Proto-Germanic language



Proto-Germanic, or Common Germanic, is the hypothetical common ancestor (proto-language) of all the Germanic languages such as modern English, Dutch, German, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, and Swedish. The Proto-Germanic language is not directly attested by any surviving texts but has been reconstructed using the comparative method. However, a few surviving inscriptions in a runic script from Scandinavia dated to c. 200 are thought to represent a stage of Proto-Norse or, according to Bernard Comrie, Late Common Germanic immediately following the "Proto-Germanic" stage. In some non-Germanic languages spoken in areas adjacent to Germanic speaking areas, there are loanwords believed to have been borrowed from Proto-Germanic; an example is Finnish and Estonian kuningas "king", which closely resembles the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *kuningaz.

Proto-Germanic is itself descended from Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

Evolution of Proto-Germanic

The evolution of Proto-Germanic began with the separation of a common way of speech among some geographically proximate speakers of a prior language and ended with the dispersion of the proto-language speakers into distinct populations practicing their own speech habits. Between those two points many sound changes occurred.

Archaeological contributions

In one major theory of Andrev V Bell-Fialkov, Christopher Kaplonski, Wiliam B Mayer, Dean S Rugg, Rebeca W, Wendelken about Germanic origins, Indo-European speakers arrived on the plains of southern Sweden and Jutland, the center of the Urheimat or "original home" of the Germanic peoples, prior to the Nordic Bronze Age, which began about 4500 years ago. This is the only area where no pre-Germanic place names have been found. The region was certainly populated before then; the lack of names must indicate an Indo-European settlement so ancient and dense that the previously assigned names were completely replaced. If archaeological horizons are at all indicative of shared language (not a straightforward assumption), the Indo-European speakers are to be identified with the much more widely ranged Cord-impressed ware or Battle-axe culture and possibly also with the preceding Funnel-necked beaker culture developing towards the end of the Neolithic culture of Western Europe.

Proto-Germanic then evolved from the Indo-European spoken in the Urheimat region. The succession of archaeological horizons suggests that before their language differentiated into the individual Germanic branches the Proto-Germanic speakers lived in southern Scandinavia and along the coast from the Netherlands in the west to the Vistula in the east around 750 BC).

Another theory, which also includes the inception of Proto-Germanic is Paleolithic Continuity Theory. PCT conclusion differs in some detail from the above.

Linguistic definitions

By definition, Proto-Germanic is the stage of the language constituting the most recent common ancestor of the attested Germanic languages, dated to the latter half of the first millennium BC. The post-PIE dialects spoken throughout the Nordic Bronze Age, roughly 2500–500 BC, even though they may have no attested descendants other than the Germanic languages, are referred to as "pre-Proto-Germanic" or more commonly "pre-Germanic. By 250 BC, Proto-Germanic had branched into five groups of Germanic (two each in West and North, and one in East). In historical linguistics, Proto-Germanic is a node in the tree model; that is, if the descent of languages can be compared to a biological family tree, Proto-Germanic appears as a point, or node, from which all the daughter languages branch, and is itself at the end of a branch leading from another node, Proto-Indo-European. One of the problems with the node is that it implies the existence of a fixed language in which all the laws defining it apply simultaneously. Proto-Germanic, however, must be regarded as a diachronic sequence of sound changes, each law or group of laws only becoming operant after previous changes.

To the evolutionary history of a language family, a genetic "tree model" is considered appropriate only if communities do not remain in effective contact as their languages diverge. Early IE was computed to have featured limited contact between distinct lineages, while only the Germanic subfamily exhibited a less treelike behaviour as it acquired some characteristics from neighbours early in its evolution rather than from its direct ancestors. The internal diversification of especially West Germanic is cited to have been radically non-treelike.

W. P. Lehmann considered that Jacob Grimm's "First Germanic Sound Shift", or Grimm's Law and Verner's Law, which pertained mainly to consonants and were considered for a good many decades to have generated Proto-Germanic, were pre-Proto-Germanic, and that the "upper boundary" was the fixing of the accent, or stress, on the root syllable of a word, typically the first. Proto-Indo-European had featured a moveable pitch accent comprising "an alternation of high and low tones as well as stress of position determined by a set of rules based on the lengths of the word's syllables.

The fixation of the stress led to sound changes in unstressed syllables. For Lehmann, the "lower boundary" was the dropping of final -a or -e in unstressed syllables; for example, PIE *woyd-á > Gothic wait, "knows" (the > and < signs in linguistics indicate a genetic descent). Antonsen agreed with Lehmann about the upper boundary but later found runic evidence that the -a was not dropped: ékwakraz ... wraita, "I wakraz ... wrote (this)." He says: "We must therefore search for a new lower boundary for Proto-Germanic.

His own scheme divides Proto-Germanic into an early and a late. The early includes the stress fixation and resulting "spontaneous vowel-shifts" while to define the late he lists ten complex rules governing changes of both vowels and consonants.

Other Indo-European loans

Loans into Proto-Germanic from other Indo-European languages can be relatively dated by their conformance to Germanic sound changes. As the dates of neither the borrowings nor the sound changes are known with any precision, the utility of the loans for absolute, or calendar, chronology has been nil.

Most loans from Celtic appear to have been made before the First Grimm Shift. An example of a Celtic loan is *rīk-, "king", Celtic *rīg-, with g>k. It was not borrowed from Latin because only the Celtic has the ī. Another is *walhaz-, "foreigner", from the Celtic represented by Latin Volcae, a Celtic tribal name, with c>h. One might hypothesize that the loans took place at the floruit of Celtic hegemony in Hallstatt, but it spans several centuries.

Non-Indo-European elements

The term substrate with reference to Proto-Germanic refers to lexical and phonological items that do not appear to be explained by Indo-European etymological principles. The substrate theory postulates that these elements came from a prior population that remained among the Indo-Europeans and was sufficiently influential to transmit some elements of its own language. The theory of a non-Indo-European substrate was first proposed by Sigmund Feist, who estimated that about 1/3 of the Proto-Germanic lexical items came from the substrate.


Phonology is the study of phonemes, which are represented in linguistics by placing them between slashes: /p/. Every phoneme contrasts with all the others; that is, none can be substituted for any other in a word without changing the meaning. Sounds or phones that can be substituted are allophones. A phoneme is considered to be a set of non-contrastive allophones. Alternatively, a sound may be specified by placing it between brackets: [p], but the latter is a transcription, or representation of the actual sound, and does not signify any allophones. Both types of symbol are used in this article.

The major types of phonemes in the Proto-Germanic inventory are consonants and vowels.


The consonant inventory was generated by the action of Grimm's Law and Verner's Law on the PIE consonants of Pre-Proto-Germanic.

Consonant inventory

The table below lists the consonantal phonemes of Proto-Germanic classified by reconstructed pronunciation. The slashes around the phonemes are omitted for clarity. Two phonemes in the same box connected by "or" represent allophones, which are explained below. For descriptions of the sounds and definitions of the terms follow the links on the headings.

Proto-Germanic consonants
CONSONANTS Labials Coronals Velars Labiovelars
Voiceless stops p or pp t or tt k or kk
Voiceless fricatives f or ff θ or θθ x or h xʷ or hʷ
Voiced fricatives or stops ƀ, b or bb đ, d or dd ǥ, g or gg ǥʷ or gʷ
Nasals m or mm n or nn
sibilants z, s or ss
Liquids, Glides w or ww r, l or rr, ll j or jj

Grimm's law

Grimm's law as applied to pre-proto-Germanic is a chain shift of the original Indo-European stop consonants (with slashes around the phonemes omitted for clarity, like in the table above):

labials p > f b > p bʰ > b
dentals t > θ d > t dʰ > d
velars k > x ɡ > k ɡʰ > ɡ
labiovelars kʷ > xʷ ɡʷ > kʷ ɡʷʰ > ɡʷ, w, ɡ

p, t, and k did not change after a fricative (such as s) or other stops; for example, where Latin (with the original t) has stella "star" and octo "eight", Middle Dutch has ster and acht (with unshifted t). This original t merged with the shifted t from the voiced consonant; that is, most of the instances of /t/ came from either the original /t/ or the shifted /t/.

In addition tt>ss.

A similar shift on the consonant inventory of Proto-Germanic later generated High German. McMahon says: "Grimm's and Verner's Laws ... together form the First Germanic Consonant Shift. A second, and chronologically later Second Germanic Consonant Shift ... affected only Proto-Germanic voiceless stops ... and split Germanic into two sets of dialects, Low German in the north ... and High German further south ....

Verner's law

Verner's Law addresses a category of exceptions to Grimm's Law: a voiced fricative sometimes appears in place of an unvoiced fricative expected by Grimm's Law; for example, *PIE bhrátēr > Pgmc *brōþēr "brother" but PIE mātér > Pgmc mōðēr "mother." The law states that unvoiced fricatives: are voiced when preceded by an unaccented syllable, but the accent system is the PIE one in Pre-Proto-Germanic. Verner's Law therefore follows Grimm's Law in time and precedes the Proto-Germanic stress accent. The voicing of some /s/ according to Verner's Law produced /z/, a new phoneme.

The allophones

Sometimes the shift produced consonants that were pronounced differently (allophones) depending on the context of the original. With regard to original /k/ or /kʷ/ Trask says: "The resulting */x/ or */xʷ/ were reduced to /h/ and /hʷ/ in word-initial position.

The double letters in the phonemes of the table represent consonants that have been lengthened or prolonged under some circumstances, appearing in some daughter languages as geminated graphemes. The phenomenon is therefore termed gemination. Kraehenmann says: "Then, Proto-Germanic already had long consonants ... but they contrasted with short ones only word-medially. Moreover, they were not very frequent and occurred only intervocally almost exclusively after short vowels."

The phonemes /b/, /d/, /g/ and /gʷ/ says Ringe "were stops in some environments and fricatives in others. The pattern of allophony is not clear in every detail. The fricatives merged with the fricatives of Verner's Law (see above). Whether they were all fricatives at first or both stops and fricatives remains unknown. Some known rules:

  • Stops appeared after homorganic nasal consonants (had the same place of articulation); for example, n produced a following [d].
  • Gemination produced [b], [d], [g].
  • Word-initial /b/ and /d/ were or became [b] and [d].
  • /d/ was [d] after l or z.


Proto-Germanic vowels
Front Central Back
Close [i(:)] [u(:)]
Mid [e(:)] ([e:] = ē2) [o:]
Near-open [æ:] (ǣ = ē1)
Open [a]

  • Proto-Germanic had four short vowels (i, u, e, a), and four or five long vowels (ī, ū, ē, ō and perhaps æ). The exact phonetic quality of the vowels is uncertain.
  • PIE a and o merge into Proto-Germanic a, PIE ā and ō merge into Proto-Germanic ō (similar mergers happened in the Slavic languages, but in the opposite direction). At the time of the merge, the vowels probably were [ɒ] and [ɒ:] before their timbres differentiated into maybe [ɑ] and [ɔ:].
  • ǣ and ē are also transcribed as ē1 and ē2; ē2 is uncertain as a phoneme, and only reconstructed from a small number of words; it is posited by the comparative method because whereas all provable instances of inherited (PIE) *ē (PGmc. *ē1) are distributed in Gothic as ē and the other Germanic languages as *ā, all the Germanic languages agree on some occasions of ē (e.g., Got./OE/ON hēr "here" < PGmc. *2r). Krahe treats ē2 (secondary ē) as identical with ī. It probably continues PIE ei or ēi, and it may have been in the process of transition from a diphthong to a long simple vowel in the Proto-Germanic period. Gothic makes no orthographic and therefore presumably no phonetic distinction between ē1 and ē2. The existence of two Proto-Germanic [e:]-like phonemes is supported by the existence of two e-like Elder Futhark runes, Ehwaz and Eihwaz.
  • Vowels in unstressed syllables were gradually reduced over time, beginning at the very end of the Proto-Germanic period and continuing into the history of the various dialects. This is reflected to the least extent in Proto-Norse, with steadily greater reduction in Gothic, Old High German, Old English, Modern German and Modern English.


Historical linguistics can tell us much about Proto-Germanic. However, it should be kept in mind that these postulations are tentative and multiple reconstructions (with varying degrees of difference) exist. All reconstructed forms are marked with an asterisk (*).

Simplification of the inflectional system

It is often asserted out that Germanic languages have a highly reduced system of inflections as compared with Greek, Latin or Sanskrit. Although this is true to some extent, it is probably due more to the late time of attestation of Germanic than to any inherent "simplicity" of the Germanic languages. It is in fact debatable whether Germanic inflections are reduced at all. Other Indo-European languages attested much earlier than the Germanic languages, such as Hittite, also have a reduced inventory of noun cases. Germanic and Hittite might have lost them, or maybe they never shared in their acquisition.

General morphological features

Nouns and adjectives were declined in (at least) six cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, and vocative. Sparse remnants of the earlier locative and ablative cases are visible in a few pronominal and adverbial forms. Pronouns were declined similarly, although without a separate vocative form. The instrumental and vocative can be reconstructed only in the singular; the instrumental survives only in the West Germanic languages, and the vocative only in Gothic.

Verbs and pronouns had three numbers: singular, dual and plural. Although the pronominal dual survived into all the oldest languages, the verbal dual survived only into Gothic, and the (presumed) nominal and adjectival dual forms were lost before the oldest records. As in the Italic languages, it may have been lost before Proto-Germanic became a different branch at all.

Proto-Germanic had six cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, vocative), three genders, three numbers (singular, dual, plural), three moods (indicative, subjunctive < PIE optative, imperative), two voices (active, passive < PIE middle). This is quite similar to the state of Latin, Greek, and Middle Indo-Aryan of c. 200 AD.


The system of nominal declensions was largely inherited from PIE. Primary nominal declensions were the stems in /a/, /ō/, /n/, /i/, and /u/. The first three were particularly important and served as the basis of adjectival declension; there was a tendency for nouns of all other classes to be drawn into them. The first two had variants in /ja/ and /wa/, and /jō/ and /wō/, respectively; originally, these were declined exactly like other nouns of the respective class, but later sound changes tended to distinguish these variants as their own subclasses. The /n/ nouns had various subclasses, including /ōn/ (masculine and feminine), /an/ (neuter), and /īn/ (feminine, mostly abstract nouns). There was also a smaller class of root nouns (ending in various consonants), or nouns of relationship (ending in /er/), and neuter nouns in /z/ (this class was greatly expanded in German). Present participles, and a few nouns, ended in /nd/. The neuter nouns of all classes differed from the masculines and feminines in their nominative and accusative endings, which were alike.

Nouns in -a- Nouns in -i-
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative *wulfaz *wulfōs, -ōz *gastiz *gastijiz
Accusative *wulfan *wulfanz *gastin *gastinz
Genitive *wulfisa, -asa *wulfōn *gastisa *gastijōn
Dative *wulfai, -ē *wulfamiz *gastai *gastī
Vocative *wulfa *gasti
Instrumental *wulfō *gastī


Adjectives agree with the noun they qualify in case, number, and gender. Adjectives evolved into strong and weak declensions, originally with indefinite and definite meaning, respectively. As a result of its definite meaning, the weak form came to be used in the daughter languages in conjunction with demonstratives and definite articles. The terms "strong" and "weak" are based on the later development of these declensions in languages such as German and Old English, where the strong declensions have more distinct endings. In the proto-language, as in Gothic, such terms have no relevance. The strong declension was based on a combination of the nominal /a/ and /ō/ stems with the PIE pronominal endings; the weak declension was based on the nominal /n/ declension.

Strong Declension Weak Declension
Masculine Feminine Neuter Singular Plural
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative *blindaz *blindai *blindō *blindōz *blinda, -atō *blindō *blindanō *blindaniz
Accusative *blindanō *blindanz *blindō *blindōz *blindana *blindaniz, -anuniz
Genitive *blindez(a) *blindaizō *blindezōz *blindaizō *blindez(a) *blindaizō *blindeniz *blindanō
Dative *blinde/asmē/ā *blindaimiz *blindai *blindaimiz *blinde/asmē/ā *blindaimiz *blindeni *blindanmiz
Instrumental *blindō


Proto-Germanic had a demonstrative which could serve as both a demonstrative adjective and a demonstrative pronoun. In daughter languages it evolved into the definite article and various other demonstratives.

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative *sa *þai *sō *þōz *þat *þō, *þiō
Accusative *þen(ō), *þan(ō) *þans *þō
Genitive *þes(a) *þezō *þezōz *þaizō
Dative *þesmō, *þasmō *þemiz, *þaimiz *þezai *þaimiz
Instrumental *þiō
Locative *þī


Proto-Germanic had only two tenses (preterite and present), compared to the six or seven in Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. Some of this difference is due to deflexion, featured by a loss of tenses present in Proto-Indo-European, for example the perfect tense. However, many of the tenses of the other languages (future, future perfect, probably pluperfect, perhaps imperfect) appear to be separate innovations in each of these languages, and were not present in Proto-Indo-European.

The main area where the Germanic inflectional system is noticeably reduced is the tense system of the verbs, with only two tenses, present and past. However:

  • Later Germanic languages (especially Modern English) have a more elaborated tense system, derived through periphrastic constructions.
  • PIE may have had as few as three "tenses" (present, aorist, perfect), which had primarily aspectual value, with secondary tensal values. The future tense was probably rendered using the subjunctive and/or desiderative verbs. Other tenses were derived in the history of the individual languages through various means (originally periphrastic constructions, such as the augment /e-/ of Greek and Sanskrit and the /-b-/ forms of Latin, derived from the PIE verb /bʱuː/ "be"; reinterpretation of subjunctive and desiderative formations as the future; analogical formations).
  • The Germanic past tense contains forms deriving from both the PIE aorist and perfect; this is similar to the Latin perfect tense.

Schleicher's PIE fable rendered into Proto-Germanic

August Schleicher wrote a fable in the PIE language he had just reconstructed, which though it has been updated a few times by others still bears his name. Below is a rendering of this fable into Proto-Germanic:
Awiz ehwaz-uh: awiz, hwesja wulno ne ist, spehet ehwanz, ainan krun wagan wegantun, ainan-uh mekon boran, ainan-uh gumonun ahu berontun. Awiz nu ehwamaz weuhet: hert agnutai meke witantei, ehwans akantun weran. Ehwaz weuhant: hludi, awi! kert aknutai uns wituntmaz: mannaz, foþiz, wulnon awjan hwurneuti sebi warman wistran. Awjan-uh wulno ne isti. þat hehluwaz awiz akran bukeþ.



  • Bennett, William Holmes (1980). An Introduction to the Gothic Language. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Krahe, Hans and Meid, Wolfgang. Germanische Sprachwissenschaft, 2 vols., de Gruyter, Berlin (1969).
  • Ramat, Anna Giacalone and Paolo Ramat (Eds.) (1998). The Indo-European Languages. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-06449-X.
  • Joseph B. Voyles, Early Germanic Grammar (Academic Press, 1992) ISBN 0-12-728270-X

See also

External links

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