How The Grimm Brothers Changed German Linguistics (And Fairy Tales)

You probably associate the Brothers Grimm with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and nothing else, but their contributions to language are just as important.
german castle on a hill

To put yourself in the world before Grimm’s fairy tales existed, imagine a world before television and movies. Actually, go even further back, to before widespread literacy. A world where the only stories you’d ever hear were those that were literally told out loud to you by people who lived nearby. It would be kind of like if the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe were told to you, from memory, by some guy down the street.

Without a mass media, stories became very local. Even stories that did cross borders as people migrated and moved would be made local, because the details could be subtly changed, either on purpose or due to a failure in memory. It wasn’t until someone decided to write down these stories that they would be cemented.

Every time something is written down, it changes in some way. It goes from being a flexible tale to an “official” one. Of course, that’s kind of the point. By writing these stories down, a specific time and place can be preserved. It was this idea that drove two of the most important story collectors in history: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Who Were The Brothers Grimm?

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in 1785 and 1786, respectively, in Hanau, a large town in Germany. For the first years of their lives, they were cared for and reasonably well off thanks to their father, who worked as a lawyer in a neighboring town. But in 1796, the Grimms’ father died, followed by their mother 12 years later, leaving the family in dire straits.

As they struggled to make a living after school, the Brothers Grimm first considered following in their father’s footsteps and entering the legal profession (you can imagine an alternate history in which they started a law firm called “Grimm & Grimm”). Yet by the end of the 1800s, these legal dreams were abandoned, and both Grimms were working as librarians in a royal private library. It was this that sent them down the path of literary research and preservation.

Starting with their friends Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, the Brothers Grimm set to work collecting and recording folk lyrics, folktales and other examples of oral storytelling that had been passed down from generation to generation. The Brothers Grimm recorded these stories to set down an idea of what it means to be German, and to reconstruct the history of German language.

The Brothers Grimm then spent much of their lives recording folktales, which were published starting in 1812 as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Almost two centuries later, they’re still some of the most influential stories in the world. Of course, they’ve been even further imprinted on modern culture by Disney and in other retellings.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales And The German Language

The Brothers Grimm were not the first people to ever record fairy tales — they weren’t even the first to record German fairy tales — but their legacy remains because of the way they went about it. Their work is credited as the first rigorous collection of folktales, and it kicked off an entire field of research called folkloristics.

What really set apart the Grimms, however, was that they recorded the vernacular speech of the storytellers they encountered. Their goal was to record the stories exactly as they were told, to preserve the original intent. This meant the stories were archives not just of the tales but of the German dialects spoken in various areas.

Jacob Grimm, in particular, was a huge contributor to language studies, and he essentially kicked off the study of historical linguistics (the study of the development of languages). He’s the namesake of Grimm’s law, which is a set of rules that explains how German pronunciation shifted from its proto-Indo-European roots to the language spoken in the 1800s.

By comparing words that are similar across languages — “father,” for example, which is Vater in German, padre in Spanish and so on — Jacob Grimm could see how these words derived from the same root. Grimm is not the only person who was working on language at the time, but he was a central player in launching these new fields of study.

These linguistic forays may seem completely random for a person whose main claim to fame is collecting fairy tales, but the link between story and language is strong. The fairy tales themselves provide useful information for linguists who want to look at German from the time (though there is controversy over the Brothers Grimm seeming to change the stories in Grimm’s Fairy Tales to make them appear more German). Even so, their work forms an invaluable collection of writing to better understand Germany’s past and present.

A World Of Folktales

While Grimm’s Fairy Tales are by far the most famous collection, Germany is not the only country with a strong connection to its oral storytelling. Greece is still synonymous with The Odyssey, which began in the oral tradition. Same with Beowulf, which is possibly the most important text in Old English. Even the United States, which is relatively young, is tied to tall tales of Paul Bunyan and the Western Frontier. Anthologists around the world have gathered these stories to give insight into national psyches and the stories our ancestors told.

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