The Brothers Grimm weren’t just about fairy tales. They also transformed how we think about language

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is probably incredibly violent and creepy as well. From the W.W. Norton Bicentennial Edition

Fairy tales are brilliant, aren’t they? Lovely for the little kiddies. Like the one in which a guy murders his brother so he can steal a dead boar off him, and then gets executed after one of his dead brother’s bones starts to sing. Or the one in which the Devil orders a father to chop his daughter’s hands off, but then a king makes her prosthetic hands out of silver. Or that beautiful classic Cinderella, a tale of two ugly women chopping their own toes and heels off to fit their feet into a golden slipper in order to marry a prince, and then having their eyes pecked out by doves.

Whenever people complain about violence in modern entertainment, I always think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, from which the above are taken. (Also Struwwelpeter, about a maniac with giant scissors who goes around chopping off children’s thumbs if they suck them. But that’s not the Grimms, it just makes me chuckle.) For some reason the Hollywood cartoon versions always lack the self-mutilation and general bloodshed and horror.

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, published their book 200 years ago last December, and Germany has been holding a whole year of celebrations throughout 2013 to commemorate it. (For reasons that I can’t fully work out, Radio 4’s Today programme chose today to mention it, hence this blog post.)

It’s a bit sad that the Grimms are so widely remembered only for these admittedly rather wonderful kids-only snuff stories. Jacob Grimm was also a pioneering genius in the young field of linguistics, the man behind “Grimm’s Law”, one of the first laws ever discovered that describes how language changes. Brilliantly, as Guy Deutscher explains in his book The Unfolding of Language, it changes because we’re lazy.

The full K sound, raising the tongue to the roof of the mouth, is harder to say than the softer “loch/Bach” sound, which only involves raising the tongue half-way. And that is itself harder than the tightening of the glottis required for the aspirated sound of an “H”.

Similarly, the sound of a B, which requires the vocal cords to work, is harder to say than the otherwise identical P, which is “voiceless”, ie has no vocal cord involvement. D is harder than T for the same reason, and G than C. (If you try whispering words with those letters in, you’ll notice that the voiced and unvoiced sounds are almost identical. So “beg” and “peck” sound basically the same.) P, which requires a plosive sound with a fully closed mouth, is harder to say than the fricative F, which still allows some air through.

What Grimm noticed was that as his native German had evolved away from the ancient Proto-Indo-European language, there had been a systematic tendency for harder sounds to be replaced with easier ones. So K had frequently become “ch”, had become H, and then sometimes been dropped. Ds had become Ts, Bs had become Ps and so on. And in fact this has happened in every language, at different times and in different places.

That’s why in some languages, whole groups of Ps have been replaced by Fs: for instance, English and the other Germanic languages have an F in “fish”, “father”, “fear”, while the French and other Latinate languages keep the original Proto-Indo-European P-sound: “pêcher” (or “poisson“), “père“, and “peur“. The history of language is a constant story of language users making things easier for themselves, whether by dropping syllables (no one says “disturbèd” any more, you’ll notice) or melding words together (“dunno”, “gonna” – more on “gonna” later). This has been going on for as long as language itself, and makes pretty dramatic changes: for example, the Old English “hlaf-weard“, a two-word, three-syllable phrase meaning “loaf-warden” or “keeper of the bread”, has been chopped in the course of probably only 45 generations or so to a bare one-syllable word, “lord”. The same processes are observed in every language around the world.

The discovery of Grimm’s Law, that language is constantly being eroded by usage, seemed to confirm the fears of language guardians everywhere. (As Deutscher puts it: “Not only does language always change, but if one is to believe the authorities, it always changes for the worse.”) All our languages are blurring into a monosyllabic soup, a sort of background hum, by the laziness of users.

But this immediately leaves us with a question: how, if it’s constantly degrading, are we still able to understand each other? As the critic Hans Weigel said in 1974: “Every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before.” (He slightly spoiled the effect by adding: “In our time, however, language really is endangered and threatened by decay as never before.”) Whatever era you think the Golden Age of language was, people of that era thought that it was a decayed relic of what had gone before. Even Cicero thought that the Latin of his day wasn’t a patch on the Latin of a century before. (“Practically everyone in those days spoke correctly. But the lapse of time has certainly had a deteriorating effect.”)

Obviously, then, language isn’t deterioriating. It is self-renewing, constantly and subtly; its creative processes are intricately linked to its destructive ones. In Old French, the word for “today” was “hui” (ground down from the old Latin “hoc die“, “on this day”). But it became too casual-sounding for French users who wanted to say “on this day” in a more emphatic manner, so they started saying “au jour d’hui“, or “on the day of this day”. That became “aujourd’hui“. And, says Deutscher, modern French people sometimes, when they want to emphasise “on this day” emphatically, say “au jour d’aujourd’hui“, or “on the day of the day of this day”.

This goes on everywhere in every language: frequently paired words get melded together to form new words. You can see it happening with modern English. “Gonna”, for instance, is a fascinating word: it’s not merely a lazy contraction of “going to”, it is its own word. You can tell this (as Deutscher points out: it might be best if you just read the book, actually) because you would say “I’m gonna change the record”, using “going to” as an indicator of future intention. But no English speaker would ever say “I’m gonna Belgium on holiday” – as in “going to” as an indicator of physical movement. English users have made an entirely new word to indicate future intention, using space as an analogy for time. What looks like language destroying itself is in fact language making itself anew.

Jacob Grimm himself, for the record, thought – and was rather embarrassed – that it was only the Germanic languages that suffered this erosion, and that it was a decay, not a constant process of renewal. He was wrong about that, on both counts. But nonetheless he noticed a pattern in how languages change, which has paved the way for two centuries of linguistics and was a major step in the journey from people complaining that language ain’t what it used to be to people studying language scientifically. Now, I’m a big fan of fairy tales. But this is much better than that.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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