Proto language reconstruction and vowel development

Once long ago there were a group of people known variously as the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Franks. We don’t know what they called their language but we call it Proto Germanic. It is called this because it is the ancestor of all Germanic languages. The Germanic languages include languages like English, German, Dutch, Frisian, German, Luxembourgish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese and others.

My favourite part of linguistics is looking at how languages change over time. Language is part culture and part biological entity. It is passed down from generation to generation like other aspects of culture but it also changes slightly over the generations and sometimes also within a generation. We can look at texts in modern Germanic languages and compare them with their older forms and see how things have changed.

Did you know what the English word “name” used to be pronounced “nah-muh”? In IPA that would be /naːmə/. English used to sound a lot more like the other Germanic languages but then the Great Vowel Shift happened and now it sounds very different. In Modern German it is still pronounced as /naːmə/. Sounds are changing in languages all the time. What I find really interesting is how we can go further back and work out the sounds of the original Germanic language.

This is done by painstakingly comparing examples of the oldest Germanic languages. Gothic, Old English, Old High German, Old Saxon, Old Norse, they all have differences and similarities. We can look at the similarities and make some educated guesses about the original words and sounds of the language. Let’s look at the word “stone” for instance.

In Middle English it was written variously as stone, ston or stan. In Old English it was stān. In Old High German however it was stein. In Old Norse it was steinn and in Gothic it was stains. So we have “ā” (long A), “ei” and “ai”. What is the ancestor of those sounds? Well, gothic is the oldest so it might have been “ai”. To be sure we need to find another example of “ai”. And actually we can.

There is actually a step in between Proto Germanic and Old Norse called Proto Norse. We don’t have any extensive texts in it like we do with Old Norse, but we do have some inscriptions on stone which reveal that the original sound in their word for stone was “ai”. So Proto Norse has stainaz, and Gothic has stains. Both of these languages are the oldest Germanic languages we can find so we can be pretty sure the original sound was “ai”. This is pronounced like Modern English “eye” or the “igh” in “high” or “light”. IPa for it is /ai/.

So if you look up the etymology of the word “stone” and it gives the Proto Germanic form it will be listed as *stainaz. The star indicates that the word is reconstructed. Now that we have reconstructed the word we can do something cool. We can go back down from the Proto Germanic form and see how it developed into the languages we actually have texts for.

So Proto Germanic *stainaz became Old English stān. The “ai” sound became an “ā” sound like the sound you make when you say “ah!”. In IPA it is /a:/. It is now a different sound. When we have two sounds next two each other we call it a diphthong. “ai” pronounced as IPA /ai/ is a dipthong. This sound changed to a monophthong (which is just one sound) “ā” IPA /a:/ in Old English and this didn’t just happen once. Here is how stone and other words with the same sound developed from Proto Germanic. The first term is Proto Germanic, the second term is Old English and the third term is Modern English. The “þ” is pronounced like “th”.

*stainaz stān stone
*haimaz hām home
*aiks āc oak
*aiþaz āþ oath
*bainaz bān bone

We can do the same thing for German. The first term is Proto Germanic, the second term is Old High German and the third term is Modern German.

*stainaz stein Stein
*heimaz heim Heim
*aiks eih Eich
*aiþaz eid Eid
*bainaz bein Bein

I discussed the development of the word “stone” in a previous article but I wanted to go a step further. Not all words with “ai” in Proto Germanic developed into Old English “ā”. What? Not a completely regular change?! How could language be so irregular! Well, languages were spoken by people and sometimes people don’t follow the rules and languages are just generally messy anyways.

Sometimes “ai” in Proto Germanic became ǣ in Old English. It is the sound of the first letter of the word “apple” except elongated. In IPA it is /æ:/. Here are some examples with Proto Germanic, Old English and then Modern English.

*dailiz dǣl deal
*mainijaną mǣnan mean
*saiwiz sǣ sea
*taisilō tǣsel teasel (a type of plant)
*uzdailiją ordǣl ordeal

*braidį̄ brǣdu breadth
*flaiską flǣsc flesh

As you can see, ǣ often becomes “ea” in Modern English but not always. This could be for many reason. The letters around the word sometimes affect how the vowels behave. If a word is easier to pronounce in a different way then the alternate way might become the more popular way of saying it. Another reason is simply because someone said it differently one day, other people copied them and it just became the most popular pronunciation over time.

Lets look how these Proto Germanic words developed in German. The first term is Proto Germanic, the second term is Old High German and the third term is Modern German.

*dailiz teil Teil
*mainijaną meinen meinen
*saiwiz sēo See
*taisilō zeisala Zeisel
*uzdailiją urteil Urteil
*braidį̄ breitī Breite
*flaiską fleisk Fleisch

“ai” generally became “ei” in German but again no sound shift affects all words of a language. It is more of a general trend rather than a universal. What we can see from this is that in English “ai” might become “ā” or “ǣ”, but in German it mostly just becomes “ei”. This is what is interesting about sound changes. They seem to have a mind of their own. They might affect almost all words, or maybe just a subset of them.

Once we know this we can find some interesting examples of it. Why are “great”, “steak”, “break” pronounced like they are? The “ea” in them should be pronounced like the “ea” in “tea”, “steam” and “beam”. “great” and words where the “ea” is pronounced like that are examples of words that for some reason didn’t follow a sound shift like other words.

In Middle English words with “ea” were pronounced very similarly to how we now pronounce “great”. In Dutch, “break” is “breken” which sounds similar to our word “break”. Another example of a group of words that didn’t change is words with “oa” that are pronounced like “broad”. Most of the words with “oa” eventually changed to sound like the sound in “road”. I mentioned the Great Vowel Shift earlier. Well “broad” and “great” are two examples of words that did not go through the expected shift and still have their old sounds.

Why did they not go through the shift? Maybe one dialect held onto the older sound for longer and for some reason used the word more often so people heard their version of the word more often so they ended up using their version. But it could just be random. That’s what’s funny about language. It has a lot of structure and also systematic change. But it also has a lot of random change. It’s a lot like a biological organism that sometimes keeps an old trait that wasn’t that useful but never bothered getting rid of.

I remember that these changes that didn’t affect 100% of words used to bothered me. But now I see it as a constant reminder of the vitality and ever changing picture of language. It’s like a tide coming in and out. Sometimes the tides reveals more and sometimes less. Its always different. And same with sound changes. Sometimes they affect almost all words and sometimes the shift affects far fewer words. But either way they are examples of the constant movement and vitality that makes studying languages so interesting.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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I need to get better at doing language learning consistently. You have a week long streak and then you get busy and you forget to do it. Oh well, at least I work with languages for a living so even when I am not Duolingo’ing I am still learning language stuff 🙂

Learn Old English with Steve the vagabond Part 1

Phrases in Old English
The IPA transcription appears after the phrase

Eala /eːala/ – Hello
Hū gǣþ hit þē? /huː gæːθ hit θɛː/ – How are you? Hit gǣþ wel /hɪt gæːθ wɛl/ – Fine
Hu hātest þu? /huː haːtɛst θuː/ – What is your name? Iċ hāte ___ /ɪt͡ʃ haːtɛ/ – My name is ___
Gēse /jeːzɛ/ – Yes
Nēse /neːzɛ/ – No
Iċ ne mæġ (Eald)1 Englisc spreċan /itʃ͡ nɛ mæj (ɛald) eŋglɪʃ sprɛtʃ͡ an/ – I can not speak (Old) English.
Iċ (ne) þæt underġiete /itʃ͡ nɛ θæt ʊndɜrjɪɛtɛ/ – I (don’t) understand
Spriċþ man (Nīw) Englisc hēr? /sprɪt͡ʃθ man (niːw) eŋglɪʃ her/ – Is there someone here who speaks (Modern) English?
Hwanen cymst þu? /ʍanɛn kʏmst θu/ – Where are you from?
Iċ cume of ___ /itʃ͡ kʊme of/ – I am from ___

Get complete lessons for Old English at Steve the vagabond on Patreon

The story of how the word “stone” came to be

A long time ago, in the Bronze Age, there were a group of people living in Scandanavia. These people would eventually become the Germanic people. The people living then didn’t really have writing. They had runes but they weren’t used much. They were mostly used for ceremonial purposes like on swords or other blades.

The fact that these people didn’t write many things down means that we know very little about their day to day language. They obviously spoke a language, and we can make some very educated guesses as to their language but we have very few things that directly indicate what their language was like. We don’t know what their language was called, so linguists decided to call it Proto Germanic because it is the language all Germanic languages come from.

Continue reading The story of how the word “stone” came to be

Where do words come from?

When you are very small you hear the words “dog”, “cat”, “house”, “car”, “mom”, “dad” and just assume that it has always been like that.

As you get older you encounter new words like “selfie”, “defriend”, “doxx”, “bae”, “bling” and you might initially recoil. “What the hell is going on?! Back in my day we had proper words like cat and dog, not this ‘selfie’ nonsense”. I hate to break it to you, but words are coming into the language all the time and they always have.

Even words are seemingly commonplace as “lifestyle” only started being used in the modern sense in the 60s.

Other words have been around longer though, much longer. The word “house” dates back to the language of the Germanic tribes. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. It was spoken during the bronze age a few millenia ago. The word probably goes back even further.

But where did the word originally come from? Where did any word actually come from? Surely at some point there was no need for the word “house” so the word didn’t exist back then. As our ancestors moved out of caves and moved into the savannah or forest they would eventually have needed a word to describe the thing that provided them shelter.

Continue reading Where do words come from?

The story of “us” in the Germanic languages

There is a change that happened in some West Germanic languages that has obscured the relation between a whole set of words. I would like to explore that change and reveal a connection you might not know about.

All modern Germanic languages (English being one of them) are descended from a language spoken by the Germanic tribes in the Bronze Age. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. They were spread out across southern Sweden, Denmark and southern Norway. Over time they migrated south into central Europe. Some went east and their language changed over time eventually becoming Gothic.

Those that stayed in central Europe became Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch and Belgians. Some of the Germanic tribes left central Europe for the British isles and they were the ancestors of the English. Those that stayed in Scandanavia eventually became the Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Faroe islanders.

As the Germanic peoples spread out they took their Germanic language with them and it changes bit by bit over time. Linguistics groups the Germanic languages into three major branches: West Germanic of central Europe and the British isles, East Germanic of eastern Europe and North Germanic of northern Europe, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

People learn language on their mother’s knees and from their peers. They pick it up around them. They eventually settle on some kind of baseline which they use to communicate with others. They probably hear variations and just get used to range of expression of their language.

Continue reading The story of “us” in the Germanic languages

Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in Modern English

Modern English is a rather strange language. It is a basically a train wreck between Anglo Saxon (also known as Old English), Old Norse and Norman French

Here’s an example

I am mad (mad comes from Old English ġemǣdd)

I am angry (angry comes from Old Norse angr)

I am agitated (agitate comes from Latin agitatus)

These words all generally mean the same thing with with some nuance to their meanings.

Old English was an inflectional language. This means that it used inflections on verbs and endings on nouns

Continue reading Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in Modern English

How did language first evolve?

It is a question that has intrigued us for as long as humanity has been around. Some ancient myths talk about gods bestowing the gift of words upon us. We are fascinated by this very complex thing that we do pretty much effortlessly. It is so effortless for us that we often don’t even realise how amazing it is. I think we, as humans, are always asking questions and trying to understand our world, and language is an essential part of the human experience.

People often wonder what it would be like to have telepathy. Well, no need to wonder. We have it already. We can communicate complex ideas just by making sounds, or as I am doing now, writing them down using a system designed for capturing spoken word on the page. It is no surprise to me that our ancestors must have come up with all sorts of explanations for how it must have come about.

But did it really just pop up out of nowhere? No, that doesn’t seem likely. As much as humanity might have a lofty opinion of its own place in the world, we are just as subject to the forces of nature as any other species. There must be an evolutionary reason for how languages ended up developing. I was watching a video about birds and how they evolved. Every living thing alive evolved from an older form. But looking at modern birds, you realise that if they evolved from older forms then that means that one of those older forms didn’t have wings. They didn’t just pop up out of nowhere already having wings. Evolution is a slow process that takes countless generations to end up at the situation we have today.

Continue reading How did language first evolve?

Learn Northern Sami with Steve the vagabond Part 4

There are three kinds of verbs in Northern Sami: vowel
stem verbs, consonant stem verbs and contracted

Vowel stems are the only verbs that use
consonant gradation

Vowel stem verbs always have an even number of
syllables and end on -at, -it, or -ut.

Consonant stem verbs have an odd number of

Contracted verbs end on -át, -et or -ot and have two

juhkat is a vowel stem verb. This is because it has an
even number of syllables: juh-kat

háhkat is a vowel stem verb because it has two
syllables: háh-kat

sohaldahttit means to bend down

sojaldahttit is a vowel stem verb because it has four
syllables: so-jal-dah-ttit

Get complete lessons for Northern Sami at Steve the vagabond on Patreon

What do the words “not” and “wight” have in common?

If you have been watching Game of Thrones, then you would have heard the word “wight”. In literature this word is used to refer to some kind of supernatural entity, whether it is a ghost or even a god. Sometimes it can also be used to refer to some kind of monster. In previous centuries the word “wight” was used to refer to a living creature, but was mostly used for people. Game of Thrones combined these two to to name the monstrous undead controlled by the White Walkers (not the Wight Walkers, yes, a bit confusing).

What does this have to do with “not”? Well, in an even older version of English called Old English, the word “wight” was “wiht” and it refered not just to people, and creatures, but to anything that you didn’t have a specific name for, exactly how we use the word “thing” in Modern English.

“not” comes from a compound word in Old English “nāwiht” which was literally “not anything”. This eventually became Middle English not, noght and naht. From here we got “not”, “nought” and “nawt”.

So a word meaning a thing has gone all the way from being very general, to a word that is obscure enough that you might not have even realised that the creatures in Game of Thrones are called “wights”. At first I thought they were just called “whites” after the “White Walkers”. It’s really funny how some words change so much over time but others, like “not”, hardly change at all

Come live on the silly side of life