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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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Did he mean the fact that it starts with 'pf'? –  Tim N Jun 17 '11 at 23:13
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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
    
I only know that all Russian words that have the letter Ф (F) in them are of non-Slavic origin... –  RegDwight Jun 17 '11 at 23:47
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@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
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@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

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 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. –  Grantwalzer Oct 8 at 11:07

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

G D B

K T P

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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