Jan 042016


Today is the birthday (1785) of Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm, German philologist, jurist, and folklorist. He is known as the discoverer of Grimm’s law in linguistics, the co-author with his brother Wilhelm of the monumental Deutsches Wörterbuch, the author of Deutsche Mythologie and, more popularly, as one of the Brothers Grimm and the editor of what is known in English as Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

Jacob was born in Hanau, in Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel). His father was a lawyer, but he died while Jacob was a child, and his mother was left with few means. His mother’s sister was lady of the chamber to the Landgravine of Hesse, and she helped to support and educate the family. Jacob was sent to the public school at Kassel in 1798 with his younger brother Wilhelm (born on 24 February 1786).

In 1802, Jacob went to the University of Marburg where he studied law, a profession for which he had been destined by his father. Wilhelm joined him at Marburg a year later, having just recovered from a long and severe illness, and likewise began the study of law.


In 1808, soon after the death of his mother, Jacob was appointed superintendent of the private library of Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, into which Hesse-Kassel had been incorporated by Napoleon. Bonaparte also later appointed him an auditor to the state council. His salary was about 4000 francs per annum and his official duties were hardly more than nominal. After the expulsion of Bonaparte and the reinstatement of an elector, Grimm was appointed Secretary of Legation in 1813, accompanying the Hessian minister to the headquarters of the allied army. In 1814, he was sent to Paris to demand restitution of books carried off by the French, and he also attended the Congress of Vienna as Secretary of Legation, 1814–1815. Upon his return from Vienna, he was sent to Paris a second time to secure book restitutions. Meanwhile, Wilhelm had received an appointment to the Kassel library, and Jacob was made second librarian under Volkel in 1816. Upon the death of Volkel in 1828, the brothers expected to be advanced to the first and second librarianships respectively, and were dissatisfied when the first place was given to Rommel, the keeper of the archives. Consequently, they moved the following year to Göttingen, where Jacob received the appointment of professor and librarian, and Wilhelm that of under-librarian. Jacob lectured on legal antiquities, historical grammar, literary history, and diplomatics, explained Old German poems, and commented on the Germania of Tacitus.

During this period, Jacob is described as small and lively in figure, with a harsh voice, speaking a broad Hessian dialect. His powerful memory enabled him to dispense with the lecture notes on which most German professors relied and spoke extemporaneously, referring only occasionally to a few names and dates written on a slip of paper. He was not a good lecturer, however, and regretted taking up teaching so late in life (43 years old). Although he had an excellent grasp of his subject matter he had difficulty putting it into suitable language for a student audience.

The purely scientific side of Grimm’s character developed slowly. He felt the need of definite principles of etymology without being able to discover them, and, indeed, even in the first edition of his grammar (1819) he often seemed to be groping in the dark. As early as 1815 August Wilhelm von Schlegel reviewing the Altdeutsche Wälder (a periodical published by the two brothers) very severely, condemning the lawless etymological combinations it contained, and insisting on the necessity of strict philological method and a fundamental investigation of the laws of language, especially in the correspondence of sounds. This criticism is said to have had a considerable influence on the direction of Jacob’s studies.

Jacob’s scientific character is notable for its combination of breadth and unity. His work on the history, language, traditions, mythology, laws and literature of Germanic peoples all stem from a central preoccupation with devising a cohesive sense of German identity.

Of all of Jacob’s more general works the boldest and most far-reaching was Geschichte der deutschen Sprache (History of the German Language). The subject of the work is the history hidden in the words of the German language.To this end he laboriously collected scattered words and allusions found in classical literature, and endeavored to determine the relationship between the German language and those of the Getae, Thracians, Scythians, and many other nations whose languages were at the time known only through doubtfully identified, often extremely corrupted remains preserved by Greek and Latin authors. Grimm’s results have been greatly amplified and modified by the wider range of comparison and improved methods of investigation that now characterize linguistics, but his book’s influence has been profound.


Jacob’s Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar) was the outcome of his purely philological work. The labors of past generations from the humanists onwards resulted in an enormous collection of materials in the form of text editions, dictionaries, and grammars, although most of it was uncritical and unreliable. Some work had even been done in the way of comparison and determination of general laws, and the concept of a comparative Germanic grammar had been clearly grasped by George Hickes by the beginning of the 18th century in his Thesaurus. Ten Kate in the Netherlands had also made valuable contributions to the history and comparison of Germanic languages. en Grimm did not initially intend to include all the Germanic languages in his Grammar, but he soon found that Old High German required speculations on Gothic, and that the later stages of German could not be understood without the help of other West Germanic varieties including English, and the rich literature of Scandinavia. The first edition of the first part of the Grammar, which appeared in 1819 treated the inflections of all these languages. It included a general introduction in which he vindicated the importance of an historical study of the German language against the a priori, quasi-philosophical methods then in vogue.

Jacob is recognized for proposing Grimm’s law, an analysis of the Germanic Sound Shift, which was first casually observed by the Danish philologist Rasmus Christian Rask. Grimm’s law was the first non-trivial systematic sound change to be discovered. Grimm’s Law, also known as the ‘Rask-Grimm Rule’, is the first law in linguistics concerning a non-trivial sound change. It was a turning point in the development of linguistics, allowing the introduction of a rigorous methodology to historic linguistic research. It concerns the correspondence of consonants in the older Indo-European and Low Saxon and High German languages, and was first fully stated by Grimm in the second edition of the first part of his Grammar.

If you are not into linguistics you can skip this bit. I have added links to some of the key concepts as an aid if you need it. Grimm’s law consists of three parts which form consecutive phases in the sense of a chain shift. The phases are usually constructed as follows:

  1. Proto-Indo-European voiceless stops change into voiceless fricatives.
  2. Proto-Indo-European voiced stops become voiceless stops.
  3. Proto-Indo-European voiced aspirated stops become voiced stops or fricatives (as allophones).

This chain shift can be abstractly represented as:

  • bʰ > b > p > ɸ
  • dʰ > d > t > θ
  • gʰ > g > k > x
  • gʷʰ > gʷ > kʷ > xʷ

The Grimms’ monumental dictionary of the German Language, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, was started in 1838 and first published in 1854. The brothers anticipated it would take 10 years and encompass some 6-7 volumes. However, it was undertaken on so large a scale as to make it impossible for them to complete it. The dictionary, as far as it was worked on by the Grimms themselves, has been described as a collection of disconnected antiquarian essays of high value. It was finally finished by subsequent scholars in 1961 and supplemented in 1971. At 33 volumes with around 330,000 headwords, it remains a standard work of reference to the present day, although it is currently undergoing substantial revision.


Both Grimms were attracted by all national poetry, whether in the form of epics, ballads or popular tales. They published In 1816–1818 a collection of legends culled from diverse sources, the two-volume Deutsche Sagen (German Legends). At the same time they collected all the folktales they could find, partly from the mouths of the people, partly from manuscripts and books, and published in 1812–1815 the first edition of those Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), which has carried the name of the brothers Grimm into every household of the western world. The first edition of Jacob’s Deutsche Mythologie (German Mythology) appeared in 1835. This work attempted to trace the mythology and superstitions of the old Teutons back to the earliest direct evidence, thence following their evolution to modern-day popular traditions, tales, and expressions. This is an exemplar of the trend in 19th century folklore to pull voluminous data together into a grand unified vision of history and culture – long since abandoned in favor detailed studies of local cultures (but still attractive to amateurs such as Joseph Campbell).

I don’t know the precise percentage of the Grimms’ tales that came to them orally, but it is important to note that they were not faithful to the original wording of the tales whether they came to them orally or in writing. Nor were they faithful to story elements. The 1st edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was the least edited, but still contains stories rewritten by the Grimms. By later editions the tales had been further rewritten to expunge what the Grimms considered morally suspect themes. For example, in the originals of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel it was the biological mothers who wanted their offspring dead (Snow White’s mother wanted her lungs and liver returned to her so that she could eat them). Being contrary to Germanic ideals of the sanctity and purity of motherhood, the mothers in these tales were changed to wicked stepmothers. In the original of Rapunzel her “merry time” with the prince got her pregnant.


Jacob and Wilhelm were not fascists but they were ardent nationalists, and their researches were used by the likes of Hitler to promote German supremacy and domination. Many of you will know from previous posts that I consider nationalism to be one of the great scourges of humanity. In the Grimms’ day, culturally similar Germanic peoples were spread over numerous states and empires. The ideal of a unified German state resonated through the 19th century following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, and led ultimately to the rise of Hitler and fascism in the 1930s. I don’t lay the precise politics and history of German nationalism at the Grimms’ door, but they played a big part in it all.

I could give you a distinctively Germanic recipe, but why bolster nationalism? Here’s a Bulgarian recipe for Салата Снежанка, translated as “Snow White salad.” It’s not really a reference to the tale, just an indication of its whiteness. But let’s not quibble; Snow White got her name because her skin was as white as snow (just in case you need a racist element !!). All it really consists of is cucumbers and nuts in yoghurt flavored with dill. You barely need a recipe. I prepare something similar – raita – when I make really hot curries.


Snow White Salad


2 cucumbers, peeled and chopped
2 cups whole-milk yoghurt
½ cup walnuts, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
fresh dill, finely chopped
olive oil


Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl except for the dill, oil, and salt. Everything should be thoroughly mixed. Then add the remaining three to suit your tastes and mix well. Chill for several hours before serving.

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