The Origins of the German language - The First and Second Sound Shift

Essay 2007 11 Pages

German Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. The early study of the sound shifts
2.1. A short historical outline

3. The First Sound Shift
3.1. Regularities of the First Sound Shift

4. The Verner law
4.1. The rhotacism
4.2. Causes and reasons for the first sound shift

5. The Second Sound Shift
5.1. Regularities of the Second Sound Shift
5.2. Causes and reasons for the Second Sound Shift

6. End

7. Bibliography


1. Introduction

Due to the fact that the sound shifts belong to the most important sound change events, which contributed to the origin of many European and particularly the German language, and furthermore also created phonologically interesting changes, this work deals with the subject of the First and Second Sound Shift. At the beginning of my essay I like to give a brief historical description of the early study of the sound shifts which was mainly found by Jacob Grimms pioneer work in the area of the philology and furthermore I will describes the sound shifts in general.

Since the terms First and Second Sound Shift lead to the assumptiona that there is a direct connection between these two phenomena of the sound change, the methodology of the representation and description of one sound shift concerned is applied with a high similarity to the other one.

2. The early study of the sound shifts

2.1. A short historical outline

The systematic, Germanic linguistics with a critically searching and historically comparative aspect developed at the beginning of the 19th century. Reason of this was the occupation of the German countries by Napoleon I. and the hence resulting all-embracing return of the underdogs to the history and the values of the German nation.

In their studies of the language the Brothers Grimm saw the possibility of meeting this kind of national feeling unaltered and prototypical. In particular the older of the brothers, Jacob Grimm, consecrated himself to the rediscovery and research of the language of the “old ages“, but in addition to the mythology, the legends, folk songs, fairy tale etc. of the Germanic speaking area, since from his point of view a perfect understanding of the modern language is only ensured if one considers this topic before the backdrop of its history.[1]

Jacob Grimm started to compare old writings of different languages with one another and represented the historical development of the German language from its preliminary stages with high precision.

In doing so, he tied in with the already conducted and comparative invested research of historical European sources and certifications of the Old-Indian Sanskrit, accomplished by other scholars.

Already this research unearthed the genealogical connection between most European languages and the Old-Indian Sanskrit. In particular the contributions of the Dane Rasmus Kristian Rask and those of the German literary scientist Franz Bopp to this topic, as well as the mentioned discovery itself, inspired Grimm and his philological penchant.[2]

Thus, he was the first who recognized the deeper connections of the single languages among themselves. The most important result of Grimm’s studies from the field of phonetics and phonology is the cognition of the sound shifts. In this connexion, it generally concerns historical changes of the consonant system of certain language combinations, which in the course of the time developed the today’s German language.[3]

Grimm recognized and described in the 1822 appeared second edition of the first volume of his book series “German grammar” („Deutsche Grammatik“) the character of the sound change phenomena.

He entitled these phenomena as “sound shifts” in the assumption that this concerns the most important phenomena, which were involved in the development of the today common High-German language. However, there have been other sound change events which played at least just as large part in the development of the new High German apart from the sound shifts, for instance the “vowel weakening” in old and medium High German or the “e-deletion” in the Medium High German.[4]

3. The First Sound Shift

The First Sound Shift, also known as Germanic Sound Shift, occurred in Europe approximately in the time of the second millenium before Christ up to the Second Century before Christ.

In the course of this First Sound Shift all Germanic languages separated from the Indogermanic language combinations in the same way and systematically modified the Indogermanic consonant system.[5]

3.1. Regularities of the First Sound Shift

Affected by this change were all indogermanic be-voiced obstruents and respectively plosives, the voiced aspirated plosives as well as the voiceless plosives. From the point of view of “sound-physiologically justified opinion”[6] of the young-grammatical school, which was a group of young, engaged linguists that met together towards the end of the 19th Century, the sound change took place in three steps. This widely held belief was based on the fact that in the Germanic language the First Sound Shift took place twice. In the First Sound Shift all Germanic languages and dialects (e.g. the Gothical, Nordic, Anglo-Saxon or Frisian language) participated, the second only concerned the High German language. Thus, they came to the conclusion that there must be differentiated between three stages of the sound shift:

1. the original sound level, which is shown by all Indigermanic languages with exception of the Germanic and which we can observe in particular at the Greek and Latin language;
2. the First Shift, which was participated by all Germanic languages and which we can easily identify at the Gothic, Low German and English language;
3. the Second Shift, which only took place in High German.

In the first step the Indogermanic voiceless plosives p, k and t transformed themselves as well as the rarer Indogermanic voiceless aspirated plosives ph, kh and th to the Germanic voiceless fricatives.


[1] Helmut Gipper/ Peter Schmitter, Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachphilosophie im Zeitalter der Romantik - ein Beitrag zur Histographie der Linguistik. Tübinger Beiträge zur Linguistik, Band 123, 2nd edition, Tübingen 1985, p. 28 - 32/ 54 – 59 (in the following cited as: Gipper, Sprachwissenschaft).

[2] Bernhard Sowinski, Grundlagen des Studiums des Germanistik - Sprachwissenschaft, Teil 1., 2nd edition, Köln/ Wien 1974, p. 20/ 37/ 55f/ 102 - 122/ 143f (in the following cited as: Sowinski, Germanistik).

[3] Oswald Szemerényi, Einführung in die vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft, 3rd edition, Darmstadt 1989, p. 14 – 31 (in the following cited as: Szemerényi, Einführung).

[4] Thomas Hengartner/Jürg Niederhauser, Phonetik, Phonologie und phonetische Transkription - Grundzüge, Begriffe, Methoden und Materialien, Reihe Studienbücher Sprachlandschaft, Band 4, Aarau/ Frankfurt a.M./ Salzburg 1993, p. 113/ 117 - 119 (in the following cited as: Hengartner, Phonetik).

[5] Sowinski, Germanistik.

[6] Hengartner, Phonetik, p. 117.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
462 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Birmingham – German Department
Sound Shift Grammar English The Verner law



Title: The Origins of the German language - The First and Second Sound Shift