Germanic languages constitute the largest of the three
branches of the Germanic family of languages (the others being the
North Germanic and the extinct East Germanic languages).
The four most prevalent West
Germanic languages are Afrikaans,
English, German, and Dutch. The family also includes other High and
Low German languages including Yiddish, in addition to other
Franconian languages, like
Ingvaeonic languages next
to English, such as the
Frisian languages and Scots. Additionally,
several creoles, patois, and pidgins are based on Dutch and English as
they were languages of colonial empires.
1.2 Existence of a West Germanic proto-language
1.3 The reconstruction of Proto-West-Germanic
1.4 Dating Early West Germanic
1.5 Middle Ages
2 Family tree
3 Comparison of phonological and morphological features
5 West Germanic vocabulary
9 External links
Germanic languages in Europe:
North Germanic languages
West Germanic languages
Dots indicate areas where multilingualism is common.
Germanic languages share many lexemes not existing in North
Germanic and/or East Germanic—archaisms as well as common
Existence of a West Germanic proto-language
Most scholars doubt that there was a Proto-West-Germanic
proto-language common to the West
Germanic languages and no others,
though a few maintain that Proto-West-Germanic existed. Most agree
that after East Germanic broke off (an event usually dated to the 2nd
or 1st century BC), the remaining Germanic languages, the Northwest
Germanic languages, divided into four main dialects: North
Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic",
North Sea Germanic (Ingvaeonic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and also
Rhine Germanic (Istvaeonic, ancestral to Old Frankish, its
Low Franconian and several dialects of Old High German)
Elbe Germanic (Irminonic, ancestral to several dialects of Old High
German, most probably including the extinct Langobardic language).
Although there is quite a bit of knowledge about
North Sea Germanic or
Anglo-Frisian (due to characteristic features of its daughter
Old English and Old Frisian), linguists know
almost nothing about "Weser-
Rhine Germanic" and "
Elbe Germanic". In
fact, these two terms were coined in the 1940s to refer to groups of
archaeological findings rather than linguistic features. Only later
were these terms applied to hypothetical dialectal differences within
both regions. Even today, the very small number of Migration Period
runic inscriptions from this area—many of them illegible, unclear or
consisting only of one word, often a name—is insufficient to
identify linguistic features specific to the two supposed dialect
Evidence that East Germanic split off before the split between North
and West Germanic comes from a number of linguistic innovations common
to North and West Germanic, including:
The lowering of
Proto-Germanic ē (/ɛː/, also written ǣ) to ā.
The development of umlaut.
The rhotacism of /z/ to /r/.
The development of the demonstrative pronoun ancestral to English
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 shared by
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.
The debate on the existence of a Proto-West-Germanic clade was
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
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
The reconstruction of Proto-West-Germanic
Several scholars have published reconstructions of Proto-West-Germanic
morphological paradigms and many authors have reconstructed
individual Proto-West-Germanic morphological forms or lexemes. The
first comprehensive reconstruction of the Proto-West-Germanic language
was published in 2013 by Wolfram Euler.
Dating Early West Germanic
If indeed Proto-West-Germanic existed, it must have been between the
3rd and 7th centuries. Until the 3rd century AD, the language of runic
inscriptions found in Scandinavia and in Northern
Germany were so
similar that Proto-North-Germanic and the Western dialects in the
south were still part of one language ("Proto-Northwest-Germanic").
After that, the split into West and North Germanic occurred.
It has been argued that, judging by their nearly identical syntax, the
West Germanic dialects were closely enough related to have been
mutually intelligible up to the 7th century. Over the course of
this period, the dialects diverged successively. The High German
consonant shift that occurred during the 7th century AD in what is now
Germany and Switzerland can be considered the end of the
linguistic unity among the West Germanic dialects, although its
effects on their own should not be overestimated. Bordering dialects
very probably continued to be mutually intelligible even beyond the
boundaries of the consonant shift. In fact, many dialects of
Limburgish and Ripuarian are still mutually intelligible today.
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
High German consonant shift on the continent on 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
Grouping of the main Germanic languages, including historical
dialects, according to Friedrich Maurer.
Main article: List of 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.
North Sea Germanic / Ingvaeonic languages
Low German / Low Saxon
Northern Low Saxon
Brandenburg dialects ("Märkisch")
Low Prussian (moribund)
Dutch Low Saxon
Rhine Germanic / Istvaeonic languages / Netherlandic
East Dutch (Zuid-Gelders/Clevian)
Elbe Germanic / Irminonic languages / High German
Swiss German and Alsatian
Rhine Franconian, including the dialects of Hessen
Upper Saxon German
Luxembourgish (in lingusitic terms a Ripuarian dialect)
Lombardic aka Langobardic (extinct, unless
Mocheno are in
fact Langobardic remnants.)
High Prussian (moribund)
Yiddish (a language based on Eastern-Central dialects of late Middle
High German/Early New High German)
Comparison of phonological and morphological features
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
Palatalisation of velars
Unrounding of front rounded vowels
Loss of intervocalic *-h-
Class II weak verb ending *-(ō)ja-
Merging of plural forms of verbs
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law
Loss of the reflexive pronoun
Loss of final *-z in single-syllable words
Reduction of weak class III to four relics
Monophthongization of *ai, *au
Diphthongization of *ē, *ō
Loss of initial *h- before consonant
Loss of initial *w- before consonant
High German consonant shift
The original vowel system of West Germanic was similar to that of
Proto-Germanic; note however the lowering of the two long front
Monophthong phonemes of West Germanic
The consonant system was also essentially the same as that of
Proto-Germanic. Note, however, the particular changes described above,
as well as West Germanic gemination.
West Germanic vocabulary
The following table compares a number of Frisian, English, Dutch and
German words with common West Germanic (or older) origin. The
grammatical gender of each term is noted as masculine (m.), feminine
(f.), or neuter (n.) where relevant.
Old High German
kąbă [see inscription of Erfurt-Frienstedt], *kambă m.
chāsi, kāsi m.
*kāsijaz m. (late Proto-Germanic, from Latin cāseus)
chirihha, *kirihha f.
sibb f. "kinship, peace"
sibba f., Old Saxon: sibbia
sibbju, sibbjā f.
*sibjō f. "relationship, kinship, friendship"
cǣġ(e), cǣga f. "key, solution, experiment"
*slutilă m., *kēgă f.
*slutilaz m. "key"; *kēgaz, *kēguz f. "stake, post, pole"
zwei Schafe n.
zwei scāf n.
*twai(?) skēpō n.
brēad n. "fragment, bit, morsel, crumb" also "bread"
*braudą n. "cooked food, leavened bread"
ēare n. < pre-English *ǣora
*aura < *auza n.
s(w)uozi (< *swōti)
naz (< *nat)
*wǣtă / *nată
*wētaz / *nataz
ēaġe n. < pre-English *ǣoga
drēam m. "joy, pleasure, ecstasy, music, song"
*draumaz (< *draugmaz) m.
Other words, with a variety of origins:
Old High German
Pferd n. / Ross n.
hors n. eoh m.
(h)ros n. / pfarifrit n. / ehu- (in compositions)
*hrussă n. / *ehu m.
*hrussą n., *ehwaz m.
Note that some of the shown similarities of Frisian and English
vis-à-vis Dutch and German are secondary and not due to a closer
relationship between them. For example, the plural of the word for
"sheep" was originally unchanged in all four languages and still is in
some Dutch dialects and a great deal of German dialects. Many other
similarities, however, are indeed old inheritances.
^ Original meaning "relative" has become "brother or sister" in
^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds.
(2017). "West Germanic".
Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History.
^ Robinson (1992): p. 17-18
^ Kuhn, Hans (1955–56). "Zur Gliederung der germanischen Sprachen".
Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur. 86:
^ Robinson, Orrin W. (1992).
Old English and Its Closest Relatives.
Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2221-8.
^ But see Cercignani, Fausto, Indo-European ē in Germanic, in
«Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung», 86/1, 1972, pp.
^ Ringe, Don. 2006: A Linguistic History of English. Volume I. From
Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, Oxford University Press, p.
^ H. F. Nielsen (1981, 2001), G. Klingenschmitt (2002) and K.-H.
Mottausch (1998, 2011)
^ Wolfram Euler: Das Westgermanische – von der Herausbildung im 3.
bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert — Analyse und Rekonstruktion
(West Germanic: From its Emergence in the 3rd Century to its Split in
the 7th Century: Analyses and Reconstruction). 244 p., in German with
English summary, London/Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-9812110-7-8.
^ 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.
^ a b sources: Ringe, Don / Taylor, Ann (2014) and Euler, Wolfram
Adamus, Marian (1962). On the mutual relations between Nordic and
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Bammesberger, Alfred (Ed.) (1991),
Old English Runes and their
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Bammesberger, Alfred (1996). The Preterite of Germanic Strong Verbs in
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Euler, Wolfram (2013) Das Westgermanische – von der Herausbildung im
3. bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert – Analyse und
Rekonstruktion (West Germanic: from its Emergence in the 3rd up until
its Dissolution in the 7th Century CE: Analyses and Reconstruction).
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Definitions from Wiktionary
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Learning resources from Wikiversity
Data from Wikidata
Germanic languages at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
Germanic languages and dialects
East Pomeranian-West Prussian
Western East Pomeranian
Eastern East Pomeranian
West Central Pomeranian
Mennonite Low German
Dutch Low Saxon
Northern Low Saxon
East Frisian Low Saxon
Namibian Black German
Parana Volga German
German Standard German
Austrian Standard German
Swiss Standard German
Italics indicate extinct languages
Bold indicates languages with more than 3 million speakers
Languages between parentheses are varieties of the language on their
Philology of Germanic languages
Germanic parent language
Middle Low German
Old High German
Middle High German
Mennonite Low German
Germanic substrate hypothesis
West Germanic gemination
High German consonant shift
Germanic spirant law
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law
Great Vowel Shift
Germanic strong verb
Germanic weak verb
History of English
Early Modern English
Great Vowel Shift
low unrounded vowels
low back vowels
high back vowels
high front vowels
changes before historic /l/
changes before historic /r/