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Is English Really a Germanic Language?

Main image of the post about whether English is a German language.

Many might think: “Of course it is! Why shouldn’t English be a Germanic language?” Well, there is a reason that puts the linguistic allocation of this language into question.

Now read the last sentence once more and try to find all the words that are not of Germanic origin! I counted 7 of 15: reason, to put, linguistic, allocation, language, into, and question. That’s 47%. These words have Romance roots!

Which language family does our global language belong to, then? Let’s have ourselves a good old linguistic discussion!

Only a Quarter (26%) of the English Words Are Germanic

What? Only every fourth word is Germanic? This must be wrong! Nope, this is the result of a study. You can also read a book about it (here).

But, this is not even the most surprising fact. 29% are Latin, and another 29% are … French!

Wait. What? Not only do the Germanic terms make up an unexpectedly small share of the vocabulary cake, but they also represent merely the third largest piece of it?

Why are proper Germanic words so underrepresented? What happened to the English language? Is English really a Germanic language?

Let’s take a ride back to the past together to find out! We start in …

The 5th Century

An old village shown.

This was when the history of the English language on its home island started. We find ourselves in turbulent times, only a couple of years after the Roman Empire had perished and three Germanic tribes – the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes debarked on the South-Eastern coast. The prevailing Celtic language was, thereupon, pushed west- and northward.

The three Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, leading to the emergence of Old English. Don’t get confused. This form of English has little in common with modern English. However, many words nowadays stem from it like the American-English word for the third season: fall.

For the upcoming 600 years, Old English would be spoken. But then, the peace was broken in the year 1066.

The Battle of Hastings – French and English Mix up

Is English a Germanic language - crucial event: The Battle of Hastings.

Even though I did not remember the exact meaning of this battle, I still recall its name since my English lessons at school. What happened at the Battle of Hastings?

Duke William from Normandy (Northern part of France) felt betrayed when Harold Godwin, not him, was elected as the deceased king’s successor. So, it came to war. In a legendary battle, the Anglo-Saxons lost against the French-speaking Normans.

What happened next? French and English commenced coexisting in the area that would later become England. The Anglo-Saxon nobility was quickly replaced but Norman landsmen. The upper class, Royal Court, and the ruling class spoke French, whereas the common folk continued to converse in Old English.

A couple of centuries after the Normans had left England, the coexistence of Old English and Norman-French led to some sort of Creole language: Middle English. Thus, even though English had regained its dominant status in society, it had already absorbed and adopted a considerable amount of French expressions.

And those are present up until today. Fine, now we have found the reason for the French words in English. But, what about the 28% percent of Latin words?

Latin – The Language of Science

The Latin language written on a piece of wall.

Let’s take the time machine and undertake another time journey. This time, we will go back to the 6th century AD. We take the role of an Anglo-Saxon farmer, living close to the Southern coast of England. Warily, we observe the arrival of a number of strangers (=foreigners in those times) who call themselves clerics.

But, what are these strange words they preach? Little did we, the farmer, know that what we were hearing was a bunch of Latin words. This way, Latin silently made its first entrance into the (Old) English language. Don’t forget, folks, that the bible back then was predominantly only available in Latin. There was no Google Translator!

However, the second wave of Latin words was more pervasive. One thousand years have passed. Following the Middle Ages, Latin quickly became the language of science. This was the period when the English language gave birth to numerous neologisms, that is to say, newly formed words with Latin roots, prefixes, and/ or suffixes.

Excellent, now we know that English was, indeed, significantly influenced by French and Latin. Has this influence converted this Anglo-Saxon language into a descendant of Latin or a Romance language?

I Tend to Disagree

I am not convinced that English is a Romance language, and several reasons exist that make me feel this way. Are you keen on finding out? Then, read on!

A language is more than vocabulary

A mountain of letters is shown.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines language as a system of communication consisting of:

  • sounds
  • words
  • and grammar

Thus, is English really a Germanic language? As you can see, vocabulary is only one of three factors. We already know that around 60% of the English words are, in fact, Romance. How about grammar?

The English grammar has not adopted Romance rules but is still based on grammar rules inherited from Proto-Germanic. Nevertheless, the English language has undergone a process of simplification. The inflected case system, e.g., still used in German, has been largely abandoned. The inflected cases of pronouns like “he”, “his”, and “him” are remnants of it. For nouns, only the genitive s’ and ‘s have survived.

How about the sounds? No. The sound system has kept its Germanic traits. If you are really into the details, you can have a look at this informative discussion.

Thus, 2-1 for Germanic against Romance roots. Yeah! Nevertheless, I have more arguments!

Everyday vocabulary is mainly Germanic

“Hi, yesterday I went to buy some food. There were a lot of people, which is why I had to wait a lot. I met my friend while waiting in line. However, I had forgotten to take apples and had to go back to get them…”

You get the point. These sentences mainly consist of Germanic words. And if you take a look back at how French and Latin words got introduced into the English language, it becomes easy to understand why everyday language entails fewer loanwords.

Thus, even the third factor, vocabulary, is only Romance depending on the perspective on language use one takes. Do words that are used more frequently carry more weight than existing words that are used less?

Anyway, there is one more point I would like to present to you.

My personal experience

Despite the fact that I am an ethnic Serb, my mother tongue is German. What? You didn’t know? Ts, ts. You may have a look here, then.

I remember having my first English lessons when I was in third grade. Of course, we only played some games and learned basic words. But, I recall thinking about how easy English words were. Hand, apple, stone, foot – these words were similar to the German words: Hand, Apfel, Stein, Fuß.

I always felt like English was the easiest language on this planet. However, for my Spanish-, Serbian-, Italian-, or French-speaking friends, English often posed a constant struggle. Soon I would understand that this is because their mother tongues come from different language families! Dutch is one of the closest languages to English. It comes as no surprise that my Dutch friends are excellent English speakers.

Therefore, even after many years that Indo-Germanic has split up into numerous tongues, we still enjoy an advantage when learning English, while the speakers of Romance languages don’t. All of these points lead me to the irrefutable conclusion that English must be Germanic!

Before I end this blog post, I want to mention an unusual English-language movement: Anglish! Anglish supporters fight for bringing English back to its Anglo-Saxon roots and vocabulary. I will write an article about it. So, stay alert!

Is English Really a Germanic Language? – The Manifestation of a Genuine Language Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! I hope you liked the discussion about the classification of the English language and whether English really is a Germanic language. I will integrate similar blog posts over other languages in the future.

There will be a loooooot more articles coming! 

At the moment, I am actively posting content on PinterestInstagram, and Twitter. Have a look if you just can’t get enough of “Veni. Vidi. Linguas didici!”

Are you asking yourself: “Who is this guy whose words I am reading right now?” You will find some information about me here.

#14 QuickTip: While you listen to an audio in a foreign language, try, in your head, to repeat the sentences right after.

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1 Comment

  • 3laconically


    February 17, 2022 at 17:02
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