Germanic languages are spoken by close to 470 million people in many parts of the world, but mainly in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. All modern Germanic languages derive from a common ancestor traditionally referred to as *Proto-Germanic, believed to have broken off from other *Proto-Indo-European languages some time before 500 B.C. Although no written documents in Proto-Germanic have survived, the language has been substantially reconstructed by using the oldest existing records. Compared to *Proto-Indo-European, **Proto-Germanic had a relatively simpler nominal morphology. For instance, it dropped the dual number, and reduced the number of cases from eight to four. On the other hand, the verbal morphology of *Proto-Indo-European survived relatively intact in all modern Germanic languages, although there are fewer strong (irregular) verbs today.
Some 50 modern Germanic languages are spoken today (Ethnologue) .
They are usually divided into two groups.
|# of speakers||Spoken primarily in|
|Afrikaans||6.2 million 1st, 10 million 2nd language speakers||South Africa|
|Dutch (including Flemish)||21 million||Netherlands, Belgium|
|Low Saxon (10 varieties)||995,000||Netherlands, Germany, Canada|
|English||341 million 1st, over 1 billion 2nd language speakers||British Commonwealth countries, U.S.|
|German||95 million 1st, 28 million 2nd language speakers||Germany|
|Lower Silesian||no estimate available||Poland|
|Upper Saxon||2 million||Germany|
|Mainfränkisch||no estimate available||Germany|
|Pfälzisch||no estimate available||Germany|
|Yiddish||under 2 million||Israel, U.S.|
|North Germanic (Norse, Scandinavian)|
|# of speakers||Spoken primarily in|
|Faroese||45,000||Faroe Islands (Denmark)|
|# of speakers||Spoken primarily in|
Norse is another name for the North Germanic, or Scandinavian group of languages. These languages all stem from an earlier, now extinct, language known as Old Norse that was spoken by the Germanic tribes living in Scandinavia before 1000 A.D. Today, the differences among the dialects within Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are often greater than the differences across their borders, but the political independence of these countries leads them to be classified as separate languages.
Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Scandinavian languages are spoken in the U.S.
The following Germanic languages have official status. An official language is one that is given a privileged legal status in a state, or other legally-defined political entity. Some countries have only one official language, e.g., Norway, while others may have several, e.g., the Netherlands. Some countries, e.g., US, do not have an official language.
|South Africa (along with 11 other languages)|
|Denmark, Faroe Islands, Greenland|
|Netherlands (with Frisian), Belgium (with French and German), Suriname, Netherland Antilles, Aruba|
|UK and British Commonwealth Countries, US and its territories, other countries on all continents (total 53 countries)|
|Netherlands (with Dutch)|
|Austria, Belgium (with Dutch and French), Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg (with French and Luxembourgish), South Tyrol (with Italian), Switzerland (with French, Italian, and Rhaeto-Romansch)|
|Sweden, Finland (with Finnish)|
In addition, German is one of the 23 official languages of the European Union and one of the three working languages of the European Commission,along with English and French.
All Germanic languages have undergone some common sound changes:
- First Germanic Sound Shift (Grimm’s Law)
You probably know of Jacob Grimm as the author of fairy tales. But he was also one of the great linguists of the 19th century. He found evidence for the unity of all the modern Germanic languages in the phenomenon known as the First Germanic Sound Shift (also known as Grimm’s law ), which set the Germanic branch apart from the other branches of the Indo-European family. This shift occurred before the 7th century when records started to be kept. According to Grimm’s law, the shift occurred when /p, t, k/ in the classical Indo-European languages (Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit) became/ f, t, h/ in Germanic languages. For example, Latin pater > English father, Latin cornu > English horn.
- Second Germanic consonant shift (High German consonant shift)
The Second consonant shift took place probably beginning between the 3rd-5th centuries AD, and was almost complete before the earliest written records in the High German language were made in the 9th century. It occurred in High German (spoken in mountainous areas) which gave rise to today’s Standard German. Low German dialects were not affected by the Second Consonant Shift. Here are some examples: classical Indo-European /k, t, p/ became /h, th, f/ in English and /h, d, f/ in German. For example, Latin frater > English brother and German Bruder.
classical Indo-European /g, d, b/ became /k, t, p/ in English and /kh, ts, f/ in German. For example, Latin decem > English ten and German zehn.
Click here to learn more about the Second Consonant Shift.
Most modern Germanic languages have a large inventory of vowel phonemes consisting of 14-16 vowels. Vowel length typically distinguishes word meaning, and there is a contrast between rounded and unrounded front vowels in many of the Germanic languages.
Modern Germanic languages have fairly similar consonant systems consisting of 20-22 phonemes.
All Germanic languages are characterized by a shift of stress to the root and later to the first syllable of the word. Though English has an irregular stress pattern, native words always have a fixed stress, regardless of what is added to them. In addition, some Germanic languages have a pitch accent, e.g.,Norwegian and Swedish).
All Germanic languages are synthetic, i.e., they add suffixes to roots and stems to express grammatical relations. However, they differ from each other in how conservative or how progressive each language is with respect to preserving the inflectional system of *Proto-Germanic. For instance, German, Dutch and Icelandic, have preserved much of the complex inflectional morphology of inherited from *Proto-Germanic. Others, like English, Swedish, Yiddish, and Afrikaans have lost most of the inflections.
Some of the general features of Germanic nouns are listed below.
- All Germanic languages have two numbers: singular and plural.
- The majority of Germanic languages have two genders: masculine and feminine. German, Dutch, and Icelandic have preserved the neuter gender.Dutch has two genders – common (masculine and feminine) and neuter.
- Case inflections have all but disappeared in most Germanic languages, with the exception of German, and Icelandic that have retained four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.
- All Germanic languages have strong (irregular) and weak (regular) nouns. Strong nouns have a change in the root vowel, e.g., English foot(singular) and feet (plural).
- All Germanic languages have a definite and indefinite article. The definite article may precede the noun or be suffixed to the noun, e.g., in Icelandic.
- Many Germanic languages form the possessive by the addition of –s or –es, for example, English man, man’s; German Mann, Mannes.
- In most Germanic languages, articles and adjectives agree with nouns in gender and case in the singular; there is no gender distinction in the plural.
- In some Germanic languages adjectives have strong and weak endings.
- Personal pronouns have retained some case distinctions even if these were lost in the nouns, e.g., English.
Below are some general features of Germanic verbs.
- All Germanic languages have strong and weak verbs. Strong verbs form the past tense and past participle by changing the root vowel, for example, English ring, rang, rung; German ringen, rang, gerungen. Weak verbs add an ending -d/-ed/-t, for example, English talk, talked, talked;German fragen, fragte, gefragt.
- Verbs are conjugated based on person (lst, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular and plural).
- Verbs have simple and numerous compound tenses formed with auxiliary verbs such as have in English and haben in German.
- There are three moods: indicative, subjunctive/conditional, and imperative.
- There are two voices: active and passive.
Word order is best described in terms of the position of the verb in Germanic clauses. It occupies final position in subordinate clauses, and first or second position in main clauses. The position of all other sentence constituents is relatively free. This feature is shared by all Germanic languages, except English, which has a Subject-Verb-Object word order.
Most words in Germanic languages are derived from *Proto-Germanic. Germanic languages have also borrowed from neighboring languages, and especially from Latin and Greek, as well as from each other. Much of its scientific terminology has Greek and Latin roots. The latest source of loanwords is English. Words are frequently formed by compounding, suffixation and prefixation, e.g., German Weihnachtsmann (literally ”Holy Night Man,’ i.e., ‘Santa Claus’), English antiestablishmentarianism.
Below are some common expressions in various Germanic languages, showing the similarities and differences among them.
|English||hello||good bye||please||thank you||yes/no|
|Icelandic||góðan dag||bless||gjörðu svo vel||takk fyrir||/nei|
|Norwegian||hallo||farvel||vær så snill||takk||ja/nei|
|Yiddish||gut-morgn||a gutn tog||zay azoy gut||A dank||ye/neyn|
Below are the numerals 1-10 in major Germanic languages.
The earliest evidence of Germanic writing comes from names recorded in the 1st century by Tacitus. From roughly the 2nd century AD, certain speakers of early Germanic dialects developed the Elder Futhark, an early form of the runic alphabet, some examples of which go back to the 3rd century AD. It is thought that the runes were based on an Etruscan-related alphabet, adapted to represent the sounds of Germanic languages and styled to allow carving on wood, stone, and metal. Each rune not only represents a sound but also has a special meaning frequently connected with Norse mythology. For instance, the image on the left, called Ansuz, was most often associated with Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology, the Viking equivalent of Zeus, the god of sky and thunder in Greek mythology.
Early runic inscriptions were largely limited to personal names, and difficult to interpret. Later, Christian priests and monks who spoke and read Latin in addition to their native Germanic dialects began writing the Germanic languages with slightly modified Latin letters. However, throughout the Viking Age, runic alphabets remained in common use in Scandinavia.
Click here to see your name written in runes and to learn more about this ancient writing system.
Today, Germanic languages use the standard 26-letter Latin alphabet expanded to include extra letters to represent vowel sounds.
Below is Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in several major Germanic languages.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Universele Verklaring van Menseregte
Alle menslike wesens word vry, met gelyke waardigheid en regte, gebore. Hulle het rede en gewete en behoort in die gees van broederskap teenoor mekaar op te tree.
Universele verklaring van de rechten van de mens
Alle mensen worden vrij en gelijk in waardigheid en rechten geboren. Zij zijn begiftigd met verstand en geweten, en behoren zich jegens elkander in een geest van broederschap te gedragen.
Mannréttindayfirslýsing Sameinuðo Þjóðanna
Hver maður er borrinn frjáls og jafn öðrum að virðing og réttindum. Menn eru gæddir vitsmunum og samvizku, og ber þeim að breyta bróðurlega hverjum við annan.
Verdebserklaeringen om Menneskrrettighederne
Alle mennesker er tødt frie og lige i værdghed og rettigheder. De er udstyret men tornuft og samyttighed, og de bør handle mod hverandre i en broderskabets ånd.
Die Allgemeine Erklärung der Menschenrechte
Alle Menschen sind frei und gleich an Würde und Rechten geboren. Sie sind mit Vernunft und Gewissen begabt und sollen einander im Geist der Brüderlichkeit begegnen.
Verdemserkæringen om mennesker ettighetene
Alle mennesker er fød frie og med samme menneskeverd og menneskerettigheter. De er utstyrt med fornuft og samvittighet og bør handle mot hverandre i brorskapets ånd.
Den internasjonale frasegna om mennesker ettane
Alle menneske er fødde til fridom og med same menneskeverd og menneskerettar. Dei har fåt fornuft og samvit og skal leve med kvarandre som brør.
Allmän Förklaring om de Mänskliga Rättigheterna
Alla människor är födda fria och lika i värde och rättigheter. De är utrustade med förnuft och samvete och bör handla gentemot varandra i en anda av broderskap.
Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch,Norwegian and Swedish are considered to be Category I languages in terms of difficulty for English speakers (24 weeks of full-time instruction to reach ILR S-3). German is somewhat more difficult (30 weeks). Icelandic is considered to be Category III language (44 weeks).