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West Germanic
Originally between the Rhine, Alps, Elbe, and North Sea; today worldwide
  West Germanic
ISO 639-5: gmw

The West Germanic languages constitute the largest of the three traditional branches of the Germanic family of languages and include languages such as English, Dutch and Afrikaans, German, the Frisian languages, and Yiddish. The other two of these three traditional branches of the Germanic languages are the North and East Germanic languages.



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

Origins and characteristics

The Germanic languages are traditionally divided into three groups: West, East and North Germanic.[1] 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 Western group presumably formed as a variety of Proto-Germanic in the late Jastorf culture (ca. 1st century BC). The West Germanic group is characterized by a number of phonological and morphological innovations not found in North and East Germanic, such as:[2]

  • The loss of w after ng
  • Gemination of consonants (except r) before /j/
  • Replacement of the 2nd person singular preterit ending -t with -i
  • Short forms of the verbs for "stand" and "go"[clarification needed]
  • The development of a gerund

Nevertheless, many scholars doubt whether the West Germanic languages descend from a common ancestor later than Proto-Germanic, that is, they doubt whether a "Proto-West Germanic" ever existed.[2] Rather, some have argued that after East Germanic broke off from the group, the remaining Germanic languages, the Northwest Germanic languages, divided into four main dialects:[3] North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely

  1. North Sea Germanic (Ingvaeonic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and Low German)
  2. Elbe Germanic (Irminonic, ancestral to High German)
  3. Weser-Rhine Germanic (Istvaeonic, ancestral to Old Frankish and Dutch)

Evidence for this view comes from a number of linguistic innovations found in both North Germanic and West Germanic,[2] including:

  • The retraction of Proto-Germanic ǣ to ā
  • The development of umlaut
  • The rhotacism of z to r
  • The development of the demonstrative pronoun ancestral to English this

Under this view, the properties that the West Germanic languages have in common separate from the North Germanic languages are not inherited from a "Proto-West-Germanic" language, but rather spread by language contact among the Germanic languages spoken in central Europe, not reaching those spoken in Scandinavia. Nevertheless, it has been argued that, judging by their nearly identical syntax, the West Germanic languages of the Old period were close enough to have been mutually intelligible.[4]

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Middle English on one hand, and by the second Germanic sound shift on the continent on the other.

The High German consonant shift distinguished the High German languages from the other West Germanic languages. By early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South (the Walliser dialect being the southernmost surviving German dialect) to Northern Low Saxon in the North. Although both extremes are considered German, they are not mutually intelligible. The southernmost varieties have completed the second sound shift, while the northern dialects remained unaffected by the consonant shift.

Of modern German varieties, Low German is the one that most resembles modern English. The district of Angeln (or Anglia), from which the name English derives, is in the extreme northern part of Germany between the Danish border and the Baltic coast. The area of the Saxons (parts of today's Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony) lay south of Anglia. The Anglo-Saxons, two Germanic tribes, were a combination of a number of peoples from northern Germany and the Jutland Peninsula.

Family tree

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

Note that divisions between subfamilies of Germanic are rarely precisely defined; most form dialect continua, with adjacent dialects being mutually intelligible and more separated ones not.


  1. ^ Hawkins, John A. (1987). "Germanic languages". in Bernard Comrie. The World's Major Languages. Oxford University Press. pp. 68–76. ISBN 0-19-520521-9.  
  2. ^ a b c Robinson, Orrin W. (1992). Old English and Its Closest Relatives. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2221-8.  
  3. ^ Kuhn, Hans (1955–56). "Zur Gliederung der germanischen Sprachen". Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 66: 1–47.  
  4. ^ Graeme Davis (2006:154) notes "the languages of the Germanic group in the Old period are much closer than has previously been noted. Indeed it would not be inappropriate to regard them as dialects of one language. They are undoubtedly far closer one to another than are the various dialects of modern Chinese, for example. A reasonable modern analogy might be Arabic, where considerable dialectical diversity exists but within the concept of a single Arabic language." In: Davis, Graeme (2006). Comparative Syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic: Linguistic, Literary and Historical Implications. Bern: Peter Lang. ISBN 3-03910-270-2.  


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