The Germanic Languages

The Germanic languages have held a special place in my heart ever since I began to study German in secondary school. I was taken in by its formation of long words (such as Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl – whose position in the curriculum I initially questioned), as well as its systemic logic. German taught me more about English; how to use whom “properly” and why prescriptivists tell us that it is prepositions you can’t end sentenced with (construction intended). Most of all, I fell in love with the feel of the words I was speaking, reading, and writing.

This expanded into loving Germanic languages as a family, to whose description I will devote this blog entry. I disclaim that this discussion is based on my experience with Germanic languages and if I neglect to talk about a specific Germanic language, it is due to lack of familiarity with it.

A Brief History of Germanics

Proto Germanic

The Germanic languages are descendants of the reconstructed Proto-Germanic language (PG). We call it reconstructed as there are no written words or directly attested evidence of specific words in PG; however, by using attested words and regular correspondence between living languages, one can arrive at the reconstructed words. Words that are reconstructed are denoted with an asterisk. For example, we have evidence of the word “King” in other Germanic languages. German: König, Old English: Cyning, Dutch: Koning, Swedish: Kung, Old Norse: Konungr etc. These are all ultimately derived (most likely) from the PG: *Kuningaz. Old Norse (ON) is the oldest attested and it looks rather similar!

Remark 1: The (soon-to-be-defined) North and West Germanic languages underwent a sound change called “rhotacism”. Etymologically, this term comes from the Greek letter “rho” [r] which is equivalent to the English letter “r”. Rhotacism, in Germanic languages, is the process of “z” sounds becoming “r” sounds. Hence, the “z” in the PG word for “king” morphs into the “r” that is noticeable in ON.

Proto-Germanic itself sits in a larger family derived from a (reconstructed) parent language, Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Most of the native languages of Europe and many languages in between the Middle East and India are descendants of PIE and as such share familiar features. Though, these may not be immediately obvious as it is estimated PIE was spoken around 4500BC-2500BC; since then, the languages have diverged and formed sub-families such as PG.

Remark 2: A key feature of the Germanic languages, which sets it aside from other PIE-derived languages is the sound changes described by Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law. There are blog posts devoted to these two laws. In practice, these show us why “Father” (English) and “Vater” (German) are so different from “Pater” (Latin) and “Patér”[ πᾰτήρ] (Ancient Greek), as well as why “Wind” (English) and “Vindr” (Old Norse) are systematically different from “Ventus” (Latin).

The Germanic Triforce

Over time, three distinct varieties of Germanic emerged: West, North, and East. The subfamily with which people will be post familiar is the West Germanic branch. Living West Germanic languages include English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Low German, Scots, and Frisian. Living North Germanic languages include Danish, Swedish, Elfdalian, Gutnish, Norwegian, Faroese, Icelandic. Up until the late 15th century, a descendent of ON was spoken in Greenland called Greenlandic Norse, and a descendent was spoken in Orkney and Shetland until the end of the 19th century called Norn. All descendants of East Germanic are now extinct, however there exist written examples of Gothic, Vandalic and Burgundian.

I will move now to discuss only a few West and North Germanic languages. The ancestors of the contemporary West and North Germanic languages include Old English (OE) predating English and Scots, Old High German (OHG) predating German, Old Norse predating the North Germanic languages, Old Saxon (OS) predating Low German, and Low Franconian predating Dutch.

Some Notes on the Oldies

OE, ON, and OHG utilised cases to convey meaning. You can find more about cases here. OE and OHG had five cases: Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Instrumental; though OE lost most of its usage of the instrumental case apart from in a few rare circumstances – this usage was often replaced by the dative, as it has been in modern German.

Remark 3: We can see this difference if we compare German “I am going by bus” – Ich fahre mit dem Bus – which uses a dative construction (“mit” (German: with) requiring the dative) with the Polish – Jadę autobusem – which is simply “Go” (First person, imperfective determinate, present) plus “Bus” (Instrumental).

ON already did not have the instrumental case. Of the modern Germanic languages, German, Icelandic, and Faroese still retain these four cases; however, Yiddish and Luxembourgish still retain 3 marked cases (no marked genitive case).

Old English

The shared ancestor of Scots and Modern English, Old English appears in form much closer to modern German than to English or Scots. A key reason for this is that OE was spoken before the Norman conquest. After this, Romantic features and vocabulary began to creep into everyday speech. It was such easier to add “-s” to words to form the plural than to remember the irregularities – think about how the plural of “ox” is “oxen”, whereas “sheep” is the same in singular and plural, yet “man” becomes “men”, “mouse” becomes “mice” and “goose” becomes “geese.” Take this idea, now apply it to every word. You can see how the OE speakers heard the simple rule “add ‘-s’ to make it plural” and decided to make it their own. Words which did not change and retained their Germanic form are words which were so common and ingrained into peoples’ minds that they stuck.

Word order became important in deciding the meaning of sentences, rather than cases. So, the sentence

Sē hund ġeaf þām hunde þone hlaf þæs hundes.

which in modern English translates to

The dog gave [to] the dog the dog’s bread.

contains the word “the dog” three times, yet the phrase “the dog” has 3 different forms in OE.

Compare this with modern German:

Der Hund gab dem Hund das Brot des Hunds.

The structure between German and OE is identical, even down to the dative “-m” ending! The only distinction made in modern English is the possessive “-s”, which is shared in all three languages. An interesting fact about the OE word “hlaf” is that it is related to the modern word “loaf” and “hlaf” derives from the PG word “*hlaibaz” which was borrowed into Proto-Slavic, giving rise to the modern Polish word “chleb”.

Remark 4: a common feature of OE-> modern English is the loss of “h” in clusters, such as “hræfn” (OE) to “raven” (English), “hring” (OE) to “ring” (English).

Because of changes like these over the history of English, modern English speakers are isolated from the language of their distant ancestors, with a modern German speaker being able to give a much more accurate guess of the meaning of many simpler sentences.

Old Norse

ON over time splits into three distinct sub-subfamilies: Old West Norse (OWN), Old East Norse (OEN), and Old Gutnish. Zero points for guessing which language derives from Old Gutnish. From Old West Norse descend Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Greenlandic Norse, and from Old East Norse descend Danish and Swedish. OWN is the best-attested variant of ON and is sometimes used synonymously with ON.

OE and ON are very closely related languages, and as such, many ON words look familiar to English speakers. In fact, many ON words were borrowed into OE due to the close contact of the speakers and sometimes these words were what I call “double etymology words”, find more about that here. Familiar words in ON include “armr” (ON) for “arm” (English) and “band” (ON) meaning “band” (English).

We can take the same sentence as before and translate it into ON.

Hundrinn gaf hundinum brauðit hundsins.

Note that ON does not use the word “the” like in OE, English and German. If you look in the dictionary for the word “dog”, you find “hundr”. So why is it “hundrinn”? Because to form the definite article (“the” in English), you add this at the end. Similarly, “bread” is simply “brauð” in the dictionary, yet to form “the bread”, one must write “brauðit”. This happens in modern Scandinavian languages. In Swedish, for example, the word for “bread” is “bröd”, yet “the bread” is “brödet”. It gains “et” in exactly the same way that “brauð” gained “it” in ON.

Remark 4: I am using the term ON rather than OEN and OWN since the variants were so similar that at this level of analysis, it is not necessary to go into the differences. Being aware that there were differences is sufficient.

Even though I wrote “hlaf” (OE) for “bread”, the word “brēad” existed in OE and is cognate with ON “brauð”. “Hlaf” was the most common word for “bread” up until around 1200 when it had been replaced by “bread” (Etymonline, bread (n.)).

Contemporary Developments

The modern Germanic languages now exist as descendants of North and West Germanic. Big players in modern North Germanic are the three brothers, which most people will think of, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish, plus their somewhat more conservative cousins, Icelandic and Faroese. I will group Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish as the “continental” North Germanic languages, and Icelandic and Faroese as the “insular” North Germanic languages.

Insular North Germanic

The insular North Germanic languages have retained many features of ON, in particular, they still have four cases – Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Genitive – and three grammatical genders. Specialising now to simply Icelandic as I have little-to-no experience with Faroese, Icelanders can still (though not always with complete or immediate ease) read texts from the 10th to 13th centuries written in ON due to relative lack of change in the written language. Sure, new vocabulary comes in and becomes the norm, but the key essence has not changed.

Let’s look at how English has developed in the same time period. Compare the opening lines of the Lord’s prayer from around 1000 AD (due to many priests and monks being able to write, many extant examples of OE are from religious texts)

Fæder ūre

þū þē eart on heofonum

Sī þīn nama gehālgod

Remark 5: OE had some letters which are no longer in modern English. The above shows a common letter which is still present in modern Icelandic, þ the thorn. This maybe be replaced by a “th” in modern orthography. As we shall see later, the letter “ð” (called the eth) also existed and represented the same sounds as thorn.

One may try and find similar words to modern and early modern English, maybe filling in some blanks along the way

Father our

Thou thē art in heofonum

thine name gehālgod

From this, we may try and guess from this information what the original text is! In fact, “heofonum” sounds a lot like the modern “heaven”. Though, this is fortunately full of words which are still in modern English! Not all OE texts can be as easily read, such as the opening lines of the OE epic poem Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,

Þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon,

Hu ða æþlingas ellen fremedon.

This is all but unintelligible to the modern English reader. This will unfortunately be the case for most OE texts.

Reviewing the same situation between ON and modern Icelandic, if we take prose from Eiríks saga rauða, (taken from this reddit thread)in ON this is:

Óláfr hét herkonungr, er kallaðr var Óláfr hvíti. Hann var sonr Ingjalds konungs Helgasonar, Óláfssonar, Guðröðarsonar, Hálfdanarsonar hvítbeins Upplendingakonungs.”

In modern Icelandic this is:

“Óleifur hét herkonungur er kallaður var Óleifur hvíti. Hann var son Ingjalds konungs Helgasonar, Ólafssonar, Guðröðarsonar, Hálfdanarsonar hvítbeins Upplendingakonungs.

Differences we can immediately note is that when an ON word ends with consonant+r, modern Icelandic inserts “u” before the “r”. Other than this, they are identical! For fullness, the English version of this text is:

Olaf, who was called Olaf the White, was styled a warrior king. He was the son of King Ingjald, the son of Helgi, the son of Olaf, the son of Gudred, the son of Halfdan Whiteleg, king of the Uplands.

Continental North Germanic

Moving to the continental North Germanic languages, these are the three Scandinavian languages which will come to mind easily. They share a lot of fundamentals with each other and with English too!

Remark 6: The letter å will appear a lot in the next few paragraphs. Read it like English “o” in “toll” so “mål” will rhyme with “toll”.

Modern Norwegian doesn’t exist. What does this mean? There are two standard Norwegian languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk. The reason Norwegian has two is due to its history with Denmark. Up until the 19th century, Danish was the official written language of Norway. After Norway’s independence from Denmark, Danish was officially a foreign language and a language Landsmål – literally country tongue – was developed. Danish also had reformations into Riksmål (Rik is related to the German reich, think Reichstag building) and both languages were declared official and equal languages of Norway. Riksmål developed into what is called Bokmål – literally book tongue – and Landsmål developed into Nynorsk – literally new Norwegian.

In summary, Bokmål developed from written Danish and is hence very similar to modern Danish, whereas Nynorsk developed from looking at the dialects being spoken in Norway, rather than the conservative written form. Due to this, they are very different, especially given Nynorsk in effect derives from OWN, whereas Bokmål derives from OEN. Bokmål is the preferred language of around 90% of the population of Norway, however one must note that, as with many modern Germanic languages, no one really speaks either of these written languages; they exist in writing. People will speak their own dialects.

Both Norwegian languages have retained three grammatical noun genders, whereas Danish and Swedish only have two, however all have lost verb conjugation by person. That is, if I write English/Bokmål/Nynorsk/Swedish/Danish

I am – Jeg er – Eg er – Jag är – Jeg er

You are – Du er – Du er – Du är – Du er

He/she is – Han/hun er – Han/ho er – Han/hon är – Han/hun er

We are – Vi er – Vi er – Vi är – Vi er

You all are – Dere er – De er – Ni är – I er

They are  – De er – Dei er – De är – De er

We can see that the form “er/är” doesn’t change at all: “er/är” represents am/is/are!

Verbs conjugate in the present, future and past tenses. Putting Swedish under the microscope and using “to go”, “gå”. It has four main forms infinite gå, present går, preteritum gick, perfect gått. Swedish, as English, uses both simple and compound tenses and forms these using auxiliary verbs. It does not have a continuous tense, so “I go” and “I am going” are the same.

Present: Jag går (I go/I am going)

Future: Jag ska gå/Jag kommer att gå (I will go)

Present Perfect: Jag har gått (I have gone)

Preteritum: Jag gick (I went)

Past Perfect (Plusquam-perfectum): Jag hade gått (I had gone)

Conditional 1: Jag skulle gå (I would go)

Conditional 2: Jag skulle ha gått (I would have gone).

The formation of tenses is nearly identical to in English. We can identify “ska” with “shall” in English. In fact, in older Swedish one will find “skall” rather than “ska”, which makes the cognate relationship clearer. Whereas, “skulle” can be identified with “should”, though the meaning has diverged a little between the two. “Ha” means “to have” and in the preteritum, this becomes “hade” and is cognate with English “had”.

In the North Germanic languages alone, there is a large difference in the level of conservativity between the continental and insular languages! There is so much more than could be said about all five of the North Germanic languages, however that hole has no end and this blog post must have one, so I will move to the West Germanic languages.

West Germanic Languages

Major players in the West Germanic include modern English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Yiddish. I have already written an in-depth post about German here. Afrikaans is a daughter of Dutch and Yiddish a daughter of German, though these two statements and don’t fully represent the history of these languages well. Though I will not write about this full history, I recommend that readers look into the culture-rich history of Afrikaans and Yiddish! It is certainly an understatement to say they go linearly from Dutch/German to Afrikaans/Yiddish. These daughters contain non-Germanic elements such as “nash brat” in Yiddish, which comes from the Ukrainian for “our brother” and in Yiddish means “pal/friend”. Whereas Afrikaans contains loanwords from non-Germanic sources such as the very common word “baie” meaning “very”, coming from the Malay “banyak”.

Afrikaans, like the continental North Germanic languages, has lost conjugation by person. We have English/Afrikaans/Dutch/German (with Dutch and German for comparison)

I am – Ek is – Ik ben – Ich bin

You are – Jy/U is – Jij/U bent – Du bist

He/She is – Hy/Sy is – Hij/Zij is – Er/Sie ist

We are – Ons is – Wij zijn – Wir sind

You all are – Julle is – Jullie zijn – Ihr seid

They are – Hulle is – Zij zijn – Sie sind

On the line “He/She is”, we have close alignment between all four of the languages.

Using “to go” as in Swedish, here are the verb conjugations for “gaan” in Afrikaans.

Present: Ek gaan (I go/I am going)

Future: Ek sal gaan (I will go)

Present Perfect, Past Perfect, Imperfect: Ek het gegaan (I have gone/I had gone/I went)

Future Perfect: Ek sal gegaan het (I will have gone)

Conditional: Ek sou gaan (I would go)

Past Conditional Perfect: Ek sou gegaan het (I would have gone)

The verb and tense systems are much simpler than in Dutch and are closer to the modern continental North Germanic languages!

English has been analysed throughout this post and you can read more about the interesting intricacies of English here.

Dutch shares a lot of similarities with modern German. Dutch technically has three grammatical genders but in contemporary Dutch, the masculine and feminine have effectively merged so there are two. The definite articles are “de/het” with “de” for masculine/feminine and “het” for neuter and “de” is the plural definite article for all three. As we saw above, Dutch conjugates for person! Let’s conjugate “to go”, “gaan” in Dutch.

Present: Ik ga (I go/I am going)

Future: Ik zal gaan (I will go)

Present Perfect: Ik ben gegaan (I have gone)

Imperfect: Ik ging (I went)

Past Perfect: Ik was gegaan (I had gone)
Future Perfect: Ik zal gegaan zijn (I will have gone)

Conditional: Ik zou gaan (I would go)

Conditional Perfect: Ik zou gegaan zijn (I would have gone)

We can see a mixture of simple and compound tenses here. “Gaan” can take either a present form, an infinitive form “gaan”, a past form such as “ging” or a perfect participle “gegaan”. These look identical to the German forms of “gehen” (to go),

Present: Ich gehe

Future: Ich werde gehen

Present Perfect: Ich bin gegangen

Imperfect: Ich ging

Past Perfect: Ich war gegangen

Future Perfect: Ich werde gegangen sein

Conditional: Ich würde gehen

Conditional Perfect: Ich würde gehen sein

However, if we instead take a verb that does not involve motion, let’s say “to eat”, “eten” in Dutch and “essen” in German, we then have

Present: Ik eet (I eat/I am eating)

Future: Ik zal eten (I will eat)

Present Perfect: Ik heb gegeten (I have eaten)

Imperfect: Ik at (I ate)

Past Perfect: Ik had gegeten (I had eaten)
Future Perfect: Ik zal gegeten hebben (I will have eaten)

Conditional: Ik zou eten (I would eat)

Conditional Perfect: Ik zou gegeten hebben (I would have eaten)

And in German:

Present: Ich esse (I eat/I am eating)

Future: Ich werde essen (I will eat)

Present Perfect: Ich habe gegessen (I hav eaten)
Imperfect: Ich aß (I ate)

Past Perfect: Ich hatte gegessen (I had eaten)

Future Perfect: Ich werde gegessen haben (I will have eaten)

Conditional: Ich würde essen (I would eat)

Conditional Perfect: Ich würde gegessen haben (I would have eaten)

All instances of “zijn/sein” (to be) have been replaced by “hebben/haben” (to have)! This is an instance of the difference in verb forms for verbs of motion and non verbs of motion. Similar distinctions exist in other languages such as French “Je suis allé(e)” (I went, (fe)male) versus “J’ai mangé(e)” (I ate, (fe)male), where the verb of motion uses “être” (to be) and the verb without motion uses “avoir” (to have).

Out of fear of making this a lecture on verbs (which I would unashamedly love), I will end this here! Hopefully at least being able to name some more Germanic languages than before.

It feels like these blog posts are becoming a yearly event… oops! I’ll try to write more but can make no promises!

As always,

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