Grimm’s Law

This one is dedicated to Melissa Walshe

“Back in the days when it was still of help to wish for a thing,” muttered Jacob Grimm, “a younger brother dragged his elder brother deep into the wild woods in an attempt to work witchcraft.”

“Hush,” said Wilhelm, who was kicking at the root of an ancient apple tree. “And don’t use that word.”

“I’ll use whatever words I want in the middle of the night and the middle of the woods,” said Jacob. “If the wolves and owls hear me, let them bring the charge of blasphemy before the superintendent.”

Wilhelm’s foot struck stone. “Aha!” he said. “The hearthstone. We’ve found the house.”

“Did they even have hearthstones? Maybe it’s a sacrificial altar.”

“So what if it was? As long as there were people here, I’m satisfied.”

Jacob leaned against the tree and looked up at the stars through its gnarled branches. “Now that the wood has been firmly established as dark cold, and wild, we seek to prove it to be haunted as well.”

Jacob lifted his lantern, shining it in his brother’s face. “Where’s your word list? You didn’t forget it, did you?”

“No, I didn’t forget the damn word list.” Jacob pulled a folded piece of paper out of his coat pocket. “As if the ghosts we have back in Göttingen weren’t good enough.”

“They’re not,” said Wilhelm. “They’re too young and weak. There’s nothing in the records to indicate that any people lived on the River Gote even as late as the Caesars.”

“I suppose then I should be grateful you didn’t drag me to Rome,” said Jacob.

Wilhelm grinned behind his lantern. “Let the cardinals try to command the ghost of Cicero with their incantations. If you’re right about these sound changes, we’re going to make contact with people who were to the Romans as the Romans are to us.”

“The root, in fact, from which both our branches grow,” said Jacob, dryly. “I know. You don’t have to convince me. I convinced you that these sound changes were real, if you remember.”

Jacob unfolded his paper, although, he didn’t need it. The law that he had discovered was a simple one, and the sound changes it predicted should have been clear to anyone with a knowledge of German, Latin, and Greek.

“All right,” Jacob said. “Assuming that this place was once inhabited by the grandparents of the Romans and the Germans, they won’t understand us if we address them as Väter…” He paused, ears pricking. Nothing. Just a hedgehog snuffling in the leaves not far from his foot. “Nor patrēs…” still nothing, “nor yet patéres.”

“Yes, yes,” said Wihlem, “but if <p> becomes <b> – ”

“It’s the other way around,” snapped Jacob, whose lower back ached abominably. “We’re working backward. The <v> in Vater descends from a <p> in some earlier language, so the ancestors of the Germans, Greek, and Romans probably said something like patḗr...”

He held his breath. The wind blew through the apple tree, but no more strongly than usual.

“Is that all?” Wilhelm looked around, voiced raised as if berating the spirits of the local dead for their failure to understand. “Try again. Try something else.”

“Of course I will,” said Jacob. “Why would ancient people in Germany speak the old European language? They had already split from the ancestors of the southern people by the time they settled here, and their <p> sound had become <f>. To them I would say…” he guessed at a vocative plural “…fadriz.”

A new wind stirred the leaves on the ground. It swirled around the brothers and the apple tree, stronger, colder, and unmistakably intent.

“I…think we’ve caught someone’s ear,” whispered Jacob. “Try another word. How about ‘kalt?’ Was it gelu? Gelidus?”

Jacob shook his head, showing his teeth to the ghostly wind. “No, that’s Latin again. Our forefathers kept the old <k> sound…kaldaz!”

Jacob felt like he’d been hit in the face with a snowball. Ice crystals rattled against the paper in his hands.

“Damn, but that was a stupid thing to try.” He squinted at the list of words. “I know I wrote the derivation of ‘warm,’ here…”

Thermos,” said Wilhelm. “Thermos, for the love of God!”

“That’s Greek. To these ghosts, we must say…” he pursed his lips, “warmaz!

It was like stepping into sunshine. Wilhelm’s lantern steamed.

“So,” he said after the shock had worn off. “Would you say that’s a more powerful reaction than we’d get back in Göttingen?”

Jacob wiped melting frost off his eyebrows. “God in Heaven, Wilhelm, I think that was more powerful than the priests get in Rome.”

He slumped against the tree, peering blearily at his paper. “I think you’re right. Nobody has had knowledge like this before.” The <f> of Apfel came from <p> so, “Aplaz?

The tree did not grow a miraculous apple for him, but the bark did shudder under his touch, as if the powerful, ancient ghosts of this place were trying to rip the tree out of the ground.

And if I could find the ancestral European people who understood the word “hébōl,” they might be able to uproot entire orchards. Jacob stumbled backward, shivering now for reasons beyond the weather.

“My God, it worked,” Wilhelm said. “Nobody can trace a language back this far. Not the Romans, not the Greeks or the Arabs. Even the Hindoos and the Chinese depend on written records. They can’t…they can’t reconstruct words like this.” He held his hands out to the warm wind. “They could never talk to such old and powerful ghosts as these.”

Jacob swallowed and glanced down at the paper trembling in his hands. The <sp> combination should not have changed at all, but the <ch> in German had once been a <k>…

Sprek,” he whispered in the language of the people more than two thousand years dead. “Sprek, fader.”

And from the darkness, a voice answered.

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