The whole story…

Sep 14, 2011 by

In several previous postings, I discussed the derivation of the Old Novgorod form KѢLЪ and its Modern Russian cognate CELYJ, especially in connection with the first consonant (/k/ vs/ /ts/). But what about its English cognate, whole with an /h/? How did we get this form?

The English word whole is indeed a cognate of the Slavic forms we’ve discussed. So far, we’ve traced the Slavic forms to the reconstructed Proto-Slavic form *kajlu ‘whole, healthy’. Despite what you might think based on the spelling wh, the word whole does not derive from an earlier form that had a hw- or hv- in the beginning, as is the case with many other wh-words in English. For example, what derived from the Old English hwæt and whale — from the Old English hwæl (compare with the Norwegian cognates hva and kval, respectively). The spelling of whole with wh- developed in the early 15th century.

The etymological source of the adjective whole is the Old English form hal meaning ‘entire, unhurt, healthy’, which can be traced, in turn, to a reconstructed Proto-Germanic *khailaz meaning ‘undamaged’. Cognate words from other Germanic languages — all deriving from the same *khailaz — include the Old Saxon hel, Old Norse heill, Old Frisian hal, Middle Dutch hiel, Modern Dutch heel, Old High German and modern German heil meaning ‘salvation, welfare’.

If we dig beyond the Germanic roots of the English whole, we can trace it to the Proto-Indo-European source, reconstructed alternatively as *koylo- or *koilas.

As you can see, it was on the way from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic that the initial consonant changed from /k/ to /x/, whereas in later Germanic languages it further changed into /h/. This change is a perfect example of lenition, a phonological term that describes a change from a “strong” to a “weaker” sound. In this case, the initial change is an instance of spirantization, a change from a stop consonant to a fricative, whereas the later change is an instance of debuccalization, that is loss of oral place of articulation, from a velar /x/ to a glottal /h/.

This change is part of a larger chain of phonological changes in the history of Germanic languages known as the First Germanic Sound Shift, or Grimm’s Law, after Jacob Grimm (1785 –1863), of the Brothers Grimm fame, who in 1822 elaborated on the earlier discovery of this law by Rasmus Rask. This law describes the development of the stops inherited from Proto-Indo-European into Proto-Germanic in the 1st millennium BCE.

This law consists of three parts. The first part concerns the development of inherited Proto-Indo-European (voiceless) stops into fricatives, of which our story of whole is part. According to part 1 of Grimm’s Law, voiceless stops /p, t, k/ became fricatives /f, θ, x/, respectively (recall that the /x/ later changed to /h/). Since Latin is not a member of the Germanic family (and does not derive from Proto-Germanic), it can be used to illustrate the inherited original consonants. Thus, the Latin /p/ in pēs, pedis corresponds to the English /f/ in foot; the Latin /t/ in tertius corresponds to the English /θ/ in third; and the Latin /k/ in canis corresponds to the English /h/ in hound.

The second part of the Grimm’s Law concerns the development of inherited Proto-Indo-European voiced stops into voiceless stops. Thus, voiced stops /b, d, g/ became the voiceless /p, t, k/ respectively. Once again, this development can be illustrated with the Latin-English contrasts: the Latin /b/, as in verber corresponds to the English /p/ in warp; the Latin /d/ in decem corresponds to the English /t/ in ten; and the Latin /g/ in gelū corresponds to the English /k/ in cold.

Finally, the third part of the Grimm’s Law concerns the development of inherited Proto-Indo-European aspirated voiced stops into plain/unaspirated counterparts. Thus, voiced stops /bh, dh, gh/ became the voiced /b, d, g/, respectively. This development can be illustrated with the following contrasts: the Sanskrit /bh/ in vbhrātā corresponds to the English /b/ in brother; the Sanskrit /dh/ in vidhavā corresponds to the English /d/ in widow; and the Proto-Indo-European /gh/ in the reconstructed form *ghrem corresponds to the English /g/ in grim.

Well, now you know the whole story…

Old Saxon is a West Germanic language, the earliest written form of Low German, spoken c.700-c.1100.

Old Frisian is a language akin to English spoken on the North Sea coast of modern Netherlands and Germany before 1500.

Middle Dutch is the Dutch language as it was spoken and written c.1100-c.1500.

Old High German is the ancestor of the modern literary German language, spoken in the upland regions of Germany; German language as written and spoken from the earliest period to c.1100.

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