West Germanic languages

The West Germanic languages are a subgrouping of the Germanic lan­g­ua­ges, constituting a dialect continuum across a large swathe of northwestern Europe. The most prominent lan­g­ua­ges belonging to this group, which are the national lan­g­ua­ges of different countries, are English, German, Dutch and Afrikaans. Linguists don’t believe there was ever a common “Proto-West-Germanic” shared as a historic stage of this subgroup that wasn’t also shared with North Germanic; it’s more of a descriptive label, based on shared features that the group doesn’t share with North Germanic.

While today languages like English, German and Dutch have standardised forms which are widely spoken, historically and to the present day (to varying extents) they also have a number of “dialects”, which in some cases are not really mutually intelligible with the standard language. If we set aside the standard languages for a minute, we can talk about a few broad regions of West Germanic language varieties.

  • North Sea Germanic / Ingvaeonic
    • English and Scots
    • Frisian languages
    • Low German
  • Weser-Rhine Germanic / Istvaeonic
    • Low Franconian: Central Dutch, West and East Flemish, Brabantian, Zeelandic, Limburgish, Southeast Limburgish
    • Central Franconian: Ripuarian, Luxembourgish (the latter has a descendent, Hunsrik, spoken by a small community in Brazil)
    • Rhine Franconian: Hessian, Palatinate Franconian (spoken historically in the region of Lorraine; also in the present day by small communities in Pennsylvania)
  • Elbe Germanic / Irminonic / High German
    • Alemannic: Swiss German dialects fall into this group, as well as some dialects of adjacent areas of neighbouring countries. Also includes the dialects of the German states of Baden-Württemburg, Swabia and part of Bavaria
    • Bavarian: includes most Austrian dialects as well as most of those of, of course, Bavaria
    • Thuringian: includes the dialects spoken in the German state of Thuringia
    • Silesian and Prussian: moribund dialects each spoken by a few thousand in what’s now Poland
    • Lombardic/Langobardic: a (probably) now-extinct dialect spoken by the Lombards in what’s now northern Italy (this dialect’s heyday was around the 7th century)

The High German consonant shift is a significant factor in distinguishing High German lects from other West Germanic language varieties.

Languages like Standard German and Yiddish also fall into the last, High Germanic group, but are not so easy to situate within the group (Standard German having started as a written language that was used specifically to bridge the gap between various dialects, and Yiddish having been spoken largely outside the geographic area of the West Germanic dialect continuum, and having its own dialects and linguistic influences).

In sociolinguistics, particularly that of the Germanic dialects, the language of ausbau and abstand languages is used to distinguish between “languages” as in standardised national languages and “languages” as in language varieties that aren’t mutually intelligible with other language varieties.