As we have seen, the effects of the accent shift accompanying the formation of Indo-European collectives were levelled out in Greek and Vedic. Note that such analogical regularisation happens when speakers find it difficult to make sense of the forms they are exposed to. Ancient alternations lose their productivity and become obscured by accumulated layers of sound change. If the outcome survives, it lingers on as a grammatical irregularity. If the whole speech community gets rid of it, the evidence that could be used to reconstruct the original alternation is lost. Fortunately for historical linguists, speakers are not very consistent in “repairing” the irregularities of their language. For example, in the prehistory of Greek the accent and the vocalism of the singular and the collective of ‘wheel’ were levelled out. Nevertheless, speakers didn’t mess with the inherited gender of the word: kúklos remained a masculine despite having a neuter-like plural. We can imagine that a different language could change the gender of the word but preserve clear traces of the accent alternation. And that indeed is what Germanic has done.
The best-know features distinguishing the Germanic languages from the rest of Indo-European are the consequences of two regular sound changes which operated in the common ancestor of the group (Proto-Germanic): Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law. Grimm’s Law affected all the inherited Indo-European stops, changing their phonation type (voicing) or manner of articulation. The pre-Germanic voiceless stops *p, *t, *k, *kʷ became voiceless fricatives with the same or similar place of articulation: *f, *þ, *x, *xʷ. At roughly the same time the inherited “voiced aspirated” stops *bʰ, *dʰ, *gʰ, *gʷʰ shifted into corresponding voiced fricatives: *β, *ð, *ɣ, *ɣʷ. A little later, the third part of Grimm’s Law was enacted: the remaining inherited stops *b, *d, *g, *gʷ became devoiced, yielding Germanic *p, *t, *k, *kʷ. As a result, Proto-Germanic changed from a language with a large number of stop phonemes into a language with a rich system of fricatives.
Verner’s Law applied to non-initial voiceless fricatives not adjacent to another voiceless sound and preceded by an unaccented syllable. The fricatives affected were either those generated by Grimm’s Law, or the only fricative phoneme inherited from pre-Germanic times, *s (the Proto-Indo-European “laryngeal” fricatives had already disappeared). As a result, *f, *þ, *s, *x, *xʷ became *β, *ð, *z, *ɣ, *ɣʷ in the appropriate environment.
|From *kʷékʷlos to wheel? It wasn’t that simple.|
Let us see how these changes affected PIE *kʷékʷlos.
Grimm’s Law applied to both occurrences of *kʷ, changing them into *xʷ. Since neither of them was found in an environment triggering Verner’s Law, they remained unchanged till the end of Proto-Germanic. Verner’s Law would have affected the final *-s. but we can’t be sure it was there. The ‘wheel’ word is a neuter noun in Northwest Germanic. We don’t know if it survived in Gothic, the only East Germanic language known from written texts. Most of the preserved Gothic material consists of copies of one partial translation of the Bible, and the text doesn’t happen to mention wheels. It’s obvious that the shift from masculine to neuter in the singular noun took place because the plural looked neuter, but we can’t tell whether it happened in pre-Germanic, Proto-Germanic or the common ancestor of the Northwest Germanic languages. Let us therefore ignore the gendered nom.sg. ending *-s and focus on the stem *kʷékʷlo-, which was the same for neuters and masculines. In the passage from pre-Germanic to Proto-Germanic, *kʷékʷlo- > *xʷéxʷla-.
What happened to the the collective *kʷəkʷláh₂? The laryngeal in the ending was lost long before Grimm’s Law, and the vowel was lengthened by compensation. It seems that a full vowel was restored early in the initial syllable on the analogy of the singular, so we may start with the form *kʷekʷlā́, serving as the plural of *kʷékʷlo- (whatever the latter’s gender). In Proto-Germanic, *kʷekʷlā́ became *xʷexʷlṓ by Grimm’s Law. Since the second *xʷ occurred in a voiced environment after an unaccented vowel, Verner’s Law applied, yielding *xʷeɣʷlṓ as the plural of *xʷéxʷla-.
A few more developments took place before the split of Proto-Germanic into the East and Northwest groups. First, Proto-Germanic gave up contrastive accent in favour of fixed initial stress. This means that although linguists can sometimes infer the original location of the word accent from the outcome of Verner’s Law, both *xʷexʷla- and *xʷeɣʷlō had predictable initial stress in late Proto-Germanic, and the speakers of the language had no means of guessing where the *xʷ/*ɣʷ alternation came from. The occurrence of “non-Vernerian” and “Vernerian” variants no longer depended on stress-related factors. For historical reasons, they were found tendentially in different grammatical forms, so speakers came to regard the conditioning as morphological, not phonological. But since grammatical contrasts are in most cases sufficiently signalled by other means (e.g. the use of inflectional endings), the cost of maintaining an obscure consonantal alternation may outweigh its functional importance.
Although the Germanic languages entered the historical scene rather late (in comparison with Hittite, Greek, Vedic or even Latin), they preserved some remarkably conservative features. The accent shift distinguishing some singular thematic nouns (with stems ending in *-o-) from their plurals (original collectives) was one of them. But the establishment of an initial-stress rule sounded the death knell of the distinction. The voicing alternation in words containing medial fricatives was not enough to keep it alive. Speakers of Late Proto-Germanic eliminated most of the Vernerian alternations from the noun system, generalising one of the variants at the expense of the other. In the comparative material we can see only some scattered fossils instead of a productive pattern.
Levelling out could happen either way. Some speakers generalised the consonant of the singular (*xʷexʷla-/*xʷexʷlō ), and others that of the plural (*xʷeɣʷla-/*xʷeɣʷlō). In the Proto-Germanic speech community the basic form of the noun was effectively duplicated: it could be either *xʷexʷla- or *xʷeɣʷla-, both meaning ‘wheel’ and both occurring with the same case-endings.
Still before the breakup of Proto-Germanic, the status of labiovelar consonants became precarious. The voiced labiovelar fricative *ɣʷ was eliminated from most positions; word-medially it merged with the semivowel *w. Voiceless*xʷ lost its labial accompaniment (lip-rounding) before consonants. The result was like this: *xʷexla- ~ *xʷewla-. The correspondence between these variants was anomalous, since the normal “Vernerian” counterpart of non-labialised *x was *ɣ, not *w. This must have caused occasional transmission errors: *xʷewla- could be misheard and misinterpreted as *xʷeɣla- (by listeners who anticipated the voiced counterpart of *x). Thus, by the end of the Proto-Germanic period three variants of the stem were in circulation: *xʷexla- ~ *xʷewla- ~ *xʷeɣla-.
The resolution of a conflict between competing synonyms doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it can take centuries unless speakers have a good reason to prefer one of the forms. In the case we are discussing, however, none of the competitors had a decisive advantage over the others, so their evolution proceeded in a “neutral” fashion. If there is no systematic bias, the relative frequencies of variants will vary randomly until the least lucky one drops out of use and is seen no more. But the three forms survived into the languages descended from Proto-Northwest Germanic before any of them reached fixation in the speech community. To be precise, we can identify reflexes of *xʷexla- and *xʷewla- in North Germanic, while all three can be found in West Germanic.
Let us now adjust the notations slightly to catch up with the phonological developments in the West Germanic languages. In their parent language, the articulation of *x was weakened in most positions, so that a glottal aspirate [h] beacame its default pronunciation, with velar or palatal fricatives remaining as positional variants determined by the context. I will therefore use the transcription *h rather than *x for this evolvoing phoneme. At that stage the surviving labiovelars were treated not as single phonemes but as sequences of two segments, *hw and *kw (*gw was at best rare; it may have become *g by that time).
We can thus assume the existence of three variants in Early Proto-West Germanic: *hwehla-, *hwewla-, and *hweɣla-. In West Germanic there was a tendency for consonants to undergo gemination (or, in plain English, doubling) when followed by *j or by one of the liquid consonants, *r or *l. Before *j the doubling was regular and affected all consonants except *z and *r (which soon merged as *r). Before *r and *l, it was sporadic and restricted to non-sonorants. Some speakers doubled the second *h of *hwehla-, so a new pronunciation,*hwehhla-, was added to the already existing pool of variants. At a later stage of Proto-West Germanic the stem dropped its final vowel in the nominative/accusative singular. The four variants competing at that time were as follows: *hwehl, *hwehhl, *hwewl, and *hweɣl.
Soon afterwards, the West Germanic-speaking Angles, Saxons and Jutes embarked on their conquest of Britain. A few centuries later Old English began to be written down regularly. Which ancestral forms survived into literary Old English? The answer is quite surprising: none had been eliminated. Descendants of all the West Germanic variants can be identified in the Old English corpus:
- hwēol ~ hwīol < *hwehl and *hwewl (from both sources)
- hweohhol (hweohl- when inflected) < *hwehhl
- hweowol ~ hweowul ~ hweowel (hweowl-) < *hwewl
- hweogul ~ hweogel (hweogl-) < *hweɣl
To be sure, their relative frequency was non-uniform; hwēol was by far the most common form, followed by hweow(V)l (which was about half as frequent), with the others lagging behind; but the competition was by no means over yet.
In Middle English times (11th-15th c.) this variety was drastically reduced. The variant whẹ̄l /hweːl/ (from OE hwēol) increased its frequency at the expense of all alternative forms, ousting them almost completely. The variants whewel, wheghel, and even whefyl (apparently with with /f/ from /x/, as in laughter an enough) lingered on for some time, but remained vanishingly rare and dialectally restricted. Their last remaining traces can be found in proper names, for example in the surname Whewell. You must have heard of William Whewell (1794–1866), the scholar who coined the words scientist and physicist, but you probably didn’t know his name was a fancy variant of wheel.
As you can well imagine, similarly complicated stories could be spun to present the evolution of the ‘wheel’ word and its variants in other Northwest Germanic languages. There are numerous interesting problems that I can’t discuss here for want of space. For example: what happened to Germanic *xʷexʷla- in High German? where did the odd-looking Old Frisian variants fiāl and t(h)iāl come from? Well, I have to stop somewhere. There are other words waiting to be discussed.
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 The mergers *o, *a > *a (for short vowels) and *ō, *ā > *ō (for long vowels) are also characteristically Germanic.
 There was a phonetic difference between medial *-h- and *-hh- surrounded by vowels or sonorants. The former underwent gradual weakening into a half-voiced glottal glide [ɦ] and was eventually dropped in the individual histories of the West Germanic languages, while *-hh- retained a strong velar articulation [xx] and survived much longer.
 OE g was still a voiced velar fricative, [ɣ], in this context.
 It was spelt in about twenty different ways, which however indicate more or less the same pronunciation. Rarer dialectal forms with Middle English /iː/ existed as well. The vowel of Modern English wheel /(h)wiːl/, however, comes from Middle English /eː/ via the Great Vowel Shift.