Brothers Grimm – A Tale on the Origin of an Ancestral Language|
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 emergence of modern languages from Proto-Indo-European
The Proto-Indo-European language tree
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.):