Germanic Languages

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Standard English, as we have seen, is closely cognate to Standard High German. But what are the detailed relationships among English, German, and the other Germanic languages? How do we know about the earlier states of relation among the related Germanic languages?

First of all, just to reinforce what we've already learned: English and German are cognate. Neither is the source of the other. Each descends from some unknown, prehistoric language which is the source of both.

There must have been a primitive Germanic language that is the source of modern Germanic languages. The evidence from cognates is overwhelming--take, for instance, the site developed by Cathy Ball that presents versions of the Lord's Prayer in different Germanic languages.

Given this cognate evidence, and the principles of reconstruction that we have used already this semester, linguists reconstruct a family tree for the Germanic languages. It has three main groups--Eastern (now extinct and represented only by texts in Gothic); Northern (the Scandinavian languages) and Western, which in turn has two main groups: German and Anglo-Frisian. So both modern German and modern English descend from a primitive West Germanic language family, but they are on different sides of the family. German is a closer cousin to English than either language is to Danish or Swedish.

There was clearly one group of speakers of a single Indo-European dialect, proto-Germanic; these people probably settled in southern Sweden and in Denmark between four and five thousand years ago. About 2,500 years ago, maybe a little later, these people migrated into the European continent proper, keeping mainly to the north, east of the Rhine and west of the Vistula river. See map. We begin to know about these people, whom the Romans called "Germans," from accounts in Roman histories, especially Tacitus.

Proto-Germanic had many key distinguishing features that help to explain differences between modern Germanic languages and the Indo-European languages that they are cognate with. The best-known is Grimm's Law; here's a little program that shows how Grimm's Law works.

Proto-Germanic had two main verb systems: "strong" and "weak" verbs. These are the same that have come down to us in the present-day English contrast between "sing," which has past and past participle "sang" and "sung" and is "strong"; and "walk", which has past and past participle "walked" and is "weak." That's not a value judgment, BTW; it's just an arbitrary classification that distinguishes the two main varieties of verb.

Proto-Germanic was a language that inflected nouns in cases. The cases were nominative, accusative, genitive and dative. Basically, nominative is the form that is used for the subject of a sentence and accusative for the direct object. Genitive is what we'd now call "possessive," and dative is the indirect-object case, also used after some prepositions.

Proto-Germanic shares these inflectional systems with Latin and Greek and other I-E languages, leading us to believe that I-E had a very similar inflectional system. The system has been greatly simplified in modern German and lost for the most part in English--but not lost entirely. In Gothic (the earliest attested Germanic language, but not the source of the others, just a member of the Eastern branch of the family), the first and second person personal pronouns are (nominative) ik, þu, weis and jus; (accusative) mik, þuk, uns and izwis; (genitive) meina, þeina, unsara, and izwara. These words are cognate to English I, thou, we, you; me, thee, us, you; mine, thine, ours, yours. We still have a fairly elaborate declension system for our personal pronouns, which have retained this conservative feature because they are in continuous use. Our nouns, however, have lost all case distinctions except singular/plural and genitive/all other: dog/dogs/dog's /dogs' is the only declension that most English nouns can undergo.

Here are some other interesting things about proto-Germanic grammar: instead of just two numbers, singular and plural, pronouns had a third number, dual. Proto-Germanic was a gendered language with three genders, masculine feminine and neuter. Verb conjugations were complicated, with indicative and subjunctive moods fully elaborated.

The history of the diffusion of the Germanic languages is the history of barbarian migrations at the end of the Western Roman Empire (see maps). Not all of these migrations resulted in much linguistic change. Germanic languages continued to be spoken in the Germanic home lands of Scandinavia and central Germany, and are of course till spoken there today. These include German and Dutch on the Continent, and the Scandinavian languages in the northern regions. But the Germanic peoples, as the maps show, went many other places during the years 300-1100. In some of these places their conquests were pretty superficial. The Ostrogoths conquered Italy and the Visigoths conquered Spain; the Vandals made it all the way to North Africa--but their impact on the later languages of those areas is negligible. (In fact, the Gothic languages have disappeared completely. Similar things can be said of the Vikings, who settled Iceland and had a great influence on language in the North of England, but in Normandy and Ireland were basically assimilated into the local population and acquired French and Irish respectively. (Old Norse, the Viking language, has of course several living descendants, including Norwegian and Danish.) The Franks, who conquered Gaul, gave their name to the place but left relatively little impression on the Gaulish Latin that became modern French.

In all, seven "old" Germanic languages are known from surviving texts. Gothic, the only attested East Germanic language, is one of them; the others are Old Low Franconian and Old Frisian, which are sketchily known, but related to modern Dutch and Frisian; and Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old High German, and Old English, which are much more thoroughly known. (See Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and Its Closest Relatives, for an excellent overview.)

The most linguistically successful conquest by Germanic tribes was the one we are most interested in: between 400 and 600 CE, Angles and Saxons came from the North Sea coast of the Continent and settled in Britain, which till then had been a province of the Roman Empire that, like Gaul and Spain, was previously inhabited by Celts. The Celtic languages of Britain are therefore the immediate substrate for the English language. The Romans, though they organized the province of Britain politically, laid out roads and major cities, and made Britain an important part of the Empire, never imposed their language to the degree that they had in Gaul and Spain. Britain was therefore still mostly a British-speaking country when the Angles and Saxons arrived (and this is a key to the present-day usage of national terms--"British" is a recent revival of an ancient term that is used today to signify the United Kingdom as a nation. "English" means the culture of the part of Britain that was settled by the Angles and Saxons, and refers to just one of the three nations on the island of Great Britain (England; the other two are Wales and Scotland).

The Celtic substrate in England disappeared with about the same completeness as the American Indian language substrate has disappeared in most of North America. The Celtic words that survive in England today are few, and mostly place-names. Most of these are rivers: the Thames, the Trent, the Avon, the Derwent. Two county names are Celtic: Devon and Kent, as are the Corn- of Cornwall and the Cumber- of Cumberland.

The Latin substrate in English has left a few more traces, but nothing very substantial. Again there are place-names, especially those that end in -chester (from the Latin castra, "camp"). There are a few other words that were borrowed into West Germanic from Latin--we have seen wine (vinum) and cheese (caesum); here we should also add street (strata), which became the word for the Roman roads that still criss-cross Britain today. Some other borrowings are of interest: church (from the Greek kuriakon), which is part of common West Germanic and probably comes directly from Greek--though if you read the OED article on church you will see perhaps the most complicated and disputed etymology in the whole dictionary. Also kitchen, which comes from the Latin cucina--still the same word in Italian--and enters Old English and other Germanic languages very early, before 1000.

The Angles and Saxons took the most fertile and temperate parts of the island of Britain for themselves, forcing the native British into Wales and Cornwall in the west. They also conquered most of Scotland, forcing native Scots out of the north of the island. Yet the Celtic languages survived in Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland, and from Ireland the Scottish highlands were resettled by Celts who spoke a Gaelic language very similar to Irish. The contact and conflict between English speakers and Celtic speakers in Britain is still a political controversy today, and has never been fully resolved. The Welsh language has had a strong comeback in recent years, and Scots Gaelic survives. Cornish, the other major British language, died out about 250 years ago. One should always remember that English in England is surrounded by near Celtic neighbors which are very dissimilar to it in linguistic terms.