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German languages

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German languages

West Germanic
Ethnicity: West Germanic peoples
Originally between the Rhine, Alps, Elbe, and North Sea; today worldwide
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
ISO 639-5: gmw
Linguasphere: 52-AB & 52-AC

The West Germanic languages constitute the largest of the three traditional branches of the Germanic family of languages and include languages such as German, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, 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 latter of which is now extinct.


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, so that some individual varieties are difficult to classify. Although some scholars claim that all Germanic languages remained mutually intelligible throughout the Migration Period, others hold that speakers of West Germanic dialects like Old Frankish and speakers of Gothic were already unable to communicate fluently by around the 3rd century AD. Dialects with the features assigned to the western group formed from Proto-Germanic in the late Jastorf culture (ca. 1st century BC). The West Germanic group is characterized by a number of phonological, morphological and lexical innovations or archaisms not found in North and East Germanic. Examples of West Germanic phonological particularities are:[2]

  • The delabialization of all labiovelar consonants except word-initially.
  • West Germanic gemination: lengthening of all consonants except /r/ before /j/.
  • [ð], the fricative allophone of /d/, becomes [d] in all positions. (The two other fricatives [β] and [ɣ] are retained)
  • Replacement of the second-person singular preterite ending -t with .
  • Loss of word-final /z/.[3] Only Old High German preserves it at all (as /r/) and only in single-syllable words. Following the later loss of word-final /a/ and /aN/, this made the nominative and accusative of many nouns identical.

A remarkable phonological archaism of West Germanic is the preservation of Grammatischer Wechsel in most verbs, particularly in Old High German. This implies the same for West Germanic, whereas in East and North Germanic many of these alternations (in Gothic almost all of them) had been levelled out analogically by the time of the earliest texts.

A common morphological innovation of the West Germanic languages is the development of a gerund.

Common morphological archaisms of West Germanic include:

Furthermore, the West Germanic languages share many lexemes not existing in North Germanic and/or East Germanic – archaisms as well as common neologisms.

The West Germanic proto-language

Thus, only very few 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; one of them is Orrin W. Robinson.[5] Today, most agree that after East Germanic broke off from the group (an event usually dated to the 2nd or 1st century BC), the remaining Germanic languages, the Northwest Germanic languages, divided into four main dialects:[6] North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely

  1. North Sea Germanic (Ingvaeonic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and also Low German)
  2. Weser-Rhine Germanic (Istvaeonic, ancestral to Old Frankish, its successors Low Franconian and several dialects of Old High German)
  3. Elbe Germanic (Irminonic, ancestral to Old Saxon and several dialects of Old High German, most probably including the extinct Langobardic language).

Although there is quite some knowledge about North Sea Germanic or Anglo-Frisian (due to characteristic features of its daughter languages, Anglo-Saxon/Old English and Old Frisian), linguists know almost nothing about "Weser-Rhine Germanic" and "Elbe Germanic". In fact, these two terms have been coined in the 1940s to characterize groups of archeological findings rather than to describe linguistic features. Only later, these terms have been hypothetically applied to (assumed) dialectal differences within both regions. Until today, the very small number of Migration Period runic inscriptions - many of them illegible, unclear or consisting only of one word, often a name - found in this area does not permit to identify any specific linguistic features of the two supposed dialect groups.

Evidence for the first element of the above-mentioned view (= break-off of Eastern Germanic prior to the split between Northern and Western Germanic) comes from a number of linguistic innovations found in both North Germanic and West Germanic,[2] including:

  • The lowering of Proto-Germanic ē (/ɛː/, also written ǣ) to ā.[7]
  • 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 necessarily inherited from a "Proto-West-Germanic" language, but may have spread by language contact among the Germanic languages spoken in central Europe, not reaching those spoken in Scandinavia or reaching them much later. Rhotacism, for example, was largely complete in West Germanic at a time when North Germanic runic inscriptions still clearly distinguished the two phonemes. There is also evidence that the lowering of ē to ā occurred first in West Germanic and spread to North Germanic later, since word-final ē was lowered before it was shortened in West Germanic, whereas in North Germanic the shortening occurred first, resulting in e that later merged with i. However, there are also a number of common archaisms in West Germanic not shared by neither Old Norse nor Gothic. Some authors who support the concept of a West Germanic proto-language claim that not only shared innovations can require the existence of a linguistic clade but that there can be also archaisms that cannot be explained simply as retentions later lost in the North and/or East because this assumption can produce contradictions with attested features of these other branches.

A recent summary of the debate on the existence of a Proto-West-Germanic clade is given by Don Ringe (2006): "That North Germanic is .. a unitary subgroup [of Proto-Germanic] is completely obvious, as all of its dialects shared a long series of innovations, some of them very striking. That the same is true of West Germanic has been denied, but I will argue in vol. ii that all the West Germanic languages share several highly unusual innovations that virtually force us to posit a West Germanic clade. On the other hand, the internal subgrouping of both North Germanic and West Germanic is very messy, and it seems clear that each of those subfamilies diversified into a network of dialects that remained in contact for a considerable period of time (in some cases right up to the present)."[8]

The reconstruction of Proto-West-Germanic

Several scholars like H. F. Nielsen (1981, 2001), G. Klingenschmitt (2002) and K.-H. Mottausch (1998, 2011) have published reconstructions of Proto-West-Germanic morphological paradigmas and many authors did reconstruct some Proto-West-Germanic morphological forms or lexems. In 2013, the first comprehensive reconstruction of the Proto-West-Germanic language has been published by the German Indo-Europeanist Wolfram Euler.[9]

Dating Early West Germanic

Although it remains difficult to decide whether Proto-West-Germanic actually had existed, it is not so difficult to approximately fix the upper and lower boundaries if this was the case. Up until the 3rd century AD, the language of runic inscriptions found in Scandinavia and in Northern Germany is so similar that Proto-North-Germanic and the Western dialects in the south still are part of one language ("Proto-Northwest-Germanic"). On the other hand, the Second sound shift that happened during the 7th century AD in what is today southern Germany and Switzerland definitely ended the linguistic unity among the West Germanic dialects of that time. Before that time, it has been argued that, judging by their nearly identical syntax, the West Germanic languages were close enough to have been mutually intelligible.[10] Thus, West Germanic as a group of mutually intelligible Germanic dialects was spoken during the Migration Period up until the 7th century AD.

Middle Ages

During the Early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Old and 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, whereas 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

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.


The following table shows a list of various linguistic features, and their extent among the West Germanic languages. Some may only appear in the older languages but are no longer apparent in the modern languages.

Old English Old Frisian Old Saxon Old Low Franconian Old Central German Old Upper German
Palatalisation of velars Yes Yes No No No No
Unrounding of front rounded vowels Yes Yes No No No No
Loss of intervocalic *-h- Yes Yes No Yes No No
Class II weak verb ending *-(ō)ja- Yes Yes Sometimes No No No
Merging of plural forms of verbs Yes Yes Yes No No No
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law Yes Yes Yes Rare No No
Loss of the reflexive pronoun Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Loss of final *-z in single-syllable words Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Reduction of weak class III to four relics Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Monophthongization of *ai, *au Yes Yes Yes Usually Partial Partial
Final-obstruent devoicing No No No Yes No No
Dipthongization of *ē, *ō No No Rare Yes Yes Yes
Loss of initial *h- before consonant No No No Yes Yes Yes
Loss of initial *w- before consonant No No No No Yes Yes
High German consonant shift No No No No Partial Yes

See also

Citations and notes

References and further reading

  • Adamus, Marian (1962). On the mutual relations between Nordic and other Germanic dialects. Germanica Wratislavensia 7. 115-158.
  • Bammesberger, Alfred (Ed.) (1991), Old English Rune and their Continental Background. Heidelberg: Winter.
  • Bammesberger, Alfred (1996). The Preterite of Germanic Strong Verbs in Classes Fore and Five, in „North-Western European Language Evolution“ 27, 33 – 43.
  • Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr. (2009). An Introduction to Old Frisian. History, Grammar, Reader, Glossary. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Euler, Wolfram (2002/03). Vom Westgermanischen zum Althochdeutschen - Sprachaufgliederung im Dialektkontinuum, in „Klagenfurter Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft“, Vol. 28/29, 69-90.
  • Euler, Wolfram (2013) Das Westgermanische - von der Herausbildung im 3. bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert - Analyse und Rekonstruktion . 244 p., in German with English summary, Verlag Inspiration Un Limited, London/Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-9812110-7-8.
  • Härke, Heinrich (2011). Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis, in: „Medieval Archaeology” No. 55, 2011, p. 1–28.
  • Hilsberg, Susan (2009). Place-Names and Settlement History. Aspects of Selected Topographical Elements on the Continent and in England, Magister Theses, Universität Leipzig.
  • Klein, Thomas (2004). Im Vorfeld des Althochdeutschen und Altsächsischen <= Prior to Old High German and Old Saxon>, in „Entstehung des Deutschen.(...)“. Heidelberg, 241 – 270.
  • Kortlandt, Frederik (2008). Anglo-Frisian, in „North-Western European Language Evolution“ 54/55, 265 – 278.
  • Looijenga, Jantina Helena (1997). Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150-700; Text & Contents. Groningen: SSG Uitgeverij.
  • Friedrich Maurer (1942), Nordgermanen und Alemannen: Studien zur germanischen und frühdeutschen Sprachgeschichte, Stammes- und Volkskunde, Strassburg: Hüneburg.
  • Mees, Bernard (2002). The Bergakker inscription and the beginnings of Dutch, in „Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik” 56, 23–26.
  • Mottausch, Karl-Heinz (1998). Die reduplizierenden Verben im Nord- und Westgermanischen: Versuch eines Raum-Zeit-Modells, in „North-Western European Language Evolution“ 33, 43 – 91.
  • Nielsen, Hans F. (1981). Old English and the Continental Germanic languages. A Survey of Morphological and Phonological Interrelations. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft. (2nd edition 1985)
  • Nielsen, Hans Frede. (2000). Ingwäonisch. In Heinrich Beck et al. (eds.), Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde (2. Auflage), Band 15, 432-439. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Page, Raymond I. (1999). An Introduction to English Runes, 2. edition. Woodbridge: Bogdell Press.
  • Page, Raymond I. (2001). Frisian Runic Inscriptions, in Horst Munske et al., „Handbuch des Friesischen“. Tübingen, 523–530.
  • Ringe, Donald R. (2012). Cladistic principles and linguistic reality: the case of West Germanic. In Philomen Probert and Andreas Willi (eds.), Laws and Rules on Indo-European, 33-42. Oxford.
  • Robinson, Orrin W. (1992). Old English and Its Closest Relatives. A Survey of the Earliest Ger-manic Languages. Stanford University Press.
  • Seebold, Elmar (1998). Die Sprache(n) der Germanen in der Zeit der Völkerwanderung <= The Language(s) of the Germanic Peoples during the Migration Period>, in E. Koller / H. Laitenberger, „Suevos – Schwaben. Das Königreich der Sueben auf der Iberischen Halbinsel (411–585)“. Tübingen, 11–20.
  • Seebold, Elmar (2006). Westgermanische Sprachen <= West Germanic Languages>, in „Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde“ 33, 530–536.
  • Stifter, David (2009). The Proto-Germanic shift *ā > ō and early Germanic linguistic contacts, in „Historische Sprachforschung“ 122, 268–283.
  • Stiles, Patrick V. (1995). Remarks on the “Anglo-Frisian” thesis, in „Friesische Studien I”. Odense, 177 – 220.
  • Stiles, Patrick V. (2004). Place-adverbs and the development of Proto-Germanic long *ē1 in early West Germanic. In Irma Hyvärinen et al. (Hg.), Etymologie, Entlehnungen und Entwicklungen. Mémoires de la Soc. Néophil. de Helsinki 63. Helsinki. 385-396.
  • Stiles, Patrick V. (2013). The Pan-West Germanic Isoglosses and the Subrelationships of West Germanic to Other Branches. In Unity and Diversity in West Germanic, I. Special issue of NOWELE 66:1 (2013), Nielsen, Hans Frede and Patrick V. Stiles (eds.), 5 ff.
  • Voyles, Joseph B. (1992). Early Germanic Grammar: pre-, proto-, and post-Germanic Language. San Diego: Academic Press
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