Germanic languages

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Germanic languages,

subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages, spoken by about 470 million people in many parts of the world, but chiefly in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. All the modern Germanic languages are closely related; moreover, they become progressively closer grammatically and lexically when traced back to the earliest records. This suggests that they all derive from a still earlier common ancestor, which is traditionally referred to as Proto-Germanic and which is believed to have broken from the other Indo-European languages before 500 B.C. Although no writing in Proto-Germanic has survived, the language has been substantially reconstructed by using the oldest records that exist of the Germanic tongue.

Linguistic Groups

The Germanic languages today are conventionally divided into three linguistic groups: East Germanic, North Germanic, and West Germanic. This division had begun by the 4th cent. A.D. The East Germanic group, to which such dead languages as Burgundian, Gothic, and Vandalic belong, is now extinct. However, the oldest surviving literary text of any Germanic language is in Gothic (see Gothic languageGothic language,
dead language belonging to the now extinct East Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages).
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The North Germanic languages, also called Scandinavian languages or Norse, include Danish, Faeroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish. They are spoken by about 20 million people, chiefly in Denmark, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. These modern North Germanic languages are all descendants of Old Norse (see NorseNorse,
another name for the North Germanic, or Scandinavian, group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). The modern Norse languages—Danish, Faeroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish—all stem from an earlier
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) and have several distinctive grammatical features in common. One is the adding of the definite article to the noun as a suffix. Thus "the book" in English is expressed in Swedish as boken, "book-the" (bok meaning "book" and -en meaning "the"). Also distinctive is a method of forming the passive voice by adding -s to the end of the verb or, in the case of the present tense, by changing the active ending -r to -s (-st in Icelandic). This is illustrated by the Swedish jag kaller, "I call"; jag kallas, "I am called"; jag kallade, "I called"; jag kallades, "I was called."

The West Germanic languages are English, Frisian, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, and Yiddish. They are spoken as a primary language by about 450 million people throughout the world. Among the dead West Germanic languages are Old Franconian, Old High German, and Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) from which Dutch, German, and English respectively developed.

Common Characteristics

Strong evidence for the unity of all the modern Germanic languages can be found in the phenomenon known as the first Germanic sound shift or consonant shift (also called Grimm's lawGrimm's law,
principle of relationships in Indo-European languages, first formulated by Jakob Grimm in 1822 and a continuing subject of interest and investigation to 20th-century linguists.
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), which set the Germanic subfamily apart from the other members of the Indo-European family. Consisting of a regular shifting of consonants in groups, the sound shift had already occurred by the time adequate records of the various Germanic languages began to be made in the 7th to 9th cent. According to Grimm's law, certain consonant sounds found in the ancient Indo-European languages (such as Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit) underwent a change in the Germanic tongue. For example, the sounds p, d, t, and k in the former became f, t, th, and h respectively in the latter, as in Latin pater, English father; Latin dent, English tooth; and Latin cornu, English horn.

Before the 8th cent. a second shift of consonants took place in some of the West German dialects. For instance, under certain circumstances, d became t, and t became ss or z, as in English bread, Dutch brood, but German Brot; English foot, Dutch voet, but German Fuss; and English ten, Dutch tien, but German zehn. The dialects in which this second consonant shift took place were the High German dialects, so called because they were spoken in more mountainous areas. Standard modern German arose from these dialects. The West Germanic dialects not affected by the second shift were the Low German dialects of the lowlands, from which Dutch and English evolved.

Also peculiar to the Germanic languages is the recessive accent, whereby the stress usually falls on the first or root syllable of a word, especially a word of Germanic origin. Another distinctive characteristic shared by the Germanic languages is the umlaut, which is a type of vowel change in the root of a word. It is demonstrated in the pairs foot (singular), feet (plural) in English; fot (singular), fötter (plural) in Swedish; and Kampf (singular), Kämpfe (plural) in German.

All Germanic languages have strong and weak verbs; that is, they form the past tense and past participle either by changing the root vowel in the case of strong verbs (as in English lie, lay, lain or ring, rang, rung; German ringen, rang, gerungen) or by adding as an ending -d (or -t) or -ed in the case of weak verbs (as in English care, cared, cared or look, looked, looked; German fragen, fragte, gefragt). Also typically Germanic is the formation of the genitive singular by the addition of -s or -es. Examples are English man, man's; Swedish hund, hunds; German Lehrer, Lehrers or Mann, Mannes. Moreover, the comparison of adjectives in the Germanic languages follows a parallel pattern, as in English: rich, richer, richest; German reich, reicher, reichst; and Swedish rik, rikare, rikast. Lastly, vocabulary furnished evidence of a common origin for the Germanic languages in that a number of the basic words in these languages are similar in form; however, while word similarity may indicate the same original source for a group of languages, it can also be a sign of borrowing.

See articles on the individual languages mentioned and on Indo-EuropeanIndo-European,
family of languages having more speakers than any other language family. It is estimated that approximately half the world's population speaks an Indo-European tongue as a first language.
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See A. L. Streadbeck, A Short Introduction to Germanic Linguistics (1966); A. Meillet, General Characteristics of the Germanic Languages (tr. 1970); T. L. Markey, Germanic and Its Dialects (1977); H. F. Nielsen, The Germanic Languages (rev. ed. 1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Germanic Languages


a group of related languages spoken mostly in the western part of Europe; one of the branches of the Indo-European language family. Among the modern Germanic languages, English, German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and Yiddish (the modern Jewish language, which originated during the tenth to 12th centuries based on Middle High German dialects) belong to the western group, and Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese form the northern, or Scandinavian, group. Afrikaans, or Boer, the official language of the Republic of South Africa, originated from a mixture of Dutch dialects brought to South Africa by settlers from Holland in the 17th century.

Ancient Germanic languages are taken to be all the related dialects that, together with the Celtic, Italic, Illyrian, and Venetic languages, belong to the western range of Indo-European languages. Like the modern languages, the ancient Germanic languages show similar traits in grammar, word formation, and vocabulary (compare Middle Gothic handus, Old English hond, modern English hand, Old German hant, modern German Hand, Old Icelandic hond, and Swedish hand). At the same time, the ancient Germanic languages are characterized by a considerable number of words that have no equivalent in other Indo-European languages, above all terms relating to navigation, and by a wealth of fricative consonants and consonant shifts, which distinguish ancient Germanic languages from other Indo-European languages. The vowel system of the ancient Germanic languages is marked by comparative poverty and numerous combinational changes, as well as by two types of adjective declension—strong (so-called pronominal) and weak. The verb in the ancient Germanic languages has no special form for the future and no distinct voice differentiation. At the same time, there are two types of conjugation: in the strong conjugation, the past tense is formed by alternation of the vowels in the stem; in the weak conjugation, the past tense is formed by the addition of a dental suffix.

The most ancient monuments of the Germanic languages are preserved in the so-called runic inscriptions, the earliest of which apparently dates to the third century. A written language based on Latin script appeared after the spread of Christianity, beginning approximately in the eighth and ninth centuries. At the beginning of the Common Era the Germanic languages appeared as the languages of many German tribal groups on the shores of the North and Baltic seas, in Jutland, and at the southern tip of Scandinavia.

The sequence in which the ancient Germanic tribal dialects differentiated can be judged from various sources, beginning in about the first century B.C. The northern (Scandinavian) and southern (Continental) groups were the first to form; then, in the third to first centuries B.C., the eastern Germanic tribes (the Vindelicians) migrated from Scandinavia to the continent, and the eastern Germanic group (on the shores of the Baltic Sea) separated. In the second and third centuries A.D. the migration of the Goths into the steppes near the Black Sea took place, and an individual Gothic language began to develop. By the first century the western Germanic tribes divided into three groups: the Ingaevones (on the North Sea), the Istaevones (on the Rhine and Weser), and the Herminones on the Elbe). In the fifth and sixth centuries the Anglo-Saxons moved into the British Isles, and the separation of Anglo-Saxon as Old English took place (written monuments of the seventh century). In approximately the fourth and fifth centuries the Saxons migrated from the shores of the North Sea toward the southwest, to the banks of the Weser and the Rhine. Beginning in the first century the Herminones moved from the lower and middle Elbe to southern Germany. In the third to fifth centuries the Alemanni and Bavarians, who later were the carriers of the “south Germanic” dialects, occupied the southern German lands. (The second, “south Germanic,” consonant shift took place in about the sixth century; from the seventh to 16th centuries the south Germanic consonant shift spread to the area of Middle German dialects—Frankish, Hessian, and Thuringian.) In the late fifth century the Franks (Istaevones) expanded to the west, into the territory of Romanized northern Gaul, and the bilingual Frankish state of the Merovingians took shape.

A precondition for the formation of a German nationality and its language, Old High German (written monuments date from the mid-eighth century), was the unification in the Merovingian and Carolingian state (fifth to ninth centuries) of the western German tribes—the Franks (Istaevones), the Alemanni and Bavarians (Herminones), the Chatti (Hessians) and Thuringians, and later the Saxons (Ingaevones)—under Frankish rule. In the ninth through 16th centuries the tribal dialects within Old High German interacted under the influence of the Frankish dialect. The separation of the Scandinavian languages from Continental Germanic began in the fifth century, and the differentiation of the eastern and western groups of the Scandinavian dialects began in the seventh century; the settlement of Jutland by the Danes (from eastern Scandinavia) occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the settlement of Iceland by the Norwegians (from western Scandinavia) took place in the second half of the ninth century. The languages of the Scandinavian nationalities—Old Swedish, Old Danish, Old Norwegian, and Old Icelandic— formed in the 12th and 13th centuries (monuments in Latin script date from that period).


Sravnitel’naia grammatika germanskikh iazykov v 5 tt., vols. 1-4. Moscow, 1962-66.
Meillet, A. Osnovnye osobennosti germanskoi gruppy iazykov. Moscow, 1952. (Translated from French.)
Zhirmunskii, V. M. Vvedenie v sravitel’no-istoricheskoe izuchenie germanskikh iazykov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.