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In a book I’m reading these days, the author mentions the various names of the plough in a few Indo-European languages. When he comes to cite the German one (Pflug) he casually adds the far-reaching remark that

the fact that Pflug starts with the letter ‘p’ is almost certainly the indication of a foreign origin.

Leaving aside the fact that the Celts are often credited for the invention of the wheeled plough fitted with an iron ploughshare (as opposed to the more archaic ard or scratch plough), how reliable is the claim that German words starting with the letter p have a high probability of being loanwords and why would that be the case?

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@Tim N. No simply 'p'. In the mean time I'm having a look at this list (P letter) and there seem to be some truth behind this assertion. But I have just sampled a few words. I'd like to know whether this is a well established and well known fact. – Alain Pannetier Jun 17 '11 at 23:29
@Pekka, No prob. After WWII, Germany was partitioned in 2 separate independent countries as you probably know: the DDR under Soviet influence and the BRD. As none of these countries were allowed to have an army, "protecting" powers were occupying various portions of the German territory. The BDR was occupied by US, Canadian, English and French forces. So I ended up in Villingen-Schwenningen (a beautiful place) in 1986. – Alain Pannetier Jun 19 '11 at 2:44
@Alain ah, of course! (I didn't think of that - I somehow pictured you in the actual Bundeswehr as a frenchman and was baffled:) I grew up near Tübingen, I vividly remember being scared of the tanks standing in the Hechinger Eck base when I started going to school in '86. Such a long time ago, my goodness! Villingen-Schwenningen is a really nice area, yeah. – Pekka 웃 Jun 19 '11 at 14:16
I don't think that all German words with p have been checked. What about platzen, Paar, Pacht, packen? – rogermue Oct 8 '14 at 10:16
@rogermue Paar and Pacht seem to be of Latin origin (paria and pactum resp.). I'm not entirely sure what I should think about packen; it seems to derive from PGmc *pakkô which would trace back to some PIE *b-something. Platzen is a great example that comes from PGmc *platjaną and in turn from PIE *b(e)lad- or *b(e)led-. I'll add that to my answer! – Jan Apr 14 at 11:43

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

It seems that most German words that start with the letter p are in fact loan words from various languages. Some words that were spelled with a p in Old High German changed the letter to b, e.g. Baum and Berg:

noh paum ... noh pereg ni uuas
*(noch irgendein Baum noch Berg war)

I scanned a list of old words and I think I found a few exceptions though:

  • Pein, F., "Pein, Qual", mhd. pó ne, pó n, F., pó n, M., "Strafe, Leibesstrafe, Qual, Pein", ahd. pó na
  • plötzlich, Adj., "sehr schnell, unerwartet", (um 1320 unplozlich) zu mhd. blaz, plaz, Sb., "klatschender Schlag"
  • Pranger, M., "Halseisen mit dem im Mittelalter und in früher Neuzeit ein Übeltäter an einen Schandpfahl gefesselt und öffentlich zur Schau gestellt wird", fnhd. pfranger, M., "Pranger", mhd. ([2. H. 13. Jh.? bzw.] 14. Jh.) pranger, branger
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+1. makes sense: the change of 'p' in 'b' is also observed in other languages (Latin sapere => Spanish saber). Most words initiating with a 'p' would have migrated to a 'b'. – Alain Pannetier Jun 18 '11 at 9:39
For Pein, the Latin poena springs to mind. From the Grimm dictionary I take that the /p/ in Pranger may have been a /b/ in the first place. And plötzlich could be stem from Blitz. Very interesting question. – user6191 Oct 8 '14 at 11:07
I'm kind of dissatisfied with this kind of anecdotical answer for such an extraordinary claim as in OPs question. Just finding some counterexamples doesn't prove it, imo. I prefer Jan's answer because it shows a hypothesis for the case. Anyways, have a great day :-) – hiergiltdiestfu Apr 11 at 19:27

The claim comes from the fact that Proto-Indo-European has a glaring lack of sounds said to be a voice bilabial stop */b/ (this would also include that sound in initial position in a word). The reflex of this sound would be /p/ in Germanic languages (and further changed to the sound /pf/ in certain places in certain German dialects). There is a lot of truth to what the author says. Note one of the rare Germanic (here, English) words beginning with /p/: pīc, 'pike' (the fish). The etymology? Unknown. (Oxford Dictionary of American English). This lack of /p/ in Germanic language is some hot topic of discussion in Indo-European languages (search for information on the 'Glottalic Theory').

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The modern German language developed out of Old High German from a Proto-Germanic (PGmc) ancestor, which in turn developed from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) (or Indo-Germanic as it is called in German).

Proto-Indo-European allowed *P as an initial consonant in words; cf Latin pater, traced back to PIE *ph₂tḗr

At some time in the first millenium BC, a Germanic tribe's dialect separated itself further and further from Proto-Indo-European to give Proto-Germanic. This came with a number of sound changes. For our example, it is important to note, that word-initial PIE *P would change into PGmc *F. Thus, the word for father turned into *fadēr

There was another consonant shift around the same time, turning PIE *b into PGmc *p, however that one was usually mid-word. Not that there are exceptions: The word platzen seems to derive from PGmc *platjaną which in turn derives from PIE *b(e)lad- or *b(e)led-. This word should have taken part in the second consonant shift, turning p into pf, but likely the modern-day word was taken from Low German, which mostly ignored that shift.

So most 'original' Germanic words would have lost any initial *p originally present and turned it into f, while only a few original *b would have migrated back into p.

Words that entered Germanic from Latin early would end up having pf as starting consonant due to the second consonant shift (cf Pferd). Words that didn't enter German until the Middle Ages didn't take part in that shift and kept their original *p, e.g. Pein from Latin poena or Papier.

Splattne's example of pereg and paum are due to the unstandardised early orthography. The sounds used in those words were most likely /b/, which the write chose to write with a p because he could. If they aren't /b/, it would require a change from *b to *p and then back to b, which is highly unlikely.

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Grimm's Law: over time, sounds degrade to the row below...



Ch Th F

I've read that in modern Arabic, words beginning with P are loan-words, as all native words that once began with P now begin with an F.

There are plenty of examples between Latin and English where P -> F:

pater -- father pisces -- fish

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