04 October 2011



The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European (IE) language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is Proto-Germanic (also known as Common Germanic), which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe.

 Proto-Germanic, along with all of its descendants, is characterized by a number of unique linguistic features, most famously the consonant change known as Grimm's law. Early varieties of Germanic enter history with theGermanic peoples moving south from northern Europe in the 2nd century BC, to settle in north-central Europe.

The most widely spoken Germanic languages are English and German, with approximately 300–400 million and over 100 million native speakers respectively. The group includes other major languages, such as Dutch with 23 million and Afrikaans with over 6 million native speakers; and the North Germanic languages including Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese with a combined total of about 20 million speakers. The SIL Ethnologue lists 53 different Germanic languages. 

Germanic languages possess several unique features, such as the following:
*The leveling of the Indo-European verbal system of tense and aspect into the present tense     and the past tense (also called the preterite) 

*A large class of verbs that use a dental suffix (/d/ or /t/) instead of vowel alternation (Indo-European ablaut) to indicate past tense; these are called the Germanic weak verbs; the remaining verbs with vowel ablaut are the Germanic strong verbs 
*The use of so-called strong and weak adjectives: different sets of inflectional endings for adjectives depending on the definiteness of the noun phrase(modern English adjectives do not inflect at all, except for the comparative and superlative; this was not the case in Old English, where adjectives were inflected differently depending on the type of their preceding determiner) 
*The consonant shift known as Grimm's Law (which continued in German in a second shift known as the High German consonant shift)
Some words with etymologies that are difficult to link to other Indo-European families but with variants that appear in almost all Germanic languages; see Germanic substrate hypothesis
*The sound change known as Verner's Law, which left a trace of Indo-European accent variations in voicing variations in fricatives 
*The shifting of word stress onto word stems and later onto the first syllable of the word (though English has an irregular stress, native words always have a fixed stress regardless of what is added to them)

Germanic languages differ from each other to a greater degree than do some other language families such as the Romance or Slavic languages. Roughly speaking, Germanic languages differ in how conservative or how progressive each language is with respect to an overall trend toward analyticity. 

Some, such as Icelandic, and to a lesser extent, German, have preserved much of the complex inflectional morphology inherited from the Proto-Indo-European language. Others, such as English, Swedish, and Afrikaans, have moved toward a largely analytic type. 

Another characteristic of Germanic languages is verb second (V2) word order, which is quite uncommon cross-linguistically. This feature was not inherited from Proto-Germanic, but was probably already present in latent form, and may have begun with auxiliary verbs that were treated as sentence clitics, which were generally placed second.

The later parallel innovation of V2 word order in the individual languages may have been a result of the loss of noun declension, which tended to 'fix' word order into its most common form. It is now shared by all modern Germanic languages except modern English which has more or less replaced the earlier V2 structure with fixed Subject–verb–object word order.

The earliest evidence of Germanic languages comes from names recorded in the 1st century by Tacitus (especially from his work Germania), but the earliest Germanic writing occurs in a single instance in the 2nd century BC on the Negau helmet.

From roughly the 2nd century AD, certain speakers of early Germanic varieties developed the Elder Futhark ('fuþark' & 'fuþorc' in OE), an early form of the Runic alphabet. Early runic inscriptions also are largely limited to personal names, and difficult to interpret.

The Gothic language was written in the Gothic alphabet developed by Bishop Ulfilas for his translation of the Bible in the 4th century. Later, Christian priests and monks who spoke and read Latin in addition to their native Germanic varieties began writing the Germanic languages with slightly modified Latin letters. 

However, throughout the Viking Age, Runic alphabets remained in common use in Scandinavia. In addition to the standard Latin alphabet, many Germanic languages use a variety of accent marks and extra letters, including umlauts, the ß (Eszett), IJ, Ø, Æ, Å, Ä,Ü, Ö, Ð, Ȝ, and the Latinized runes Þ and Ƿ. In print, German used to be prevalently set in blackletter typefaces (e.g. fraktur or schwabacher) up until the 1940s (though see Antiqua–Fraktur dispute), whereas Kurrent and since the early 20th century Sütterlin was used for German handwriting.

All Germanic languages are thought to be descended from a hypothetical Proto-Germanic, united by subjection to the sound shifts of Grimm's law andVerner's law. These probably took place during the Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe from ca. 500 BC, but other common innovations separating Germanic from Proto-Indo European suggest a common history of pre-Proto-Germanic speakers throughout the Nordic Bronze Age.

From the time of their earliest attestation, the Germanic varieties are divided into three groups: West, East, and North Germanic. Their exact relation is difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, and they remained mutually intelligible throughout the Migration period, so that some individual varieties are difficult to classify.

The 6th-century Lombardic language, for instance, may be a variety originally either Northern or Eastern, before being assimilated by West Germanic as theLombards settled at the Elbe. The Western group would have formed in the late Jastorf culture, the Eastern group may be derived from the 1st-century variety ofGotland (see Old Gutnish), leaving southern Sweden as the original location of the Northern group. 

The earliest coherent Germanic text preserved is the 4th century Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas. Early testimonies of West Germanic are in Old Frankish (5th century), Old High German (scattered words and sentences 6th century, coherent texts 9th century) and Old English (coherent texts 10th century). North Germanic is only attested in scattered runic inscriptions, as Proto-Norse, until it evolves into Old Norse by about 800.

Longer runic inscriptions survive from the 8th and 9th centuries (Eggjum stone, Rök stone), longer texts in the Latin alphabet survive from the 12th century (Íslendingabók), and some skaldic poetry held to date back to as early as the 9th century.

By about the 10th century, the varieties had diverged enough to make inter-comprehensibility difficult. The linguistic contact of the Viking settlers of the Danelawwith the Anglo-Saxons left traces in the English language, and is suspected to have facilitated the collapse of Old English grammar that resulted in Middle English from the 12th century.

The East Germanic languages were marginalized from the end of the Migration period. The Burgundians, Goths, and Vandals became linguistically assimilated by their respective neighbors by about the 7th century, with only Crimean Gothic lingering on until the 18th century.

During the early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Middle English on one hand, and by the High German consonant shift on the continent on the other, resulting in Upper German and Low Saxon, with graded intermediate Central German varieties.

By Early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South to Northern Low Saxon in the North and, although both extremes are considered German, they are hardly mutually intelligible. 

The southernmost varieties had completed the second sound shift, while the northern varieties remained unaffected by the consonant shift. The North Germanic languages, on the other hand, remained more unified, with the peninsular languages largely retaining mutual intelligibility into modern times.

Note that divisions between and among subfamilies of Germanic are rarely precisely defined; most form continuous clines, with adjacentvarieties being mutually intelligible and more separated ones not.

The table below shows the succession of the significant historical stages of each language (vertically), and their approximate groupings insubfamilies (horizontally). Horizontal sequence within each group does not imply a measure of greater or lesser similarity. 

The table below shows the succession of the significant historical stages of each language (vertically), and their approximate groupings insubfamilies (horizontally). Horizontal sequence within each group does not imply a measure of greater or lesser similarity.

  • Contemporary

  • All living Germanic languages belong either to the West Germanic or to the North Germanic branch. The West Germanic group is the larger by far, further subdivided into Anglo-Frisian on one hand, and Continental West Germanic on the other. Anglo-Frisian notably includes English and all its variants, while Continental West Germanic includes German (standard register and dialects) as well as Dutch (standard register and dialects).

    • West Germanic languages
      • High German languages (includes Standard German and its dialects)
        • Central German
          • East Central German
          • West Central German
            • Luxembourgish
            • Pennsylvania German (spoken by the Amish and other groups in southeastern Pennsylvania)
        • Upper German
          • High Franconian
          • Alemannic German
          • Austro-Bavarian German
            • Mócheno language
            • Cimbrian language
            • Hutterite German
        • Yiddish
      • Low Franconian
        • Dutch and its dialects: By K.S.Doig (the Netherlands & Belgian Flanders is one of the most complicated dialectal/language areas on earth, especially for such a small, flat area. The national standard language & most Netherlandic dialects is Hollandic, based on Frankish, but with a slight admixture with the closely-related WGmc Frisian. In the East, some of the Netherlandic-Saxon dialects verge on being pure Saxon (another closely related WGmc language), but most dialects are varying mixtures of Hollandic i.e., Dutch/Frankish & Saxon, some are more Hollandic/Dutch, while others are more Saxon, by the way is one of the Low-German dialects. There is also "pure" Frisian, an Ingvaeonic language, as are English, Saxon & Scots. Mostly spoken in the North in certain coastal enclaves in the Netherlands, Belgium and even Northern France. In the Northeast, there are hybrid dialects of Saxon & Frisian, called "Saxo-Frisian". It is all very complicated as even the purist of the various Netherlandic tongues; Hollandic (Dutch), Saxon (Ingvaeonic Low-German) & Frisian (Ingvaeonic or North-Sea Gmc. Frisian by the way has many dialect & "dialect-islands" strewn sporadically from N. France, Belgium, the core-area in Vriesland, then into a few North-Sea Islands & coast enclaves in Germany, to the Danish Island of Fanø & environs in the extreme SW of Jutland. Even a person speaking the purest form of Netherlandic Dutch/Hollandic, Saxon and Frisian would still be able to communicate. That makes sorting out & classifying dialects even more difficult. By K.Doig
        • Let's see what Encyclopædia Britannica has to say about it, here´s a snippet.  
        • "As a written language, Dutch is quite uniform; it differs in the Netherlands and Belgium no more than written English does in the United States and Great Britain. As a spoken language, however, it exists in far more varieties than does the English of North America. At one extreme is Standard Dutch (Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands, ‘General Cultured Netherlandic’), which is used for public and official purposes and is the language of instruction in schools and universities. It is everywhere quite uniform, though speakers usually show by their accents the general area from which they come. At the other extreme are the local dialects, used among family and friends and with others from the same region." Encyclopædia Britannica
        • Afrikaans (a separate standard language)
      • Low-German
        • West Low-German
        • East Low-German
          • Plautdietsch (Mennonite Low German)
      • Anglo-Frisian
        • Frisian group
        • English group
          • English and its dialects
          • Lowland-Scots (yes, Scots is a separate language, based on north-OE)
          • Yola (extinct)
    • North-Germanic (NGmc, a.k.a., Scandinavian, Norse, Nordic.)
      • West Scandinavian
        • Norwegian (of Western branch origin, but heavily influenced by the Eastern branch)
        • Icelandic (I'd say the old East-West grouping is only useful for the ancient & medieval forms of NGmc. Today, I'd make the divide, "Mainland NGmc", Swedish, Norwegian & Danish and "Insular NGmc", Icelandic & Faroese. Especially Icelandic but Faroese too have retained virtually all the ancient NGmc morphology & grammar while keeping their word-hoard (lexicon) as pure & native as possible, Icelandic has done a better job of this than Faroese. While "Mainland-Scandinavian" (MS) has gone more the way of English, losing much of it's complex Gmc grammar/morphology, but not nearly to the extent of English or Afrikaans. MS has also adopted all the usual international words, like (Swedish as the example), telefon, radio, TV, universitet, electricitet, national, , while Icelandic either uses the Old-Norse, for new, modern concepts or coins new terms, usually a compound word. Here are the same words in Icelandic followed by the literal meaning of the old word or compound in parentheses(); telefon-sími (wire), radio- útvarp (outwarp, warp, from OE weorpan, ON, varpa HG werfen, 'cast', like 'broadcast'), TV-sjónvarp (sightwarp), universitet- háskoli (highschool), electricitet- rafmagn(raf means "ember", magn means power, "emberpower") national-þjóð- or þjóða (Old-Gmc word for nation, in OE, 'þéod', same word-reflex as 'deutsch' & has cognates in many IE tongues) by K. Doig
        • Faroese
        • Greenlandic Norse (extinct)
        • Norn (extinct)
      • East Scandinavian
        • Danish
        • Swedish
      • Gutnish (a Swedish dialect, called "gutamål", spoken on Gotland)

      • Common-linguistic features
  • Phonology

    The oldest Germanic languages all share a number of features, assumed to be inherited from Proto-Germanic. Phonologically, this includes the important sound changes known as Grimm's Law andVerner's Law, which introduced a large number of fricatives; late Proto-Indo-European (PIE) had only one, /s/.
    The main vowel developments are the merging (in most circumstances) of long and short /a/ and /o/, producing short /a/ and long /ō/. This likewise affected the diphthongs, with PIE /ai/ and /oi/ merging into /ai/, and PIE /au/ and /ou/ merging into /au/. PIE /ei/ developed into long /ī/.
     PIE long /ē/ developed into a vowel denoted as /ē1/ (often assumed to be phonetically [ǣ]), while a new, fairly uncommon long vowel /ē2/ developed in varied and not completely understood circumstances. Proto-Germanic had no front rounded vowels, although all Germanic languages except for Gothicsubsequently developed them through the process of i-umlaut.
    Proto-Germanic developed a strong stress accent on the first syllable of the root (although remnants of the original free PIE accent are visible due to Verner's Law, which was sensitive to this accent). This caused a steady erosion of vowels in unstressed syllables.

    In Proto-Germanic this had progressed only to the point that absolutely final short vowels (other than /i/ and /u/) were lost and absolutely final long vowels were shortened, but all of the early literary languages show a more advanced state of vowel loss. This ultimately resulted in some languages (e.g. modern English) in the loss of practically all vowels following the main stress, and the consequent rise of a very large number of monosyllabic words.


    The oldest Germanic languages have the typical complex inflected morphology of old Indo-European languages, with four or five noun cases; verbs marked for person, number, tense and mood; multiple noun and verb classes; 

  • few or no articles; and rather free word order. The old Germanic languages are famous for having only two tenses (present and past), with three PIE past-tense aspects (imperfect, aorist, and perfect/stative) merged into one and no new tenses (future, pluperfect, etc.) developing. There were three moods: indicative, subjunctive (developed from the PIE optative mood) and imperative.

    Gothic verbs had a number of archaic features inherited from PIE that were lost in the other Germanic languages with few traces, including dual endings, an inflected passive voice (derived from the PIE mediopassive voice), and a class of verbs with reduplication in the past tense (derived from the PIE perfect). 

    The complex tense system of modern English (e.g. In three months, the house will still be being built or If you had not acted so stupidly, we would never have been caught) is almost entirely due to subsequent developments (although paralleled in many of the other Germanic languages).Among the other innovations in Proto-Germanic (hence common to all Germanic languages) are the preterite present verbs, a special set of verbs whose present tense looks like the past tense of other verbs and which is the origin of most modal verbs in English; a past-tense ending (in the so-called "weak verbs", marked with -ed in English) that appears variously as /d/ or /t/, often assumed to be derived from the verb "to do";

  • and two separate sets of adjective endings, originally corresponding to a distinction between indefinite semantics ("a man", with a combination of PIE adjective and pronoun endings) and definite semantics ("the man", with endings derived from PIE n-stem nouns). The two sets of adjective endings were lost in English in the late Middle English period but are still preserved (as a distinction between "strong" and "weak" endings) in most other Germanic languages.

    Linguistic developments

    The subgroupings of the Germanic languages are defined by shared innovations. It is important to distinguish innovations from cases of linguistic conservatism. That is, if two languages in a family share a characteristic that is not observed in a third language, that is evidence of common ancestry of the two languages only if the characteristic is an innovation compared to the family's proto-language.
    The following innovations are common to the Northwest Germanic languages (all but Gothic):
    • The lowering of /u/ to /o/ in initial syllables before /a/ in the following syllable ("a-Umlaut", traditionally called Brechung)
    • "Labial umlaut" in unstressed medial syllables (the conversion of /a/ to /u/ and /ō/ to /ū/ before /m/, or /u/ in the following syllable)
    • The conversion of /ē1/ into /ā/ (vs. Gothic /ē/) in initial syllables
    • The raising of final /ō/ to /u/ (Gothic lowers it to /a/)
    • The monophthongisation of /ai/ and /au/ to /ǣ/ and /ō/ in non-initial syllables (however, evidence for the development of /au/ in medial syllables is lacking)
    • The development of an intensified demonstrative ending in /s/ (reflected in English "this" compared to "the")
    • The use of /ē2/ in the preterite of Class VII strong verbs in North and West Germanic, while Gothic uses reduplication (e.g. Gothic haihait; ON, OE hēt, preterite of the Gmc verb *haitan "to be called") as part of a comprehensive reformation of the Gmc Class VII from a reduplicating to a new ablaut pattern, which presumably started in verbs beginning with vowel or /h/ (a development which continues the general trend of de-reduplication in Gmc); there are forms (such as OE dial. heht instead of hēt) which retain traces of reduplication even in West and North Germanic
    The following innovations are also common to the Northwest Germanic languages, but represent areal changes:
    • Proto-Germanic /z/ > /r/ (e.g. Gothic dius; ON dȳr, OHG tior, OE dēor, "wild animal"); note that this is not present in Proto-Norse and must be ordered after West Germanic loss of final /z/
    • Germanic umlaut (when a vowel or sound to the right of a vowel causes the neighboring vowel or diphthongs to mutate, shift or umlaut, e.g., man/men is called an "umlauted plural". In PGmc it was *manz or *mannz, the plural was *manniz. The 'i' "pulled" on the preceding 'a', shifting it to an 'e'. Eventually, in English, and most other Gmc dialects today, the vowel-change was enough to denote plurality so the *-iz ending was eventually lost. K.Doig
    The following innovations are common to the West Germanic languages:
    • Loss of final /z/ (except in short monosyllables)
    • Change of voiced dental fricative /ð/ to stop /d/
    • Change of voiceless dental fricative /þ/ to stop /d/ after /l/ (except when /þ/ is word-final)
    • West Germanic gemination of consonants, except r, before /j/ in short-stemmed words (gemination of /p/, /t/, /k/ and /h/ is also observed before liquids), but not if /j/ (or a liquid) is vocalised (becomes syllabic) word-finally
    • The simplification of /ngw/ to /ng/
    • A particular type of umlaut /e-u-i/ > /i-u-i/
    • Loss of /j/ before /i/ and /w/ before /u/ in endings
    • The change of /b/ or /g/ to /w/ before nasal consonant
    • Changes to the 2nd person singular past-tense: Replacement of the past-singular stem vowel with the past-plural stem vowel, and substitution of the ending -t with -i
    • Short forms (*stān, stēn*gān, gēn) of the verbs for "stand" and "go"; but note that Crimean Gothic also has gēn
    • The development of a gerund
    The following innovations are common to the Ingvaeonic subgroup of the West Germanic languages:
    • The so-called Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law, which (e.g.) converted *munþ "mouth" (cf. Old High German mund) into *mūþ (cf. Old English mūþ).
    • The loss of the Germanic reflexive pronoun
    • The reduction of the three Germanic verbal plural forms into one form ending in 
    • The development of Class III weak verbs into a relic class consisting of four verbs (*sagjan "to say", *hugjan "to think", *habjan "to have", *libjan "to live")
    • The split of the Class II weak verb ending *-ō- into *-ō-/-ōja-
    • Development of a plural ending *-ōs in a-stem nouns (note, Gothic also has -ōs, but this is an independent development, caused by terminal devoicing of *-ōz; Old Frisian has -ar, which is thought to be a late borrowing from Danish)
    • Merger of the accusative and dative in first and second person pronouns (also shared by Old Low Franconian)
    • Possibly, the monophthongization of Germanic *ai to ē/ā (this may represent independent changes in Old Saxon and Anglo-Frisian)
    The following innovations are common to the Anglo-Frisian subgroup of the Ingvaeonic languages:
    • Raising of nasalized a, ā into o, ō
    • Anglo-Frisian brightening: Fronting of non-nasal a, ā to æ,ǣ when not followed by n or m
    • Metathesis of CrV into CVr, where C represents any consonant and V any vowel
    • Monophthongization of ai into ā

  • ^1 There are conflicting opinions on the classification of Lombardic. Contrary to its isolated position in the table above, it also has been classified as close to either Upper German or Old Saxon. See the article on the Lombardic language for more information.
    ^2 Late Middle Ages refers to the post-Black Death period. Especially for the language situation in Norway this event was important.
    ^3 From Early Northern Middle English. McClure gives Northumbrian Old English. In the Oxford Companion to the English Language (p. 894) the 'sources' of Scots are described as "the Old English of the Kingdom of Bernicia" and "the Scandinavian-influenced English of immigrants from Northern and Midland England in the 12-13c [...]." The historical stages 'Early—Middle—Modern Scots' are used, for example, in the "Concise Scots Dictionary" and "A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue".^4 The speakers of Norn were assimilated to speak the Modern Scots varieties.^5 The Gutnish language today is practically a dialect of Swedish.^6 Mainland Old Norwegian existed along a dialect continuum between West and East Old Norse.

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