Linguasphere: 52- (phylozone)
|ISO 639-5: gem|
|Geographicdistribution: Principally northern, western and central Europe, the Americas (Anglo-America, Caribbean Netherlands and Suriname), Southern Africa and Oceania|
Linguistic classification: Indo-EuropeanGermanic
Subdivisions: North GermanicWest GermanicEast Germanic (extinct)
The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family spoken natively by a population of approximately 500 million people mainly in North America, Oceania, Southern Africa, and Central, Western and Northern Europe. It is the third most spoken Indo-European subdivision, behind Italic and Indo-Iranian, and ahead of Balto-Slavic languages.
- West Germanic languages
- North Germanic languages
- Linguistic developments
- Table of outcomes
- Strong vs weak nouns and adjectives
- Vocabulary comparison
The West Germanic branch includes the three most widely spoken Germanic languages: English with approximately 360–400 million native speakers, German with over 100 million native speakers, and Dutch with 23 million native speakers. Other major West Germanic languages are Afrikaans—an offshoot of Dutch—with over 7.1 million native speakers, Low German with roughly 6.7 million native speakers (considered a separate collection of dialects; 5 million in Germany and 1.7 million in the Netherlands), Yiddish—once used by approximately 13 million Jews in pre-World War II Europe —and Scots, both with 1.5 million native speakers. Limburgish varieties have roughly 1.3 million speakers along the Dutch–Belgian–German border.
The East Germanic branch included Gothic, Burgundian, and Vandalic, all of which are now extinct. The last to die off was Crimean Gothic, spoken in the late 18th century in some isolated areas of Crimea.
The SIL Ethnologue lists 48 different living Germanic languages, of which 41 belong to the Western branch, and 6 to the Northern branch; they place Hunsrik language in neither of the categories, though it is often considered a dialect of the German language by linguists. The total number of Germanic languages throughout history is unknown, as some of them—especially East Germanic languages—disappeared during or after the Migration Period.
The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic—also known as Common Germanic—which was spoken in approximately the middle-1st millennium BC in Iron Age Scandinavia. 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 tribes moving south from Scandinavia in the 2nd century BC, to settle in the area of today's northern Germany and southern Denmark.
West Germanic languages
English is an official language of Belize, Canada, Falkland Islands, Malta, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Philippines, Jamaica, Dominica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, American Samoa, Palau, St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hong Kong, Pakistan, India, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and former British colonies in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Furthermore, it is the de facto language of the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. It is also a recognized language in Nicaragua and Malaysia.
German is an official language of Austria, Belgium, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland and has regional status in Italy, Poland, Namibia and Denmark. German also continues to be spoken as a minority language by immigrant communities in North America, South America, Central America, Mexico, and Australia. A German dialect, Pennsylvania Dutch, is still present amongst Anabaptist populations in Pennsylvania in the United States.
Dutch is an official language of Aruba, Belgium, Curaçao, the Netherlands, Sint Maarten and Suriname. The Netherlands also colonised Indonesia, but Dutch was scrapped as an official language after Indonesian independence. Dutch was until 1925 an official language in South Africa, but evolved in and was replaced by Afrikaans, a partially mutually intelligible daughter language of Dutch.
Afrikaans is one of the 11 official languages in South Africa and is a lingua franca of Namibia. It is used in other Southern African nations as well.
Luxembourgish is mainly spoken in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, though it also extends into small parts of Belgium, France and Germany.
Yiddish, once a native language of some 11 to 13 million people, is used by some Jewish communities throughout the world, mainly in North America, Europe, Israel, and other regions with Jewish populations.
Limburgish varieties are spoken in the Limburg and Rhineland regions, along the Dutch–Belgian–German border.
North Germanic languages
In addition to being the official language in Sweden, Swedish is also spoken natively by the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, who make up a large part of the population along the coast of western and southern Finland. Swedish is also one of the two official languages in Finland, along with Finnish, and the only official language in the Åland Islands.
Danish is an official language of Denmark and in its overseas territory of the Faroe Islands, and is a lingua franca and language of education in its other overseas territory of Greenland, where it was one of the official languages until 2009. Danish is also spoken natively by the Danish minority in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, where it is recognised as a minority language.
Norwegian is the official language of Norway.
Icelandic is the official language of Iceland, and is spoken by a significant minority in the Faroe Islands.
Faroese is the official language of the Faroe Islands, and is also spoken by some people in Denmark.
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 the Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe from c. 500 BC. Proto-Germanic itself was likely spoken after c. 500 BC, and Proto-Norse from the 2nd century AD and later is still quite close to reconstructed Proto-Germanic, 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.
The western group would have formed in the late Jastorf culture, and the eastern group may be derived from the 1st-century variety of Gotland, leaving southern Sweden as the original location of the northern group. The earliest period of Elder Futhark (2nd to 4th centuries) predates the division in regional script variants, and linguistically essentially still reflect the Common Germanic stage. Vimose inscriptions AD 160, are the oldest Germanic writing.
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/Old Dutch (the 5th century Bergakker inscription), Old High German (scattered words and sentences 6th century and coherent texts 9th century), and Old English (oldest texts 650, 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 dates 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 Danelaw with 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 unified until well past 1000 AD, and in fact the mainland Scandinavian languages still largely retain mutual intelligibility into modern times. The main split in these languages is between the mainland languages and the island languages to the west, especially Icelandic, which has maintained the grammar of Old Norse virtually unchanged, while the mainland languages have diverged greatly.
Germanic languages possess a number of defining features compared with other Indo-European languages.
Probably the most well-known are the following:
- The sound changes known as Grimm's Law and Verner's Law, which shifted the values of all the Indo-European stop consonants. (For example, original */t d dh/ became Germanic */θ t d/ in most cases; compare three with Latin tres, two with Latin duo, do with Sanskrit dha-.) The recognition of these two sound laws were seminal events in the understanding of the regular nature of linguistic sound change and the development of the comparative method, which forms the basis of modern historical linguistics.
- The development of a strong stress on the first syllable of the word, which triggered significant phonological reduction of all other syllables. This is responsible for the reduction of most of the basic English words into monosyllables, and the common impression of modern English and German as consonant-heavy languages. Examples are Proto-Germanic *strangiþō → strength, *aimaitijō → "ant", *haubudan → "head", *hauzijanan → "hear", *harubistaz → German Herbst "autumn, harvest", *hagatusjō → German Hexe "witch, hag".
- A change known as Germanic umlaut, which modified vowel qualities when a high front vocalic segment (/i/, /iː/ or /j/) followed in the next syllable. Generally, back vowels were fronted, and front vowels were raised. In many languages, the modified vowels are indicated with a diaeresis (e.g., ä ö ü in German, pronounced /ɛ ø y/, respectively). This change resulted in pervasive alternations in related words — still extremely prominent in modern German but present only in remnants in modern English (e.g., mouse/mice, goose/geese, broad/breadth, tell/told, old/elder, foul/filth, gold/gild).
- Large numbers of vowel qualities. English is typical in this respect, with around 11–12 vowels in most dialects (not counting diphthongs). Standard Swedish has 17 pure vowels, standard German and Dutch 14, and Danish at least 11. The Amstetten dialect of Bavarian German has 13 distinctions among long vowels alone, one of the largest such inventories in the world.
- Verb second (V2) word order, which is uncommon cross-linguistically. Exactly one noun phrase or adverbial element must precede the verb; in particular, if an adverb or prepositional phrase precedes the verb, then the subject must immediately follow the finite verb. This is no longer present in modern English except in sentences beginning with "Here is," "There is," "Here comes," "There goes," and related expressions, as well as in a few relic sentences such as "Over went the boat", "Pop Goes The Weasel", the palindrome "Able was I ere I saw Elba" or "Boom goes the dynamite", and in most if not all (if not an absolute) of the Five Ws and one H questions e.g. "What has happened here?", "Who was here today?", "Where will we go?", "When did he go to the stadium?", "Why would this happen to us now?", and "How could these things get here?", but is found in all other modern Germanic languages.
Other significant characteristics are:
- The reduction of the various tense and aspect combinations of the Indo-European verbal system into only two: 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.
- A distinction in definiteness of a noun phrase that is marked by different sets of inflectional endings for adjectives, the so-called strong and weak adjectives. A similar development happened in the Balto-Slavic languages. This distinction has been lost in modern English but was present in Old English and remains in all other Germanic languages to various degrees.
- 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.
Note that some of the above characteristics were not present in Proto-Germanic but developed later as areal features that spread from language to language:
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 Proto-Germanic (and in turn from Proto-Indo-European). Others, such as English, Swedish, and Afrikaans, have moved toward a largely analytic type.
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 following innovations are common to the West Germanic languages:
The following innovations are common to the Ingvaeonic subgroup of the West Germanic languages, which includes English, Frisian, and in a few cases Dutch and Low German, but not High German:
The following innovations are common to the Anglo-Frisian subgroup of the Ingvaeonic languages:
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 and Verner'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 Gothic subsequently 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) losing practically all vowels following the main stress and the consequent rise of a very large number of monosyllabic words.
Table of outcomes
The following table shows the main outcomes of Proto-Germanic vowels and consonants in the various older languages. For vowels, only the outcomes in stressed syllables are shown. Outcomes in unstressed syllables are quite different, vary from language to language, and depend on a number of other factors (e.g., whether the syllable was medial or final, whether the syllable was open or closed, and (in some cases) whether the preceding syllable was light or heavy).
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 primary innovations in Proto-Germanic 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).
Note that most modern Germanic languages have lost most of the inherited inflectional morphology as a result of the steady attrition of unstressed endings triggered by the strong initial stress. (Contrast, for example, the Balto-Slavic languages, which have largely kept the Indo-European pitch accent and consequently preserved much of the inherited morphology.) Icelandic and modern German best preserve the Proto–Germanic inflectional system, with four noun cases, three genders, and well-marked verbs. English is at the other extreme, with almost no remaining inflectional morphology.
The following shows a typical masculine a-stem noun, Proto-Germanic *fiskaz ("fish"), and its development in the various old literary languages:
Strong vs. weak nouns and adjectives
Originally, adjectives in Proto-Indo-European followed the same declensional classes as nouns. The most common class (the o/ā class) used a combination of o-stem endings for masculine and neuter genders and ā-stems ending for feminine genders, but other common classes (e.g. the i class and u class) used endings from a single vowel-stem declension for all genders, and various other classes existed that were based on other declensions. A quite different set of "pronominal" endings was used for pronouns, determiners, and words with related semantics (e.g., "all", "only").
An important innovation in Proto-Germanic was the development of two separate sets of adjective endings, originally corresponding to a distinction between indefinite semantics ("a man") and definite semantics ("the man"). The endings of indefinite adjectives were derived from a combination of pronominal endings with one of the common vowel-stem adjective declensions – usually the o/ā class (often termed the a/ō class in the specific context of the Germanic languages) but sometimes the i or u classes. Definite adjectives, however, had endings based on n-stem nouns. Originally both types of adjectives could be used by themselves, but already by Proto-Germanic times a pattern evolved whereby definite adjectives had to be accompanied by a determiner with definite semantics (e.g., a definite article, demonstrative pronoun, possessive pronoun, or the like), while indefinite adjectives were used in other circumstances (either accompanied by a word with indefinite semantics such as "a", "one", or "some" or unaccompanied).
In the 19th century, the two types of adjectives – indefinite and definite – were respectively termed "strong" and "weak", names which are still commonly used. These names were based on the appearance of the two sets of endings in modern German. In German, the distinctive case endings formerly present on nouns have largely disappeared, with the result that the load of distinguishing one case from another is almost entirely carried by determiners and adjectives. Furthermore, due to regular sound change, the various definite (n-stem) adjective endings coalesced to the point where only two endings (-e and -en) remain in modern German to express the sixteen possible inflectional categories of the language (masculine/feminine/neuter/plural crossed with nominative/accusative/dative/genitive – modern German merges all genders in the plural). The indefinite (a/ō-stem) adjective endings were less affected by sound change, with six endings remaining (-, -e, -es, -er, -em, -en), cleverly distributed in a way that is capable of expressing the various inflectional categories without too much ambiguity. As a result, the definite endings were thought of as too "weak" to carry inflectional meaning and in need of "strengthening" by the presence of an accompanying determiner, while the indefinite endings were viewed as "strong" enough to indicate the inflectional categories even when standing alone. (This view is enhanced by the fact that modern German largely uses weak-ending adjectives when accompanying an indefinite article, and hence the indefinite/definite distinction no longer clearly applies.) By analogy, the terms "strong" and "weak" were extended to the corresponding noun classes, with a-stem and ō-stem nouns termed "strong" and n-stem nouns termed "weak".
However, in Proto-Germanic – and still in Gothic, the most conservative Germanic language – the terms "strong" and "weak" are not clearly appropriate. For one thing, there were a large number of noun declensions. The a-stem, ō-stem, and n-stem declensions were the most common and represented targets into which the other declensions were eventually absorbed, but this process occurred only gradually. Originally the n-stem declension was not a single declension but a set of separate declensions (e.g., -an, -ōn, -īn) with related endings, and these endings were in no way any "weaker" than the endings of any other declensions. (For example, among the eight possible inflectional categories of a noun — singular/plural crossed with nominative/accusative/dative/genitive — masculine an-stem nouns in Gothic include seven endings, and feminine ōn-stem nouns include six endings, meaning there is very little ambiguity of "weakness" in these endings and in fact much less than in the German "strong" endings.) Although it is possible to group the various noun declensions into three basic categories — vowel-stem, n-stem, and other-consonant-stem (a.k.a. "minor declensions") — the vowel-stem nouns do not display any sort of unity in their endings that supports grouping them together with each other but separate from the n-stem endings.
It is only in later languages that the binary distinction between "strong" and "weak" nouns become more relevant. In Old English, the n-stem nouns form a single, clear class, but the masculine a-stem and feminine ō-stem nouns have little in common with each other, and neither has much similarity to the small class of u-stem nouns. Similarly, in Old Norse, the masculine a-stem and feminine ō-stem nouns have little in common with each other, and the continuations of the masculine an-stem and feminine ōn/īn-stem nouns are also quite distinct. It is only in Middle Dutch and modern German that the various vowel-stem nouns have merged to the point that a binary strong/weak distinction clearly applies.
As a result, newer grammatical descriptions of the Germanic languages often avoid the terms "strong" and "weak" except in conjunction with German itself, preferring instead to use the terms "indefinite" and "definite" for adjectives and to distinguish nouns by their actual stem class.
In English, both two sets of adjective endings were lost entirely in the late Middle English period.
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. Within the Germanic language family is East Germanic, West Germanic, and North Germanic. However, East Germanic languages became extinct several centuries ago. In some literature, the West Germanic grouping is also called "South Germanic" or is further divided between West (Dutch, English, Frisian) and South Germanic (Yiddish, German) as opposed to forming a single group.
The table below shows the succession of the significant historical stages of each language (horizontally) and their approximate groupings in subfamilies (vertically). Vertical sequence within each group does not imply a measure of greater or lesser similarity.
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).
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, 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 script, many Germanic languages use a variety of accent marks and extra letters, including the ß (Eszett), Ĳ, Ø, Æ, Å, Ä, Ü, Ö, Ð, Ȝ, and the Latinized runes Þ and Ƿ (with its Latin counterpart W). In print, German used to be prevalently set in blackletter typefaces (e.g., fraktur or schwabacher) until the 1940s, when Kurrent and, since the early 20th century, Sütterlin were used for German handwriting.
Yiddish is written using an adapted Hebrew alphabet.
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 from Latin).