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Germanic Group of Languages- Important Characteristics- All about Grimm's Law, Verner's Law, Stress Shift, Tense System.


Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.


Germanic Language: Origins

The English language may be said to have taken its start when the Germanic tribes settled in Britain in the fifth century after the Romans had abandoned the British province in 412 A.D. These Germanic settlers were cut off from their original intercourse with their continental kinsmen and the Germanic dialects ultimately fused into one language. The dialects spoken by the settlers in Englan belonged to the Germanic (or Teutonic) branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

The West-Germanic languages around the 6th century CE.

The West-Germanic languages around the 6th century CE.

Germanic Languages: Characteristic Variations

The characteristic variations developed by Germanic languages are threefold:

a) Consonant Shift

b) Stress Shift (Value-stress)

c) Simplification of the tense system

A detailed look at these three aspects show how Germanic languages evolved out of the original Indo-European stick through phonetic and structural changes.

Grimm's Law: Consonant Shift

The Germanic group of languages tended to change certain original Indo-European consonants into other consonants, and this change was done so consistently and regularly that a law has been formulated on it called “Grimm’s Law” after Jacob Grimm, a German scholar. Grimm formulated the law that certain series of consonant sounds show regular shifting in the Teutonic languages when compared with the other Indo-European languages.

The following list gives a tentative idea of Grimm’s Law in context of Germanic languages:

1. Original “p” was changed to Germanic “f” (pater changed to father)

2. Original “t” was changed to Germanic “th” (tri changed to three)

3. Original “k” was changed to Germanic “h” (cornu changed to horn)

4. Original “d” was changed to Germanic “t” (Sanskrit pad changed to foot)

5. Original “b” was changed to Germanic “p” (Latin lubricus changed to slippery)

6. Original “g” was changed to Germanic “k” (Sanskrit janu changed to knee)

In short, Grimm’s Law states that, while the Italic and Aryan group of languages had kept the Indo-European consonant system almost intact, the Primitive Germanic group had changed it in a methodical manner.

Grimm’s Law can be considered a chain reaction where aspirated voice stops become regular voiced stops, voiced stops, in turn, become voiceless stops, and voiceless stops become fricatives .

In a simplified form Grimm’s Law may be stated as:

1. I.E. bh, dh, gh -> b,d,g in O.E.

2. I.E. b, d, g -> p, t, k in O.E.

3. I.E. p, t, k -> ph, th, kh (h) in O.E

I.E= Indo European O.E.= Old English (Germanic)

Grimm’s Law had certain limitations which was explained by the Verner’s Law.

Verners Law: According to Danish philologist Verner, the operation of the law of Consonant Shift depended on the position of the accent. Grimm’s Law was valid when the consonants occurred initially or were preceded by an accented vowel. For example “p” in Sanskrit “pad” changed into “f” in English “foot” because “p” in “pad” occurred at the start of the word. Again, “t” in Sanskrit “antara” was preceded by accented (stressed) vowel “a” ; therefore it changed to “th” in English “other”.

On the other hand, “p”, “t” “k”, when preceded by an originally unaccented vowel, did not shift to “ph”, “th”, “kh” but shifted further to “b”, “d”, “g” respectively. For example, in the Sanskrit word “antar”, the accent is on the second “a”. Therefore the “t” is not preceded by any accented vowel (the accent falls after the “t” and not before it). Therefore, it changed to “d” in English “under” and not “th” following Grimm’s Law.

An example showing both Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law is the shift observed from Sanskrit “tritiya” to English “third”. The accent (stress) in the original word was on the first “i”. The first T follows Grimm’s Law and becomes “th” while the second “t”, occurring after the accented “i”, follows Verner’s law and changes to “d” in “third”.

Therefore we may conclude that Verner’s Law complements Grimm’s Law and provides a better understanding of the Consonant Shift seen in Germanic Languages.

Check out my class lecture on Consonant shift in easy conversational style

Stress Shift: Significant Characteristic of Germanic Languages

In Indo-European, the accent was sometimes on the first, sometimes on the second and sometimes on the third syllable and so on. The shifting of the accent was done arbitrarily without any regard to the intrinsic importance of that syllable. However, as a rule, nearly all Germanic words came to be stressed on the first syllable, except where the word was a verb beginning with one of a number of prefixes like “beget”, “forget”, “abide” etc.

The Stress Shift has left its indelible mark on the structure of the language. On account of this, the Germanic languages have evolved a more logical and rational practice of stressing the root syllable or the most important syllable carrying the greatest value. This is also called “Value Stressing”. For example, if we look at the word “photograph” and its derivatives “photographer” and “photographic”, we see that the accent moves from one syllable to the other. So this word is an original I.E word with the original arbitrary accentuation and has been borrowed at a much later stage. On the other hand, if we take the word “love” and its derivatives “lover”, “loveliness”, “unloved”, we find that the stress is fixed on the root syllable “love”. So, we may conclude that this is a Germanic word taken over much earlier because it follows the Germanic system of rational accentuation. In the Germanic system the most important syllable, the root syllable, bears the accent logically while in the other Indo-European branches the accent is movable and arbitrary.

Simplified Tense System: A Mark of the Germanic Language

One of the most important aspect of Germanic languages is the simplification of tense system. No Germanic language has more than two tenses, a present and past. The old stock of strong verbs hardly increased in number and the modern English the number of weak verbs has been gradually increasing by adding the dental suffix “ed” to form past tenses of verbs. This has become the regular mode of forming the past tense whenever new verbs have to be created.

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