Germanic languages

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The Germanic languages are a group of related languages that constitute a branch of theIndo-European (IE) language family. The common ancestor of all the languages in this branch is Proto-Germanic, 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 the Germanic peoples moving south fromnorthern Europe in the second century BC, to settle in northern central Europe.

The most widely spoken Germanic languages are English and German, with approximately 309–400 million[1][2] and over 100 million[3] native speakers respectively. The group includes other major languages, such as Dutch with 23 million[4] and Afrikaans with over 6 million native speakers;[5] and the North Germanic languages including Norwegian, Danish,Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese with a combined total of about 20 million speakers.[6] TheSIL Ethnologue lists 53 different Germanic languages.


Germanic languages possess several unique features, such as the following:

  1. The leveling of the Indo-European verbal system of tense and aspect into the present tense and the past tense (also called the preterite)
  2. 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
  3. 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 inOld English, where adjectives were inflected differently depending on the type of determiner they were preceded by)
  4. The consonant shift known as Grimm's Law (which continued in German in a second shift known as the High German consonant shift)
  5. Some words with etymologies that are difficult to link to other Indo-European families, but variants appear in almost all Germanic languages; see Germanic substrate hypothesis
  6. The sound change known as Verner's Law, which left a trace of Indo-European accent variations in voicing variations in fricatives
  7. The shifting of word stress onto word stems and later on 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 is shared by all modern Germanic languages except modern English (which nevertheless appears to have had V2 earlier in its history) which has more or less replaced the structure with fixed Subject Verb Object word order.


The earliest evidence of Germanic languages comes from names recorded in the first century by Tacitus (especially from his work Germania), but the earliest Germanic writing occurs in a single instance in the second century BC on the Negau helmet.[7] From roughly the second century AD, certain speakers of early Germanic varieties developed the Elder Futhark, 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 alphabetdeveloped by Bishop Ulfilas for his translation of the Bible in the fourth century.[8] Later, Christian priests and monks who spoke and readLatin 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  (Eszett), IJ, , , , , , , , Ȝ, and the Latinized runes  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 Stterlin was used for German handwriting.


The expansion of the Germanic tribes 750 BC – AD 1 (after the Penguin Atlas of World History 1988):      Settlements before 750 BC      New settlements by 500 BC      New settlements by 250 BC      New settlements by AD 1

All Germanic languages are thought to be descended from a hypothetical Proto-Germanic, united by subjection to the sound shifts of Grimm's law and Verner's law. These probably took place during thePre-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 sixth century Lombardic language for instance, may be a variety originally either Northern or Eastern, before being assimilated by West Germanic as the Lombards settled at the Elbe. The Western group would have formed in the late Jastorf culture, the Eastern group may be derived from the first century variety of Gotland (see Old Gutnish), leaving southern Sweden as the original location of the Northern group. The earliest coherent Germanic text preserved is the fourth century Gothictranslation of the New Testament by Ulfilas. Early testimonies of West Germanic are in Old Dutch or Old Frankish (fifth century), Old High German (scattered words and sentences sixth century, coherent texts ninth century) and Old English (coherent texts tenth 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 eighth and ninth centuries (Eggjum stone, Rk stone), longer texts in the Latin alphabet survive from the twelfth century (slendingabk), and some skaldic poetry held to date back to as early as the ninth century.

West Germanic languages     Dutch (Low Franconian, West Germanic)     Low German (West Germanic)     Central German (High German, West Germanic)     Upper German (High German, West Germanic)     English (Anglo-Frisian, West Germanic)     Frisian (Anglo-Frisian, West Germanic)North Germanic languages     East Scandinavian     West Scandinavian     Line dividing the North and West Germanic languages

By about the tenth 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 twelfth 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 seventh century, with only Crimean Gothiclingering on until the eighteenth 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 adjacent varieties 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.

Iron Age
500 BC–AD 200
East Germanic West Germanic North Germanic
Irminonic Ingvaeonic Istvaeonic
Primitive High German Primitive Saxon Anglo-Frisian Primitive Frankish
Migration Period
AD 200–700
Gothic, Vandalic,Burgundian Old High German,Lombardic1 Old Saxon Old Frisian Old English Old Frankish Proto-Norse
Early Middle Ages
  Old Dutch Runic Old West Norse Runic Old East Norse
Middle Ages
  Middle High German Middle Low German Early Middle English Middle Dutch Old Icelandic Old Norwegian6 Early OldDanish Early Old Swedish Early Old Gutnish
Late Middle Ages2
  Early New High German Late Middle English Early Scots3 Late Old Icelandic OldFaroese OldNorn Middle Norwegian Late OldDanish Late Old Swedish Late Old Gutnish
Early Modern Age
Crimean Gothic Middle Frisian Early Modern English Middle Scots Early Modern Dutch Icelandic Faroese Norn Norwegian Danish Swedish Gutnish
Modern Age
1700 to present
all extinct High German varieties Low Saxon varieties Frisian varieties English varieties Modern Scotsvarieties Dutch varieties extinct4 extinct5
  • ^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[9]. McClure gives Northumbrian Old English[10]. 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"[11] and "A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue"[12].
  • ^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.


Germanic languages

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, see also German dialects)
      • Central German
        • East Central German
        • West Central German
          • Luxembourgish
          • Pennsylvania German (spoken by the Amish and other groups in southeastern Pennsylvania)
      • Upper German
        • Alemannic German
        • Austro-Bavarian German
          • Mcheno language
          • Cimbrian language
          • Hutterite German
      • Yiddish
    • Low Franconian
      • Dutch (see Dutch dialects)
      • Afrikaans (separate standard language)
    • Low German
      • West Low German
      • East Low German
        • Plautdietsch
    • Anglo-Frisian
      • Frisian group
      • English group
        • English (see English dialects)
        • Lowland Scots
        • Yola (extinct)
  • North Germanic
    • West Scandinavian
      • Norwegian (genealogically Western branch, but heavy influence from Eastern branch)
      • Icelandic
      • Faroese
      • Norn (extinct)
    • East Scandinavian
      • Danish
      • Swedish
    • Gutnish

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 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")[13]
  • The conversion of /ē1/ into /ā/ (vs. Gothic /ē/)[14]
  • The raising of final /ō/ to /u/ (Gothic lowers it to /a/)
  • The simplification of /ngw/ to /ng/
  • The development of an intensified demonstrative ending in /s/ (reflected in English "this" compared to "the")
  • Probably, the loss of dual and passive inflections in verbs (this type of loss is cross-linguistically common and thus may represent independent innovations)

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

The following innovations are common to the West Germanic languages:

  • Loss of final /z/
  • West Germanic gemination (gemination of consonants, except r, before /j/ in short-stemmed words)
  • 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 *mun "mouth" (cf. Old High German mund) into *mū (cf. Old English).
  • 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 byterminal 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  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

Vocabulary comparison

Several of the terms in the table below have had semantic drift. For example, the form Sterben and other terms for die are cognates with the English word starve. There is also at least one example of a common borrowing from a non-Germanic source (ounce and its cognates fromLatin).

English Scots West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Dutch(Limburgish) Low German(North Saxon) Low German(Groningen) Middle German(Luxemburgish) German Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokml) Norwegian (Nynorsk)
apple aiple apel appel appel appel Appel Abbel Apel Apfel aplus epli epli[15] pple ble eple eple
board buird board bord bord brdj/telleur Boord Bred Briet Brett[16] bard bor bor bord bord bord bord
beech beech boeke beuk beuk beuk Boeoek / Bk Beukenboom Bich Buche bōka[17]/-bagms beyki bk(artr) bok bg bk bok / bk
book beuk boek boek boek book Book Bouk Buch Buch bōka bk bk bok bog bok bok
breast breest boarst bors borst boors Bost Brst Broscht Brust brusts brjst brst / bringa brst bryst bryst bryst
brown broun brn bruin bruin broen bruun broen brong braun bruns brnn brnur brun brun brun brun
day day dei dag dag daag Dag Dag Do Tag dags dagur dagur dag dag dag dag
dead deid dea dood dood doed doot dood dout tot daus dauur deyur dd dd dd daud
die (starve) dee stjerre sterf sterven strve starven / den staarven stierwen sterben diwan deyja doyggja d d d dy / starva
enough eneuch gench genoeg genoeg geng noog genog genuch genug ganōhs ng ng/ngmiki nog nok nok nok
finger finger finger vinger vinger veenger Finger Vinger Fanger Finger figgrs fingur fingur finger finger finger finger
give gie jaan gee geven geve geven geven ginn geben giban gefa geva ge / giva give gi gje(va)
glass gless gls glas glas glaas Glas Glas Glas Glas - glas glas glas glas glass glas
gold gowd goud goud goud goud / gldj Gold Gold - Gold gul gull gull guld / gull guld gull gull
good guid gd goed goed good goot goud gutt gut gō(is) g(ur) / gott g(ur) / gott god god god god
hand haund hn hand hand hand Hand Haand Hand Hand handus hnd hond hand hnd hnd hand
head heid holle hoof[18] / kop[19] hoofd / kop[19] kop Kopp[19] Heufd / Kop[19] Kopp Haupt / Kopf[19] hubi hfu hvd / hvur huvud hoved hode hovud
high heich heech hoog hoog hoeg hoog hoog / hch hich hoch huh hr hg / ur hg hj hy / hg hg
home hame hiem heim[20] / tuis[21] heim[20]/ thuis[21] thoes Tohuus Thoes[21] Heem Heim himō heim heim hem hjem hjem / heim heim
hook / crook heuk hoek haak hoek haok Haak Hoak Krop / Kramp Haken kramppa haki / krkur krkur / ongul hake / krok hage / krog hake / krok hake / krok[22]
house hoose hs huis huis hoes Huus Hoes Haus Haus hūs hs hs hus hus hus hus
many mony mannich / mennich menige menig minnig Mennig nde - Manch manags margir mangir / ngvir mnga mange mange mange
moon muin moanne maan maan maon Maan Moan Mound Mond mēna mni / tungl mni mne mne mne mne
night nicht nacht nag nacht nach Nach / Nacht Nacht Nuecht Nacht ntt ntt ntt natt nat natt natt
no (nay) nae nee nee nee(n) nei nee nee / nai nee(n) nee / nein / n nei nei nej / n nej nei nei
old (but: elder, eldest) auld ld oud oud aajt (old) / gammel (decayed) oolt / gammelig old / olleg aalt alt sineigs gamall (but: eldri, elstur) / aldinn gamal (but: eldri, elstur) gammal (but: ldre, ldst) gammel (but: ldre, ldst) gammel (but: eldre, eldst) gam(m)al (but: eldre, eldst)
one ane ien een een ein een aine een eins ins einn ein en en en ein
ounce unce ns ons ons ns Ons Onze - Unze unkja nsa nsa uns unse unse unse / unsa
snow snaw snie sneeu sneeuw sjnie Snee Snij / Snj Schlue Schnee sniws snjr kavi / snjgvur sn sne sn sn
stone stane stien steen steen stein Steen Stain Steen Stein stins steinn steinur sten sten stein stein
that that dat daardie / dit dat / die dat dat / dit dat / dij dat das ata a ta det det det det
two / twain twa twa twee twee twie twee twij / twje zoo / zwou / zwin zwei/zwo twi tveir / tvr / tv tveir / tvey / tvr / tv tv to to to[23]
who wha wa wie wie wee wokeen wel wien wer Ƕas / hwas hver hvr vem hvem hvem kven
worm wirm wjirm wurm worm weurm Worm Wrm Wuerm Wurm maa makur / ormur makur / ormur mask / orm [24] orm makk / mark / orm  [24] makk/mark/orm[24]
English Scots West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Dutch(Limburgish) Low German(North Saxon) Low German(Groningen) Middle German(Luxemburgish) German Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokml) Norwegian (Nynorsk)


  1. Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod


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