6. Rapunzel

In which we meet the brothers Grimm - or one of them, at least

Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, The Big, Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, The Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: all have one thing in common. Apart from being slightly macabre stories that seem to get more disturbing as one gets older, that is. These tales were first brought together in one collection by the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm.

We shall leave Wilhelm in the company of the fairy tale characters, but we shall be getting more fully acquainted with Jacob Grimm. He was an interesting man and was instrumental in uncovering a major part of The Language Secret.

We learned two lessons in chapters 1 and 2 from Dr Seuss and James Murray. Firstly, that we can make a few words go a long way if we choose them with care; secondly, that we can spend a lifetime and still never know all the words in our own language, let alone one we are learning.

Some words obviously occur more frequently than others. Many of these in English are monosyllabic, everyday words. And they are almost all Germanic.

The German equivalents of old, young, green, blue, man, book are: alt, jung, grün, blau, Mann, Buch. The French ones would be: vieux, jeune, vert, bleu, homme, livre. We see straight away that the basic vocabulary of German is closer to English. It follows that learning such words in that language will be easier than in French, Latin or Greek, because the family connections with English are tighter.

The languages of the Germanic family are spoken over a huge area of the globe. English is in the same branch of the family as German and Dutch, the next two most widely-spoken languages in the group. Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, is also a close relative. It is a daughter language of Dutch, having evolved from the language of the Boers. Over 90% of the vocabulary of Afrikaans is of Dutch origin.

Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic are all in the Germanic family too, though there are fewer speakers of these languages.

This is all wonderful news, because by using our family connections, we can gain a working knowledge of all our sister tongues relatively quickly.

And there is more good cheer for us. And that is where we shall get better acquainted with Jacob Grimm.

There is, inevitably, some bad news. But that can wait until later.



  • Vandals and Goths: The origins of English and the practical application of having this knowledge

  • Language purity and terrifyingly long words

  • Grimm’s Law: Sound shifts and the practical consequences for learning multiple languages

  • Germanic pronunciation

  • Germanic grammar

  • A tool for remembering gender: word colour

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.