Germanic spirant law

In linguistics, the Germanic spirant law or Primärberührung is a specific historical instance of dissimilation that occurred as part of an exception of Grimm's law in the ancestor of the Germanic languages.

General description

The law affects the various series of stops in Proto-Indo-European that underwent Grimm's and Verner's law. If these were immediately followed by a t or s, they changed to a voiceless fricative (spirant):

Effect on labials and velars

Under normal conditions, any voiced stop would likely have been devoiced before /t/ and /s/ in Indo-European times. This means that all three Indo-European series of stop consonants (aspirated, voiced and voiceless) had already merged before these two consonants, so that for example the sequences /bʰt/, /bt/ and /ɡʰt/, /ɡt/ had already become /pt/ and /kt/ in certain late Proto-Indo-European dialects. Likewise, /bʰs/, /bs/ and /ɡʰs/, /ɡs/ had become /ps/ and /ks/. Compare for example Latin scribere "to write" and legere "to gather, read" with their past participles scriptus and lectus. Examples before /s/ are also numerous, compare again Latin scribere and its perfect scripsī, or pingere "to paint" and pinxī, and also the genitive noun form regis and its nominative rēx "king".

The specifically Germanic part of the change, in which the first plosive became a fricative but not the /t/ following it, seems to have been just an exception to Grimm's law. Under the normal operation of the law, voiceless plosives become fricatives in Germanic. However, if two obstruents stood next to each other, the first became a fricative by Grimm's law (if it wasn't already) but the second remained a plosive. This exception applied not only to series of two plosives but also to series of /s/ and a plosive, in which case the plosive was likewise preserved. In some cases this gave alternations between two related forms, one with s-mobile and the other without, such as English steer, Icelandic stjór, Dutch stier (← *steuraz ← PIE *steuros with preserved /t/) vs. Limburgish deur, duur, Old Norse þjórr (← *þeuraz ← PIE *tauros with regularly shifted /t/).

Unlike Grimm's law in general, however, the Germanic spirant law continued to operate for some time, acting as a surface filter that eliminated any sequences of a stop followed by t as they arose either through borrowing or native word formation. A notable example is the partial loanword *skriftiz (cf. Dutch schrift) borrowed from Latin scriptum "script".

Effect on dentals

The change affecting dental consonants is generally assumed to have been a separate phenomenon, and was already a part of Proto-Indo-European phonetics, since other Indo-European languages show similar results. It seems to have only occurred in cases where a dental plosive was followed by a suffix beginning with /t/; geminated /tt/ that occurred within a single morpheme remained. Evidence from Germanic as well as other Indo-European languages such as Latin confirms this. For example, Latin edere "to eat" shows the past participle esus "eaten" from earlier *ed-tus. But a geminate /tt/ is preserved in both Gothic and Latin atta "father".

In some instances, /ss/ was partially restored to /st/ by analogy with other words, particularly in verbs. For example, the second person singular past form of *sitjanan "to sit" would have become *sód-ta → *sótsta → *sass (compare the related Old English word sess "seat") in first instance. However, it was restored to *sast based on parallel forms in other verbs such as *stalt (from *stelanan "to steal") and *halft (from *helpanan "to help").

Loss of /n/ before /x/

A later change fed by the spirant law was the disappearance of /n/ when followed by /x/. The preceding vowel received compensatory lengthening and was nasalised:

This nasalisation was preserved into the separate history of Old English, since it affected the outcome of Anglo-Frisian brightening which was conditioned by nasality.

Reflex in verb paradigms

The effect has an important consequence for some of the oldest weak verbs. As the weak past participle was formed with the Proto-Indo-European suffix *-tos, the assimilation could have occurred in all verbs with stems ending with a stop. For most weak verbs this was not an issue, because they had stems that were formed with various vowel suffixes. One such suffix was *-(e)ye-, which formed denominatives and causatives. Its form in the past participle retained this suffix as an intervening vowel, and therefore did not cause any special changes to the consonants: PIE *-(e)y-tos > PG *-idaz.

However, some of the class 1 weak verbs had been inherited as j-presents, and had this suffix only in the present tense forms, but not in the past tense. Some archaic athematic verbs such as "will", and notably the preterite-present verbs, also lacked a vowel suffix. In these verbs, therefore, the participle suffix came into direct contact with the preceding consonant, triggering the spirant law in these verbs. The form of the past participle was also extended to form the weak past tense, spreading the irregular participle form to the entire past.

The following table contains only those that have survived into the modern languages. Medieval languages had many more. (The forms in brackets no longer show the effect due to either levelling or, in the case of German, the High German consonant shift.)

Germanic[1] English Frisian Dutch German Icelandic
*bringanan – *branhtē bring – brought bring - brocht brengen – bracht bringen – brachte
*bugjanan – *buhtē buy – bought
*kaupijanan – *kauftē keapje – kocht kopen – kocht (kaufen) (kaupa)
*maganan – *mahtē may – might meie – mocht mogen – mocht mögen – mochte mega – mátti
*sōkijanan – *sōhtē seek – sought sykje – socht zoeken – zocht (suchen) sækja – sótti
*taikijanan – *taihtē teach – taught
*þankijanan – *þanhtē think – thought tinke – tocht denken – dacht denken – dachte þykja – þótti
*witanan – *wissē witte – wist weten – wist (wissen) vita – vissi

Although this looks similar to Grammatischer Wechsel, which causes a superficially similar consonant alternation in strong verbs, it is unrelated. Note that the vowel idiosyncrasies in these verbs are mostly a result of the separate and much later development of Rückumlaut. Only when an /n/ disappeared with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel did the spirant law itself result in vowel alternation. Hence Middle High German denken (think) and decken (cover) had the preterites dāhte and dahte respectively.

Another result of the spirant law, though far less obvious, was in the second-person singular past tense form of strong verbs. This form ended with *-t, without a vowel between it and the verb stem, and this caused the final consonant of the stem to undergo the change. This irregular form is preserved only directly in Gothic, however. In Old Norse, the original consonant had been restored by analogy, and the West Germanic languages had replaced the ending altogether, substituting *. But the form is preserved in the older preterite-presents, even in the older West Germanic languages. Compare Gothic magan, Old English magan, Old Norse mega ("may", infinitive) and þu maht, þū meaht, þú mátt ("thou mayest", second-person singular, where -aht- regularly becomes -átt- in Old Norse).

Since the ending was *-ta in late Proto-Indo-European, the suffix should have undergone Grimm's law and become * in Germanic whenever the verb stem did not end in an obstruent, but remained as *-t when the stem ended in an obstruent, because of the spirant law. However, there are no traces at all of an ending * in the Germanic languages (except for the rare and isolated Old English form arþ), and *-t is found universally. It is therefore believed[2] that since verbs ending in obstruents were so common in Germanic, the form with *-t may have been more common than *. This caused the latter to eventually be regularised out of the system altogether, leaving only the former as the sole ending for that form.

Reflex in verb-noun alternations

The effect of the Germanic spirant law can also be very neatly observed by comparing certain verbs with related nouns. A prominent example is the Indo-European verbal noun suffix *-tis, which survived and remained productive in Germanic, but other suffixes with *-t- were also in use.

Germanic English Frisian Dutch German
*gebanan – *giftiz give – gift jaan – jifte geven – gift geben – Gift
*pleganan – *plihtiz play – plight pliigje – plicht plegen – plicht pflegen – Pflicht
*weganan – *gawihtiz weigh – weight wage – gewicht wegen – gewicht wiegen – Gewicht
*habjanan – *haftaz (have) (hawwe) hebben – -achtig
(and -haftig borrowed from German)
haben – Haft
*kleubanan – *kluftiz cleave – cleft kleauwe – kloft klieven – klucht klieben – Kluft
*maganan – *mahtiz may – might meie – macht mogen – macht mögen – Macht


  1. Germanic forms from Vladimir Orel, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology.
  2. Don Ringe, A linguistic history of English part 1: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic
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