Jacob Grimm

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The Grimm Brothers Monument at Hanau, Germany. Jacob Grimm is in the foreground, seated.

Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (Hanau, January 4, 1785 — Berlin, September 20, 1863), German philologist, jurist and mythologist, was born at Hanau, in Hesse-Kassel. He is best known as a recorder of folklore, or fairy tales, one of the Brothers Grimm. The concept of folklore developed as part of the nineteenth century ideology of romantic nationalism, leading to the reshaping of oral traditions to serve modern ideological goals; only in the twentieth century did ethnographers begin to attempt, though not always successfully, to record folklore without overt political goals. The idea that folklore reflects a national identity may have had a political motivation, but it is also true that folklore reflects a specific cultural heritage and that culture has a fundamental impact on all social institutions. Grimm's "fairy tales," as they have come to be known, are among the most famous in the Western world.


Jacob Grimm's father, who was a lawyer, died while he was a child, and his mother was left with very small means; but her sister, who was lady of the chamber to the Iandgravine of Hesse, helped to support and educate her numerous family. Jacob, with his younger brother Wilhelm (born on February 24, 1786), was sent in 1798 to the public school at Kassel.

In 1802 he proceeded to the University of Marburg, where he studied law, a profession for which he had been destined by his father. His brother joined him at Marburg a year later, having just recovered from a long and severe illness, and likewise began the study of law.

Up to this time Jacob Grimm had been actuated only by a general thirst for knowledge and his energies had not found any aim beyond the practical one of making himself a position in life. The first definite impulse came from the lectures of Friedrich Karl von Savigny, the celebrated investigator of Roman law, who, as Grimm himself says in the preface to the Deutsche Grammatik(Grammar of German), first taught him to realize what it meant to study any science. Savigny's lectures also awakened in him a love for historical and antiquarian investigation which forms the basis of all his work. The two men became personally acquainted, and it was in Savigny's well-stocked library that Grimm first turned over the leaves of Bodmer's edition of the Old German minnesingers and other early texts, and felt an eager desire to penetrate further into the obscurities and half-revealed mysteries of their language.

In the beginning of 1805 he received an invitation from Savigny, who had moved to Paris, to help him in his literary work. Grimm passed a very happy time in Paris, strengthening his taste for the literatures of the Middle Ages by his studies in the Paris libraries. Towards the close of the year he returned to Kassel, where his mother and Wilhelm had settled, the latter having finished his studies. The next year he obtained a position in the war office with the very small salary of 100 thalers. One of his grievances was that he had to exchange his stylish Paris suit for a stiff uniform and pigtail. But he had full leisure to engage in his studies.

In 1808, soon after the death of his mother, he was appointed superintendent of the private library of Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, into which Hesse-Kassel had been incorporated by Napoleon. Jerome appointed him an auditor to the state council, while he retained his other post. His salary was increased in a short interval from 2000 to 4000 francs, and his official duties were hardly more than nominal. After the expulsion of Jerome and the reinstalment of an elector, Grimm was appointed in 1813 secretary of legation, to accompany the Hessian minister to the headquarters of the allied army. In 1814 he was sent to Paris to demand restitution of the books carried off by the French, and in 1814–1815 he attended the congress of Vienna as secretary of legation. On his return he was again sent to Paris on the same errand as before.

Meanwhile Wilhelm had received an appointment in the Kassel library, and in 1816 Jacob was made second librarian under Volkel. On the death of Volkel in 1828 the brothers expected to be advanced to the first and second librarianships respectively, and were dissatisfied when the first place was given to Rommel, the keeper of the archives. So they moved the following year to the University of Göttingen, where Jacob received the appointment of professor and librarian, and Wilhelm that of under-librarian. Jacob Grimm lectured on legal antiquities, historical grammar, literary history, and diplomatics, explained Old German poems, and commented on the Germania of Tacitus.

During this period he is described as small and lively in figure, with a harsh voice, speaking a broad Hessian dialect. His powerful memory enabled him to dispense with the manuscript on which most German professors relied, and he spoke extemporaneously, referring only occasionally to a few names and dates written on a slip of paper. He regretted that he had begun the work of teaching so late in life, but as a lecturer he was not successful: he had no aptitude for digesting facts and suiting them to the level of comprehension of his students. Even the brilliant, terse, and eloquent passages which abound in his writings lost much of their effect when jerked out in the midst of a long array of dry facts.

In a lecture with Jacob Grimm, sketch by Ludwig Emil Grimm, Göttingen, May 28, 1830.

One of the seven professors who signed a protest against the King of Hanover's abrogation of the constitution established some years before, he was dismissed from his professorship and banished from the kingdom of Hanover in 1837. He returned to Kassel together with his brother, who had also signed the protest, and remained there until 1840, when they accepted an invitation from the King of Prussia to move to Berlin, where they both received professorships, and were elected members of the Academy of Sciences. Not under any obligation to lecture, Jacob seldom did so, but together with his brother worked at their great dictionary. During their time in Kassel Jacob regularly attended the meetings of the academy, where he read papers on the most varied subjects. The best known of these are those on Lachmann, Schiller, and his brother Wilhelm (who died in 1859) of old age, and on the origin of language. He also described his impressions of Italian and Scandinavian travel, interspersing his more general observations with linguistic details, as is the case in all his works.

Jacob Grimm died in 1863, working even at the end. He was never seriously ill, and worked all day, without haste and without pause. He was not at all impatient of interruption, but seemed rather to be refreshed by it, returning to his work without effort. He wrote for the press with great rapidity, and hardly ever made corrections. He never revised what he had written, remarking with a certain wonder on his brother, Wilhelm, who read his own manuscripts over again before sending them to press. His temperament was uniformly cheerful, and he was easily amused. Outside his own special work he had a marked taste for botany. The spirit which animated his work is best described by himself at the end of his autobiography:

"Nearly all my labors have been devoted, either directly or indirectly, to the investigation of our earlier language, poetry and laws. These studies may have appeared to many, and may still appear, useless; to me they have always seemed a noble and earnest task, definitely and inseparably connected with our common fatherland, and calculated to foster the love of it. My principle has always been in these investigations to under-value nothing, but to utilize the small for the illustration of the great, the popular tradition for the elucidation of the written monuments."

Linguistic Work

The purely scientific side of Grimm's character developed slowly. He seems to have felt the want of definite principles of etymology without being able to discover them, and indeed even in the first edition of his grammar (1819) he seemed to be often groping in the dark. As early as 1815 we find AW Schlegel reviewing the Altdeutsche Wälder (a periodical published by the two brothers) very severely, condemning the lawless etymological combinations it contained, and insisting on the necessity of strict philological method and a fundamental investigation of the laws of language, especially in the correspondence of sounds. This criticism is said to have had a considerable influence on the direction of Grimm's studies.

Grimm's scientific character is notable for its combination of breadth and unity. He was far removed from the narrowness of the specialist who has no ideas or sympathies beyond just one author or corner of science and the shallow dabbler who feverishly attempts to master the details of a half-dozen unrelated pursuits. The same concentration exists within his own special studies. The very foundations of his nature were harmonious; his patriotism and love of historical investigation received their fullest satisfaction in the study of the language, traditions, mythology, laws and literature of his own countrymen and their kin. But from this center, he pursued his investigations in every direction as far as his instinct would allow. He was equally fortunate in the harmony that existed between his intellectual and moral nature. He cheerfully made the heavy sacrifices that science demands from its disciples, without envy or bitterness; although he lived apart from his fellow men, he was full of human sympathies, and has had a profound influence on the destiny of mankind.

History of the German language

Of all his more general works the boldest and most far-reaching was his Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, (History of the German Language) in which the linguistic elements are emphasized. The subject of the work is the history which lies hidden in the words of the German language (the oldest natural history of the Teutonic tribes determined by means of language). For this purpose he laboriously collected the scattered words and allusions found in classical writers, and endeavored to determine the relationship between the German language and those of the Getae, Tifracians, Scythians, and many other nations whose languages were at the time known only through doubtfully identified, often extremely corrupted remains preserved by Greek and Latin authors. Grimm's results have been greatly modified by the wider range of comparison and improved methods of investigation which now characterize linguistics, and many of the questions raised by him will probably forever remain obscure, but his book's influence has been profound.

German Grammar

Grimm's famous Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar) was the outcome of his purely philological work. The labors of past generations from the humanists onwards resulted in an enormous collection of materials in the shape of text-editions, dictionaries, and grammars, although most of it was uncritical and untrustworthy. Something had even been done in the way of the comparison and determination of general laws, and the concept of a comparative Germanic grammar had been clearly grasped by the illustrious Englishman George Hickes by the beginning of the 18th century in his Thesaurus. Ten Kate in Holland had afterwards made valuable contributions to the history and comparison of the Germanic languages. Even Grimm himself did not at first intend to include all the languages in his grammar, but he soon found that Old High German postulated Gothic, and that the later stages of German could not be understood without the help of other West Germanic varieties including English, and that the rich literature of Scandinavia could not ignored either. The first edition of the first part of the Grammar (which appeared in 1819), and is now extremely rare. It treated the inflections of all these languages, and included a general introduction in which he vindicated the importance of an historical study of the German language against the a priori, quasi-philosophical methods then in vogue.

In 1822 this volume appeared in a second edition (really a new work, for, as Grimm himself says in the preface, it cost him little reflection to mow down the first crop to the ground). The wide distance between the two stages of Grimm's development in these two editions is significantly shown by the fact that while the first edition gives only the inflections, in the second volume phonology takes up no fewer than 600 pages, more than half of the whole volume. Grimm had, at last, awakened to the full conviction that all sound philology must be based on rigorous adhesion to the laws of sound change, and he never afterwards swerved from this principle, which gave to all his investigations, even in their boldest flights, that iron-bound consistency, and that force of conviction which distinguishes science from dilettanteism. Prior to Grimm's time, philology was nothing but a more or less laborious and conscientious dilettanteism, with occasional flashes of scientific inspiration.

His advances must be attributed mainly to the influence of his contemporary Rasmus Christian Rask. Rask was born two years later than Grimm, but his remarkable precocity gave him something of an even start. In Grimm's first editions, his Icelandic paradigms are based entirely on Rask's grammar, and in his second edition, he relied almost entirely on Rask for Old English. His debt to Rask can only be estimated at its true value by comparing his treatment of Old English in the two editions; the difference is very great. For example, in the first edition he declines "disg," "dceges," and plural "dcegas," without having observed the law of vowel-change pointed out by Rask. There can be little doubt that the appearance of Rask's Old English grammar was a main inducement for him to recast his work from the beginning. To Rask also belongs the merit of having first distinctly formulated the laws of sound-correspondence in the different languages, especially in the vowels (those more fleeting elements of speech which had hitherto been ignored by etymologists).

The grammar was continued in three volumes, treating principally derivation, composition and syntax, the last of which was left unfinished. Grimm then began a third edition, of which only one part, comprising the vowels, appeared in 1840. His time afterwards was taken up mainly by the dictionary. The grammar stands alone in the annals of science for its comprehensiveness, method and fullness of detail. Every law, every letter, every syllable of inflection in the different languages was illustrated by an almost exhaustive mass of material, and it has served as a model for all succeeding investigators. Diez's grammar of the Romance languages is founded entirely on its methods, which have also exerted a profound influence on the wider study of the Indo-European languages in general.

Grimm's Law

Grimm's Law, also known as 'Rask's-Grimm's Rule' is the first law in linguistics concerning a non-trivial sound change. It was a turning point in the development of linguistics, allowing the introduction of a rigorous methodology to historic linguistic research. It concerns the correspondence of consonants in the older Indo-European, and Low Saxon and High German languages was, first fully stated by Grimm in the second edition of the first part of his grammar. The correspondence of single consonants had been more or less clearly recognized by several of his predecessors including Friedrich von Schlegel, Rasmus Christian Rask and Johan Ihre, the last having established a considerable number of literarum permutationes, such as b for f, with the examples ba~ra =ferre, befwer =fiber. Rask, in his essay on the origin of the Icelandic language, gave the same comparisons, with a few additions and corrections, and even the very same examples in most cases. As Grimm in the preface to his first edition expressly mentioned this essay of Rask, there is every probability that it inspired his own investigations. But there is a wide difference between the isolated permutations of his predecessors and his own comprehensive generalizations. The extension of the law to High German is entirely his own work, however.

The only fact that can be adduced in support of the assertion that Grimm wished to deprive Rask of his claims to priority is that he does not expressly mention Rask's results in his second edition. But this is part of the plan of his work, to refrain from all controversy or reference to the works of others. In his first edition he expressly calls attention to Rask's essay, and praises it most ungrudgingly. It is true that a certain bitterness of feeling afterwards sprang up between Grimm and Rask, but Rask, for his part, refused to acknowledge the value of Grimm's views when they involved modification of his own.

German Dictionary

In the great German dictionary Grimm undertook a task for which many believe he was hardly suited. They claim that his exclusively historical tendencies made it impossible for him to do justice to the individuality of a living language; and that the disconnected statement of the facts of language in an ordinary alphabetical dictionary fatally mars its scientific character. The dictionary was undertaken on so large a scale as to make it impossible for him and his brother to complete it themselves. The dictionary, as far as it was worked on by Grimm himself, has been described as a collection of disconnected antiquarian essays of high value.

Literary Work

The Title page of "Deutsches Wörterbuch" of Brothers Grimm, first volume.

The first work Jacob Grimm published, Über den altdeutschen Meistergesang (1811), was of a purely literary character. Yet even in this essay Grimm showed that Minnesang and Meistersang were really one form of poetry, of which they merely represented different stages of development, and also announced his important discovery of the invariable division of the Lied into three strophic parts.

His text-editions were mostly prepared in conjunction with his brother. In 1812 they published the two ancient fragments of the Hildebrandslied and the Weissenbrunner Gehet, Jacob having discovered what till then had never been suspected—namely the alliteration in these poems. However, Jacob had little taste for text editing, and, as he himself confessed, working on a critical text gave him little pleasure. He therefore left this department to others, especially Lachmann, who soon turned his brilliant critical genius, trained in the severe school of classical philology, to Old and Middle High German poetry and meter.

Both Brothers were attracted from the beginning by all national poetry, whether in the form of epics, ballads or popular tales. [1]In 1816–1818 they published an analysis and critical sifting of the oldest epic traditions of the Germanic peoples under the title of Deutsche Sagen. (German Sayings) At the same time they collected all the popular tales they could find, partly from the mouths of the people, partly from manuscripts and books, and published in 1812–1815 the first edition of those Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales) which has carried the name of the brothers Grimm into every household of the western world, and which founded the science of folklore. The closely related subject of the satirical beast epic of the Middle Ages also held great charm for Jacob Grimm, and he published an edition of the Rejnhart Fuchs in 1834. His first contribution to mythology was the first volume of an edition of the Eddaic songs, undertaken jointly with his brother, and published in 1815. However, this work was not followed by any others on the subject.

The first edition of his Deutsche Mythologie (German Mythology) appeared in 1835. This great work covered the whole range of the subject, tracing the mythology and superstitions of the old Teutons back to the very dawn of direct evidence, and following their evolution to modern-day popular traditions, tales and expressions.

Jacob Grimm and politics

Jacob Grimm's work tied in strongly to his views on Germany and its culture. [2] His work with fairy tales and his philological work dealt with German origins. He loved his people and wished for a united Germany. In the German revolution of 1848, he was given a chance to make these views known when he was elected to the Frankfurt National Parliament. The people of Germany had demanded a constitution and so the Parliament, formed of elected members from various German states, met in order to form one. Grimm was selected for the office in a large part because of his role in the University of Goettingen's refusal to swear to the king of Hanover. He then went to Frankfurt, where he did not play a very big part, but did make some speeches, which tended to stray into the realms of history and philology rather than the political questions at hand. Grimm was adamant on one subject, however; he wanted the duchy of Holstein of Denmark to be under German control. He talked passionately about this subject, which showed his fierce German nationalism.

Grimm was not made to be a politician, and also soon realized that the National Assembly was not getting anywhere (it was eventually dissolved without establishing a constitution), and so asked to be released from his duties and returned with relief to his former studies. His political career did not bloom into anything great, but it does illustrate his characteristics, both his nationalism and his moralism. He believed that good would triumph in the Parliament, and pushed for human rights legislation just as he wished for a unified Germany.


The following is a complete list of his separately published works, those which he published in common with his brother being marked with a star. For a list of his essays in periodicals, etc., see vol. V of his Kleinere Schriften, from which the present list is taken. His life is best studied in his own Selbstbiographie, in vol. I of the Kleinere Schriften. There is also a brief memoir by K. Gdeke in Göttinger Professoren (Gotha (Perthes), 1872).

  • Über den altdeutschen Meistergesang (Göttingen, 1811)
  • Kinder und Hausmärchen (Berlin, 1812–1815) (many editions)
  • Das Lied von Hildebrand und des Weissenbrunner Gehet (Kassel, 1812)
  • Altdeutsche Wälder (Frankfurt: Kassel, 1813–1816, 3 vols.)
  • Der arme Heinrich von Hartmann von der Aue (Berlin: 1815)
  • Irmenstrasse und Irmensäule (Vienna: 1815)
  • Die Lieder der alten Edda (Berlin: 1815)
  • Silva de romances viejos (Vienna: 1815)
  • Deutsche Sagen (Berlin: 1816–1818, 2nd ed., Berlin: 1865–1866)
  • Deutsche Grammatik (Göttingen: [1819], 2nd ed., Göttingen: 1822–1840) (reprinted Berlin: 1870 by Wilhelm Scherer)
  • Wuk Stephanowitsch' Kleine serbische Grammatik, verdeutscht mit einer Vorrede (Leipzig and Berlin: 1824)
  • Zur Recension der deutschen Grammatik (Kassel, 1826)
  • Irische Elfenmärchen, aus dem Englischen (Leipzig: 1826)
  • Deutsche Rechtsaltertumer (Göttingen: 1828, 2nd ed., 1854)
  • Hymnorum veteris ecclesiae XXVI. inter pretatio theodisca (Göttingen: 1830)
  • Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin: 1834)
  • Deutsche Mythologie (Göttingen: 1835, 3rd ed., 1854, 2 vols.)
  • Taciti Germania edidit (Göttingen: 1835)
  • Über meine Entlassung (Basel: 1838)
  • (together with Schmeller) Lateinische Gedichte des X. und XI. Jahrhunderts (Göttingen: 1838)
  • Sendschreiben an Karl Lachmann über Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin: 1840)
  • Weisti:imer, Th. i. (Göttingen: 1840) (continued, partly by others, in 5 parts, 1840–1869)
  • Andreas und Elene (Kassel, 1840)
  • Frau Aventure (Berlin: 1842)
  • Geschichte der deutschen Sprache (Leipzig: 1848, 3rd ed., 1868, 2 vols.)
  • Des Wort des Besitzes (Berlin: 1850)
  • Deutsches Wörterbuch, Bd. i. (Leipzig: 1854)
  • Rede auf Wilhelm Grimm und Rede über das Alter (Berlin: 1868, 3rd ad., 1865)
  • Kleinere Schriften (Berlin: 1864–1870, vols.).


  1. Grimm and the Brothers Grimm.Retrieved September 19, 2007.
  2. Ibid.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hughes, Glyn Tegai, Romantic German Literature. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1979. ISBN 0841905215
  • McGlathery, James M., ed., The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988. ISBN 9780252061912
  • Zipes, Jack, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. New York: Routledge & Paul Kegan, [1988]. Palgrave MacMillan, 2002. ISBN 9780312293802
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


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