Proto-Germanic and Germanic: Consonant Shifts and Vowel Changes


By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

The Germanic language family is weird in that one in three Germanic words do not trace back to Proto-Indo-European. The most reasonable explanation for this is that, before evolving into the Germanic languages, many unusual things happened to Proto-Germanic. Let us take a look at few possibilities about what happened.

Sheep in a field.
About one-third of the words in Germanic, such as the word ‘sheep’, do not derive from the earlier proto-Indo-European, but have some other source. (Image: visualisworld/ Shutterstock)

Unusual Words in Proto-Germanic

Now, English is a Germanic language, so we can look at it to see how it reflects this uniqueness of Germanic. For example, in Proto-Indo-European the word for ‘sheep’ was ‘owis’. ‘Sheep’ and its forms in Germanic don’t trace back to anything that we know of. We have other languages where you’ve got ‘owis’ and that goes into the words for ‘sheep’ in a great many languages. But ‘sheep’ doesn’t trace back to Proto-Indo-European. It traces back to nothing. It’s just kind of sitting there.

When that happens to the occasional word, it can be assumed to be some random chance. But when it’s one out of three words, you start to think that something odd must have happened to Proto-Germanic. Especially, since we know that languages come into contact and borrow words, we can think that there must have been contact with some other language, for there to be that many words that don’t trace back to the ancestral language.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Consonant Shifts in Proto-Germanic

There is also something else odd about Proto-Germanic in comparison to other languages that come from Proto-Indo-European: the sounds are also different. So, for example, what in Proto-Indo-European is a ‘p’ for some reason in Germanic is an ‘f’. So Latin has ‘pater’ for the male parent; English uses the ‘father’. That’s kind of odd. Where Latin has ‘decem’ for ‘ten’, we have the ‘t’ in the beginning, in ‘ten’: ‘d’ shifts to ‘t’.

There is a whole series of shifts in consonants, which you can chart, and it’s all very systematic. Why are there these shifts? No one really knows exactly why this happened, but what we do know is that it’s very, very odd. It’s not something that you would predict. It seems to have just happened.

You could say that the reason that these consonants were uttered that way is because it was in the mouths of people who were approaching it as a new language. If all of a sudden ‘pe’ is going to become ‘fe’ and all of a sudden ‘de’ is going to become ‘te’, it almost seems like somebody wasn’t speaking something right. That’s another way of saying that maybe these Germanic speakers met speakers of other languages.

Learn more about tracing Indo-European.

Reconstructing Language Backwards

Of course, we are in a world where there is no writing yet, so nobody ever wrote down Proto-Indo-European; no one ever wrote down Proto-Germanic. The way we know what it was like is because we reconstruct backwards from all the Germanic languages. We look at what they have in common, and what they don’t, and look at the way we know sounds change and endings change.

Neolithic age stone art carvings found near Newgrange, Ireland.
People who spoke Proto-Germanic did not leave behind anything in writing. However, they left behind engravings, pottery, jewelry. (Image: Zina Seletskaya/Shutterstock)

So, we reconstruct what Proto-Germanic must have been like. The people who spoke this language left behind no writing. They left behind just their bones, some pottery and some jewelry. No one wrote down anything, forget about leaving clues about the other languages they may have encountered to change their own. We don’t know.

Learn more about diversity of structures in languages.

Proto-Germanic and Proto-Semitic

Then there’s this other oddity. You can look at some parallels between Proto-Germanic and you start looking at language families of the world, and sometimes you get some odd parallels. For example, there is a word in English ‘maiden’; German has ‘Mädchen’, which is the cognate. If you take all the words like that in the Germanic languages that have a word like that and trace it back, it seems that in Proto-Germanic that word would have been ‘maghatis’.

A 14th century BC diplomatic letter in Akkadian, found in Amarna, Egypt.
Semitic languages seem to have a surprising number of similarities in vocabulary to Proto-Germanic, indicating some contact in very early times. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Then it gets interesting. There are other linguists who are studying the Semitic languages. The Semitic languages—by way of review those are Arabic and Hebrew and other languages of the Middle East and then also Amharic and the Gurage languages in Ethiopia. Those languages are being reconstructed in terms of their ancestor. The Proto-Semitic word for girl is ‘maḥat’. So, we see a connection between the Proto-Germanic word ‘maghatis’ and then Proto-Semitic ‘maḥat’.

Now if it’s just one thing like that, well, accidents happen and linguistics can’t go looking for stories for all random occurrences. But it happens that there are a lot of cases like that. There are almost too many for it to be an accident. Theo Vennemann, a historical linguist, has suggested that Proto-Germanic speakers may have encountered the ancient speakers of a Proto-Semitic language, and that this has given rise to the many unusual words that Germanic now has, which have no Proto-Indo-European cognates.

Tone Shifts and Vowel Jumps

At first you think, why in the world would Semitic speakers be way up in this northern part of Europe that gave rise to Germanic? But then, on the other hand, there is evidence that Semitic-speaking sailors traveled to European coasts in antiquity. We don’t know about these voyages in any kind of Marco Polo detail, but we do know that they did it.

Also, remember that in Germanic, as in English, we have words that change in unusual ways form present to past tense. You say ‘sink’, but you don’t say ‘sinked’, you say ‘sank’. The way that the past is indicated is with that vowel change. That change in the vowel is the past marker; that’s called ablaut. It is quite common in Germanic languages. They are called the strong verbs. In Semitic, it is standard for vowels to indicate tense. So in Arabic we have, ‘yaktubu—he writes’; and then ‘he wrote’ is ‘kataba’. Notice that k, t, b stay still while the vowels change.

One can suppose that Proto-Germanic encountered the Semitic group and was transformed. The history of English includes that encounter, because it left the language the way it is today to a considerable extent.

Common Questions about Proto-Germanic and Germanic

Q: How is Germanic different from other languages that trace back to Proto-Indo-European?

In Germanic languages, including English, about one in three words do not trace back to Proto-Indo-European, unlike other descendant languages, like the Latin ones, which still retain traces of their Proto-Indo-European ancestor.

Q: In terms of sounds, how does Germanic differ from other Proto-Indo-European languages?

Proto-Germanic differs from Proto-Indo-European in that the sounds seem to have undergone changes. For example, ‘p’ sounds have become ‘f’ sounds, while ‘d’ sounds have become ‘t’ sounds.

Q: What language group appears to have influenced Proto-Germanic languages?

It appears that Semitic language groups have influenced Proto-Germanic. There is a possibility that Proto-Germanic speakers may have encountered the ancient speakers of a Proto-Semitic language.

Keep Reading The Great Vowel Shift: How We Know Language Now The Diversity Structures of Semitic Languages The Processes of Sound Change