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Grimm’s Law: the Phoenician Connection 

click to enlarge Phoenician port of Byblos, in present-day Lebanon. We may speak English the way we do because Semitic-speaking Phoenicians learned Proto-Indo-European, which they then passed on to their kids. - PHOTO BY BARRY EVANS
  • photo by Barry Evans
  • Phoenician port of Byblos, in present-day Lebanon. We may speak English the way we do because Semitic-speaking Phoenicians learned Proto-Indo-European, which they then passed on to their kids.

Grimm's Law was a breakthrough in the young science of linguistics when Jacob Grimm and his fellow Dane, Rasmus Rask, first formulated it in 1822. (We know Jacob and his brother Wilhelm for their collections of European folk stories that -- in their cleaned-up versions -- have kept Disney in business for decades.) The law codified the first systematic sound change discovered in linguistics, addressing the differences between consonants in Germanic languages (such as English) and their Latin equivalents. The predecessor of Germanic languages, Proto-Germanic, is one of the many daughter languages -- Latin is another -- of Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, spoken by nomadic Yamnaya people around 5,000 years ago in the Balkans-Black Sea region.

Specifically, Grimm's Law concerns consonants. It says that the original PIE "voiceless stops" regularly and systematically changed to Proto-Germanic "fricatives." Easier to demonstrate than explain:

• Latin p becomes English f: Latin pater becomes English father

• Latin t becomes English th: Latin tres becomes English three

• Latin k becomes English h: Latin centum becomes English hundred (and, this being Humboldt County, Latin cannabis is cognate with hemp)

Note that the p, t and k sound "hard" compared to their f, th and h equivalents, because those "voiceless stops" involve an actual break in airflow. Say them, noticing how your lips momentarily block the p, your tongue blocks the t, while the k is blocked by the opening to your windpipe, your glottis. On the other hand, the f, th and h are "fricatives" -- air flowing out experiences friction, but not an actual stop. (Try it!)

Linguists are only now coming come up with a convincing reason for Grimm's Law. The puzzle is that Grimm's sound changes aren't universal; Proto-Germanic is the only daughter language of the original PIE parent to exhibit this "voiceless-stop-to-fricative" switch. In fact, we can generalize the law to say that, if in other Indo-European languages there is, for example, p, you'll find an equivalent f in Germanic. So that while we have (non-Germanic Indo-European) Ancient Greek pous, Latin pes, Sanskrit pada, Russian pod and Latvian peda, we see (in Germanic languages) English foot, Frisian foet, German fuss, Icelandic fotur and Danish fod.

Why? What happened to the Germanic languages that didn't happen to the rest of Indo-European ones? Maybe we should blame, or thank, the Phoenicians. The idea is that when speakers of a Semitic language (with lots of those sibilant f, th and h sounds) learned PIE from native speakers, they spoke it like all adult foreign language learners: with an accent. In this case, with their own "hissy" accent, which their children then learned -- and etcetera. So unlike the rest of the PIE daughter languages, which were uniformly transmitted "native-speaking-parent to child," Proto-Germanic appears to have undergone at least one "parent-speaking-a-foreign-language to child" transmittal.

Phoenicians are the mostly likely "second-language-transmittal" candidates, because they were the best navigators, traders and explorers at the time when Proto-Germanic originated (between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago). We know Phoenicians gave us our alphabet (Field Notes, 11/19/2009). Now it seems fitting, if the theory's right, that they're also responsible for most of our consonants.

Barry Evans ([email protected]) lies awake worrying if his ancestry is pronounced Seltic or Keltic. His books are at Northtown Books and Eureka Books.


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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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