InLanguage Families

The Germanic Language Family – A Quick Overview

Main image of the blog article about the Germanic language family.

Hello to everyone! This year’s first blog post will present the Germanic language family to you. For me, writing this article was particularly exciting. The reason is that of the six languages I speak three are Germanic: German, English, and Dutch. For that matter, I have already written about the English language and its roots. But why should you be interested in this topic?

Well, because it is likely that a Germanic language is your native tongue, too. If you are able to understand what I am writing, then, at least, you speak the Germanic language of English!

Learning more about the linguistic background of your language will make you feel more connected to your mother tongue and to your own roots.

Let’s jump right into it! The story of the Germanic language family starts in …

The Nordic Bronze Age

Winter forest, representing the roots of the Germanic language family.

The what? The Nordic Bronze Age is a period of Scandinavian prehistory from 1700–500 before Christ. We find ourselves in the area of today’s Denmark, southern Sweden, and southern Norway, where the inhabitants spoke a Proto-Indo-European dialect.

Linguists hypothesize or assume that the descending Proto-Germanic language was spoken from 500 BC onward. Thus, this happened a couple of centuries after Proto-Italic had already split up into several Italic languages. Then, ca. two hundred years before Christ, a substantive split of the Germanic language occurred!

North, West, and East Germanic Dialects

This division still exists, with the East Germanic branch having gone extinct in the meantime. A key victory in the history of the Germanic language family was the battle of the Teutoburg forest against the Roman Empire in 9 AD, saving the Germanic tribes from Romanization.

Midway through the first millennium, the northern branch had developed into East and West North Germanic dialects. In the meantime, the western branch evolved into Old Low Franconian, Old Frisian, Old English, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Low German, and Lombardic.

The eastern branch consisted of Burgundian, Vandalian, and Gothic. These ancient languages were assimilated by their respective neighbors, leading to their loss (Gothic was lost many centuries later). Their early extinction is the reason we know so little about this Germanic language branch.

Anyway, the stage for the emergence of the modern Germanic languages had been set!

Today’s West Germanic Languages

The end of the Middle Ages marked the appearance of the West Germanic languages we know today! I will present the significant ones. Thus, what were the most important milestones?

Bible shown due to its importance for the standardization of the Germanic language family.

In 1522, Martin Luther translated the bible into German. Moreover, the mass production of books helped to standardize the German language. Finally, at the end of the 17th century, voices were being raised, demanding a uniform spelling. As a result, the spelling of the German language was set.

For English, the works of William Shakespear (1564-1616) played a crucial role. Don’t be mistaken. Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English, which was clearly distinct from nowaday’s English! The final standardization happened thanks to the state’s growing need to communicate with its citizens. In other words, Standard English is very much a byproduct of bureaucracy!

Afrikaans developed from the Dutch language, around the 17th century. The standardization of Dutch, on the other hand, shares a similar history with the German language. In 1637, the bible was translated into Dutch. Yes, this happened, indeed, before the bible was translated into German (my Dutchies will be so proud to read this). In the years of the 80 Years War, the Spaniards served as a common enemy for the dispersed Dutch regions. The Flemish-Brabant migration, the declaration of an own republic, and the reformation led to the standardization of Dutch.

And Then There Are the Nordics…

Nordic flags shown.

Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are, from a linguistic perspective, a dialect continuum of Scandinavian. However, rivalries and wars in the past have motivated to name each dialect differently. Standard Danish corresponds to the dialects spoken around Copenhagen.

There is no official standard Norwegian, and many Norwegians prefer to speak their own dialect. Additionally, four forms of written Norwegian exist. To be precise, the Norwegians mainly use “only” two of them. What a mess! Finally, Swedish was not recognized as the official language of Sweden until 2009! Standard Swedish has its roots in Central Swedish dialects.

So, not only are we talking about mutually intelligible languages/dialects but, except for Danish, their countries have still not standardized these languages in the very year of 2020! Maybe I should overthink my plan of learning Swedish or Norwegian in the future.

What Does the Germanic Language Family Have in Common?

In contrast to the Slavic language family, we are talking about a language family whose members have departed from each other a long time ago. Can we still identify any similarities? Of course, we can!

Verb-second (V2) word order

How does a V2-word order look like? As the name suggests, such an order requires the verb taking the second place in a sentence. The subject of a sentence can then appear either before or after the verb.

The shared grammar connects the Germanic language family.

Let’s look at an example in Dutch: “Ik kwam vroeger, maar mijn ouders kwamen later.” “Kwam” (= came) and “kwamen” (= (they) came) both take on the second place after the subject “ik” (= I) and “mijn ouders” (= my parents).

We see this phenomenon throughout most of the modern Germanic languages. However, English has vastly abandoned the V2-word order, similar to the Romance languages. E.g., “Today, the president visited us.” A V2-word order would produce a sentence like this: “Today, visited the president us.” In German, the latter would be correct: “Heute besuchte der Präsident uns,” with the subject moving behind the verb “besuchte.”

Grimm’s law

Grimm’s law describes consonant shifts that profoundly changed the pronunciation of words in Germanic languages.

The ancient unvoiced p, t, k became the English unvoiced f, th, h, and the Old High German f, d, h. For example, pater (Latin) became father.

The ancient voiced b, d, g became the English unvoiced p, t, k, and the Old High German spirant stops f, ts, kh. For example, grain became corn.

Finally, the ancient voiced bh, dh, gh became the English voiced b, d, g, and the Old High German p, t, k.

To summarize and simplify, all Germanic languages have experienced similar changes in the use and pronunciation of a series of consonants. We can observe the aftermath of this common shift in all modern Germanic languages!

Conclusion: The Germanic Language Family

As we have learned, today’s modern languages and the members of the Germanic language family have left their home and parent, Proto-Germanic, a long time ago. Many children left to other parts of (mainly) Europe, lived on fairly isolated from each other, and developed independently.

Three of them (Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish) decided to stay at home and, although they had their fights, they get along with and understand each other.

Think of them as your cousins that live in a foreign country, and whom you haven’t heard from for a decade. However, all children still have many traits that they have acquired long ago at home. And those traits will prevail and connect the Germanic language family forever!

The Germanic Language Family – A Quick Overview – The Coming of an Informing Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! It has been some time since I have last presented a language family. I hope you found this blog post as interesting as I did!

There will be a loooooot more articles coming! 

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

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

Woman talking to herself in the mirror.
#19 QuickTip: Talk to yourself in the foreign language you are learning. This practice will make you speak more fluently, and you will discover your weak areas.

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1 Comment

  • 1acquirement


    February 17, 2022 at 16:48
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