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In northern, western and central Europe
Number of native speakers: ~559 million
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: gem

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The Germanic languages are a group of related languages that constitute a branch of the Indo-European (IE) language family. The common ancestor of all the languages in this branch is Proto-Germanic, spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe. Proto-Germanic, along with all of its descendants, is characterized by a number of unique linguistic features, most famously the consonant change known as Grimm's law. Early varieties of Germanic enter history with the Germanic peoples moving down from northern Europe in the second century BC, to settle in northern central Europe, along the boundary of Celtic civilization, in the northerly lands of the future Roman Empire.

The most widely spoken Germanic languages are English and German, with approximately 309-400 million[1][2] and over 100 million[3] native speakers respectively. The group includes other major languages, such as Dutch with 23 million[4] and Afrikaans with over 6 million native speakers[5]; and the North Germanic languages including Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese with a combined total of about 20 million speakers.[6] The SIL Ethnologue lists 53 different Germanic languages.



Germanic languages possess several unique features, such as the following:

  1. The leveling of the Indo-European verbal system of tense and aspect into the present tense and the past tense (also called the preterite)
  2. A large class of verbs that use a dental suffix (/d/ or /t/) instead of vowel alternation (Indo-European ablaut) to indicate past tense; these are called the Germanic weak verbs; the remaining verbs with vowel ablaut are the Germanic strong verbs
  3. The use of so-called strong and weak adjectives: different sets of inflectional endings for adjectives depending on the definiteness of the noun phrase (modern English adjectives do not inflect at all, except for the comparative and superlative; this was not the case in Old English, where adjectives were inflected differently depending on the type of determiner they were preceded by)
  4. The consonant shift known as Grimm's Law (the consonants in High German have shifted farther yet by the High German consonant shift)
  5. A number of words with etymologies that are difficult to link to other Indo-European families, but variants of which appear in almost all Germanic languages; see Germanic substrate hypothesis
  6. The shifting of stress accent onto the root of the stem and later to the first syllable of the word (though English has an irregular stress, native words always have a fixed stress regardless of what is added to them)

Germanic languages differ from each other to a greater degree than do some other language families such as the Romance or Slavic languages. Roughly speaking, Germanic languages differ in how conservative or how progressive each language is with respect to an overall trend toward analyticity. Some, such as Icelandic, and to a lesser extent German, have preserved much of the complex inflectional morphology inherited from the Proto-Indo-European language. Others, such as English, Swedish, and Afrikaans have moved toward a largely analytic type.

Another characteristic of Germanic languages is the verb second or V2 word order, which is quite uncommon cross-linguistically. This feature is shared by all modern Germanic languages except modern English (which nevertheless appears to have had V2 earlier in its history), which has largely replaced the structure with an overall Subject Verb Object syntax.


The earliest evidence of Germanic languages comes from names recorded in the first century by Tacitus (especially from his work Germania), but the earliest Germanic writing occurs in a single instance in the second century BC on the Negau helmet[7]. From roughly the second century AD, certain speakers of early Germanic varieties developed the Elder Futhark, an early form of the Runic alphabet. Early runic inscriptions also are largely limited to personal names, and difficult to interpret. The Gothic language was written in the Gothic alphabet developed by Bishop Ulfilas for his translation of the Bible in the fourth century. Later, Christian priests and monks who spoke and read Latin in addition to their native Germanic varieties began writing the Germanic languages with slightly modified Latin letters. However, throughout the Viking Age, Runic alphabets remained in common use in Scandinavia. In addition to the standard Latin alphabet, many Germanic languages use a variety of accent marks and extra letters, including umlauts, the ß (Eszett), IJ, Ø, Æ, Å, Ä, Ü, Ö, Ð, Ȝ, and the runes Þ and Ƿ. In print, German used to be prevalently set in blackletter typefaces (e.g. fraktur or schwabacher) up until the 1940s (though see Antiqua–Fraktur dispute), whereas Kurrent and since the early 20th century Sütterlin was used for German handwriting.


The expansion of the Germanic tribes 750 BC – AD 1 (after the Penguin Atlas of World History 1988):       Settlements before 750 BC       New settlements by 500 BC       New settlements by 250 BC       New settlements by AD 1

All Germanic languages are thought to be descended from a hypothetical Proto-Germanic, united by subjection to the sound shifts of Grimm's law and Verner's law. These probably took place during the Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe from ca. 500 BC, but other common innovations separating Germanic from Proto-Indo European suggest a common history of pre-Proto-Germanic speakers throughout the Nordic Bronze Age.

From the time of their earliest attestation, the Germanic varieties are divided into three groups, West, East, and North Germanic. Their exact relation is difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, and they remained mutually intelligible throughout the Migration period, so that some individual varieties are difficult to classify.

The sixth century Lombardic language for instance, may be a variety originally either Northern or Eastern, before being assimilated by West Germanic as the Lombards settled at the Elbe. The Western group would have formed in the late Jastorf culture, the Eastern group may be derived from the first century variety of Gotland (see Old Gutnish), leaving southern Sweden as the original location of the Northern group. The earliest coherent Germanic text preserved is the fourth century Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas. Early testimonies of West Germanic are in Old High German (scattered words and sentences sixth century, coherent texts ninth century) and Old English (coherent texts tenth century). North Germanic is only attested in scattered runic inscriptions, as Proto-Norse, until it evolves into Old Norse by about 800.

Longer runic inscriptions survive from the eighth and ninth centuries (Eggjum stone, Rök stone), longer texts in the Latin alphabet survive from the twelfth century (Íslendingabók), and some skaldic poetry held to date back to as early as the ninth century.

West Germanic languages      Dutch (Low Franconian, West Germanic)      Low German (West Germanic)      Central German (High German, West Germanic)      Upper German (High German, West Germanic)      English (Anglo-Frisian, West Germanic)      Frisian (Anglo-Frisian, West Germanic) North Germanic languages      East Scandinavian      West Scandinavian      Line dividing the North and West Germanic languages

By about the tenth century, the varieties had diverged enough to make inter-comprehensibility difficult. The linguistic contact of the Viking settlers of the Danelaw with the Anglo-Saxons left traces in the English language, and is suspected to have facilitated the collapse of Old English grammar that resulted in Middle English from the twelfth century.

The East Germanic languages were marginalized from the end of the Migration period. The Burgundians, Goths, and Vandals became linguistically assimilated by their respective neighbors by about the seventh century, with only Crimean Gothic lingering on until the eighteenth century.

During the early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Middle English on one hand, and by the High German consonant shift on the continent on the other, resulting in Upper German and Low Saxon, with graded intermediate Central German varieties. By Early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South to Northern Low Saxon in the North and, although both extremes are considered German, they are hardly mutually intelligible. The southernmost varieties had completed the second sound shift, while the northern varieties remained unaffected by the consonant shift.

The North Germanic languages, on the other hand, remained more unified, with the peninsular languages largely retaining mutual intelligibility into modern times.


Note that divisions between and among subfamilies of Germanic are rarely precisely defined; most form continuous clines, with adjacent varieties being mutually intelligible and more separated ones not.



The table below shows the succession of the significant historical stages of each language (vertically), and their approximate groupings in subfamilies (horizontally). Horizontal sequence within each group does not imply a measure of greater or lesser similarity.

Iron Age
500 BC–AD 200
East Germanic West Germanic North Germanic
South Germanic Anglo-Frisian
Migration period
AD 200–700
Gothic, Lombardic1   Old Frankish Old Saxon Old Frisian Old English Proto-Norse
Vandalic, Burgundian, Old High German
Early Middle Ages
Old Low Franconian Runic Old West Norse Runic Old East Norse
Middle Ages
Middle High German Middle Dutch Middle Low German Early Middle English Old Icelandic Old Norwegian Early Old Danish Early Old Swedish Early Old Gutnish
Late Middle Ages2
Early New High German Late Middle English Early Scots3 Late Old Icelandic Old Faroese Old Norn Middle Norwegian Late Old Danish Late Old Swedish Late Old Gutnish
Early Modern Age
Crimean Gothic Low Franconian varieties, including Dutch Middle Frisian Early Modern English Middle Scots Icelandic Faroese Norn Norwegian Danish Swedish Gutnish
Modern Age
1700 to present
all extinct High German varieties Low Saxon varieties Frisian varieties English varieties Modern Scots varieties extinct4 extinct5


Germanic Languages.PNG

All living Germanic languages belong either to the West Germanic or to the North Germanic branch. The West Germanic group is the larger by far, further subdivided into Anglo-Frisian on one hand, and Continental West Germanic on the other. Anglo-Frisian notably includes English and all its variants, while Continental West Germanic includes German (standard register and dialects) as well as Dutch (standard register and dialects).

Vocabulary comparison

Several of the terms in the table below have had semantic drift. For example, the form Sterben and other terms for die are cognates with the English word starve. There is also at least one example of a common borrowing from a non-Germanic source (ounce and its cognates from Latin).

English Scots West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Low Saxon Gronings German Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokmål) Norwegian (Nynorsk) Limburgish
Apple Aiple Apel Appel Appel Appel Abbel Apfel Aplus Epli Epl(i)[12] Äpple Æble Eple Eple Appel
Board Buird Board Bord Bord Boord Bred Brett / Bord[13] Baúrd Borð Borð Bord Bord Bord Bord Bórdj
Beech Beech Boeke/ Boekebeam Beuk Beuk Böke Beukenboom Buche Bōka[14]/-bagms Bók Bókartræ Bok Bøg Bøk Bok/Bøk Beuk
Book Beuk Boek Boek Boek Book Bouk Buch Bōka Bók Bók Bok Bog Bok Bok Book
Breast Breest Boarst Bors Borst Bost Bôrst Brust Brusts Brjóst Bróst/bringa Bröst Bryst Bryst Bryst Bórs
Brown Broun Brún Bruin Bruin Bruun Broen Braun Bruns Brúnn Brúnur Brun Brun Brun Brun Broen
Day Day Dei Dag Dag Dag Dag Tag Dags Dagur Dagur Dag Dag Dag Dag Daag
Dead Deid Dea Dood Dood Dood Dood Tot Dauþs Dauður Deyður Död Død Død Daud Doeaje[15]
Die (Starve) Dee Stjerre Sterf Sterven Döen/ Starven Staarven Sterben Diwan Deyja Doyggja Døy/Starva Stèrve
Enough Eneuch Genôch Genoeg Genoeg Noog Genog Genug Ganōhs Nóg Nóg/Nógmikið Nog Nok Nok Nok Genóg
Finger Finger Finger Vinger Vinger Finger Vinger Finger Figgrs Fingur Fingur Finger Finger Finger Finger Vinger
Give Gie Jaan Gee Geven Geven Geven Geben Giban Gefa Geva Ge/Giva Give Gi Gje(va) Gaeve
Glass Gless Glês Glas Glas Glas Glas Glas Glas Glas Glas Glas Glass Glas Glaas
Gold Gowd Goud Goud Goud Gold Gold Gold Gulþ Gull Gull Guld/Gull Guld Gull Gull Góldj
Good Guid Gód Goed Goed Guot Goud Gut Gōþ(is) Góð Gud/Guð God God God God Good
Hand Haund Hân Hand Hand Hand Haand Hand Handus Hönd Hond Hand Hånd Hånd Hand Handj
Head Heid Holle Hoof[16]/ Kop[17] Hoofd/ Kop[17] Kopp[17] Heufd/ Kop[17] Haupt/ Kopf[17] Háubiþ Höfuð Høvd/ Høvur Huvud Hoved Hode Hovud Huudj[18]
High Heich Heech Hoog Hoog Hoog Hoog/Höch Hoch Háuh Hár Høg/ur Hög Høj Høy/høg Høg Hoeag
Home Hame Hiem Heim[19]/ Tuis[20] Heim[19]/Thuis[20] Heim Thoes[20] Heim Háimōþ Heim Heim Hem Hjem Hjem/heim Heim Heim
Hook/Crook Heuk Hoek Haak Haak Haak Hoak Haken Kram/ppa Krókur Krókur/Ongul Hake/Krok Hage/Krog Hake/Krok Hake/Krok[21] Haok
House Hoose Hûs Huis Huis Huus Hoes Haus Hūs Hús Hús Hus Hus Hus Hus Hoes
Many Mony Mannich/Mennich Menige Menig Mennig Ìnde Manch Manags Margir Mangir/Nógvir Många Mange Mange Mange Mäönech[22]
Moon Muin Moanne Maan Maan Maan Moan Mond Mēna Máni/Tungl Máni/Tungl Måne Måne Måne Måne Maon
Night Nicht Nacht Nag Nacht Natt/ Nacht Nacht Nacht Nótt Nótt Nátt Natt Nat Natt Natt Nach
No (Nay) Nae Nee Nee Nee(n) Nee Nee/Nai Nee/Nein/Nö Nei Nei Nej/Nä Nej Nei Nei Nae/Nein
Old (but: elder, eldritch) Auld Âld Oud Gammel [23]/Oud Oll Old/Olleg Alt Sineigs Gamall (but: eldri, elstur) Gamal (but: eldri, elstur) Gammal (but: äldre, äldst) Gammel (but: ældre, ældst) Gammel (but: eldre, eldst) Gam(m)al (but: eldre, eldst) Aad (old) Gammel (decayed)
One Ane Ien Een Een Een Aine Eins Áins Einn Ein En En En Ein Ein
Ounce Unce Ûns Ons Ons Ons Onze Unze Unkja Únsa Únsa Uns Unse Unse Unse/Unsa Óns
Snow Snaw Snie Sneeu Sneeuw Snee Snij/Snèj Schnee Snáiws Snjór Kavi/Snjógvur Snö Sne Snø Snø Snieë
Stone Stane Stien Steen Steen Steen Stain Stein Stáins Steinn Steinur Sten Sten Stein Stein Stein
That That Dat Daardie/Dit Dat/Die Dat/Dit Dat/Dij Das Þata Það Tað Det Det Det Det Det
Two/Twain Twa Twa Twee Twee Twee Twij/Twèje Zwei/Zwo Twái Tveir/Tvær/Tvö Tveir/Tvey/Tvær/Tvá Två To To To[24] Twieë
Who Wha Wa Wie Wie Wokeen Wel Wer Ƕas/Hwas Hver Hvør Vem Hvem Hvem Kven Wae
Worm Wirm Wjirm Wurm Worm/Wurm Worm Wörm Wurm Maþa Maðkur/Ormur Maðkur/Ormur Mask/Orm [25] Orm Makk/Mark/Orm  [25] Makk/Mark/Orm[25] Wórm
English Scots West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Low Saxon Gronings German Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokmål) Norwegian (Nynorsk) Limburgish

See also


  1. ^ Ethnologue on English
  2. ^ Curtis, Andy. Color, Race, And English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning. 2006, page 192.
  3. ^ SIL Ethnologue (2006). 95 million speakers of Standard German; 95 million including Middle and Upper German dialects; 120 million including Low Saxon and Yiddish.
  4. ^ Dutch, University College London
  5. ^ Ethnologue on Afrikaans
  6. ^ Holmberg, Anders and Christer Platzack (2005). "The Scandinavian languages". In The Comparative Syntax Handbook, eds Guglielmo Cinque and Richard S. Kayne. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Excerpt at Durham University.
  7. ^ Malcolm Todd (1992). The Early Germans. Blackwell Publishing. 
  8. ^ Aitken, A. J. and McArthur, T. Eds. (1979) Languages of Scotland. Edinburgh,Chambers. p. 87
  9. ^ McClure (1991) in The Cambridge History of the English Language Vol. 5. p. 23.
  10. ^ Robinson M. (ed.) (1985) the "Concise Scots Dictionary, Chambers, Edinburgh. p. xiii
  11. ^ Dareau M., Pike l. and Watson, H (eds) (2002) "A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue" Vol. XII, Oxford University Press. p. xxxiv
  12. ^ The cognate means 'potato'. The correct word is 'Súrepli'.
  13. ^ Brett used in Southern, Bord also used in Northern Germany
  14. ^ Attested meaning 'letter', but also means beech in other Germanic languages, cf. Russian buk 'beech', bukva 'letter', maybe from Gothic.
  15. ^ Means to kill, correct translation would be kepót
  16. ^ Now only used in compound words such as hoofpyn (headache) and metaphorically, such as hoofstad (capital city).
  17. ^ a b c d e From an old Latin borrowing, akin to "cup".
  18. ^ Means main (like huudjstad is capital) Correct translation would be kop
  19. ^ a b Archaic: now only used in compound words such as 'heimwee' (homesickness).
  20. ^ a b c From a compound phrase akin to "to house"
  21. ^ Ongel is also used for fishing hook.
  22. ^ Archaic
  23. ^ Old and decayed.
  24. ^ Dialectally Tvo/Två/Tvei (m)/Tvæ (f)/Tvau (n).
  25. ^ a b c The cognate orm usually means 'snake'.

External links


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