English: A Germanic*(?) Language

To preface the following writing, I would like to make clear that English is a Germanic language and I do not think otherwise; as with all languages, it has its own individualities due to its own rich history affecting its growth and development. What follows is a discussion of some of these features that the English language has absorbed.

Languages, and tautologically I mean living, i.e. non-extinct, languages, are living; they evolve, grow, diverge, and change in all ways they can when they are able to naturally. Exceptions to this would be when a language is influenced by people whose aim it is to influence the language such as the ideology of Linguistic Purism in Iceland. People react to their current situations and their language reflects that, giving rise to new words such as Ostalgie, a play on the German word Nostalgie meaning nostalgia. Ost means East in German, as one might be able to guess, and by happenstance, Nostalgie contains the word Ost. After the German reunification of East and West Germany, many people living in the East had to become accustomed to a totally new world. Many missed their way of life and their prior identity in the once Communist East Germany, thus was Ostalgie born.

Questions

Now to English. When you ask a simple question, you use the verb “to do” in whatever tense/conjugations is appropriate and use the stem of the main verb. For example:

The geese swam

 is rendered

Did the geese swim?

Here you can see the use of “to do” matching the tense in the original sentence, plus the main stem “swim” in “to swim”. If you compare this to other Germanic languages, you just don’t see this structure. The usual way of forming simple questions is via inversion. The same statement in German

Die Gänse schwammen

and as a question this is

Schwammen die Gänse?

One takes the verb, inverts it with the subject (the geese) and one has a question. English does something reminiscent of this since “to do” still comes before the subject, however one doesn’t say “swam the geese?” for this question anymore. This method of taking a statement and forming a question by the introduction of a new verb/particle is by no means unique to English; in Polish, you take a statement such as

Piszę książkę

meaning “I write a book” and add the particle czy, one has

Czy piszę książkę?

meaning “Am I writing a book” or “do I write a book”, since there is no differentiation between continuous tenses. The question is formed simply by “Czy STATEMENT?”. A not so natural example, which is directly derived from czy in Polish is the Esperanto ĉu which is used in exactly the same way,

Mi skribas libron

Ĉu mi skribas libron?

meaning “I write a book” and “Do I write a book?” respectively. Though this example is not due to natural progression, rather included by L. L. Zamenhof in his creation of Esperanto. Adding a particle at the beginning of the sentence is by no means the only way to do this, Japanese and Mandarin take the form “STATEMENT + Particle?” to form a question,

本を書きます、

本を書きますか。

Here, one takes the statement “[I] write a book” (Romanised hon o kakimasu) and adds か (ka) to the end to form the question “Do I write a book?”, with Mandarin functioning in the same way for simple questions but with the question particle 吗 (ma) at the end. Finnish, on the other hand, adds a particle straight to the end of a verb. Take

Olen englantilainen

meaning “I am English” and its question form

Olenko englantilainen

“Am I English?”. One adds -ko or -kö (due to Finnish vowel harmony) to the verb and one has a simple question!

Despite the slight digression, there is nothing Germanic about how we form simple questions in English!

Vocabulary

It is estimated that around 26% of English words today are of Germanic origin, whereas approximately 58% are Romance in origin. This is for the whole English corpus, including the vast assortment of scientific and specialist words that are Latin in origin (and those that are Greek fall into unaccounted for percentages in the so far given statistics), however when viewing the most common words, this skews to becoming mainly Germanic. English has adapted and absorbed many words over its long history, including manly loanwords and many calques.

Incidentally, a loanword is a word that comes into a language from another without being translated, whereas a calque is a word that comes into a language from another with a translation. That being said, loanword is a calque, i.e. a translation, from German “Lehnwort”, whereas calque is a loanword since it comes directly from French.

English exists in and enjoys the wonderful position having double etymology words (non-standard term). What do I mean by this? Were English a living being, I would say it likes to take on new words, but language exists on a far more abstract level of living so it falls down to the volition of its speakers to take on more words to express themselves. What was that? The volition of its speakers, a Latin-derived word from volo meaning “I want”, which itself comes eventually from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *welh₁ (the asterisk refers to the fact that this is a reconstructed word) meaning “to want/to choose”. We can express volition in a different way, through the word want or, through will. Will meaning “wanting” seems somewhat archaic now but we still use it in the case of someone’s last will and testament, if it be your will, and thou wilt that…. The word is full of volition in meaning, even if it is no longer used as commonly to mean that! Now, will comes from Old English (OE) willan/wyllan meaning “to will/to desire/to wish” etc. which in turn came from the Proto-Germanic (PG) root *wiljaną, “to desire/wish”, which came again from PIE *welh₁. Despite the very long path and divergent evolution, the two words kept faithful to their meaning and we adopted the originally same word twice.

It isn’t just Romance-Germanic double etymology words that creep into English, we have cases of double-Germanic words too! Shirt and skirt are such a pair, as are shoal and school, as well as shell and skull. The key difference in the pronunciation of the two words in each pair is the first sound, either a “sk” or a “sh”-sound. These pairs of word come from the same Germanic root but during the contact between the Vikings speaking Old Norse (ON) and native speakers speaking OE, people mixed, causing the mixing of vocabularies. The “sh” native English words in most cases were more general than the adopted “sk”-words, which took on more specific meanings. For example, a group of fish in some sort of loose cluster is called a shoal, whereas a group of fish of the same species all swimming in the same direction, turning and twisting synchronously is a school. All schools are shoals but not all shoals are schools. This is the most obvious exposition of the difference, with shells and skulls, one might abstractly see a skull as a more general example of a shell, protecting the brain, and with shirts and skirts the link is perhaps tenuous, unless one knows that shirts and skirts were originally just short garments. Regardless of the semantics, English now has these three pairs of words (and more), each coming from the same Germanic root!

Interestingly, one can take this regular correspondence and apply it to English and Scandinavian pairs of words to recover cognates, even if English hasn’t adopted the original ON word. For example, “will” as in “I will” in Swedish is very formally written “skall”, though in most cases this word has become “ska” though we will stay with the formal word now. If we apply the sound correspondence, we find “shall”, which means exactly what we would expect it to!

Wanting has so far played a part in this discussion of English vocabular and we probe it just it a little bit more. When learning German, a common mistake for native English speakers in translating, say,

Ich will gehen

is to say that it means “I will go” but this is not the case (unless you aim to sound antiquated or archaic), it means “I want to go”. One can find further examples in other Germanic languages,

Ik wil gaan – Dutch

Jag vill gå – Swedish

Ek wil gaan – Afrikaans

Jeg vil gå – Danish

I want to go – English

The family resemblance is very clear, and though “want” is a Germanic origin word, it from the ON vanr meaning something like lacking or deficient, which does not originate from the PIE root *welh₁.

The last Germanic* feature of English I want to discuss is the formation of plurals. Not the kind that slip people up like ox -> oxen but the standard plural for most nouns, that’s right, the -s ending. There’s many examples of words which don’t follow the add an s ending such as the plural of person being people but sometimes persons as well as sheep being its own plural and child becoming children. Most of these are down to OE (person -> people/persons is not but we’ll ignore that one) being Germanic and forming its words using a variety of plural markers. In German for example, plurals have different endings as here:

Kind – Kinder, Child – Children,

Ochse – Ochsen, Ox – Oxen

Schaf – Schafe, Sheep – Sheep.

Like with fish, German also has words which do not change in the plural such as Mädchen (girl). This is all very Germanic but adding an -s for plurals is not (entirely). This feature boils down to the difficulties of learning a language. Over a thousand years ago, there was a multitude of peoples in England, all speaking different languages and when non-native speakers learn a language, they make mistakes. The learners in this case were the Vikings with OE – would you want to tell a Viking that the plural of eage (eye) is eagan rather than eages? Some classes of nouns in OE (specifically strong masculine nouns in the nominative and accusative) effectively added -s to form plurals which is much easier than learning what can feel like a new word for each word just to talk about multiple of them. Apart from the common words at the time, livestock, tooth­teeth, (wo)man(wo)men, etc. which were used so often that the plural forms stuck around, the plural developed to our simple rule we have today!

Without a doubt, English is a Germanic language, most of its core grammar is clearly Germanic as well as the most common words spoken are dominated by Germanic words. England’s history is peppered with influence from outside this small island…

In a post about the English language, I can’t let this go unwritten. The s in island is an insertion, it is not original. In the 15th or 16th century, it was believed that the word isle, then spelled ile/yle in Middle English, was related to the Old French isle (coming from the Latin insula) so s was added to “correct” this spelling “error”. S was then also added into the spelling of iland/yland, bringing us to our modern (linguistically incorrect) spelling island.

Digression over. The colourful history of invasion in early history of England has produced the (in my opinion) beautiful and unique language we have today, full of weird spellings, exceptions to every rule, slight differences to the Germanics norms and more. Classification as Germanic, Romance, Slavic etc. doesn’t put the language in a box and shame it for differing, it just gives an idea to the language’s history, its roots. Language is a story and tool of its people, chronicling their history, enshrining their ways and I think that is just amazing.

-Cameron
I apologise for the long break, life is always busy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s