Language history for Father’s Day

Father's Day

This week we celebrate our parents, without whom we would not be who we are. Each of us has a story with the respective father. Today we have a little story for all the fathers out there – it’s about the sound shift. Why the topic fits so wonderfully on tomorrow’s Father’s Day, you can read in this blog.

When was the first sound shift?

Unfortunately, it is not possible to say exactly when the Germanic or first sound shift took place. But it is possible to limit possible periods of time by means of linguistic phenomena. For example, typical characteristics of Germanic sound shift, such as "ch" instead of "c", are not included in Latin loanwords. This leads to the conclusion that the Germanic sound shift must have been completed before the spread of Latin in Central Europe, i.e. before the 1st century AD. This procedure can be used to provide further information on the dating of the first sound shift. The current state of research refers to the period from 500 BC to 1 AD.

What exactly happened?

The first sound shift refers to the transition from Indo-European to Germanic. What this means in concrete terms can be shown at the different stages of the sound shift. We owe this systematic arrangement of the first sound shift to Jacob Grimm.

Tenuis-Spirans change: Voiceless shutter sounds change to voiceless fricatives

  • For example: [p] -> [f], ind. * puklís -> germ.* fuḣliż -> ahd. fogal
Media-Tenuis change: Voiced shutter sounds become voiceless shutter sounds
  • For example: [g] -> [k], lat. gelū -> germ. kalða
Media aspirata-media change: Voiced, breathed shutter sounds become voiced fricatives (here you have to listen carefully: Breathed vs. non-breathed)
  • For example: [Bh] -> [f], b(h)râter -> got. b rōþar -> english brother

Pater or Fater?

Today we look at the Tenuis-Spirans transition. There’s again the voiceless shutter sounds [p][t][k]. We already know them from the second sound shift, because there they become the vocal shutter sounds [b][d][g]. In the first sound shift, however, they initially develop into voiceless friction sounds (fricatives, spirants), i.e. [f][th][k].

If we want to depict the Tenuis-Spirans change or the shift from [p] to [f], we just have to rely on our ears for a moment and imagine that the New High German word "Vater" is actually written "Fater".

And then from the Indo-European peḫ-tḗr, Latin pater and Greek patér. With the help of the first sound shift, the Germanic word *făðar is created.

But dear Father's Day!

Although "f" and "v" do not differ in articulation, we write some words with "f" and others with "v", such as "Vater" or "Frau". This is because at the time of the Old High German language level (750 – 1050 AD) and the Christianization of Europe, the Latin alphabet was taken over and the Germanic written language (runes) was replaced. In Middle High German (1050 to 1350), all words with [f] were written with "v" in the opening:

  • Old High German făter -> Middle High German văter -> New High German Vāter 
  • Old High German Fogal -> Middle High German Vogel -> New High German Vogel
By the way, we only owe the fact that we write other words, such as "Frau" or "fahren", again with "f", to a later adjustment of the spelling.

Talking about spelling...

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The cover image was created using Canva .

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