensel and Gretel, Snow White, or Rapunzel, your memory is likely filled with images of joyful moments and happy endings for the main heroes of each story. However, behind the seemingly child-friendly and innocent veil of those tales, lie their grim and disturbing versions you’d rather stay in the dark about forever.

Don’t worry though, as the purpose of this article is not to try and interfere with your childhood fantasies and memories. (it’s probably better off that way.) Instead, we’ll explore the mysterious and fascinating link between the fairy tales you grew up with and the single parent language from which most modern languages emerged. Let the tale begin.

Who are the Brothers Grimm and what did they do?

The Grimm Brothers, namely Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, were folklorists and linguists with a background in law and a profound interest in the development of the German language over time. Their desire to understand German and its historical development gave them the brilliant idea to start collecting and writing down as many old folktales as possible, from the peasant folk of their hometown in Kassell, Germany in 1821; these tales were compiled into a collection that later came to be known as “Children’s and Household Tales” (aka “Kinder und Hausmärchen”). The stories the Grimm Brothers collected would then act as studying material for them to closely examine German words and their phonetic roots.

Brothers Grimm – A Tale on the Origin of an Ancestral Language

Their systematic study of German, alongside with Jacob’s own linguistic works, paved the way towards some fascinating linguistic discoveries, which have had a tremendous impact on our understanding of language development. But before we dive deeper into their contributions and their broader implications, let’s consider the one language that started it all (at least, in theory).

The emergence of modern languages from Proto-Indo-European

“Once upon a time…” ― Brothers Grimm.
…all languages were thought to be independent, and the concept of a parent language from which other languages emerged was entirely unheard of. That was until Sir William Jones, an English judge working in the British colony of Bengal, India, came across a surprising discovery.
A few years into Jones’ Sanskrit-learning attempt, it became clear to him that the vocabulary, phonology and grammar between Sanskrit and other languages bore far too many similarities for it to be a coincidence. The affinity was so strong that Jones believed there absolutely had to be a common source language of ancient origin that “gave birth” to languages that later came to be developed. That ancient, parent language soon became known as “Proto-Indo-European”, or “PIE” for short, and it used to be spoken around 4000 BCE, according to estimations.
Similarly to the concept of a Pangea, where a single continent (aka a supercontinent) eventually broke into the modern continents we know of today, PIE is thought to be a major language that formed into the many modern languages we, humans, speak.
The PIE hypothesis follows the idea that languages evolved from PIE following a long process of structural and phonological change and differentiation. This theory deepens both our understanding of how languages evolved and about the societies and cultures that spoke those languages too. Therefore, there are many languages and cultures we know more intimately in the modern day, thanks to the discovery of a potential ancestral language, PIE. Some of these languages are English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, French, Italian, and of course… German.

The Proto-Indo-European language tree

Brothers Grimm – A Tale on the Origin of an Ancestral Language

Grimm’s contributions to our understanding of language development over time

Jacob and Wilhelm’s collecting of folktales from peasants in Kassell then was aimed at aiding the linguistic study of German and how it evolved from PIE in particular. However, their findings ended up serving a far greater purpose than originally anticipated, as we demonstrate below. Their contributions all tie to this one linguistic phonetic rule, known as “Grimm’s Law” that Jacob first described in his popular and most influential book entitled German Grammar (aka “Deutsche Grammatik”).

How Grimm’s Law helped explain an age-old question

European and Indian languages have undergone tremendous shifts from PIE and other languages that followed. These types of phonetic changes continue to emerge as languages naturally evolve. However, for the longest time, nobody knew why or how these shifts are taking place. In fact, it was believed that sounds change entirely at random and that there is no underlying process at work that could be causing this peculiar shift. That all changed when Jacob Grimm formulated the Grimm’s law. This important linguistic principle shed light to this ancient question and explained that sounds change in systematic and predictable ways over time.

Specifically, Jacob discovered that the sounds of consonants changed and evolved as the position of the tongue and breathing pattern used to pronounce them changed as well. These are some of the changes that PIE has theoretically undergone which are found in countless modern European and Indian languages, especially Germanic ones (German, English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, etc.):

● The “p” sound changed to “f”. For example, the Latin “pater” would change to “father” and “vater” (in English and German, respectively), rather than “pather”.
● The “t” sound changed to “th”. For example, the Latin prefix “tri-“, as in “tricolor”, came to be pronounced as “three” in English, instead of “tree”.
● The “d” sound changed to “t”. For example, the word for ten was “decem” in Latin and that “d” sound changed as we can see with “tien” in Dutch and “ti” in Norwegian.

The effects of Grimm’s Law on the reconstruction of PIE

Grimm’s law has had some other interesting implications, apart from allowing us to comprehend why certain languages sound the way they do today – it’s also helped us reconstruct a language that’s no longer even in existence; that is, PIE.
But how exactly did linguists arrive to a fairly close approximation of PIE through Grimm’s Law? Well, by reversing the sound shifting process from modern languages back to PIE itself; in other words, by revoking the phonetic changes found in today’s vocabulary across multiple European and Asian languages.
Although nobody can concretely ascertain what PIE truly sounded like (unless a time machine is at some point invented), linguists have compiled a list of around 2,000 different words that PIE speakers used during that time. In the video below, you can see and hear many of those PIE words yourself. Enjoy the ride to 4000 BCE.

From a folktale collection to the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European

As you can probably tell by now, the Grimm brothers are renowned for a lot more than folktale books you can read your kids at bed time. Jacob and Wilhelm’s initial curiosities and efforts bloomed into some of the greatest discoveries in the field of historical linguistics… and these all tie back to folktales such as Snow White, Rapunzel, and Cinderella.
If you’re still curious about the original, darker versions of the fairy tales you or your children might have grown up with, go on and browse the web about it. Just know you’ve been warned!
Although at Pangea Global, we unfortunately don’t speak PIE, nor can we translate your documents in this ancestral language, we do speak the languages that derived from it and more. Whether you’re looking for translation, localization or copywriting services, we’re always here to help. Because great translation agencies don’t just exist in fairy tales… they’re real too!
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