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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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