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When Germans turned p into pf

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Introduction

It may seem strange to think that a people can turn against the sound /p/—yet this is precisely what a large group of German speakers did, hundreds of years ago.This group was called the “High Germans”—not because of what they smoked in their Pfeiffen (pipes), but because they lived in the mountainous (i.e. higher) central and Southern parts of Germany, as in the sketch below (see here for a detailed topographical map).

Illustrating showing German topography

Sketch of German topography

 

Over the course of roughly two hundred years, starting somewhere around 500 A.D., these “high” Germans systematically replaced all their /p/’s with other sounds. When the /p/ was at the start of a word, or at the start of a syllable, it became a “pf”, i.e. a combination of /p/ with /f/.   (At the end of a word or syllable, the /p/ became plain /f/; sometimes the newer /pf/’s also simplified down to /f/ over time.)

German, English and Dutch all evolved from the same older Germanic language, but this “High German Consonant Shift” (which also systematically affected a number of other consonants) never spread to England or Holland—it didn’t even spread to the German dialects in the Northern “Lowland” parts of Germany. It was the High German forms, however, which became modern “standard” German, i.e. the language of writing and education—which is why, except in some Northern dialects, modern Germans say things like this:

picture of apple

Apfel

“Apfel”, where we say “apple”

picture of pole

Pfahl

“Pfahl”, where we say “pole”

picture of pepper container

Pfeffer

“Pfeffer”, where we say “pepper”

Picture of pipe

Pfeife

“Pfeife” where we say “pipe” (originally this was for the musical instrument, later extended to pipes for smoking).
 hop-small-img “hüpfen”, where we say “hop” (the “-en” is just a general German verb marker)

Picture of plum

Pflaume

“Pflaume”, where we say “plum”

picture of a path

Pfad

“Pfad” where we say “path” (the ‘th’ became ‘d’ at around the same time as the change to /pf/).

Eventually the “high” Germans tired of converting all their /p/’s, and started allowing plain /p/ back into their language—which is why you will find many modern German words that start with “p”, e.g. “Papier” (“paper”), or “parken” (“to park”).

But the p > pf change, along with the other systematic changes that make up the “High German Consonant Shift”, had a profound effect on the modern German language, making it significantly different from English, Dutch, as well as from the Northern German lowland dialects—which was, from a social perspective, probably the underlying point of the whole exercise, from the start.

Etymology

The following video demonstrates with examples how English and German evolved vocabulary from shared historical root words, with the German side affected by the p > pf consonant shift.

Note: the original historical sources as given here are widely accepted, but there are naturally some controversies, especially with the possible Iranian root for “path”; see the sources listed below for detailed discussion.

Apart from the p > pf shift, the various other sound changes that apply in these forms are not shown to time scale, and some of the intermediate forms given (e.g. “pa:l” from “pa:lus”) are only plausible conjecture on Dr. Dexterous’ part, and may not reflect the precise historical derivations of these words.

Audio for the Cartoons

cartoon 2 illustration

He is SO old-fashioned—he doesn’t say “pf”!

Der ist so altmodisch—der sagt nicht ‘pf’.

He is so old-fashioned—he doesn’t say ‘pf’.
p to pf cartoon 2 illustration

If you can hop along the path on this pole, you’ll get an apple!

Wenn du auf diesem Pfahl den Pfad entlang hüpfen kannst, bekommst du einen Apfel!

If you can hop on this pole along this path, you get an apple!
p to pf cartoon 1

Don’t put pepper in the pipe, and don’t hop on the plums!

Gebt keinen Pfeffer in die Pfeife, und hüpft nicht auf die Pflaumen!

Don’t put pepper in the pipe, and don’t hop on the plums!

Sources

  • “German: Biography of a Language.” Sanders, Ruth H., Oxford University Press 2010.
  • “Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0>.
  • “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
  • “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press

The characters in the third cartoon are renderings of Max and Moritz, from Max und Moritz – Eine Bubengeschichte in sieben Streichen, a German children’s book in verse by Wilhelm Busch, first published in 1856.

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