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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Doctor Who & Yes Minister on the Brothers Grimm & Consonantal Shift

"Yes Minister" (and its sequel, "Yes, Prime Minister")
have proven enormously popular.
The TV series was broadcast between 1980-8,
and adapted for radio, the stage, and into books.
A new series of "Yes, Prime Minister,"
starring actors from the stage play,
was broadcast last year in Britain.

Part 5 in a series on the Doctor Who story "State Of Decay" by Terrance Dicks

According to Terrance Dicks, new Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead was fascinated by the similarity of names between the original ship's officers of the Earth spaceship Hydrax, and those of the current Lords of the Tower, or The Three Who Rule. This proved one of many points of contention between the two men as they sought to prepare "State Of Decay" for filming. Bidmead argued that he wanted two pages of dialogue explaining Grimm's Law, and the the Law of Consonant Shift. Terrance Dicks, who had written many Doctor Who scripts, shepherded scripts through the production process under producer Barry Letts in previous years, and novelized many of the Doctor's adventures, had a simple comeback: "No Chris. It's not interesting. It's boring."

Made curious by this particular argument, I looked up the Brothers Grimm and the Law of Consonant Shift. The Grimm brothers worked on a project called Deutsches Worterbuch, which Wikipedia proclaims is the largest and most comprehensive dictionary of the German language in existence. They did not finish it during their lives, but such was the depth and value of their contributions that successive scholars completed their work. (In this way, it became to Germany what Samuel Johnson's dictionary was to England). As best I understand it, part of the Grimm brothers' work involved tracking how German had evolved over time, and in all the various countries and regions in which the language was spoken. Aside from regional differences, the language was further broken into Low and High German, the latter of which evolved into the modern German language. As to the High German Consonant Shift, the work of the Grimm Brothers apparently demonstrates how Old High German changed over time, and makes a nice contrast with Old English, which didn't*.

Have I lost you yet? Don't worry. If I haven't, I soon will. The Wikipedia article on High German Consonant Shift discusses how voiceless plosives turned into fricatives, the same sounds became affricates, and the three voiced plosives became voiceless. If any of that makes your head spin, you're not alone. It reminds me of discussions that periodically take place between Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley, two head civil servants, in the British comedy series "Yes Minister" and its sequel "Yes, Prime Minister." The two civil servants were trained in classics at Oxford, while the politician they serve, Jim Hacker, attended the London School of Economics. So occasionally, Bernard or Sir Humphrey will divert from discussing a practical solution to a problem to discussing the language in which the contentious issue is stated. The two civil servants soon find themselves fascinated by how words and phrases were translated from Greek or Latin into English (and comparing the merits of each language), while Hacker looks on with a glazed look in his eyes. When the two men compliment each other on their erudite conclusions, Hacker asks them what they've just decided, and how it relates to the problem at hand. Sometimes they can remember the issue they were discussing before they got carried away with their interesting diversion, sometimes not. But the viewer is left in little doubt that the two civil servants have just demonstrated the writers' contention that the civil service is more concerned with the minutia of bureaucracy, whereas politicians are the ones concerned with reaching practical conclusions to contemporary problems in English society.

So who was right in this instance, Christopher H Bidmead or Terrance Dicks? What do you think? Might a thorough discussion of how languages evolve have enhanced viewers' appreciation for "State Of Decay"? Personally, I suspect it depends upon how the discussion was framed. While I like the short discussion between the Doctor and Romana, I'm guessing that a more in-depth dialogue on how languages change over time wouldn't have driven the story forward. Most likely, it would have caused viewers to scratch their heads like the right honorable Jim Hacker, rather than provoking elation as it does in Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Wooley. Still, I agree with Bidmead: it's a fascinating topic, and would never call it boring. Difficult to follow: certainly. Sleep inducing: probably. But definitely not boring.

But then, I majored in Business Administration in college.

Dragon Dave

*My father-in-law really should have written this article, as he grew up speaking and writing German as his first language. As for me, I took Spanish as a foreign language, and know enough words to appear a complete idiot, should I ever try to use them in public. Estoy no muy bueno con espanol. Comprende amigos?


  1. If I'd thought I could do Grimms Law in 3 pages while still driving the story forward, I might have done so. But I didn't, so I didn't. The story's apocryphal. ChB

    1. As you may have guessed, "State of Decay" is one of my favorite all-time Doctor Who stories, and you played a large role in making it the great story it is. Thanks also for your comment; I feel honored by your response.