Most of us are familiar with the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm, from Sleeping Beauty to Cinderella and all our childhood favorites in between. But to appreciate the full legacy of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, you need to look beyond their famous fairy tales. You have to understand the political and social context of the time and place they were living and how their love for the German people — and those people’s language — shaped a lifelong dedication to their craft.
In this episode of Multilinguish, we dive deep into the work of the Brothers Grimm, taking a look at their world-recognized collection of fairy tales, their professional careers as linguists and language scholars and how these threads were tangled in with one another. We examine some of their most consequential projects to get a sense of just how wide their interests and passions extended.
Multilinguish: The Brothers Grimm, Between The Lines
In the first part of the episode, content producers David Doochin and Thomas Devlin discuss the historical context playing into the growth of the German cultural and national spirit, or Volksgeist, and explore how the Grimms’ fairy tales tied into that spirit. Their colleague in Berlin, Karina Indytska, reads a few passages from some of the Grimms’ tales, translated from their original versions to give a sense of the stories in their un-”Disneyfied” forms.
After the break, Thomas and David dive into the work of the Grimms from a linguistic perspective, focusing on how they sought to elevate the German language in the people’s consciousness by documenting and analyzing it in a way that had never been done before. They discuss some important projects undertaken by the brothers around Germanic linguistics, highlighting the intentions behind them and the impacts they had both at the time and long into the future.
This episode was produced by David Doochin and edited by Brian Rosado. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Karina Indytska for recording passages for this episode.
How The Grimm Brothers Changed German Linguistics (And Fairy Tales) | Babbel Magazine
The Grimm Brothers’ Other Great Project Was Writing a Giant German Dictionary | Atlas Obscura
The Fairytale Language Of The Brothers Grimm | JStor Daily
Karina Indytska: The queen stepped before her mirror and said, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?” The mirror answered, “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. But Snow-White, beyond the mountains, with the Seven Dwarves, is still a thousand times fairer than you.”
David Doochin: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m David Doochin. You’ve likely heard about the Brothers Grimm before, those famous German story collectors whose folktales have stood the test of time. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White — a lot of the Disney classics you probably grew up watching are based on those very stories. Digging deeper into the history of the work of the Grimms is about more than just reading fairytales, however. It’s about exploring their connection to their people and their language in the way that they defined a nation.
David Doochin: We’re going to spend the first part of this episode talking about the folktales the Grimm Brothers compiled, because that’s what they’re most known for. But after the break, we’ll dive more into their work in Germanic linguistics. Throughout the episode, we’ll get a feel for how their work as language scholars was intertwined with the current of the time, or the Zeitgeist. Before we get started, make sure to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen, and don’t forget to subscribe so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released.
David Doochin: Joining me is my fellow content producer, Thomas Devlin. Hi, Thomas.
Thomas Devlin: Hi, David.
David Doochin: So, Thomas, I thought you’d be a great addition to this episode because you’ve written a little bit about the Brothers Grimm for Babbel Magazine, and just like me, you studied linguistics and probably at least heard about these guys and their contributions to the field of language studies.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I wrote a short article for the Babbel Magazine about the Brothers Grimm, but I really do have to give a shout out to my favorite website, JStor, for turning me on to the topic because like I’m pretty sure most American children and I’m sure children in a lot of countries, I know the Brothers Grimm from like the original fairytales and such, but I really didn’t know until I read this article about how they worked a lot in the linguistics field as well. I didn’t dive too much into the topic. So I’m looking forward to learning more here now.
David Doochin: Yeah. And I want to hear your reflections, too, as someone who has dabbled in understanding a bit about them in their work, but doesn’t necessarily know everything. Not that I know everything either, but I have done a lot of research about these guys. I think they’re really cool. I wrote a paper about them and their work in college for a German history class, but because they do so much work in linguistics and I studied linguistics too, just like you, I feel like there’s a lot of overlap with so many different fields that I was learning a lot about in school. So I’m excited for this episode. I think there’s a lot to learn and our listeners will really like it too.
David Doochin: But before we get into the folktale section, let’s talk about a little biography about who the Brothers Grimm actually are. I’ll give you a little context who they are, what kind of work that they were doing and kind of the feeling and the political history of the time, because that’s important to understanding the work that the brothers were trying to accomplish and the implications that it had on not only German culture, but literature and language of the time.
David Doochin: The Brothers Grimm, die Brüder Grimm, you might say in German, were born in the town of Hanau in Germany. Jacob is the older brother. Jacob Grimm, spelled just like Jacob. He was born in 1785 and Wilhelm is the younger of the two, and he was born in 1786 — so Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the family grew up with four younger siblings. They had a pretty well off family. Didn’t really want for much. They moved from the town of Hanau to Steinau a couple years after they were both born. But after the death of their father, they kind of fell more into poverty, they had to resort to living a more frugal lifestyle. This is something that shaped their perspective and view of the world and the Germany around them as they moved through their adolescence.
David Doochin: One thing that they are known for is having a really strong bond with each other and also with the art of storytelling itself. A lot of historians and authors will reference what they call their collector spirit, this idea that they were always searching for and sharing stories with each other, with their community. This collector spirit was something that really inspired them to connect the “lore,” the language of childhood, as some historians would put it, with what would eventually be the collection of folktales that they put together. And not only that, but also some of the work they did around Germanic linguistics, which we’ll talk about in just a bit.
David Doochin: Like I said, after the death of their father, they moved to graduate from grade school just like normal boys would do at the time. And then they attended the University of Marburg to study law. Keep in mind, let’s talk about what’s kind of happening in Germany at the time around them because the idea of Germany as we know today as a unified political entity, one country, didn’t exist at all in the same way. So this kind of Germany that we see today once existed as an amalgamation, a combination of hundreds of principalities and monarchies, really, really small states that all had their own independent rulers, kings, whatever, that all had different standards and ways of ruling.
David Doochin: This meant that from the middle ages to the Habsburg Empire, to the Reign of Napoleon at the beginning of the 18th century, there are pushes for people to come together as Germans who speak the same language and often have the same culture to recognize their shared ancestry and the ties that brought them together. Even though they were divided by these sort of arbitrary political boundaries that had existed for quite some time, for hundreds of years, there is a movement that’s also spurred by romanticism and the rise of kind of a creative spirit on the continent at the end of the 1700s and early 1800s that people are starting to feel, okay, why is it that we are separated by these boundaries when we are ultimately at the end of the day the same people?
David Doochin: So it was a fractured and fragmented sort of political landscape, but the Brothers Grimm are growing up at a time where people are starting to buy into these greater trends towards unification. Germany as a whole wasn’t unified as a country till the later 1800s, but these currents had been kind of making their way through the German political discourse for some time. With the Reign of Napoleon, a lot of French language and culture has been encroaching on them from the outside and a lot of people, just like the Grimms, are saying, “Well, what makes us uniquely German? We look at this outside culture that’s seeping in and it’s not us, it’s not ours, but what is ours? What is inherently German?”
David Doochin: So a lot of the work that the Grimms do is influenced by these questions and that leads them when they’re older to become a part of a group called the Göttingen Seven. There’s a town called Göttingen in Germany with a university where the brothers were professors. They were a part of a group of seven professors that advocated for civil liberties and basic human rights and freedoms, which sometimes landed them in political hot water. We don’t really have to talk a lot about that, but just know that they were really fierce strong advocates for political rights for all people, and especially the working people that they had grown up around and come to know really well.
David Doochin: Okay. Thomas, does that sort of set the scene for you about what’s going on in informing what we’re going to talk about next, which is the famous folktales of the Grimm Brothers?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, that is a lot of information. I knew a little bit about how Germany was kind of this splintered place, but it’s a complicated country because I feel like so many times when I hear the history of countries, it’s just kind of like they focus on one city and then that is where everything grew out from. But Germany kind of took a bunch of different identities in the same area and molded them together in a way that seems different from a lot of European history.
David Doochin: Yeah. It seems like German history is very unique in that the idea of a German people, the volk as they might call it, has always kind of been there, but the political realities didn’t always reflect that. So that’s kind of what I want to emphasize is that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are growing up at a time where they speak the same language as their neighbors and they have much of the same culture as the people who are spread throughout this region, what we know today as Germany, but it doesn’t exist as a unified Germany yet. So we’ve kind of laid the groundwork for understanding what’s going on at the time in the early to mid-1800s.
David Doochin: Now let’s talk about the most recognizable work that the Grimms produced, which is their famous fairytale collection. It’s called the Kinder- und Hausmärchen. So Kinder, children; and, und, household; Hausmärchen are fairytales or folktales. So Children and Household Tales. They first published the first edition in 1812, but there were seven subsequent editions and revisions that came through that period until 1857. This is something that they’re working on consistently from the moment they start until some 45 years later. This is the classic Grimm fairytales book. When people reference the Grimm’s fairytales, this is what they’re talking about, Kinder- und Hausmärchen and all of its editions.
David Doochin: It has become one of the most famous and most widely distributed books in Germany, second only to the Bible, thus giving you an idea for how popular it really is. So many of the stories that you probably heard growing up were originally Grimms’ fairytales that could be found in these books — Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and the list goes on. Most fairytales that you would think of probably existed in some form in the first or second or third editions of Kinder- und Hausmärchen.
David Doochin: You might’ve heard of the Grimms traveling throughout the country to collect these stories, and that’s exactly what they did. When they needed to fill in gaps, they took some creative liberties, but mostly they publish the stories in their unfiltered and unvarnished forms. The ones that they got directly from the people that they were sourcing them from, whether they were neighbors or friends of their younger sister or people that were referred to them from people they worked with in their university. They were collecting these stories from the mouths of actual storytellers who had been passing down this oral tradition for generations and putting them directly on the page.
David Doochin: Only 12 of the 86 tales that appeared in the first volume, which was published in 1812, came from literary sources, which means that the vast majority came straight from the mouths of people themselves. So it shows there was an immense amount of time and thought that went into the brothers gathering of oral tradition from actual human sources. This idea that we have, this kind of romantic vision of the brothers traveling throughout the countryside and gathering these stories is very much true. They wanted to actually access people directly and find stories that weren’t published in books and had been edited and altered over the course of many different publications. It’s things that are actually coming from the mouths of mothers who tell these stories to their children, for example.
David Doochin: We are familiar with a lot of these folktales because mostly what we’ve heard is their modern, often Americanized, or what I’m going to call the “Disney-fied” forms. But the stories that children grew up hearing were often the same that we know. They weren’t always as squeaky clean or as G-rated. So, Thomas, do you want to hear a little bit of an excerpt from one of the Grimms’ stories that was published way, way back before we even knew the American version?
Thomas Devlin: Absolutely.
David Doochin: A lot of us know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In the story, the Disney story and the movie that many of us have seen, the evil stepmother asks her magic mirror who is the fairest of them all, and it tells her that it’s Snow White. So she is jealous of Snow White’s beauty and she actually sends her away to be killed by a hunter and asks for her heart in return as proof that she’s truly dead. So it is a little gruesome already. But keep in mind that this is a movie that lasts hours. There’s a lot of details that are… a lot of extra song and dance and flashiness and color that we wouldn’t get in the original Grimm story. Listen to this English translation of the original folktale that’s found in the Grimm’s collection.
Karina Indytska: The queen took fright and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour on whenever she looked at Snow-White, her heart turned over inside her body, so great was her hatred for the girl. The envy and pride grew ever greater, like a weed in her heart, until she had no peace day and night. Then she summoned a huntsman and said to him, “Take Snow-White out into the woods. I never want to see her again. Kill her, and as proof that she is dead, bring her lungs and her liver back to me.”
Karina Indytska: The huntsman obeyed and took Snow-White into the woods. He took out his hunting knife and was about to stab it into her innocent heart when she began to cry, saying, “Oh, dear huntsman, let me live. I will run into the wild woods and never come back.” Because she was so beautiful, the huntsman took pity on her, and said, “Run away, you poor child.” He thought, “The wild animals will soon devour you anyway,” but still it was as if a stone had fallen from his heart, for he would not have to kill her. Just then, a young boar came running by. He killed it, cut out its lungs and liver, and took them back to the queen as proof of Snow-White’s death. The cook had to boil them with salt, and the wicked woman ate them, supposing that she had eaten Snow-White’s lungs and liver.
David Doochin: This story that you just heard is obviously a bit different compared to the story told from the Disney perspective. The whole eating-the-lungs-and-liver thing is probably not something that would fly in the Disney version. And in this story too, you didn’t hear in the excerpt, but the Prince who saved Snow-White comes across her while she’s still lying lifeless in her coffin, her glass coffin, that the dwarves have put her in and upon learning her story from the Seven Dwarves, the Prince gets permission from them to transport her unconscious body with him because he can’t bear to not look at her now that he’s seen her and become familiar with her.
David Doochin: These are details that I’m sure the writers at Disney wanted to kind of tweak or alter here and there. Some stuff that’s pretty creepy that might scare children. Even though the story as a whole is generally the same, we notice a couple of differences and we also notice that the story from the Grimm’s progresses much, much faster, whereas in a movie like Snow White, which lasts for many, many minutes over an hour, there’s a lot that’s been added, a lot of details that we don’t find in the original story. What do you think, Thomas? What stands out to you as something that sets apart the Grimm’s story from maybe the Disney story or another Americanized version that you’ve heard?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, it’s been quite a while since I’ve watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarves particularly. I know it was a feat of animation when it came out, and you do have to wonder what’s running through the animators minds when they’re like, this story that mentions blood and guts will make a great, great children’s film. Because I think that, more than anything else, is what speaks to me. I do think there are still some creepy elements in Disney versions sometimes. Like isn’t Sleeping Beauty the one where like he still kisses an unconscious body?
David Doochin: Yeah. And that makes you wonder like who was making the decision to either change that detail from the Grimms’ story or keep it in. But yeah, the Disney versions aren’t entirely free of these kinds of more disturbing elements. But it seems like if anything, the Disney versions are just much more embellished and they’re drawn out and there’s a lot more room for creative license, it seems, whereas the story from the Grimms reads very much like a cut-and-dried “here’s the plot, here’s what happened.” We’re not going to try to make it child-friendly necessarily.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. It definitely needs more music in my opinion.
David Doochin: So there’s another Grimm’s story too. You may have heard of this one. It’s generally regarded as one of the most disturbing out there. It doesn’t have a Disney counterpart as far as I’m aware. It’s called The Robber Bridegroom. It’s a fairly short tale about a woman who has a sinking feeling that the man she’s engaged to in a sort of arranged marriage, that there’s something wrong. In the story, the groom to be requests that the young bride, the main character, ventures out into the dark forest to come to his house for the first time where she’s never been. And when she gets there, an old woman who was at the house warns her to turn back because she’s in a murderer’s den. So the young bride hides behind a barrel right before a group of men, including her groom to be, returns to the house. Here’s what happens next.
Karina Indytska: This had scarcely happened when the godless band came home. They were dragging with them another maiden. They were drunk and paid no attention to her screams and sobs. They gave her wine to drink, three glasses full, one glass of white, one glass of red, and one glass of yellow, which caused her heart to break. Then they ripped off her fine clothes, laid her on a table, chopped her beautiful body in pieces and sprinkled salt on it. The poor bride behind the barrel trembled and shook, for she saw well what fate the robbers had planned for her.
David Doochin: Okay. Thomas, what is your reaction to this one?
Thomas Devlin: I’d say I’m agog. I didn’t expect it to be quite so intense because I feel like an important rite of passage when you’re a child, as he goes through like your Edgar Allan Poe like goth phase when you realize like, oh, the Grimm stories are darker than you imagine. And in like Cinderella, they were much crueler to her than in the movie. But this one definitely takes it to a different level.
David Doochin: Yeah. This is certainly a lot more disturbing than anything I would recognize from a Disney movie that I watched growing up. I mean, this one, even in these two, three, four sentences, however long it is, there’s bodily dismemberment, cannibalism, all that stuff. So this is one of those tales where it’s like, okay, clearly this can’t just be made into a movie. If I were an executive at Disney at the time, I would just not even touch this one with a 10 foot pole. This is not exactly the message that I’d want to send to children. But I think the important thing to keep in mind here is that the Grimm Brothers are preserving stories that are passed down from generations as they’ve been told, and they’re not sparing the gruesome or grisly details here. Do you agree?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. And I have to imagine this wasn’t… We think of these as children stories, but like I’m sure there were adults telling these. I feel like the most disturbing aspect is just thinking about telling this to a child, but that’s not really the point.
David Doochin: Yeah. And I wonder how many children did end up hearing these. I mean, if you’re an adult with a good story in your arsenal, then if your child asks for a bedtime story, this might be the one that you pull out. I’m not sure.
Thomas Devlin: Would you, David?
David Doochin: I don’t know. I’m not living in 19th-century Germany. So I can’t tell you what I would do if my young son said, “Daddy, read me a bedtime story,” or “Tell me a bedtime story.” What if this was the only one I could think of? I don’t know. Or what if German children at the time just could stomach this sort of thing without batting an eye? What if they were less afraid than the child of today? You never know.
Thomas Devlin: I’m sure there’s some of that because there’s the whole… I mean, children at that time definitely had to deal with death on a more personal basis. That’s very much kept from children these days. It’s impossible to talk about this without sounding like a scold about how children are wimps, but there’s definitely a change. I wouldn’t let a child hear this now, but maybe they’d be fine.
David Doochin: Well, maybe you should recruit a local child that you know and tell him or her the story and see what their reaction is. Is that a good idea?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. Next episode, we traumatize a child.
David Doochin: All right, Thomas, I’ll leave that to you. Please report back. One thing I’d like to highlight before we kind of summarize and wrap up this section before the break is that in the seven editions that were published of this collection of tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, between 1812 and 1857, a lot of these stories are saturated with proverbs that came not from the fancy literary speech that you would expect from a really seasoned writer who’s making a lot of edits and has a lot of time to fine tune his or her story. But a lot of the language and proverbs are coming from the colloquial language and speech of the common folk as the Grimms collected them.
David Doochin: For example, in a story called The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids, the kids skip around their mother “like a tailor at his wedding” when they’re cut out of the wolf’s stomach. That’s an often used expression from the period, “like a tailor at his wedding.” And in the story Rumpelstiltskin, which a lot of us will probably recognize, the title character’s house, Rumpelstiltskin’s house, is situated “where the fox and the hare say goodnight to each other.” So that’s also an expression that you’d hear in contemporary everyday German speech of the time, things that parents would say to their children, and that would have meaning and would be said a lot.
David Doochin: That’s just one thing. I think it’s important to note that the stories themselves contain insights into kind of the language in the everyday common speech that you’d hear from laymen and people in the community telling these stories just not trying to make their speech sound filtered or altered in any way. So I think it’s a cool window into kind of what was going on in Germany at the time linguistically.
David Doochin: Okay. Let’s take a second and just kind of summarize what we’ve learned because we did a little exploration into the Grimms’ folktales and what I was trying to convey, which I think is really cool, is that these folk tales can give us insight into what the oral tradition was at the time and what sorts of expressions and proverbs and phrases made their way into everyday speech. I have a lot of respect for the Brothers Grimm for taking on a project this large and following through with that and giving this sort of legitimacy to the people that they knew — not the aristocracy, not the nobility, but the everyday folk that were around them and giving them a voice by capturing the stories that were passed around from generation within these groups of people. What do you think?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, I would agree. One of the problems with an oral tradition is that before recording came about and we could have podcasts, it would just disappear. And without writing like this, it would be a lot harder to access the minds and the language of these people who I guess stood back then. They started out on this quest to record just stories that were being told, but they ended up making some really valuable documents for lots of reasons.
David Doochin: Yeah. And I feel like they didn’t even know the impact that their stories would have on the following generations of children and adults alike. These stories are so pervasive in our society. If they hadn’t set out to document and preserve them, we never would have these stories today. So we owe a lot to the Brothers Grimm in that regard.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I mean, I feel like childhoods always tend a little German whenever you hear any fairy tale. So it’s truly amazing how much these have pervaded culture.
David Doochin: Okay. We’re going to head to the break. When we get back, we’ll talk a little bit more about the work that the Brothers Grimm did with Germanic linguistics and how it relates to the concept of the German national spirit that I was talking about earlier. We’ll be back.
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David Doochin: Welcome back to Multilinguish. Before the break, we talked about the work of the Brothers Grimm in collecting and codifying their nation’s folktales in oral traditions into a kind of masterwork that has helped embody the German spirit or Zeitgeist of their era. We think so much of the work of the Brothers Grimm is about fairytales, but what I want to take the second half of this episode to touch on is what they did as linguists and language scholars, because those are just as important. And I think they’re just as cool. Jacob especially, Jacob Grimm, the older brother, was trained in linguistics and language studies. That’s so much of the work that he did. We almost can’t separate their work as linguists from their work collecting fairytales because they were recording so much common speech from the people.
David Doochin: But even more technical and scientific and linguistic of them actually were a couple of projects that we can talk about here. I think that they’re super interesting. The first is what’s called the Deutsches Wörterbuch, which means the German Dictionary. Wörterbuch would be “words book,” which translates from German to “dictionary” in English. This was a project that has now grown to become the largest and most extensive German dictionary ever to exist. It started out in the late 1830s, early 1840s when the brothers got offered the chance by the monarchy of Prussia, which was a nation state of this fractured Germany that I mentioned earlier, one of the bigger ones, to compile the first ever German dictionary.
David Doochin: It ended up becoming a huge undertaking. I think the brothers assumed it would take about 10 years and that they would finish their entire work within this timeframe, but they actually didn’t finish nearly what they thought they would. The last word in their entry before they finished the work was “frucht,” which means “fruit” in German, which actually might be a metaphor for how much work they put into it, the fruits of their labor. They’re also working on so many other publications at the time. By the time they died, Jacob had worked on 21 other publications, 14 for Wilhelm and eight between the both of them. So this is something that’s going on simultaneously with their other works, but it’s definitely one of their most famous outside of Kinder- und Hausmärchen.
David Doochin: When we think of a dictionary, we think of words and definitions, but this project was filled with more than just words and their meanings. It was also filled with folk songs, myths, legends, children’s games, proverbs, epic poetry, and of course thousands and thousands of words. Today, the latest edition of the dictionary, which is mostly complete, was completed by language scholars at different universities for the hundred some years after the Grimms died. They have compiled more than 330,000 entries in this dictionary. So this is a massive, massive project.
David Doochin: It’s a work of historical linguistics too. It records developments in the German language from the year 1450 onwards and from authors like Martin Luther of the Protestant Reformation to everyone who followed who had some sort of influence on German language and culture and literature. It included lone words, etymologies, synonyms, regional variations. So this is a really, really comprehensive in-depth work. Like I said, they never finished it, but this became one of the founding Germanic linguistic masterpieces for people who wanted to study the German language and nothing had ever been done like this before.
David Doochin: It’s giving a lot of legitimacy to the idea that German is a language worth studying and worth documenting because no one, like I said, ever thought to do a project like this before. So in much the same way that Noah Webster’s American dictionary, the first American dictionary, was kind of an exercise in fostering a national spirit, the German dictionary of the Grimm Brothers can be thought of as doing the same thing, giving the German language some sort of framework that was the idea that the German language deserved to be preserved and looked at technically and scientifically and traced back through its history to map where it had been, where it was in the day and where it could potentially go.
David Doochin: Thomas, I know that you love the dictionary. It’s one of your favorite books. What do you think about this project? What do you think it would have been like at the time to undertake a project as massive as this?
Thomas Devlin: I just think it’s mind blowing that there was a time when one or two people would just be like, I think we can make the dictionary from scratch, because it’s such a monumental undertaking. The fact they got as far as they did is incredible. You have to also just remember like they didn’t really have formal linguistic training at all, and that’s because linguistics as a topic didn’t really exist back then. People have thought about language since pretty much the origin of language. People have had some thoughts, but when you think of modern linguistics and the practice of, oh, words are added to the dictionary because people have to go out and see how people are using the words to craft these definitions, they were doing that almost before anyone else was doing that. And so we credit all of these 20th century linguists with inventing a field, but really you got to hand it to the Grimm Brothers for creating a whole field of study that they really just thought they were going to be doing some fairytales about.
David Doochin: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I also think of the fact that we take dictionaries for granted. If we ever need to know what a word means or where it came from, we just consult our dictionary, whether it’s online or a physical copy we have with us. But someone had to put that together. And for every language that has a dictionary, I imagine at this point in time most widely spoken languages do, it’s a work that took so much intentionality and effort and someone is having to consult the people around them and say, oh well, to this group of people, this word means this. But if you go to the neighboring community, it means this. And how did it evolve to have this meaning from its earlier meaning, and that’s a lot of work. You got to talk to a lot of people, you got to read a lot of documents.
David Doochin: I just think it’s so cool. But also it sounds so exhausting to put together an entire dictionary. So it was probably one of the most important things that could have been done for the German language at the time. They just happened to be the ones who wanted to do it. So mad props to them.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. And it’s such a great reminder about how alive language really is because when you don’t have dictionaries that are around you like we do today, you just learned language from the people around you. You couldn’t look things up, you just had to trust the person who you’re with. Your parents had to tell you what words meant. It’s such a different mindset about language that it’s hard to even wrap your head around now.
David Doochin: Yeah. It provides us a sort of universal standard. Instead of relying on authority figures that we trust to say this means this, or we interpret the world this way, we all can consult the same document or same standards. Much like we have many of the same laws that govern us in the same nations, we’re all kind of now playing by the same rules. Yeah, it’s like an experiment in how do we understand each other and how will that change over time?
David Doochin: Well, one other project that I’d like to mention is what’s called the Deutsche Grammatik, or the German grammar. When we think of a grammar, a lot of people think of a book that contains a set of rules for how language should be spoken. That’s something you might learn in grade school. While that’s all well and good and it helps us be better writers and better speakers to know how grammar works, linguists will be the first people to tell you, and I’m sure Thomas, you can comment on this, that a lot of the work in linguistics is better suited to be descriptivist, which means describing how language is actually used by real people, rather than prescriptivist which is how language should be used but might not actually be used out in the field when you’re studying conversations between actual speakers.
David Doochin: Jacob understood this really well. He was the one who decided to kind of create this work, his grammar, his Grammatik, that described how the German language was being used. And inside this work, he also was able to talk about the historical evolution of German and trace it back to what a lot of linguists call Proto-Indo-European. This is a language that is thought to have existed that predated a lot of modern languages that are in the same families or groups of families today. Proto-Indo-European is thought to have given rise to the Indo-European group of language families, which includes ancient languages like ancient Greek and Latin, but also Germanic languages like English and German.
David Doochin: This is important to note because I talked about the encroachment of French language and culture into the German states. At the time because French was so closely related to Latin — French is a Romance language and Romance languages evolved from the vulgar Latin or the common Latin that was spoken in the Roman empire — a lot of people thought, oh, French is so connected to Latin, that French is the classier language. It is the posher language. It is the superior language, whereas German and other Germanic languages are brutish and they’re less pure. This was a misconception that Jacob Grimm was actually able to dispel for the most part in his Deutsche Grammatik because he was able to paint or kind of create a thread from Germanic languages like German back to this Proto-Indo-European, which predated Greek and Latin and gave rise to Greek and Latin, but also German.
David Doochin: So by connecting the German that he and his fellow countrymen spoke back to Proto-Indo-European, he was saying German is just as legitimate as French is. French might be connected to Latin more directly, but they all come from the same source, and that’s Proto-Indo-European. So, Thomas, knowing what you know about linguistics, I mean, I personally don’t think it’s fair to say that one language is superior to another, but what do you think that this exercise kind of shows about people’s perceptions of language, and did you happen to know about the language branches coming from Proto-Indo-European, and what that means?
Thomas Devlin: I definitely heard about Proto-Indo-European for quite a while. And I should also just mention, to head off, I also think there’s no such thing as a language that’s better than any others. The thing about when you just hear about Proto-Indo-European without any context, you kind of think like, well, of course this was a language that makes sense. They all came back from a root. But at the time when the Grimms are working, like that is not common knowledge at all because if you go back further than where written language can take you, there’s no written record of how did the language evolve. Latin just kind of appears out of nowhere if you can’t trace it back.
Thomas Devlin: And so the thing that’s so shocking about what the Grimms were able to do is just create this idea that like, oh, you can figure out connections in the past based on what we have today, which is… I want to convey how mind-blowing that is, and the fact that it’s the Grimm Brothers, it’s like when you find out that Oscar Isaac had a ska band before he was an actor and you’re just like, wow.
David Doochin: He did? Oh, gosh.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. Two things. But it’d be like if Oscar has like a ska band or one of the best ska bands in the world, because that’s how impressive these two feats are. Obviously we think a lot less about Proto-Indo-European on a day-to-day basis, and Walt Disney didn’t make a movie about it, but like they were able to invent the ways we’re able to study languages before they were written languages.
David Doochin: Yeah. That’s why I love talking about these guys. The Brothers Grimm, they dabble in so many different areas, but they’re all kind of connected. If you think about it, collecting folktales is helping to foster a sense of national identity based on the language and the stories that people are sharing. But then they’re also doing very technical work, like I said, to kind of elevate German and study German and make it legitimate in the eyes of scholars and the people who speak it and say, our language has its own rich history behind it. It’s worthy of being studied and it’s worthy of exploring because it has changed so much up to this point. It’s going to continue to change. And I think that that does so much for the collective national spirit of a people who speak that language. It’s just so mind blowing to me that they could do so much to bolster the way a language was perceived. I just have a lot of respect for these guys.
David Doochin: Thomas, what do you have to say about the Brothers Grimm at the end of this episode? Is there something new that you learned or something that was reinforced for you about them?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, you definitely taught me a lot basically just about the connections between all of their work, because I think in my mind there was kind of a there’s the fairytale folklore side of them, and then there’s the linguistic and science-y side of them, but there’s not really that hard divide and it’s also kind of like there’s not a hard divide between language science and the language that we use for art, if that makes sense. I just think they are so intrinsically tied together and they couldn’t have done the linguistics work if they weren’t doing the fairytales at the same time. It’s just a fascinating way for science to happen.
David Doochin: I’m right there with you on that. I think it’s a lot harder than we think to separate linguistic science from the study of whether it’s sociology and anthropology and the study of how humans relate to each other, or just the stories that they tell one another, which I think is very much tied up with folk sociology and anthropology. We’re seeing a lot of overlap between these two fields of study, and I think that the Grimms are a perfect example of how language is very much tied up into everything. The way we communicate is based heavily on language. And so when our language changes, how do we document that? How do we preserve it? How do we map it? How do we lend it some legitimacy to carry us into the future and build a sort of national spirit that otherwise wouldn’t exist?
David Doochin: I think that’s the takeaway from this episode that I wanted to convey, and I hope that our listeners learn something really cool or new in the course of this episode too. But I will end it there. I just want to say thank you so much, Thomas, for joining me. It was great to have you today and you offered some really great insights and feedback.
Thomas Devlin: Thanks for having me.
David Doochin: Multilinguish is a production of the language app, Babbel. This episode was produced by me, David Doochin, with help from Thomas Devlin. Editing and sound design was done by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to Karina Indytska. You can read about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit B-A-B-B-E-L.com/magazine. Say hi on social media by finding us at Babbel USA. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it. Thank you.
David Doochin: Let’s just go back to it then.
Thomas Devlin: New song, okay.
David Doochin: Did you just mute yourself?
Thomas Devlin: Oh, I said go ahead. I hit the mute button before I said go ahead.
David Doochin: Okay. I’m going to go ahead in three, two.