Verner's Law says that voiceless fricatives, when immediately following an unstressed syllable in the same word, underwent voicing. The Germanic prefix 'ge-' as in German 'genug' or English 'enough' is generally derived from PIE *kom-. As this prefix is always word-initial, and there are plenty of examples of word-initial voiceless fricatives that stay as voiceless fricatives, how is this derivation possible?

  • it's often said that sound changes can only be sensitive to phonological conditions, never morphological ones. This is demonstrably false, and can be easily seen in the Semitic languages (Hebrew has w > y only root-initially, and also has š > h in many clitics and affixes). Analogy can be powerful enough to force an unexpected result whenever certain morphological conditions apply resulting in diachronic morphological conditioning – Tristan Jun 1 '20 at 9:31

It seems irregular to me as well.

I found this PDF that mentions this exact matter on page 43, in the abstract for Germanic *ga(-) revisited. Some thoughts on etymology, phonology and inherited word formations by Christiane Gante:

There are quite a lot of papers on [the issue of the etymology and phonology of the ge- prefix]. But it is still somewhat ambiguous whether Germanic *ga(-) can be smoothly linked to the semantically equivalent Latin co(m/n)-/cum, because of the initial consonant's shape.

Here is a downloadable PDF I found of the notes that go with the presentation: Germanic ga revisited. I read through it, and disappointingly, all it says is:

Common opinion is, that indeed PGmc. *ga- equals Lat. cum, co(m/n)-, OIr. co n, com- etc. and thus can be traced back to PIE *kom. But there is still no consensus on why, in this morpheme, PIE *k is represented by PGmc. *g in (almost) all cases.

However, it does state that this has been extensively discussed and has some citations to these previous papers, so I'll look through those next.

I have found several sources that treat this etymology as speculative; for example:

I take the ge- prefix to have been the default SCS prefix in Proto-Germanic. It presents certain problems that the other prefixes do not. It's etymology is unclear

Lexical Template Morphology: Change of State and the Verbal Prefixes in German, by B. Roger Maylor, from 2002

I also found the following exchange on the talk page of the Wiktionary article for the Proto-Germanic equivalent ga-:

How does the ‘g‘ in ga- derive from *kom / *ḱóm? I thought Verner's law only applied to consonants following an unstressed syllable, this is not the case for ga-. 16:40, 5 November 2014 (UTC)

Preverbs seem to have been treated strangely in Pre- and Proto-Germanic, being unstressed and not wholly bound to the verb; for example, clitics could intervene between preverbs and verbs. I'm not really certain about the specifics, but you can see the same development in *bi(-⁠), originally *h₁pi, from PIE *h₁epi. Anglom (talk) 23:34, 17 October 2015 (UTC)

Also from Wiktionary, I found a claim that Gothic at least allowed stacking of pre-verbs in such a way as to place them word-internally (and this seems to be backed up by other sources such as Phrasal Verbs: The English Verb-Particle Construction and its History by Stefan Thim):

As in other Indo-European languages, a verb in Proto-Germanic could have a preverb attached to it, modifying its meaning (cf. e.g. *fra-werþaną "to perish", derived from *werþaną "to become"). In Proto-Germanic, the preverb was still a clitic that could be separated from the verb (as also in Gothic, as shown by the behavior of second-position clitics, e.g. diz-uh-þan-sat "and then he seized", with clitics uh "and" and þan "then" interpolated into dis-sat "he seized") rather than a bound morpheme that is permanently attached to the verb (as in all other Germanic languages). At least in Gothic, preverbs could also be stacked one on top of the other (similar to Sanskrit, different from Latin), e.g. ga-ga-waírþjan "to reconcile".

–the article "Proto-Germanic grammar" on Wiktionary

I'll update this answer once I find more discussion in scholarly journals.

  • This is a very useful and well-worked answer - it doesn't actually answer the question but provides lots of information as to many attempts to answer it. After 300 years of comparative philology it is still a question awaiting an answer! I do think that ga- must < *kom – Ned Jan 9 '16 at 17:37
  • I cannot think of any other prefixes that begin h- to produce a comparison; of course the Germanic history of PIE k- is not quite the same as PIE p- and t-; they go p-/t- > f-/þ- whereas k- goes k- > x- > h. – Ned Jan 9 '16 at 17:48
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    @sumelic, This is a very old problem. I don't think we'll be able to solve it here. – Alex B. Jan 10 '16 at 1:07

Morphological levelling is the force working against Verner's law in this situation.

Note also that many forms with the ge- prefix may be created after Verner's law was active; there is a modern trend to date the activity of Verner's law even before Grimm's law was active.

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    Thanks jknappen - but I don't understand how morphological levelling could work herew. Surely all examples of 'ge-' will occur at the start of a word which will always not be affected by Verner's Law. – Ned Jan 8 '16 at 23:05
  • Continuing - there may be occasions in modern german with separable verbs where the 'ge-' is not the first syllable in the world - but isn't the use of the prefix as a past participle marker a secondary phenomenon? – Ned Jan 8 '16 at 23:08

This is a really old problem and a lot of research has been written on this.

There are several ways to tackle it:

  1. Reject PIE*kom > PGm *ga. However, as far as I can see, communis opinio is the opposite (e.g. Lehmann 1986), cf. the following suggested cognates: Proto-Italic *kom (e.g. Latin perfectivizing co- and preposition cum), Proto-Celtic *kom, Slavic ** sъ-, and Hittite =kkan (encl. locatival sentence particle) ‘?’ Kloekhorst 2007 writes it was Sturtevant 1927 who first suggested this etymology. The reconstructed PIE form is * ḱom.

  2. Reinterpret the conditioning factors of Verner's Law.

Phrase stress: Bennett 1972, Quinlin 1991 (and also his 1989 dissertation), Hoptman 2002. However, Tsimmerling 2007 finds this analysis irrefutable.

The low tone (in the initial pretonic position): Ivanov 1999 (and earlier). He suggests that "the Indo-European particle/adverbial element *kom could be used both as an enclitic or as a proclitic."


It seems no one is willing to abandon the ban on the Anlaut position though.

A couple of very important notes.

First, gone is the time of the notorious Neogrammarian motto "sound laws have no exceptions." See Hoptman 2002 and Tsimmerling 2007 for more exceptions to Verner's law; Bernhardsson 2001 for a possible explanation.

Second, we don't really know for sure when Verner's law started to function (in Proto-Germanic? Before or after Grimm's law?) and how long it functioned. Also, there have been several attempts to merge Grimm's and Verner's laws into one.

And, finally, the most importing thing to remember is that

"Any "sound law" is NOT simply an algebraic comparison of a protolanguage with a descendant, but a real sound change (or, in cases like GL, possibly a sequence of sound changes) that occurred in a real speaking population in real time" (Donald Ringe, p.c.)

Those inlaut (and possibly Auslaut) fricatives didn't get all voiced in all words overnight nor did stress in Proto-Germanic shift within a week. Verner's Law didn't stop functioning on the winter solstice. These processes took a long time, they overlapped, not all words got affected (due to various reasons) etc.

This is exactly what we can see with a lot of Gothic preverbs (including ga-) that have not been fully grammaticalized, could have been followed by other enclitics etc. See Arkadiev 2015: 209-210, Buscko 2008, Sizova 1978 and Sizova 2007 for further details. This is a natural, living language in its development.

  • So is the idea that Verner's law applied not only to consonants after unstressed syllables, but also to consonants at the start of word-initial weakly stressed syllables? That explains why it affects *gan- and not normal unprefixed words, but what is the connecting factor between the different environments where Verner's Law is said to apply? If it's proclitic, than it normally doesn't come after another syllable within the phrase, as Ned mentioned already in his comments below another answer. – brass tacks Jan 10 '16 at 6:56
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    I haven't read Bennet 1972 - I'll have to - however anybody suggesting that Verner's Law applies exceptionally to the prefix *xan < *kom because it was proclitic has to demonstrate from other proclitics. Certainly it didn't affect other prefixes (for example 'for-'). I don't know about other proclitics in PG - but it didn't affect 'what' (it appears as a proclitic at the start of Beowulf) and there must have been proclitics in the 'the/that/thus' family. – Ned Jan 10 '16 at 10:34
  • @Ned before I write more, I wanted to know how solid your knowledge of Gothic, Latin and Hittite is and how familiar you are with phonetics and historical linguistics. It would help me a lot. – Alex B. Jan 10 '16 at 20:15
  • Cursory knowledge of Gothic and Hittite, A level in Latin, degree in Linguistics – Ned Jan 10 '16 at 21:22
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    @Alex B. and sumelic Thank you both for your answers and comments. You've both given me lots of pointers to investigate. One of these suggested 'bi-' < '*epi' might be a similar prefix (but of course there is another etymology < '*mbhi'). – Ned Jan 13 '16 at 10:31

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