Germanic languages

The Germanic languages are one of the major branches of the Indo-Euro­pe­an languages. Originally these languages were – like Proto-Indo-Euro­pe­an itself – highly inflected languages, but most of them have undergone varying degrees of simplification. Grimm’s law and Verner’s law exist to describe the systematic sound changes that took place between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic (the common ancestor of all Germanic languages). The family can be subdivided into three groups, two of which are still extant:

  • West Germanic: English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Frisian
  • North Germanic: Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Ice­land­ic, Faroese
  • East Germanic (extinct): Gothic

Germanic umlaut is a sound change involving vowels that affected all the Northwest Germanic languages (i.e. excluding the extinct Eastern branch). The High German consonant shift affected the West Germanic languages to differing degrees, but particularly (as the name suggests) the High German dialects.

For most English speakers, the best-known Germanic language (other than English itself) is probably German, which is fairly conservative lexically, retaining four grammatical cases and three genders (although they’re mostly marked on articles). Icelandic and Faroese are also pretty conservative (Icelandic famously so). But many of the other Germanic languages have, in fact, simplified a lot. Most of the Scandinavian languages and English have one main surviving piece of noun cases, which is the possessive ’s (in Scandinavian languages it tends to be written without the apostrophe). Some dialects of Norwegian have retained more, though. In Dutch and Swedish (at least) noun cases are retained in some fossilised expressions, like Koninkrijk der Nederlanden “Kingdom of the Netherlands” (in Dutch) or till salu “for sale” (in Swedish). Afrikaans, on the flipside, has gone further than English and eliminated even the relic of ’s, instead using a construction like die man se hoed “the man’s hat” (literally like “the man his hat”). As far as grammatical gender goes, German and Icelandic retain the original three-way distinction; in Swedish and Dutch the masculine and feminine genders merged to form a common-neuter two-way distinction; and English and Afrikaans have lost grammatical gender entirely. In the case of all of these languages, much more inflection survives in pronouns than in general nouns.

There was a time when the Germanic languages were more widely dis­t­ri­bu­ted across Europe than they are now; the Franks, who gave their name to France, were a Germanic tribe, as were the Normans. Goths had spread out to such far away locations as Iberia and Crimea. As a result, many European languages from other families have quite a number of Germanic loanwords, even though the Germanic languages themselves are now restricted to northwestern Europe (as well as many former British colonies around the world, of course).