The relative chronology of Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law, part 1: aspiration in the Germanic languages.

Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law are possibly the two most famous sound laws in historical linguistics. Despite this, there are some aspects of these two laws which we know little about. One of these is the question of the relative chronology of the sound changes described by these laws. That is: which came first? The sound changes described by Grimm’s Law, or the sound changes described by Verner’s Law? Handbooks, such as Ringe (2006), tend to ascribe to the view that those described by Grimm’s Law came first, and those described by Verner’s Law came second. But as I’m going to attempt to show, this is not a completely well-established fact.

Now, strictly speaking, Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law describe correspondances between the sounds of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and Proto-Germanic (PGmc); the actual sound changes that have resulted in these correspondances are another matter. The correspondances are very well-established; there is little disagreement over them. So one might well say that the question posed here is uninteresting, because we know which PGmc sounds reflect which PIE sounds in which positions, and that’s all we need to know. This is true to some extent, but I do think it is interesting in its own right to know more about the relative chronology of the sound changes that turned PIE into PGmc. Besides, our understanding of what a sound change must have been, in phonetic terms, can be affected by our understanding of its relative chronology, and this understanding may help us to understand the nature of other sound changes, or of the phonology of the language at an earlier or later date. More knowledge is usually a good thing, after all. (But it doesn’t surprise me that I can’t find much literature dealing with this issue specifically.)

With that said, let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the correspondences described by Grimm’s Law, which are listed in the table below.

Proto-Indo-European Proto-Germanic Example
*p *f PIE *pl̥h₁nós ‘full’ (cf. Skt pūrṇás, Lith. pìlnas) ↣ PGmc *fullaz (with the -az ending generalised from thematic nominals without stress on the ending) (cf. Goth. fulls, OE full [> NE full])
*t PIE *tréyes ‘three’ (cf. Skt trayaḥ, Grk treîs) > PGmc *þrīz (cf. Goth. þreis, OE þrī [↣ NE three])
*ḱ *h PIE *swéḱuros ‘father-in-law’ (cf. Skt śvaśuraḥ, OCS svekrŭ) > PGmc *swehuraz (cf. OE swēor, OHG swehur)
*k *h PIE *kóryos ‘army’ (cf. dialectal Lith. kãrias ‘army’, OIr. cuire ‘troop’) > PGmc *harjaz (cf. Goth. harjis, OE here)
*kʷ *hʷ PIE *ákʷah₂ ‘running water’ (cf. Lat. aqua ‘water’) > PGmc *ahʷō ‘river’ (cf. Goth. aƕa, OE ēa)
*b *p post-PIE *gʰreyb- ‘grab’ (cf. dialectal Lith. greĩbti [infinitive in -ti]) ↣ PGmc *grīpaną (infinitive in -aną) (cf. Goth. greipan, OE grīpan [> NE grip])
*d *t PIE *dóru ‘tree’ (cf. Skt dā́ru, Gk dóru ‘wood’), gen. sg. *dréws (cf. Skt drós) ↣ PGmc *trewą (with the neuter a-stem ending ) (cf.
*ǵ *k PIE *h₂áǵros ‘pasture’ (cf. Skt ájras ‘field’, Lat. ager) > PGmc *akraz (cf. Goth. akrs ‘field’, OE æcer ‘field’)
*g *k PIE *yugóm ‘yoke’ (cf. Skt yugám, Lat. iugum) > PGmc *juką (cf. Goth. juk, OE ġeoc)
*gʷ *kʷ PIE *gʷih₃wós ‘alive’ (cf. Skt jīváḥ, Gk zōós) > *kʷikʷaz (cf. ON kvikr, OE cwic)
*bʰ *b PIE *bʰéreti ‘(s)he is carrying’ (cf. Skt bhárati, Lat. fert) > PGmc *beraną (infinitive in -aną) (cf. Goth. baíran, OE beran)
*dʰ *d PIE *dʰédʰēm ‘I was putting’ (cf. Skt ádadhām [with the augment á-]) > PGmc *dedǭ ‘(s)he did’ (cf. OS deda, OHG teta)
*ǵʰ *g PIE *ǵʰáns ‘goose’ (cf. Gk khḗn, Lith. žąsìs [with the i-stem ending -is]) > PGmc *gans
*gʰ *g PIE *gʰóstis ‘stranger’ (cf. Lat. hostis ‘enemy’, OCS gostĭ ‘guest’) > PGmc *gastiz ‘guest’ (cf. Goth. gasts, OE ġiest)
*gʷʰ *gʷ PIE *sengʷʰ- ‘chant’ (cf. collective *songʷʰáh₂ > Gk omphḗ ‘voice of the gods’) > PGmc infinitive singʷaną ‘to sing’

Basically, the PIE voiceless unaspirated stops become fricatives, the PIE voiced unaspirated stops lose their voice, and the PIE voiced aspirated stops lose their aspiration. (But this is not quite a complete description of what happened, as we will see.)

The correspondances described by Grimm’s Law do not hold in every position. One position which they do not hold in is position after a voiceless obstruent. In this position, PIE voiceless unaspirated stops do not become fricatives in PGmc, and thus end up being reflected as the same kind of sound that the PIE voiced unaspirated stops are reflected as in other positions. Here is a full list of the clusters affected by this change, with examples.

Proto-Indo-European Proto-Germanic Example
*sp *sp PIE *spŕ̥dhs ‘contest’ (c.f. Skt spṛdh > PGmc *spurdz ‘racecourse’ (cf. Goth. spaúrds)
*st *st PIE *gʰóstis ‘stranger’ (cf. Lat. hostis ‘enemy’, OCS gostĭ ‘guest’) > PGmc *gastiz ‘guest’ (cf. Goth. gasts, OE ġiest)
*sḱ *sk PIE *sḱinédsti ‘(s)he cuts (it) off’ (cf. Skt chinátti), aor. sbjv. *skéydeti ↣ PGmc infinitive skītaną ‘to defecate’ (cf. ON skíta, OE scītan)
*sk *sk PIE *skabʰeti ‘(s)he is scratching’ (cf. Lat. scabit) > PGmc *skabidi or *skabiþi (cf. Goth. skabiþ, OE scæfþ)
*skʷ *skʷ (no examples that I know of, but this outcome can be assumed on the basis of the others)
*pt *ft PIE *kh₂ptós ‘grabbed’ (cf. Lat. captus ‘caught’) > PGmc *haftaz (cf. OE hæft, OHG haft)
*ḱt *ht PIE *oḱtṓw ‘eight’ (cf. Skt aṩṭā́u, Lat. octō) > PGmc *ahtōu (cf. Goth. ahtau, OE eahta)
*kt *ht PIE *mogʰ- ‘be able to’ (cf. Skt maghám ‘possessions’ [a-stem pl. in -ám], OCS mošti ‘I can’ [infinitive in -ti]) → nominal *mógʰtis > PGmc mahtiz ‘power’
*kʷt *ht PIE *nókʷts ‘night’ (cf. Gk núx, Lat. nox) > PGmc *nahts (cf. Goth. nahts, OHG naht)

Now, here’s an interesting observation: in English, there is a rule that voiceless stops (which are, in English, directly inherited from Proto-Germanic for the most part) are aspirated except after another voiceless obstruent: hence in my dialect of English tale is pronounced [ˈtʰejəɫ] (in my dialect, anyway) while stale is pronounced [ˈstejəɫ]. There may be other environments where there is no aspiration, depending on dialect and perhaps individual variation (for example, word-final voiceless stops can be aspirated, glottalised, unreleased or none of these things; and my own dialect tends to fricativise them, although this is one of its more idiosyncratic features). Also, it is possible for there to be different degrees of aspiration, which complicates matters further. But there is definitely no aspiration after a voiceless obstruent, and there is definitely a maximal level of aspiration when a stop is word-initial, or in the onset of a stressed syllable (as in attack).

The same rule is observable in most of the other Germanic languages. The only exception I know of is Dutch, in which voiceless stops are attributable in all positions, but this may be attributable to the influence of French. The case of German is particularly interesting, because in German, the stop t does not reflect Proto-Germanic *t; that phoneme became either z (the affricate /t͡s/) or s, depending on its position, in German due to the High German consonant shift. German t instead reflects Proto-Germanic *d, which filled the gap in the consonant system left by the loss of *t by losing its voice. Yet German t obeys the aspiration rule just like the other plosives. It is of course possible that the aspiration rule is simply something that came into effect after the separation of the Germanic languages after the devoicing of *d in the High German dialects. But in that case, it would have had to come into affect in all of the non-Dutch Germanic languages independently. Furthermore, the development of the PGmc voiceless stops in the High German consonant shift suggests that these voiceless stops were aspirated at the time of the shift, because as far as I know, the development of voiceless stops into affricates, when not motivated by palatalisation, tends to occur only when they are aspirated. After all, affrication under these circumstances can be explained as assimilation of the phonetic [h] that follows the release of voiceless aspirated stops to the place of articulation of the preceding stop; I know of no reason why unaspirated stops could be expected to turn into affricates. Lenition alone cannot account for affrication, because affricates involve just as much stricture, during their initial stop articulation, as stops.

For these reasons, I think it is more likely that this aspiration rule was inherited from Proto-Germanic into all of the Germanic languages, and that it persisted in German after the High German consonant shift, applying to the new instances of t produced by this shift. It is entirely possible for phonological rules to persist in this way. For example, Siever’s Law, the phonological rule that caused underlyingly non-syllabic PIE sonorants to become syllabic after heavy syllables, persisted into Proto-Germanic, as can be seen from the example of PIE *wr̥ǵjéti ‘(s)he is working’ (cf. Av. vərəziieiti) > *wurkijiþi > PGmc *wurkīþi (c.f. Goth. waúrkeiþ, OE wyrcþ).

Now, if you accept that the aspiration rule could have persisted in applying after the High German consonant shift, it’s no stretch to suppose that the aspiration rule took effect before the sound changes described by Grimm’s Law occured, and it persisted in applying to the new voiceless stops produced by these changes. Why would we want to suppose this? Because it allows us to neatly explain the fact that the PIE voiceless stops did not become fricatives after voiceless obstruents. Position after voiceless obstruents is exactly the position where these voiceless stops did not become aspirated by the aspiration rule. So if the aspiration rule did take effect before the sound changes described by Grimm’s Law, those sound changes applied precisely to the aspirated voiceless stops, in all positions, and not the unaspirated voiceless stops. And fricativization of voiceless aspirated stops but not voiceless unaspirated stops is well-attested from languages such as Greek (consider: theós = classical [tʰeós], modern [θɛˈɔs], treîs = classical [tré͡es], modern [ˈtris]).

Readers (if I have any?) might remember that I already proposed this scenario in an earlier post. But I don’t have any formal qualifications in linguistics (yet!), so I can’t be regarded as a reliable source. However, I did find a reassuring paper by Iverson & Salamon (1995) which proposes the same scenario. What’s more, they also provide convincing phonetic motivations for why it was the voiceless aspirated stops that became fricatives, rather than the voiceless unaspirated stops or both kinds of stops, and for why voiceless stops after voiceless obstruents failed to become aspirated in the first place.

In phonetic terms, voiceless aspirated stops are distinguished from voiceless unaspirated stops by the fact that the open state of the glottis which is required in order to produce a voiceless sound persists for a short period after the release of a voiceless aspirated stop (this might be achieved by closing the glottis more slowly, beginning with a wider glottal opening in the first place, or a combination of the two). This results in the production of a phonetic [h] sound ([h] being the sound obtained when air passes through the open glottis and out of the mouth without being obstructed in the oral tract), although this [h] sound is considered part of the aspirated stop, in phonological terms. (Languages which have a /h/ phoneme as well as voiceless aspirated stops may distinguish phonemic /h/ by its longer duration; compare the English near-minimal pairs deckhand and decad.) Hence voiceless aspirated stops endure for some time after their release. Voiceless unaspirated stops, on the other hand, do not; after their release, the glottis shifts almost immediately to the state required for the production of the next sound (or comes to rest, if a pause follows). Now, if we assume that there is a tendency for stop phonemes to have similar durations, it follows that we should expect voiceless aspirated stops to have a shorter duration up to the release, that is of the period of obstruction, than voiceless unaspirated stops. And this has been backed up by empirical observations. Because the period of obstruction is shorter in voiceless aspirated stops, there is a greater tendency for the obstruction to be weakened, for whatever reason (e.g. a natural tendency towards weakening of shorter sounds, or assimilation to neighbouring sounds whose production involves less obstruction in the oral tract). That is why the obstruction tends to be weakened from the complete closure required for a stop to mere close approximation, which results in a fricative sound.

As for the question of why the PIE voiceless unaspirated stops did not become aspirated after voiceless obstruents in pre-PGmc, Iverson & Salamon answer this by proposing that the [+spread glottis] feature (i.e. the feature of extending the period of glottal opening by closing the glottis more slowly, or beginning with a wider glottal opening in the first place, or a combination of both of these things) is shared between the constituent consonants in a cluster of two consonants in which the first is an obstruent. That means that the extended period of voicelessness, which normally manifests as the phonetic [h] sound that follows an aspirated stop, is absorbed by the second constituent consonant in the cluster. Clusters like /st/ start off being pronounced with a glottis which is as widely spread as it is at the start of an aspirated stop, and over the course of the cluster the glottis closes just as slowly; by the time the end of the cluster is reached, the glottis is closed enough that there is no discernable [h] sound at the end.

This is not the only phenomenon observable in the Germanic languages that can be explained by this proposal that the [+spread glottis] feature is shared in biconsonantal obstruent-initial clusters. In English, for example, sonorant consonants after tautosyllabic voiceless obstruents are, generally, devoiced. But they are not devoiced after tautosyllabic /s/ + voiceless stop clusters (e.g. in /spl/ and /spr/). If this devoicing is just a matter of perseverant assimilation, this is difficult to explain. But if the devoicing is the effect of the extended period of voicelessness following a voiceless aspirated stop, it is exactly what we would expect. Iverson & Salamon don’t mention if the same pattern is found in other Germanic languages, but we would expect it to be found in all of them except Dutch.

So, that’s the first exception to Grimm’s Law. The second exception is the one described by Verner’s Law. But this seems like a good point to pause for now; I’ll cover Verner’s Law, and its relative chronology, in another post. (This post hasn’t been wholly unrelated to that topic; the observation that PIE voiceless unaspirated stops probably became aspirated in most positions before the sound changes described by Grimm’s Law is going to be relevant.)

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3 responses to “The relative chronology of Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law, part 1: aspiration in the Germanic languages.

  1. David Marjanović

    Yet German t obeys the aspiration rule just like the other plosives. It is of course possible that the aspiration rule is simply something that came into effect after the separation of the Germanic languages after the devoicing of *d in the High German dialects. But in that case, it would have had to come into affect in all of the non-Dutch Germanic languages independently.

    There’s a much simpler explanation: any aspiration in German, together with the rule that blocks it in certain environments, is historically a Low German accent. Within modern Standard German, aspiration is today more or less limited to areas where Low German is or was spoken. Growing up in Austria, I was explicitly taught how to articulate aspirated consonants in one of my first English lessons – and because I wasn’t taught the rule, I merrily aspirated behind /s/ as well till I read about the rule a few years after I had started university. I conclude that the rule did not persist as a ghost with no applications after the High German consonant shift had eliminated all aspirated obstruents (and all voiced ones, but that’s another story); it was reimported much later, together with aspiration as a whole, into the northern pronunciations of Standard German as a Low German substrate feature.

    The Dutch lack of aspiration, BTW, continues into Central Franconian as spoken e.g. in Cologne, and into the Standard German spoken in that area. If you dare, search YouTube for König von Mallorca.

    In English, for example, sonorant consonants after tautosyllabic voiceless obstruents are, generally, devoiced. But they are not devoiced after tautosyllabic /s/ + voiceless stop clusters (e.g. in /spl/ and /spr/).

    …But /l/ and /r/ are never devoiced in English; and such clusters as *|spd| or *|spv| are conspicuously absent.

    • I’m not sure about /r/, but there are lots of sources attesting to the fact that /l/ is devoiced, at least for some speakers, after tautosyllabic voiceless stops, as in words like place or class. I first saw this mentioned in a phonology course I took at university, but it’s also mentioned e.g. in this booklet (which I just found by Googling). I’ll admit I find it difficult to notice this in my own speech. I would also imagine the devoicing is only partial most of the time.

      I don’t think I’ve seen the stronger claim that all sonorants are devoiced after all voiceless obstruents (including fricatives) quite as often, but it is made by Iverson & Salmons (I notice I spelt the latter’s name as Salamon in this post… whoops) in their 1995 paper which I mentioned.

  2. David Marjanović

    as in words like place or class

    Oh. True, if only partial: the aspiration bleeds over.

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