Verner's law

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Verner's law by Karl Verner in 1875 describes a historical sound change in the Proto-Germanic language whereby voiceless fricatives *f, *þ, *s, *h, * following an unstressed syllable became the voiced fricatives *β, *ð, *z, *ɣ, *ɣʷ.[1]


When Grimm's law was discovered, a strange irregularity was spotted in its operation. The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) voiceless stops *p, *t and *k should have – according to Grimm's law – changed into Proto-Germanic (PGmc) *f (bilabial fricative [ɸ]), *þ (dental fricative [θ]) and *h (velar fricative [x]). That was known to be the usual development. However, there appeared to be a large set of words in which the agreement of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Baltic, Slavic etc. guaranteed PIE *p, *t or *k, and yet the Germanic reflex was voiced (*b, *d or *g).

At first, irregularities did not cause concern for scholars since there were many examples of the regular outcome. Increasingly, however, it became the ambition of linguists like the Neogrammarians to formulate general and exceptionless rules of sound change that would account for all the data (or as close to all the data as possible), not merely for a well-behaved subset of it.

One classic example of PIE *t → PGmc *d is the word for 'father'. PIE *ph₂tḗr (here, the macron marks vowel length) → PGmc *fadēr (instead of expected *faþēr). The structurally similar family term bʰréh₂tēr 'brother' did indeed develop as predicted by Grimm's Law (Gmc. *brōþēr). Even more curiously, they often found both *þ and *d as reflexes of PIE *t in different forms of one and the same root, e.g. *werþaną 'to turn', preterite third-person singular *warþ 'he turned', but preterite third-person plural *wurdun and past participle *wurdanaz.


Karl Verner is credited as the first scholar to note the factor governing the distribution of the two outcomes. He observed that the apparently unexpected voicing of voiceless stops occurred if they were non-word-initial and if the vowel preceding them carried no stress in PIE. The original location of stress was often retained in Greek and early Sanskrit; in Germanic, though, stress eventually became fixed on the initial (root) syllable of all words. The crucial difference between *patḗr and *bʰrā́tēr was therefore one of second-syllable versus first-syllable stress (compare Sanskrit pitā́ versus bhrā́tā).

The *werþaną : *wurdun contrast is likewise explained as due to stress on the root versus stress on the inflectional suffix (leaving the first syllable unstressed). There are also other Vernerian alternations, as illustrated by modern German ziehen 'to draw, pull' : Old High zogōn 'to tug, drag' ← PGmc. *teuhaną : *tugōną ← Pre-Germanic *déwk-o-nom : *duk-éh₂-yo-nom 'lead'.

There is a spinoff from Verner's Law: the rule accounts also for PGmc *z as the development of PIE *s in some words. Since this *z changed to *r in the Scandinavian languages and in West Germanic (German, Dutch, English, Frisian), Verner's Law resulted in alternation of *s and *r in some inflectional paradigms, known as grammatischer Wechsel. For example, the Old English verb ceosan 'choose' had the past plural form curon and the past participle (ge)coren. These three forms derived from Proto-Germanic *keusaną : *kuzun ~ *kuzanaz, which again derived from Pre-Germanic *géws-o-nom : *gus-únt ~ *gus-o-nós 'taste, try'. We would have **chorn for chosen in Modern English if the consonantal shell of choose and chose had not been morphologically levelled (compare the Dutch kiezen 'to choose' : verkoren 'chosen'). On the other hand, Vernerian *r has not been levelled out in En were ← PGmc *wēzun, related to En was. Similarly, En lose, though it has the weak form lost, also has the archaic form †lorn (now seen in the compound forlorn) (compare Dutch verliezen : verloren); in German, on the other hand, the *s has been levelled out both in war 'was' (plural waren 'were') and verlieren 'lose' (participle verloren 'lost').

The following table illustrates the sound changes according to Verner. In the bottom row, for each pair, the sound on the right represents the sound changed according to Verner's Law.

PIE *p *t *k *kʷ *s
Grimm *x *xʷ
Verner *x *xʷ *ɣʷ *s *z


Karl Verner published his discovery in the article "Eine Ausnahme der ersten Lautverschiebung" (an exception to the first sound shift) in Kuhn's Journal of Comparative Linguistic Research in 1876, but he had already presented his theory on 1 May 1875 in a comprehensive personal letter to his friend and mentor, Vilhelm Thomsen.

It was received with great enthusiasm by the young generation of comparative philologists, the so-called Junggrammatiker, because it was an important argument in favour of the Neogrammarian dogma that the sound laws were without exceptions ("die Ausnahmslosigkeit der Lautgesetze").

Dating the change described by Verner's law

It is worth noting that the change in the pronunciation of the consonant, described by Verner's Law, must have occurred before the shift of stress to the first syllable. The voicing of the new consonant in Proto-Germanic is conditioned by which syllable is stressed in Proto-Indo-European, yet this syllabic stress has disappeared in Proto-Germanic, so the change in the consonant must have occurred at a time when the syllabic stress in earlier Proto-Germanic still conformed to the Indo-European pattern. However, the syllabic stress shift erased the conditioning environment, and made the variation between voiceless fricatives and their voiced alternants look mysteriously haphazard.

Until recently it was assumed that Verner's law was productive after Grimm's Law. Now it has been pointed out (Vennemann 1984:21, Kortlandt 1988:5–6) that, even if the sequence is reversed, the result can be just the same given certain conditions. Noske (2012) argues that Grimm's Law and Verner's Law must have been part of a single bifurcating chain shift.

Newer considerations regarding the dating

Some scholars today—e.g. Wolfram Euler and Konrad Badenheuer (2009), pp. 54 f. and 61–64, see below—are inclined towards preferring a new theory in which the sequence of the two changes is the opposite of what was previously assumed. This chronological reordering, however, has far-reaching implications on the shape and development of the Proto-Germanic language. The traditionally assumed order has been gradually put into question since around 1998, based on the following two main arguments:

  • Several linguists[who?] have pointed out that Verner's law may have been valid even before the first sound shift; the outcome would be the same. There is no positive evidence for the traditionally assumed reverse order.
  • Strong evidence has been discovered for dating Grimm's law only to the end of the first century BC (cf. Common Germanic). Especially the tribesname "Kimbern" (recorded as Cimbri by the Romans) and the old name of the river Waal (Vacalus) suggest that the change from initial k to h happened only shortly before the turn of the first millennium. In the new scheme, the argument for the earliest possible dating of this change to the middle of the 1st millennium BC, that is, the change of the Greek word kannabis into Old English hænep and modern English hemp, is not stable, or at least not mandatory, anymore at all.[2]

Moreover, the combination of the above-mentioned traditional order (Grimm's before Verner's) and the dating of Grimm's law to the 1st century BC requires an unusually fast change of the late Common Germanic at the turn of the millennium: within only a few decades, the three dramatic changes mentioned below would have had to happen in quick succession. This would be the only way to explain that all Germanic languages show these changes. Such a rapid language change seems implausible.

Against this background, the thesis that Verner's Law might have been valid before Grimm's Law—maybe long before it—has been finding more and more acceptance. Accordingly this order now would have to be assumed:

  1. Verner's law (possible boundary for Indo-European/Germanic)
  2. Grimm's law/First Sound Shift in the late 1st century BC (does not mark the formation of Germanic accordingly)
  3. Appearance of initial stress (third possible boundary for Indo-European/Germanic)

Here is a table with an alternative view of Verner's law, occurring before the shift of Grimm's law.

PrePG *pʰ *tʰ *kʰ *kʷʰ *s
Verner *pʰ *bʱ *tʰ *dʱ *kʰ *ɡʱ *kʷʰ *ɡʷʱ *s *z
Grimm *x *xʷ *ɣʷ

It is required to postulate aspiration in the voiceless stops, because the results of Verner's law merge with the descendants of the voiced aspirate stops, not of the plain voiced stops. (This can however be bypassed in the glottalic theory framework, where the voiced aspirate stops are replaced with plain voiced stops, and plain voiced stops with glottalized stops.)

The names Cimbri and Vacalus, the presence of /k/ in these two words could have simple been to Roman scribes hearing the early Germanic *h (/x/) sound as a /k/ rather than an /h/, since their own /h/ did not often occur between vowels and was at any rate already in the process of going silent.[citation needed]

Areal connections

An exact parallel to Verner's law is found in the neighboring Finnic languages, where it forms a part of the system of consonant gradation: a single voiceless consonant (*p, *t, *k, *s) becomes weakened (*b, *d, *g; *h < *z) when occurring after an unstressed syllable. As word stress in Finnic is predictable (primary stress on the initial syllable, secondary stress on odd-numbered non-final syllables), and has remained so since Proto-Uralic, this change did not produce any alternation in the shape of word roots. However, it manifests in the shape of numerous inflectional or derivational suffixes, and is therefore called "suffixal gradation".

Suffixal gradation in the Finnish partitive case
Meaning Pre-Proto-Finnic Proto-Finnic modern Finnish
'tree' (nom. : part.) *puu : *ˈpuu-ta *puu : *puuta puu : puuta
'hut, teepee' (nom. : part.) kota : *ˈkota-ta *ˈkota : *ˈkotada kota : kotaa
'dead, corpse' (nom. : part.) soketa : *ˈsokeˌta-ta *ˈsokeda : *ˈsokeˌdata sokea : sokeata

Lauri Posti (1953: 74–82)[3] argued that suffixal gradation in Finnic represents Germanic influence, in particular reflecting the pronunciation of Proto-Finnic by a hypothetical Germanic-speaking superstrate (often assumed to account for the great number of Germanic loanwords already in Proto-Finnic). On the contrary, consonant gradation has also been viewed as inheritance from Proto-Uralic, as it occurs also in other Uralic languages. In particular, suffixal gradation under identical conditions also exists in Nganasan. The possibility of the opposite direction of influence – from Finnic to Germanic – has also been suggested as possible.[4]

See also


  1. ^ In Proto-Germanic, voiced fricatives *[β ð ɣ] were allophones of their corresponding voiced plosives *[b d ɡ] when they occurred between vowels, semivowels, and liquid consonants. The situations where Verner's law applied resulted in fricatives in these very circumstances, so fricative *[b d ɡ] can be used in this context.
  2. ^ "Hemp". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-06-24.
  3. ^ Posti, Lauri. "From Pre-Finnic to Late Proto-Finnic". Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen. XXXI: 1–91.
  4. ^ Kallio, Petri (2000). "Posti's Superstrate Theory at the Threshold of a New Millennium". In Laakso, Johanna (ed.). Facing Finnic: Some Challenges to Historical and Contact Linguistics. Castrenianumin toimitteita. 59.

Further reference

  1. Ramat, Paolo, Einführung in das Germanische (Linguistische Arbeiten 95) (Tübingen, 1981)
  2. Wolfram Euler, Konrad Badenheuer: Sprache und Herkunft der Germanen — Abriss des Protogermanischen vor der Ersten Lautverschiebung [Language and Origin of the Germanic Peoples — Compendium of the Proto-Germanic Language prior to First Sound Shift], 244 p., ISBN 978-3-9812110-1-6, London/Hamburg 2009
  3. Kortlandt, Frederik, Proto-Germanic obstruents. — in: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 27, p. 3–10 (1988).
  4. Koivulehto, Jorma / Vennemann, Theo, Der finnische Stufenwechsel und das Vernersche Gesetz. - in: Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 118, p. 163–182 (esp. 170–174) (1996)
  5. Noske, Roland, The Grimm–Verner Chain Shift and Contrast Preservation Theory. — in: Botma, Bert & Roland Noske (eds.), Phonological Explorations. Empirical, Theoretical and Diachronic Issues (Linguistische Arbeiten 548), p. 63–86. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012.
  6. Vennemann, Theo, Hochgermanisch und Niedergermanisch. — in: Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 106, p. 1–45 (1984)

External links

  • A Reader in Nineteenth Century Historical IE Linguistics Ch.11 "An exception to the first sound shift" by Winfred P. Lehmann — From the Linguistics Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Verner, Karl A. (1877). "Eine Ausnahme der ersten Lautverschiebung." Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung auf dem Gebiete der Indogermanischen Sprachen 23.2: 97–130 The original article (German)
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