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History of the German Language: Identifications and Short Answers

A. Short Answers:

1.Early Germanic loan words in Finnish help us to reconstruct what the Germanic language sounded and/or looked like at the time of the loan, since these foreign loan words have often kept the older forms, and have not undergone the subsequent sound shifts that changed the words in Germanic. Of course, they also tell us a little bit about where and when the Germanic-speaking peoples were living, since there was obviously contact between the two groups.

2.These non-IE lexical items show that the Germanic tribes, upon moving into the area around the Baltic and North Seas, came into contact with a non-IE speaking people, who were likely already living there, which in itself is an interesting fact. Also, though, since there was such a great amount of mixing of both phonology and lexicon, it's probable that there was a peaceful mingling of the peoples (with future generations of language speakers causing this mixing), which means that both groups were relatively close and in stable contact for quite some time.

3.When comparing two languages to determine if they are genetically related, it is best to use a set of very basic core vocabulary. This would include the number system (at least from one to ten), personal pronouns, colors, and basic nouns, such as those dealing with family relationships, natural elements (water, trees, etc.), and common objects or animals. Words that are known to have been borrowed into either language must be excluded from comparison.

4.In providing an explanation for the seeming "exceptions" to Grimm's Law, Verner's Law showed that sound change in language is REGULAR, and proceeds along an ordered set of phonological rules. Thus, Grimm's Law, and all other sound change laws, change the phonology in a regular manner without exceptions, and without dependence upon the semantic function of the word (though of course morphology can and does play a role in the phonology of the word to begin with).

5.The absence of cognates for a semantic concept in related languages by no means implies that that concept did not exist in the proto-culture. The fact that the word "snow" is not common to the Germanic languages does not mean that the Proto-Germanic-speakers had no concept for it. It is very common for words to be lost or disappear over time, or for them to change their meaning, etc. The presence of such cognates is a much better indicator that a concept did exist, assuming that events such as borrowing can be ruled out. Still, neither presence nor absence should be taken as absolute proof: archeological evidence is probably a much more solid source of information about certain aspects of culture.



B. Definitions:

1.partial assimilation
 making a consonant closer in pronunciation to a neighboring consonant, either by changing its place or manner of articulation. Examples: 'in-' + 'possible' = 'impossible' (partial assimilation of [n] to [m], influenced by [p]); 'ent-' + 'finden' = 'empfinden' (partial assimilation of both [n] to [m] and [t] to [p], influenced by [f]).

2.folk etymology
 a 'false' etymology of a word, so derived because people think up their own native words that resemble the unknown one. Examples: Iroquois 'otchek' to English 'woodchuck,' or English 'asparagus' to '*sparrow grass'.

3.syncope
 the loss of a vowel or syllable in the middle of a word. Example: Gmc (wir) sagetun > NHG (wir) sagten.

4.apocope
 the loss of a vowel or syllable at the end of a word. Example: German (ich) gebe > colloquial German (ich) geb'.

5.loan translation
 a direct translation of words or morphemes from the original language, which then form new words in the secondary language. Example: English 'network' to German 'Netzwerk', or Latin 'com-passio' to German 'Mitleid'.

6.semantic loan
 a carrying over of the semantic meaning of a word from the original language to a secondary language; this usually means giving a new meaning to an already existing word, or adapting a word to cause a new meaning. Example: Gmc. 'daupjan' (to immerse, dip) becomes German 'taufen' (to baptize) by example of Greek 'baptizare.'

7.proto-language
 an original parent language (the ancestor of other known related languages) which is not attested but which can be reconstructed or hypothesized by comparing the daughter languages. Example: Proto-Germanic, the parent of the West, East, and North Germanic dialects and hence of the Germanic daughter languages.

8.reconstructed language
 a language with no direct evidence or attestations, which has been reconstructed or re-built by linguists, who compare all known daughter languages in order to find the forms by which, using a set of ordered rules, each of the daughter languages can be derived. Example: Indo-European, the parent language of MANY different language families now spoken, but for which we have no direct (e.g. written) evidence.

9.quantitative ablaut
 a change in the quantity (i.e. length) of the vowel. Example: Latin 'pedis' (genitive "foot") and 'ped' (nominative "foot").

10.qualitative ablaut
 a change in the quality (i.e. articulation) of the vowel. Example: German 'finden' > 'fand'.

11.misparsing
 choosing the wrong place at which to separate two lexical units, so that a new word is formed. Examples: German "ein Natter" to English 'an adder'; also (I think) English 'another' to colloquial English 'a whole nother'.

12.nasal loss and compensatory lengthening
 with the loss of a nasal, the vowel becomes lengthened to make up for it. Examples from within the Germanic period: VNX > VX, such as PGmc. branXta > Gmc. braXta.



C. People:

1.Jakob Grimm developed and published Grimm's Law (erste Lautverschiebung), which provided the rules for the systematic sound shift which occurred between PIE and PGmc; he also compiled an etymological dictionary and coined many linguistic terms still used in German.

2.Sir William Jones gave the first clear and detailed statement (in 1786) postulating that the relationships between many languages (such as Greek, Latin, German, Sanskrit, etc.) were not merely coincidental or accidental, but that all of these languages must have sprung from a common ancestor (now called Indo-European).

3.Rasmus Rask was a Danish linguist who had already (independently) come up with the same set of correspondences that Grimm set out as the first Consonant Shift, thus the Danes credit him with 'Rask's Law.'

4.Karl Verner was a Danish linguist who found the solution to the "exceptions" in Grimm's Law, showing that the alternate sound shifts occur depending on the placement of the original IE word accent (stress); he thus showed that language change is regular.



D. Essay:

 By reconstructing the language of the Indo-Europeans, we can also learn a great deal about their habits, their environment, and their culture in general. We know with a fair amount of certainty that the Indo-Europeans were herdspeople, since there are large sets of cognates for domestic animals (cows, swine, bees, etc.), and that they made their tools from stone ('hammer' comes from a root meaning 'stone'). They had wooden houses (Zimmer = timber = domus), with mud or earthen walls (Teig = dough = teikhos), possibly also thatched (Wand = winden). They lived in fenced enclosures in their villages (Zaun = town = dunum), had a base ten number system, and they counted time by nights rather than days (fortnight, Fastnacht, etc.) and by the moon (Monat = month). They also had a larger and more differentiated vocabulary for family relationships.

 About 6000 years ago, the Indo-Europeans probably lived in Western or Central Asia near the Caspian Sea, or south of the Caucasus (this can be surmised from the cognates for environmental words such as specific trees, plants, and animals). They had basic water-vessels, but did not live near the open sea, and did not have sea-faring capabilities (the words for fish, ships, and other water-related items do not correspond). In short, our linguistic evidence provides us with a good core knowledge of the Indo-European culture, and when these results are reinforced by archeological evidence, we can assume them to be reasonably valid.






Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1994 for German 650 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "History of the German Language: Identifications and Short Answers." Website Article. 19 October 1994. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/650midterm.html>.