home news lessons pictures students' works contact forum
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 test 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Click here to see the content and the description of the lessons: content

Lesson 2

Germanic languages, their description and classification


As the Indo-Europeans spread over a larger territory, the ancient Germans moved further north than other tribes and settled on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. Proto-Germanic has never been recorded in the 19th c. It was reconstructed by the methods of comparative linguistics from written records. Towards the beginning of our era Germanic divided into dialectical groups which later developed into separate languages:

Germanic languages:

Gothic Lombardic Vandalic Burgundian
Old, Middle, New
Low German
Old, Middle, New
New Low German Dutch-Flemish Afrikaans
High German
Old, Middle, New
Alemannic Bavarian Franconian Yiddish
Old, New
Old, New
Faroese Icelandic Norwegian Norn

Language Descriptions


Afrikaans is a contemporary West Germanic language developed from seventeenth century Dutch. It is one of the eleven official languages of the Republic of South Africa.

"Although Afrikaans derives from Dutch, it was also influenced by Malay (spoken by the slaves in the 17th century) and the indigenous African languages. The first recognizable form of Afrikaans was apparently spoken by the Malay people of the Cape in the 17th/18th century." - Johan Viljoen

Number of speakers (1988): 10 million

An example of Afrikaans (The Lord's Prayer).


Burgundian was the East Germanic language of the Germanic speaking people who ultimately settled in southeastern Gaul (Southeastern France, Western Switzerland, and Northwestern Italy) in the fifth century C.E. It is extinct.


Dutch or Flemish is the contemporary descendent of Middle Dutch. With slight differences, the same language is called Dutch in the Netherlands and Flemish in Belgium. It is one of the two official languages of the Netherlands and one of the three official languages of Belgium.

Number of Speakers (2000): 20 million

An example of Dutch (The Lord's Prayer).

East Germanic

The East Germanic branch of the Germanic languages was spoken by the Germanic speaking people who, in the second through fourth centuries C. E., migrated first to the Danube and Black Sea areas from the Germanic homeland. The languages of these people, which are poorly attested except for West Gothic, show characteristic differences from West and North Germanic branches.

The East Germanic Languages were Gothic, Vandalic, Burgundian, Lombardic, Rugian, Herulian, Bastarnae, and Scirian. It is said that the East Germanic languages were probably all very similar.

All of the East Germanic languages are extinct.

East Norse

East Norse is the eastern branch of the North Germanic languages used in Denmark and Sweden and their present and former colonies. It diverged from common North Germanic about 800 C. E. Its descendents were Danish, Swedish, and Gutnish.


Faroese is a contemporary Western North Germanic language spoken in the Faroe Islands. It is a descendant of West Norse.

Number of Speakers (1988): 41,000

An example of Faroese (St. John 3:16 and The Lord's Prayer).


Frankish is the extinct West Germanic language formerly spoken in Northern Gaul and the Low Countries. It was largely swamped by the Latin-derived French. However Low Franconian, an approximate ancestor of Dutch-Flemish, was closely related to Frankish.


Frisian is a contemporary West Germanic language spoken in the Netherlands and Germany. It is one of the two official languages of the Netherlands. Of all Germanic languages, Frisian is most closely related to English.

Frisian from the earliest records of about 1300 until about 1575 is called Old Frisian. Subsequently Frisian is known as New Frisian. Some Frisian scholars also identify a Middle Frisian period from about 1600 to about 1800.

Frisian exists in three major divisions, each of which is subdivided into dialects. The two dialects of East Frisian have been largely replaced by dialects of New Low German which are called East Frisian. North Frisian is divided into about ten dialects. Nearly all modern Frisian literature is in West Frisian which has about six dialects.

An example of Frisian (The Lord's Prayer).


The Germanic branch of Indo-European is a centum language, characterized by systematic change in initial stops, a stress accent on the first syllable of the root, by the productive use of ablaut in verbs, by the use of a dental suffix in verb morphology, and by the use of strong and weak adjective conjugations.

See also Edwin Duncan's Seven Distinctive Features of Germanic

The linguistic and archaeological data seem to indicate that the final linguistic stage of the Germanic languages took place in an area which has been located approximately in Southern Sweden, Southern Norway, Denmark and the lower Elbe. Around the year 1000 B. C., the Germanic tribes spread to the lower Weser and Oder and around 750 B. C. they reached the Vistula river.

During their expansion the Germanic tribes, who spoke an Indo-European language, mixed with other European tribes (the so-called Streitaxe- or Battle-axe people), who spoke another, unknown, language.

This tree shows the traditional division of Germanic into East, North, and West, however the relationship between East and North Germanic and the principle branches of West Germanic leads many scholars to divide all Germanic into five equal-weight branches (clockwise from the north): North, East, Elbe, Rhine-Weser, and North Sea Germanic. Elbe Germanic corresponds roughly with High German; Rhine-Weser with Low Germanic; and North Sea with Anglo-Frisian Germanic. Wanderings of the Germanic tribes, especially during the Vlkerwanderung period (400-700 CE), permitted much mixing of the dialects.

About 80 percent of Germanic roots are non-Indo-European.

Living Germanic Languages

Extinct Germanic Languages See also the Ethnologue's Language Family Index: Indo-European for many modern Germanic dialects.


Gothic was the East Germanic language of the Germanic speaking people who migrated from southern Scania (southern Sweden) to the Ukraine. From there the West and East Goths migrated to southern Gaul, Iberia, and Italy in the fifth and sixth centuries C. E. The Gepids were overcome by the Lombards and Avars in the fifth century and disappeared.

Goths the most powerful tribes. Around 200 A.D. they moved south-east and reached the basin of Danube /'dænjub/, where they made attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium /bi'zæntiem/.
The Gothic language, now dead, has been preserved in written records of the 4th-6th c. The Goths were the first to become Christians. In the 4th c. Ulfillas, a West Gothic bishop, made a translation of the Gospels from Greek into Gothic using a modified form of the Greek alphabet. A manuscript of about two hundred pages made in 5th-6th c. has been preserved and is kept now in Sweden. Ulfillas' Bible or Silver Bible is the earliest example of the text in the language of the Germanic group. It represents a form of language very close to PG.
read more

Gothic is extinct. The last Gothic speakers reported were in the Crimea in the sixteenth century C. E.

An example of Gothic (The Lord's Prayer).


Gutnish is a contemporary Eastern North Germanic language spoken on the island of Gotland. It is first attested in legal documents of the fourteenth century C. E. Some authorities consider Gutnish to be merely a dialect of Swedish.


Icelandic is the contemporary language of Iceland. It is a very conservative descendent of West Norse. Frequently Old Icelandic (c. 800 BCE - 1500 CE) is referred to as Old Norse. It is the language of the Norse sagas and eddas. It is said that many Icelandic readers are able to read this literature without much difficulty.

Number of Speakers (1988): 250,000

An example of Icelandic (The Lord's Prayer).


Lombardic was the East Germanic language of the Germanic speaking people who invaded and settled in Italy in the sixth century C. E. It is said that Lombardic participated in the so-called second sound shift which is primarily attested in High German.

Lombardic is extinct.

Middle English

Middle English was the descendent of Old English. English after about 1100 C. E. had changed enough to warrant a different designation. Middle English had about five major dialects, Northern, West Midlands, East Midlands, Southwestern, and Kentish.

Middle English is characterized by the reduction and loss of inflectional endings and the introduction of a large number of words derived first from Latin through Norman or Middle French and subsequently from Middle Dutch. By the late fifteenth century, East Midlands Middle English, the language of London, had acquired enough changes to be designated Early New English, the language of Mallory (Le Morte d'Arthur).

Some examples of Middle English (The Lord's Prayer).

New Danish

New (or Modern Danish) is the contemporary descendent of Old Danish. It is the official language of Denmark.

Number of Speakers (1988): 5 million

An example of Danish (The Lord's Prayer).

New English

New (or Modern) English is the contemporary descendent of Middle English. It is the official language of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, It is the standard language of the United States. It is one of the official languages of Canada, India, the United Nations, and many other nations.

New English is characterized by a very large vocabulary, non-phonetic spelling, an almost total lack of inflection (most plurals of nouns are indicated), a syntax almost totally dependent on word order, and a very complicated periphrastic verb system.

Number of speakers (2000): 341 million (first language), circa 3 billion total.

Some examples of New English (The Lord's Prayer).

New High German

New (or Modern) High German is the contemporary descendent of Middle High German. It is the official language of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. There are multiple extant dialects of High German.

High German partakes of the so-called second sound shift.

Number of Speakers (2000): 110 million

An example of High German (The Lord's Prayer).

New Low German (Plattdeutsch)

New (or Modern) Low German (Plattdeutsch) is the contemporary descendent of Middle Low German. It is spoken on the North German plain in Germany and the Netherlands. The name Low Saxon is preferred in the Netherlands. There are multiple extant dialects of Low German.

Although Low German is frequently referred to as 'a dialect of German', it has linguistic roots which reach back at least as far as High German.

Number of Speakers: 1.5 to 2.0 million

An example of Low German (The Lord's Prayer).

New Swedish

New Swedish is a contemporary Eastern North Germanic language, a descendent of Old Swedish. It is the official language of Sweden and is spoken in Finland.

Number of Speakers (1988): 9 million

An example of Swedish (The Lord's Prayer).


Norn was a mixed language of West Norse and Irish spoken in the Shetland Islands. It is extinct.

There is extant an entire ballad text in Norn, Hildina-kvadet.

It is described in an article: Hildina-kvaedet. Ein etteroeknad og ei tolking. by Eigil Lehmann. It is printed in: Fra Fjon til Fusa 1984. Arbok for Hordamuseet og for Nord- og Midhordland sogelag.

Hildina-kvadet was written down in 1774 by the Scot George Low. He got it from a farmer - Guttorm - at the Shetland island Foula. Low did not understand the language, so the song will have to be "translated" into - well, whatever. What Lehmann does, is to try to reconstruct the Norn version of the song.

Lehmann's preface contains a bibliography, translated here by Reidar Moberg:

"The song was printed as early as 1808 by James Headrick, in 1838 by the Norwegian P.A. Munch. Others, who have been working on this kvad, is the Dane Svend Grundtvig, the Norwegian Sophus Bugge, Jakob Jakobsen from the Faeroe Islands, the Norwegian Moltke Moe and the Dane Axel Olrik. These have mostly tried to bring the kvad back to old Norse. Such a reconstruct from Axel Olrik from 1898 could be found in a work on the kvad of the Dane Hakon Grner-Nielsen in the honour book to Gustav Indrebo 1939. The most thorough work is done by the Norwegian Marius Haegstad in the book Hildina-kvadet from 1900."

An example of Norn (The Lord's Prayer) in Orkney and Shetland Norn.

North Germanic

The North Germanic branch of the Germanic languages is spoken by the Germanic speaking people who stayed in northern part of the Germanic homeland. Between about 800 C. E. and 1000 C. E., the dialects of North Germanic diverged into West Norse and East Norse.

A characteristic of the North Germanic languages is the use of a postposed definite article.


Norwegian, a contemporary Western North Germanic language, is the official language of Norway. It is a collection of related dialects of West Norse. It has two major written dialects: Nynorsk and Bokmal. Nynorsk is the contemporary descendent of Old Norwegian. Bokmal, also called Dano-Norwegian or Riksmal, is really a form of Danish. Since 1951 there has been a concerted effort to effect a merger of the two dialects.

Number of Speakers (1988): 5 million

Examples of Norwegian (The Lord's Prayer) in Nynorsk and Bokmal.

Old English

Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) is the oldest recorded form of English. It is said to be the language of the three tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) of West Germanic speaking people who invaded and occupied Britain in the fifth century C. E. It is very closely related to Old Frisian.

Old English developed four major dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish. The majority of recorded Old English is in the West Saxon dialect.

Old English is characterized by phonetic spelling, a moderate number of inflections (two numbers, three genders, four cases, remnants of dual number and instrumental case), a syntax somewhat dependent on word order, and a simple two tense, three mood, four person (three singular, one plural) verb system.

Old English is recorded from the late seventh century onwards. By about 1100 C. E. enough changes had accumulated so that the language is designated Middle English.

Some examples of Old English (The Lord's Prayer).

Old Danish

Old Danish was an Eastern North Germanic language, spoken in Denmark, the ancestor of New Danish and Bokmal.

Old Low German

Old Low German consisted of a pair of West Germanic languages, spoken along the North Sea coast and somewhat inland, Old Saxon and Low Franconian. Old Saxon was the ancestor of Middle Low German and New Low German. Low Franconian was the ancestor of Middle Dutch and Dutch-Flemish. Low Franconian is probably a lineal or collateral descendent of the collection of ancient West Germanic dialects called Frankish.

Old Swedish

Old Swedish was an Eastern North Germanic language attested in about 2000 runic inscriptions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries C. E. Its contemporary descendant is New Swedish.


Vandalic was the East Germanic language of the Germanic speaking people who invaded Gaul, Iberia, and Africa. They founded a kingdom in Africa in the fifth century C. E. Vandalic is extinct.

West Germanic

The West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages is spoken by the Germanic speaking people who occupied the southwestern part of the Germanic homeland. The languages of these people show characteristic differences from the East and North Germanic branches.

The West Germanic Languages are Afrikaans, Dutch-Flemish, English, Frisian, Low German, and High German.

Groupings of the West Germanic Languages vary. The grouping shown in the tree is derived from Campbell, wherein Old English, Old Frisian, and Old Saxon are grouped as Ingaevonic languages and Old High German is shown separated. Baldi groups English and Frisian as Anglo-Frisian and High and Low German as German. In any case English and Frisian are agreed to be very closely related. English and Frisian share sound changes which do not occur in German. The Ingaevonic languages do not partake of the High German or second sound shift.

The whole West Germanic language area, from the North Sea far into Central Europe, is really a continuum of local dialects differing little from one village to the next. Only after one has travelled some distance are the dialects mutually incomprehensible. At times there are places where this does not occur, generally at national borders or around colonies of speakers of other languages such as West Slavic islands in eastern Germany. Normally the local national language is understood everywhere within a nation. The fact of this continuum makes the tracing of the lines of historical development of national languages difficult, if not impossible.

West Norse

West Norse is the western branch of the North Germanic languages used in Iceland, Ireland, Norway, the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands. It diverged from common North Germanic about 800 C. E. Its living descendents are Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese.

Terminology for varieties of West Norse is vexed. Old Icelandic & Old Norwegian are sometimes called Old West Norse, with Danish and Swdish being Old East Norse. Other sources refer to Old Icelandic as Old Norse.


Yiddish is a contemporary descendant of Middle High German which existed in two main dialects, West Yiddish and East Yiddish. It developed in Germany in approximately 1050 CE and spread eastward into Poland and Russia. It contains an admixture of German, Romance, Hebrew-Aramaic, and Slavic. West Yiddish is said to be extinct. Estern Yiddish is spoken in Israel, the United States, Latin America, and Russia.

Number of Speakers (2000): 20 million.

Other Commentary

Grimm's Law

Grimm's Law describes the phonetic shift of initial stops from their Indo-European values to their Germanic values: voiceless stops become fricatives, voiced stops are devoiced, and voiced aspirate stops become deaspirate. To quote the American Heritage Dictionary:
A formula describing the regular changes undergone by Indo-European stop consonants represented in Germanic. Essentially, it states that Indo-European p, t, and k become Germanic f, th, and h; Indo-European b, d, and g become Germanic p, t, and k; and Indo-European bh, dh, and gh become Germanic b, d, and g. [Formulated by Jakob Grimm.]
[Jakob Grimm (1785-1863) was the brother of Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859). The Grimm brothers are best known as the collectors of "Grimm's Fairy Tales."]

Second Sound Shift

High German partakes of certain unique sound shifts not shared by the rest of the Germanic Languages (except, perhaps, Lombardic).

Verner's Law

Verner's Law explains certain apparent exceptions to Grimm's Law as due to the original Indo-European accent. Or to quote the American Heritage Dictionary:
A law stating essentially that Proto-Germanic noninitial voiceless fricatives in voiced environments became voiced when the previous syllable was unstressed in Proto-Indo-European. [Formulated by Karl Adolph Verner (1846-1896, Danish philologist.]

Sources and links to the lesson

Hosted by uCoz