Phonetic Features of Germanic Languages

Word Stress

One of the most important common features of all Germanic languages is strong dynamic stressfalling on the first root syllable.

In Proto-Germanic (PG) force or expiratory stress (also called dynamic and breath stress) was the only type of stress used. The stress was now fixed on the first syllable, which was usually the root of the word and sometimes the prefix; the other syllables (suffixes and endings) were unstressed.

These features of word accent were inherited by the Germanic languages, and are observable today. In Modern English there is a sharp contrast between accented and unaccented syllables due to the force of the stress. The main accent commonly falls on the root-morpheme, and is never shifted in building grammatical forms.


Changes of Consonants

3.2.1. the First Consonant Shift, or Grimms Law

By the First Consonant Shift (Grimms Law) we mean a number of consonant changes which date back to the II millennium BC. By the year 500 BC the sound changes must have come to a close. They had ended before the Germanic tribes came in touch with the Romans because not any word borrowed from Latin was subject to those changes in Germanic languages. This law expresses regular correspondences between consonants of Germanic and those of other Indo-European languages.

As can be seen from Table 1.2, correspondences between Indo-European (non-Germanic) and Germanic consonants may be grouped under three categories.

Table 1.2

Grimms Law


Indo-European voiceless stops (p, t, k) correspond to Germanic voiceless fricatives (f, þ, h).

Voiceless stops Voiceless fricatives  
IE Germ  
p f Snsk páñcā(n) R Snsk pitár Gr patēr Snsk nápāt L nepōs   Goth fimf E five Germ Vater E father Germ neffe E nephew  
t þ Snsk tri, travas L trēs three Gr treis R Snsk tad R Toch matar O Icel þrir Goth þreis [θri:s] E three OE ðæt Goth þata E mother  
k h Snsk katarás Ukr Hit kuis L quis Hit kuit R L quid Toch kant Goth hwaþar E whether E who OE hwæt     E hundred Goth hund  



Indo-European voiced stops (b, d, g) correspond to Germanic voiceless stops (p, t, k).

Voiced stops Voiceless stops  
IE Germ  
b p Lith dubús   R E deep Goth diups E pool  
d t Gr dyo L duo R Sanskr. dru, dāru R E two Goth twai O Icel tréir Goth triu E tree  
g k Snsk yuga L jugum R Snsk jắnu L genu O Icel ok Goth juk E yoke Goth kniu E knee  



Indo-European voiced aspirated stops (bh, dh, gh) correspond to Germanic voiced stops without aspiration (b, d, g).


Voiced aspirated stops Voiced stops without aspiration  
IE Germ  
bh b Snsk bhárāmi Russ. Snsk nábhas Gr nephos R Goth bairan ['beran] E bear OE nifel OHG nebul OS nebal  
dh d Snsk madha R Snsk mádhyas L medius Snsk dhrsnóti Gr thrasýs R OE medu Goth midjis E middle   Goth (ga)dars OE dear(r ) N. djerv E dare  
gh g Snsk stighnomi Gr steikho Snsk ghagh Germ steigen E giggle  



Some features of the First Consonants Shift require a special commentary.

Ø The correspondence IE b >Germ.pin Act 2 is scarcely illustrated as compared to other consonants changes due to the fact that the consonant pis very rare in native Germanic words [Rastorgueva].

Ø Voiced aspirated stops bh, dh, ghare only found in Sanskrit, whereas in the other Indo-European (non-Germanic) languages either voiceless fricatives (as in Latin and Greek) or unaspirated voiced stops (as in Russian) are used.

Grimms Law came to be the first achievement of comparative-historical linguistics. However, still debatable is the time of the Shift, its reasons, phonological essence, phonetic mechanism, connection with similar processes in the subsequent history of Germanic languages.

Grimms Law apparently reflects historical processes caused by the evolution of the structure of the Proto-Indo-European languages; it is not restricted by the Germanic languages only [Plotkin].


3.2.2. Verners Law

Verners Law, discovered in the late 19th c. by the Danish scholar Karl Verner, explains some correspondences of consonants which seemed to contradict Grimms Law.

In some words Indo-European voiceless occlusive consonants p, t, k corresponded not to the expected voiceless fricatives f, θ, h but to voiced fricatives v, ð, γ or plosives b, d, g, e.g. Greek dekas Goth. tigus (k g), Lat. pater Goth. fadar (t d).

According to Verners law, if an IE voiceless stop (p, t, k) was preceded by an unstressed vowel, the voiceless fricative (f, θ, h),which developed from it in accordance with Grimms law,became voiced (v, ð, γ), and laterthis voiced fricativebecame a voiced stop (b, d, g).

Verners Law can be schematically presented as follows:

V + IE stop → θ → ð → d,

where Vstands for an unstressed syllable, θ is a voiceless fricative formed in accordance with Grimms Law, ð is a voiced fricative and d is a voiced stop.

Consider e.g. the changes of the second consonant in the word father:

PIE Early PG Late PG

*pa΄ter > *fa΄θar > *fa΄ðar > > *΄faðar

At the time when the Germanic stress was free, voiceless fricatives in the position before a stressed syllable became voiced. So, in OE fæder (Goth. fadar) in accordance with L. pater there was to be a voiceless fricative in the middle of the word, e.g. *faþar. However, the stress in Gr. pa'ter, reflecting the earlier IE stress, accounts for this seeming incongruence. In the form *fa'þar expected in accordance with the First Consonant Shift the accent was on the second syllable. Under voicing in accordance with Verners Law the form *fa'ðar can be reconstructed. After the stress had been shifted to the root (first) syllable, voiced consonants, which appeared in accordance with Verners Law, got phonologized[1].

According to Verner's Law, the consonant was changed only when it was found after an unstressed vowel. This can be seen in the reconstructed forms of OE strong verbs, which permits a conclusion that at some time the stress in the first two verbal forms fell on the root, and in the last two on the suffix:

Class I sniþan snaþ snidon sniden to cut

þēōn þ(e)āh þigon þigen to prosper

Class II fleon flēāh flugon flogen to flee

Class III weorþan wearþ wurdon worden to become

Class V cweþan cwæþ cwædon cweden to say

Class VI hebban hoffon hafen to have

Class VII fōn (*fanhan) feng fengon fangen to catch

In the conjugation system one form may have its stress on one syllable, while another form of the same verb may have it on another syllable. In this way, variants of the root arise, whose consonants are different in accordance with Verners law. Accordingly, alternations within the verbal system arise which have been named grammatical alternation. The original system of grammatical consonant alternation was: f/b, þ/d, h/g, hw/w, s/r.

Changes of consonants that occurred in Germanic languages due to Verners Law can be summarized in the following table with a particular emphasis on English and German.

Table 1.3

Consonant Alternations in Germanic Languages due to Verners Law

Indo-European Germanic English German
p f / ѣ f / v f / b
t þ / đ th /d, th d / t
k h / g h / g h / g
ku hw, h / gw, g, w w, h / g, w w, h / g, w
s s / z s / r s / r


Eventually, this system underwent some changes in several Germanic languages, including Old English.

More examples of Verners Law can be found in the following table:

Table 1.4

Verners Law

Indo-European Germanic  
p, t, k, s b, ð/d, g, z/r
Gr hepta Gr pater Gr dekas Snsk ayas Goth sibun seven O Sc faðir, OE fæder Goth tigus ten, a dozen Goth aiz,OHG ēr


Note that some modern English words have retained traces of Verners Law, e.g. seethe sodden; death dead; raiserear; waswere.


Besides the voiceless fricative consonants resulting from the consonant shift, one more voiceless fricative is affected by Verners Law, i.e. the consonant s.If the preceding vowel is unstressed, sin Germanic languagesbecomes voiced,i.e.changes into z in the intervocal position. Eventually this z becomes rin Western Germanic and Northern Germanic languages (but not in Gothic). This latter change z > r is termed rhotacism(the term is derived from the name of the Greek letter ρ (rho). This is clearly shown by comparing Goth hausjan hear and OE hīeran, G hōren; Goth laisjan teach and OE læran, G lehren.

Basing on the absence of rhotacism in Gothic, archetypal forms of Gothic words not found in any written records can be restored for scholarly research, e.g. G. lernen, OE lerian, Goth. *laisian.


Changes of Vowels

Strict differentiation of long and short vowels is commonly regarded as an important characteristic of the Germanic group. The contrast of short and long vowels is supported by the different directions of their changes. While long vowels generally tended to become closer and to diphthongise, short vowels, on the contrary, often changed into mor open sounds.

1. IE short oand a changed into short a in Germanic.E.g.:

IE Germ IE Germ

R. G. Apfel L. octō Goth. ahtau

L. noctem Goth. Nahts Gr. Oktō G. Acht

R. G. Nacht R.

2. The merging of long vowels proceeded in the opposite direction: IE long ōand ā appear as long ō in Germanic languages. E.g.:

IE Germ IE Germ

L. frater Goth. Brōþar L. flōs flower OE blōma

Gr. phrātōr OE broþor

Thus, as a result of these changes, there was neither a short oor a long āin Germanic languages. Later on these sounds appeared from different sources.


The most important feature of the system of Germanic vowelsis the so-called Ablaut, or gradation, which is a spontaneous, positionally independent lteration of vowels. The Germanic languages inherited ablaut from the common Indo-European period. Alteration of vowels occurred in the root, suffix or ending depending on the grammatical form or meaning of the word.

In Germanic languages ablaut takes the form: i a zero. Cf., for example, the alteration of vowels in Gothic strong verbs of the 2nd class:

Infinitive Past tense sing. Past tense pl. Past participle

Kiusan kaus kusum kusans

If we ignore the common element u,thereremains a series i a zerorepresenting ablaut.

Umlaut (Germanic fracture)

Another phenomenon common for all Germanic languages was the tendency of phonetic assimilation of the root vowel to the vowel of the ending, the so-alled Umlaut, or mutation. In certain phonetic conditions, namelybefore the nasal [n] and before [i] or [j] in the next syllable, the short [e], [i] and [u] remained or became close (i.e. appeared as [i] and [u]),while in the absence of these conditions the more open allophones were used: [e] and [o], respectively. For example:

Goth harjis OE here army

Goth dōmjan OE dēman deem

Goth kuni OE cynn kin


4. Basic Peculiarities of Grammar


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