What is the name of a sound shift law under which the German consonant "c" changes to the English "g", e.g.

Macht -> might;
Nacht -> night;
Tochter -> daughter;
fechten -> fight;
recht -> right;
Licht -> light;
Sicht -> sight;
Pflicht -> plight;
Fracht -> freight;
Gewicht -> weight;
dicht -> tight;
Flucht -> flight;
Bucht -> bight

  • 7
    Sound shift laws apply to sounds, not letters. – brass tacks Mar 16 '19 at 18:02

You'll notice that all of these words include ch in German and gh in English. These originally represented the same sound: a voiceless velar fricative, written as /x/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet. (It's the final sound in loch, if you pronounce that different from lock.)

Both English and German inherited this consonant from Proto-Germanic, where it's written *h. (The star is because Proto-Germanic itself was never written down, it's a scholarly reconstruction: h is just the letter scholars use when talking about it.) It often came from Proto-Indo-European *k through Grimm's Law, though there were other sources as well.

In German, that sound was written ch, and has survived pretty much untouched until modern times. In English, however, the sound was written gh. And somewhere between Chaucer and Shakespeare, it disappeared entirely: this is called H-loss or the taught-taut merger.

P.S. Different dialects did different things with the /x/ when it disappeared. Some turned it into /f/ after back vowels, which is how we get laugh and tough. Others lengthened a preceding vowel, which is why light has a "long i" sound. Scots still preserves /x/ even to the modern day.

  • using broad transcription to specify the sound is kind of useless here. Given how variable ch is in different German phonetic environments, I doubt that it had just one phonetic realization, originally, so there's not much you could do about it. If it helps the questioner, mächtig is not fricative in High or Low German at least, though Macht is, and that's very regular after e or i and the umlauts. The vowel alternation is often semantic (as in drink, drank, drunk). – vectory Mar 19 '19 at 19:25
  • @vectory Hm? I've always heard it /mɛç.tiç/, with not one but two fricatives. Vowel ablaut is of course important in all Germanic languages, but I don't see how that's relevant here. – Draconis Mar 19 '19 at 20:43
  • So the difference is palatal versus velar, sorry. I'm not too savvy with IPA ... "Macht" is transcribed with an uvular, as is Dach, but Buch isn't, though it doesn't make a difference for me, personally, and mächtig is transcribed with yet a different symbol. This isn't helpful, if the ety of book isn't certain. Looking at machen (uvular) and to make, I feel it should be uvular for Buch, too. Maybe you can call mächtig fricative. The point is, either there had been just one contrast, then we can have allophones, or there was indeed, also with regional differences – vectory Mar 19 '19 at 21:06
  • @vectory As I understand it, the velar [x] is used after back vowels, and the palatal [ç] after front vowels. I don't think it can ever occur anywhere else. However, I'd always use /x/ in phonemic transcription, since it's a classic case of complementary distribution. I'd consider using separate symbols a mistake on Wiktionary's part, especially with respect to the uvular (which I've never heard a German-speaker use). – Draconis Mar 19 '19 at 21:11
  • In Proto-Germanic? Nobody knows. If I look at Rachen, OHG hrahhon, ... PIE *kreg- "to croak, caw", for example, it seems that some instances reflect *g. I don't see the PGem reflex in Wiktionary, but related En. retch links *hrēkijaną "to clear one's throat" (very apt for the sound that I consider uvular). Since /g/ may be approximated in regional dialects, I think the approximant/fricative distinction may be as important as uvular/velar/palatal, for /x/. After all, it's merely a two way contrast in German. BTW, we have krächzen, "croak", which is PGem *krēk-. What's the PIE, *kreg-? – vectory Mar 19 '19 at 21:53

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