The brothers Jakob Karl (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Karl (1786-1859) Grimm were German scholars, known for their "Fairy Tales" and for their work in comparative linguistics, which included the formulation of "Grimm's law."
The romantic movement in Germany awakened the Germans' interest in the past of their own country, especially its cultural origins, early language, and folklore. Although some work in the rediscovery and edition of medieval German literature had already been undertaken in the 18th century, it was the first generation of romantic poets and theorists about the beginning of the next century, especially Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, and the Schlegel brothers, who first focused national attention on the origins of German culture and literature. While most of the poets viewed medieval literature chiefly as an inspiration for their own writings, others turned their attention to the methodical investigation of the past. The Grimm brothers were the most important of these romantic historians of early medieval language and folklore.
Jakob Grimm was born on Jan. 4, 1785, in Hanau. His brother, Wilhelm, was born on February 24 of the following year. As small children, they were inseparable and, aside from a brief period of living apart, they were to remain together for the rest of their lives. Their eventempered dispositions assured cooperation on all the projects they undertook together. The main difference in their personalities seems to be that Jakob, the more robust of the two, had more taste for grueling research work, and it was he who worked out most of their grammatical and linguistic theories. Wilhelm was physically weaker but had a somewhat warmer temperament and more taste for music and literature. His literary talent was responsible for the pleasant style of their collection of fairy tales.
The brothers first attended school in Kassel, then began legal studies at the University of Marburg. While there, however, the inspiration of Friedrich von Savigny awakened in them an interest in past cultures. In 1808 Jakob was named court librarian to the King of Westphalia in Wilhelmshöhe, and in 1816 he became librarian in Kassel, where Wilhelm had been employed since 1814. They were to remain there until 1830, when they obtained positions at the University of Göttingen.
For some years the brothers had been in contact with the romantic poets Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, who in Heidelberg were preparing a collection of German folk songs. Following their own interests in folklore and legends, the brothers brought out their first collection of tales, Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Tales of Children and the Home), in 1812. These tales were collected by recording stories told by peasants and villagers. Wilhelm put them into literary form and gave them a pleasant, childlike style. The brothers added many scholarly footnotes on the tales' sources and analogs.
In addition, the Grimms worked on editing remnants of other folklore and primitive literature. Between 1816 and 1818 they published two volumes of Deutsche Sagen (German Legends), and about the same time they published a volume of studies in early literary history, Altdeutsche Wälder (Old German Forests).
In later years their interest in older literature led the Grimm brothers increasingly to a study of older languages and their relationship to modern German. Jakob, especially, began to specialize in the history and structure of the German language. The first edition of his Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar) was published in 1819. Later editions show increasing development of a scientific method in linguistics.
The brothers, and especially Jakob, were also working to codify the relationship between similar words of related languages, such as English apple and German Apfel. Their formulation of the rules for such relationships became known as "Grimm's law." It was later elaborated to account for all word relationships in the Indo-European group of languages. The Grimm brothers were not the first to take note of such similarities, but they can be credited with amassing the bulk of linguistic data and working out the details of the rules.
In 1830 the brothers moved to the University of Göttingen, where Jakob was named professor and head librarian and Wilhelm was appointed assistant librarian. As professor, Jakob held lectures on linguistics and cultural history. Wilhelm also attained the rank of professor in 1835. Both were dismissed in 1835 for political reasons:they had joined in signing a protest against the King's decision to abolish the Hanover constitution. They first moved back to Kassel but later obtained professorships at Berlin, where they were to remain until their deaths.
Their last years were spent in preparing the definitive dictionary of the German language, tracing the etymological derivation of every word. The first volume, published in 1854, has 1, 824 pages and gets only as far as the word Biermolke. Four pages are devoted to the letter A alone, which is termed "the most noble and primeval of all sounds." The Grimms' dictionary was carried on by generations of scholars after the brothers' deaths, and it was finished in 1960. Its completed form consists of 16 weighty volumes.
Wilhelm died in Berlin on Dec. 16, 1859. Jakob continued the work on the dictionary and related projects until his death in Berlin on Sept. 20, 1863.
A good biographical study of the Grimm brothers is Murray B. Peppard, Paths through the Forest:A Biography of the Brothers Grimm (1971). Informative brief discussions of their lives and works can be found in more general studies of the German romantic movement. Perhaps the best is Ralph Tymms, German Romantic Literature (1955), which discusses the romantics' attitudes toward folklore and legends. A brief treatment of the brothers, chiefly as editors of the Tales, is also in L. A. Willoughby, The Romantic Movement in Germany (1966). Further helpful discussions, with literary background material, may be found in Oskar Walzel, German Romanticism (trans. 1932).