World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Germanic language

Article Id: WHEBN0000153395
Reproduction Date:

Title: Germanic language  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Blue, City, Danish language, Languages of Europe, Æthelberht of Kent, Estonian language, Grammatical gender, Interlingua, K, Latin alphabet
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Germanic language

Ethnicity: Germanic peoples
In northern, western and central Europe, Anglo-America, Oceania, southern Africa
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
  • Germanic
Proto-language: Proto-Germanic
Ethnologue code: ISO 639-5: gem
Linguasphere: 52- (phylozone)
first language of the majority of the population
  Countries where a Germanic language is an official but not primary language

The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family spoken by Germanic peoples. 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 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 tribes 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 native English speakers[1][2] and over 100 million native German speakers.[3] They belong to the West Germanic family. The West Germanic group also includes other major languages, such as Dutch with 23 million[4] and Afrikaans with over 6 million native speakers.[5] The North Germanic languages include Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese, which have a combined total of about 20 million speakers.[6] The SIL Ethnologue lists 53 different Germanic languages.


Germanic languages possess a number of defining features compared with other Indo-European languages.

Probably the most well-known are the following:

  1. 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.
  2. 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, *aimaitjō → "ant", *haubudan → "head", *hauzijanan → "hear", *harubistaz → German Herbst "autumn", *hagatusjō → German Hexe "witch".
  3. A change known as Germanic umlaut, which modified vowel qualities when a high 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 an umlaut (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.[7]
  4. 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,[8] standard German and Dutch 14, and Danish at least 11.[9] The Amstetten dialect of Bavarian German has 13 distinctions among long vowels alone, one of the largest such inventories in the world.[10]
  5. 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, the subject must follow. This is no longer present in modern English except in a few relic sentences such as "Over went the boat" or "Boom goes the dynamite," but is found in all other modern Germanic languages.

Other significant characteristics are:

  1. 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).
  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. 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.
  4. 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:

  • Germanic umlaut only affected the North and West Germanic languages (which represent all modern Germanic languages) but not the now-extinct East Germanic languages, such as Gothic, nor Proto-Germanic, the common ancestor of all Germanic languages.
  • The large inventory of vowel qualities is a later development, due to a combination of Germanic umlaut and the tendency in many Germanic languages for pairs of long/short vowels of originally identical quality to develop distinct qualities, with the length distinction sometimes eventually lost. Proto-Germanic had only five distinct vowel qualities, although there were more actual vowel phonemes because length and possibility nasality were phonemic. In English, for example, the vowel distinctions in bit vs. beat, bet vs. bait, and cot vs. coat, were all originally length rather than quality distinctions. In modern German, long-short vowel pairs still exist but are also distinct in quality.
  • Proto-Germanic probably had a more general S-O-V-I word order. However, the tendency toward V2 order may have already been present in latent form and may be related to Wackernagel's Law, an Indo-European law dictating that sentence clitics must be placed second.[11]

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 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.


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,[14] 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, 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 the Lombards settled at the Elbe. 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 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 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.

Modern status

English is an official language of Belize, Canada, Falkland Islands, New Zealand, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, 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.

Although Germany also had some colonial possessions, its language did not remain official after the end of the colonial domination, resulting in German being spoken only as a minority or secondary language by immigrant communities in North and South America, Australia, and African countries, notably the former German colony of Namibia, where it is spoken by educated people and in commerce; it was formerly an official language there. A German dialect, Pennsylvanian Dutch, is still present amongst Anabaptist populations in Pennsylvania, USA.

Although the Netherlands has some colonial possessions, Dutch is only official in Aruba, Belgium, Curaçao, the Netherlands, Sint Maarten, and Suriname.

Afrikaans is one of 11 official languages in South Africa and is a lingua franca of Namibia.

Outside Denmark, Danish is an official language in its overseas territory of 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.


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 (horizontally) and their approximate groupings in subfamilies (vertically). Vertical sequence within each group does not imply a measure of greater or lesser similarity.

Pre-Roman Iron Age
500–100 BCE
Roman Iron Age
100 BCE–100 CE
Roman Iron Age
Migration Period
Early Middle Ages
Middle Ages
Late Middle Ages2
Early Modern Age
Modern Age
1700 to present
Proto-Germanic West Germanic Irminonic
(Elbe Germanic)
Primitive Upper German Old Upper German,
Middle Upper German Early
New Upper German
Upper German varieties
Standard German
(Weser-Rhine Germanic)
Primitive Frankish Old Frankish Old Central German Middle Central German Early
New Central German
Central German varieties
Old Low Franconian
(Old Dutch)
Early Limburgish
Middle Dutch
Late Limburgish
Middle Dutch
Early Limburgish Limburgish
Middle Dutch
Middle Dutch
Modern Dutch
Dutch varieties
(North Sea Germanic)
Primitive Saxon
(Southeast Ingvaeonic)
Old Saxon Middle Low German Low German varieties
Primitive Frisian Old Frisian Middle Frisian Frisian varieties
Primitive Anglic Old English
Middle English
Middle English
Modern English
English varieties
Early Scots3 Middle Scots Scots varieties
North Germanic Proto-Norse Runic
Old West Norse
Old Icelandic Late
Old Icelandic
Old Norwegian6 Old Faroese Faroese
Old Norn Norn extinct4
Old East Norse
Middle Norwegian Norwegian
Old Danish
Old Danish
Old Swedish
Old Swedish
and Dalecarlian dialects
Old Gutnish
Old Gutnish
Old Gutnish
Gutnish extinct5
East Germanic Gothic (unattested Gothic dialects) Crimean Gothic extinct
Vandalic extinct
Burgundian extinct
  • ^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.
  • ^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.[15] McClure gives Northumbrian Old English.[16] 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"[17] and "A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue".[18]
  • ^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.


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).

Common linguistic features

Main article: Proto-Germanic


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).


  • C- means before a vowel (word-initially, or sometimes after a consonant).
  • -C- means between vowels.
  • -C means after a vowel (word-finally or before a consonant). Word-final outcomes generally occurred after deletion of final short vowels (which occurred shortly after Proto-Germanic, and is reflected in the history of all written languages except for Proto-Norse).
  • The above three are given in the order C-, -C-, -C. If one is omitted, the previous one applies. For example, f, -[v]- means that [v] occurs after a vowel regardless of what follows.
  • Something like a(…u) means "a if /u/ occurs in the next syllable".
  • Something like a(n) means "a if /n/ immediately follows".
  • Something like (n)a means "a if /n/ immediately precedes".

Development of Germanic sounds
Proto-Germanic[19][20] (Pre-)Gothic[lower-alpha 1][21][22] Old Norse[23] Old English[24][25][26][27][28][29][30] Old High German[31][32]
a a a, ɔ(…u)[lower-alpha 2] æ, a(…a),[lower-alpha 3] a/o(n), æ̆ă(h,rC,lC)[lower-alpha 4] a
a(…i)[lower-alpha 5] e, ø(…u)[lower-alpha 2] e, æ, ĭy̆(h,rC,lC)[lower-alpha 4] e, a(hs,ht,Cw)
ãː(…i)[lower-alpha 5] æː äː
æː eː, ɛː(V) æː, æa(h)[lower-alpha 4]
æː(…i)[lower-alpha 5] æː æː äː
e i, ɛ(h,hʷ,r) ja,[lower-alpha 6] jø(…u),[lower-alpha 2] (w,r,l)e, (w,r,l)ø(…u)[lower-alpha 2] e, ĕŏ(h,w,rC)[lower-alpha 4] e, i(…u)
e(…i)[lower-alpha 5] i, y(…w)[lower-alpha 2] i i
eː, ɛː(V) ie
i i, ɛ(h,hʷ,r) i, y(…w)[lower-alpha 2] i, ĭŭ(h,w,rC)[lower-alpha 4] i
iː, iu(h)
oː, ɔː(V) uo
oː(…i)[lower-alpha 5] øː üö
u u, ɔ(h,hʷ,r) u, o(…a)[lower-alpha 3] u, o(…a)[lower-alpha 3] u, o(…a)[lower-alpha 3]
u(…i)[lower-alpha 5] y y ü
uː, ɔː(V)
uː(…i)[lower-alpha 5] üː
ai ai[lower-alpha 1] ei, ey(…w),[lower-alpha 2] aː(h,r)[lower-alpha 7] ei, eː(r,h,w,#)[lower-alpha 8]
ai(…i)[lower-alpha 5] ei, æː(h,r) æː
au au[lower-alpha 1] au, oː(h) æa ou, oː(h,T)[lower-alpha 9]
au(…i)[lower-alpha 5] ey, øː(h) iy öü, öː(h,T)[lower-alpha 9]
eu iu juː, joː(T)[lower-alpha 10] eo io, iu(…i/u)[lower-alpha 3]
eu(…i)[lower-alpha 5] iy
p p p p pf-, -ff-, -f
t t t t ts-, -ss-, -s[lower-alpha 11]
k k k k, tʃ(i,e,æ)-, -k-, -(i)tʃ-, -tʃ(i)-[lower-alpha 12] k-, -xx-, -x
kv, -k kw-, -k-, -(i)tʃ-, -tʃ(i)-[lower-alpha 12] kw-, -xx-, -x
b-, -[β]-[lower-alpha 13] b-, -[β]-, -f b-, -[v]- b-, -[v]-, -f b
d-, -[ð]-[lower-alpha 13] d-, -[ð]-, -þ d-, -[ð]- d t
[ɣ]-, -[ɣ]-[lower-alpha 13] g-, -[ɣ]-, -[x] g-, -[ɣ]- g-, j(æ,e,i)-, -[ɣ]-, -j(æ,e,i)-, -(æ,e,i)j-[lower-alpha 12] g
f f f, -[v]- f, -[v]-, -f f
þ þ þ, -[ð]- þ, -[ð]-, -þ d
x h h, -∅- h, -∅-, -h h
xv, -∅- hw, -∅-, -h hw, -h-
s s s-, -[z]- s-, -[z]-, -s ṣ-, -[ẓ]-, -ṣ[lower-alpha 11]
z -z-, -s r -r-, -∅ -r-, -∅
r[lower-alpha 14] r r r r
l l l l l
n n n-, -∅(s,p,t,k),[lower-alpha 15] -∅[lower-alpha 16] n, -∅(f,s,þ)[lower-alpha 15] n
m m m m m
j[lower-alpha 17] j ∅-, -j-, -∅ j j
w[lower-alpha 17] w ∅-, v-(a,e,i), -v-, -∅ w w
  1. Proto-Germanic /eː/ and /æː/ before vowels
  2. Proto-Germanic /e/ and /i/ before /h/, /hʷ/ and /r/
  3. Greek /ɛ/.
The spelling ‹au› is similarly used to represent vowels primarily deriving from the following four sources:
  1. Proto-Germanic /au/
  2. Proto-Germanic /oː/ and /uː/ before vowels
  3. Proto-Germanic /u/ before /h/, /hʷ/ and /r/
  4. Greek /ɔ/.
It is generally agreed that the outcome of case 2 was pronounced [ɛː/ɔː] in Gothic, distinct from the vowels written ‹e› and ‹o›, which were pronounced [eː/oː]. Likewise, it is generally agreed that the outcomes of cases 3 and 4 were pronounced [ɛ] and [ɔ] in Gothic. However, there is some argument over whether the outcomes of case 1 were still pronounced as diphthongs [ai/au], as in Proto-Germanic, or had merged with case 2 as monophthongs [ɛː/ɔː]. There is some historical evidence (particularly from Latin spelling variations of Gaut- vs. Gōt-, used to represent the name of the Goths) that the Proto-Germanic diphthongs had changed into monophthongs shortly before (i.e., within a century of) the time of Wulfila, who designed the Gothic alphabet and wrote the Gothic Bible c. 360 AD. This accords with the fact that Wulfila used the same symbols ‹ai/au› to represent all the outcomes, despite the fact that the spellings ‹aj/aw› were available to unambiguously represent diphthongs (and, in fact, alternate with ‹ai/au› in a number of nominal and verbal paradigms). The use of the spelling ‹ai› to represent a monophthong [ɛ(ː)] was evidently in imitation of 4th century Greek, where ‹ai› likewise stood for [ɛː], and ‹au› was apparently created by analogy. Consistent with many sources (e.g., Bennett (1980)), the phonology described here is that of "Pre-Gothic" (i.e., the phonology of Gothic just before the monophthongization of /ai/ and /au/).
  • In Old English, /æ/ (from Proto-Germanic /a/) became /a/ before /a/ in the next syllable.
  • All of these processes were blocked in an i-umlaut context (i.e. by a following /j/).


    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.

    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 (aka "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.

    The following shows a typical masculine a-stem noun, Proto-Germanic *fiskaz ("fish"), and its development in the various old literary languages:

    Declension of a-stem noun *fiskaz "fish" in various languages[33]
    Proto-Germanic Gothic Old Norse Old High German Middle High German Modern German Old English Old Saxon Old Frisian
    Singular Nominative *fisk-az fisk-s fisk-r visk visch Fisch fisc fisc fisk
    Vocative *fisk fisk
    Accusative *fisk-ą fisk fisk
    Genitive *fisk-as, -is fisk-is fisk-s visk-es visch-es Fisch-es[34] fisc-es < fisc-æs fisc-as, -es fisk-is, -es
    Dative *fisk-ai fisk-a fisk-i visk-a visch-e Fisch-(e)[35] fisc-e < fisc-æ fisc-a, -e fisk-a, -i, -e
    Instrumental *fisk-ō -- -- visk-u -- -- fisc-e < fisc-i[36] fisc-u --
    Plural Nominative, Vocative *fisk-ôs, -ôz fisk-ōs fisk-ar visk-a visch-e Fisch-e fisc-as fisc-ōs, -ās fisk-ar, -a
    Accusative *fisk-anz fisk-ans fisk-a visk-ā
    Genitive *fisk-ǫ̂ fisk-ē fisk-a visk-ō fisc-a fisc-ō, -ā fisk-a
    Dative *fisk-amaz fisk-am fisk-um, -om visk-um visch-en Fisch-en fisc-um fisc-un, -on fisk-um, -on, -em
    Instrumental *fisk-amiz -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

    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)[37]
    • The conversion of /ē1/ into /ā/ (vs. Gothic /ē/) in initial syllables[38]
    • The raising of final /ō/ to /u/ (Gothic lowers it to /a/)
    • The monophthongisation of /ai/ and /au/ to /ē/ 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")[39] 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/[40] (a development which continues the general trend of de-reduplication in Gmc[41]); 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

    The following innovations are common to the West Germanic languages 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).[42]
    • 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.[43]
    • 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 languages, which includes English, Frisian, and to some extent Dutch and Low German, but not High German:

    • The so-called Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law, with loss of /n/ before voiceless fricatives: e.g. *munþ, *gans > Old English mūþ, gōs > "mouth, goose", but German mund, gans.
    • 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"; cf. the numerous Old High German verbs in -ēn).
    • The split of the Class II weak verb ending *-ō- into *-ō-/-ōja- (cf. Old English -ian < -ōjan, but Old High Geman -ōn).
    • 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). Cf. modern English plural -(e)s, but German plural -e.
    • 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:

    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 from Latin).

    English Scots[44] West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Dutch (Limburgish) Low German Low German (Groningen) Middle
    German Yiddish Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokmål) Norwegian (Nynorsk)
    apple aiple apel appel appel appel Appel Abbel Apel Apfel עפל / epl aplus epli epli[45] äpple æble eple eple
    board buird board bord bord bórdj/telleur Boord Bred Briet Brett[46] ברעט / bret baúrd borð borð bord bord bord bord
    beech beech boeke beuk beuk beuk Boeoek / Böök Beukenboom Bich Buche bōka[47]/-bagms beyki bók(artræ) bok bøg bok bok / bøk
    book beuk boek boek boek book Book Bouk Buch Buch בוך / bukh bōka bók bók bok bog bok bok
    breast breest boarst bors borst boors Bost Bôrst Broscht Brust ברוסט / brust brusts brjóst bróst / bringa bröst bryst bryst bryst
    brown broun brún bruin bruin broen bruun broen brong braun ברוין / broyn bruns brúnn brúnur brun brun brun brun
    day day dei dag dag daag Dag Dag Do Tag טאג / tog dags dagur dagur dag dag dag dag
    dead deid dea dood dood doed dood dood dout tot טויט / toyt dauþs dauður deyður död død død daud
    die (starve) dee stjerre sterf sterven stèrve sterven / starven / döen staarven stierwen sterben שטארבן / shtarbn diwan deyja doyggja døy / starva
    enough eneuch genôch genoeg genoeg genóg noog genog genuch genug גענוג / genug ganōhs nóg nóg/nógmikið nog nok nok nok
    finger finger finger vinger vinger veenger Finger Vinger Fanger Finger פינגער / finger figgrs fingur fingur finger finger finger finger
    give gie jaan gee geven geve geven geven ginn geben געבן / gebn giban gefa geva ge / giva give gi gje(va)
    glass gless glês glas glas glaas Glas Glas Glas Glas גלאז / gloz glas glas glas glas glass glas
    gold gowd goud goud goud goud / góldj Gold Gold Gold גאלד / gold gulþ gull gull guld / gull guld gull gull
    good guid gód goed goed good good goud gutt gut גוט / gut gōþ(is) góð(ur) / gott góð(ur) / gott god god god god
    hand haund hân hand hand hand Hand Haand Hand Hand האנט / hant handus hönd hond hand hånd hånd hand
    head heid holle hoof[48] / kop[49] hoofd / kop[49] kop[49] Kopp[49] / höved Heufd / Kop[49] Kopp[49] Haupt / Kopf[49] הויפט/קאפ / hoypt/kop[49] háubiþ höfuð høvd / høvur huvud hoved hode hovud
    high heich heech hoog hoog hoeg hoog hoog / höch héich hoch הויך / hoykh háuh hár høg / ur hög høj høy / høg høg
    home hame hiem heim[50] / tuis[51] heem, heim[50] / thuis[51] thoes[51] Tohuus[51] / heem Thoes[51] Heem Heim(at) היים / heym háimōþ heim heim hem hjem hjem / heim heim
    hook / crook heuk hoek haak haak haok Haak Hoak Krop / Kramp Haken האק / hak kramppa haki / krókur krókur / ongul hake / krok hage / krog hake / krok hake / krok[52]
    house hoose hûs huis huis hoes Huus Hoes Haus Haus הויז / hoyz hūs hús hús hus hus hus hus
    many mony mannich / mennich baie / menige menig minnig Mennig Ìnde manch מאנכע / mankhe manags margir mangir / nógvir många mange mange mange
    moon muin moanne maan maan maon Maan Moan Mound Mond mēna máni / tungl máni måne måne måne måne
    night nicht nacht nag nacht nach Nach / Nacht Nacht Nuecht Nacht נאכט / nakht nótt nótt nátt natt nat natt natt
    no (nay) nae nee nee nee(n) nei nee nee / nai nee(n) nee / nein / nö ניין / neyn nei nei nej / nä nej / næ nei nei
    old (but: elder, eldest) auld âld oud oud aajt (old) / gammel (decayed) old / gammelig old / olleg aalt alt אלט / alt sineigs gamall (but: eldri, elstur) / aldinn gamal (but: eldri, elstur) gammal (but: äldre, äldst) gammel (but: ældre, ældst) gammel (but: eldre, eldst) gam(m)al (but: eldre, eldst)
    one ane ien een een ein een aine een eins איין / eyn áins einn ein en en en ein
    ounce unce ûns ons ons óns Ons Onze Unze unkja únsa únsa uns unse unse unse / unsa
    snow snaw snie sneeu sneeuw sjnie Snee Snij / Snèj Schlue Schnee שניי / shney snáiws snjór kavi / snjógvur snö sne snø snø
    stone stane stien steen steen stein Steen Stain Steen Stein שטיין / shteyn stáins steinn steinur sten sten stein stein
    that that dat daardie / dit dat / die dat / tot dat / dit dat / dij dat das דאס / dos þata það tað det det det det
    two / twain twa twa twee twee twie twee twij / twèje zoo / zwou / zwéin zwei/zwo צוויי / tsvey twái tveir / tvær / tvö tveir / tvey / tvær / tvá två / tu to to to[53]
    who wha wa wie wie wee wokeen wel wien wer ווער / ver Ƕas / hwas hver hvør vem hvem hvem kven
    worm wirm wjirm wurm worm weurm Worm Wörm Wuerm Wurm / Made ווארעם / vorem maþa maðkur / ormur maðkur / ormur mask / orm [54] orm makk / mark / orm  [54] makk/mark/orm[54]
    English Scots West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Dutch (Limburgish) Low German Low German (Groningen) Middle
    German Yiddish Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokmål) Norwegian (Nynorsk)

    See also



    Germanic languages in general:



    Old Norse:

    Old English:

    Old High German:

    External links

    • Germanic Lexicon Project
    • 'Hover & Hear' pronunciations of the same Germanic words in dozens of Germanic languages and 'dialects', including English accents, and compare instantaneously side by side
    • : Bibliography of medieval written forms of High and Low German and Dutch
    • Swadesh lists of Germanic basic vocabulary words (from 's Swadesh-list appendix)
    This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
    Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
    By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

    Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
    a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.