Germanic languages

The Germanic languages are a group of related languages that constitute a branch of the Indo-European (IE) language family. The common ancestor of all the languages in this branch is Proto-Germanic, spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe. Proto-Germanic, along with all of its descendants, is characterized by a number of unique linguistic features, most famously the consonant change known as Grimm's law. Early varieties of Germanic enter history with the Germanic peoples settled in northern Europe along the borders of the Roman Empire in the second century.

The most widely spoken Germanic languages are English and German, with approximately 400 million and 100 million native speakers respectively. The group includes other major languages, such as Dutch with 23 million and Afrikaans with over 16 million speakers; and the North Germanic languages including Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese with a combined total of about 20 million speakers. In Netherland Frisian is being spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of the province Friesland/Fryslân. The SIL Ethnologue lists 53 different Germanic languages.


Germanic languages possess several unique features, such as the following:

  1. The leveling of the Indo-European verbal system of tense and aspect into the present tense and the past tense (also called the preterite)
  2. A large class of verbs that use a dental suffix (/d/ or /t/) instead of vowel alternation (Indo-European ablaut) to indicate past tense; these are called the Germanic weak verbs; the remaining verbs with vowel ablaut are the Germanic strong verbs
  3. The use of so-called strong and weak adjectives: different sets of inflectional endings for adjectives depending on the definiteness of the noun phrase; (modern English adjectives do not inflect at all, except for the comparative and superlative; this was not the case in Old English, where adjectives were inflected differently depending on the type of determiner they were preceded by)
  4. The consonant shift known as Grimm's Law (the consonants in High German have shifted farther yet by the High German consonant shift)
  5. A number of words with etymologies that are difficult to link to other Indo-European families, but variants of which appear in almost all Germanic languages; see Germanic substrate hypothesis
  6. The shifting of stress accent onto the root of the stem and later to the first syllable of the word (though English has an irregular stress, native words always have a fixed stress regardless of what is added to them)

Germanic languages differ from each other to a greater degree than do some other language families such as the Romance or Slavic languages. Roughly speaking, Germanic languages differ in how conservative or how progressive each language is with respect to an overall trend toward analyticity. Some, such as German and Icelandic have preserved much of the complex inflectional morphology inherited from the Proto-Indo-European language. Others, such as English, Swedish, and Afrikaans have moved toward a largely analytic type.

Another characteristic of Germanic languages is the verb second or V2 word order, which is quite uncommon cross-linguistically. This feature is shared by all modern Germanic languages except modern English (which nevertheless appears to have had V2 earlier in its history), but has largely replaced the structure with an overall Subject Verb Object syntax.


The earliest evidence of Germanic languages comes from names recorded in the first century by Tacitus (especially from his work Germania), but the earliest Germanic writing occurs in a single instance in the second century BC on the Negau helmet. From roughly the second century AD, certain speakers of early Germanic varieties developed the Elder Futhark, an early form of the Runic alphabet. Early runic inscriptions also are largely limited to personal names, and difficult to interpret. The Gothic language was written in the Gothic alphabet developed by Bishop Ulfilas for his translation of the Bible in the fourth century. Later, Christian priests and monks who spoke and read Latin in addition to their native Germanic varieties began writing the Germanic languages with slightly modified Latin letters. However, throughout the Viking Age, Runic alphabets remained in common use in Scandinavia.

In addition to the standard Latin alphabet, many Germanic languages use a variety of accent marks and extra letters, including umlauts, the ß (Eszett), IJ, Ø, Æ, Å, Ä, Ö, Ð, Ȝ, and the runes Þ and Ƿ. Historical printed German is frequently set in blackletter typefaces (e.g. fraktur or schwabacher).


All Germanic languages are thought to be descended from a hypothetical Proto-Germanic, united by their having been subjected to the sound shifts of Grimm's law and Verner's law. These probably took place during the Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe from ca. 500 BC, but other common innovations separating Germanic from Proto-Indo European suggest a common history of pre-Proto-Germanic speakers throughout the Nordic Bronze Age.

From the time of their earliest attestation, the Germanic varieties are divided into three groups, West, East, and North Germanic. Their exact relation is difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, and they remained mutually intelligible throughout the Migration period, so that some individual varieties are difficult to classify.

The sixth century Lombardic language, for instance, may constitute an originally, either North or East, Germanic variety that became assimilated to West Germanic as the Lombards settled at the Elbe. The Western group would have formed in the late Jastorf culture, the Eastern group may be derived from the first century variety of Gotland (see Old Gutnish), leaving southern Sweden as the original location of the Northern group. The earliest coherent Germanic text preserved is the fourth century Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas. Early testimonies of West Germanic are in Old High German (scattered words and sentences sixth century, coherent texts ninth century), Old English (coherent texts tenth century). North Germanic is only attested in scattered runic inscriptions, as Proto-Norse, until it evolves into Old Norse by about 800.

Longer runic inscriptions survive from the eighth and ninth centuries (Eggjum stone, Rök stone), longer texts in the Latin alphabet survive from the twelfth century (Íslendingabók), and some skaldic poetry held to date back to as early as the ninth century.

By about the tenth century, the varieties had diverged enough to make inter-comprehensibility difficult. The linguistic contact of the Viking settlers of the Danelaw with the Anglo-Saxons left traces in the English language, and is suspected to have facilitated the collapse of Old English grammar that resulted in Middle English from the twelfth century.

The East Germanic languages were marginalized from the end of the Migration period. The Burgundians, Goths, and Vandals became linguistically assimilated to their respective neighbors by about the seventh century, with only Crimean Gothic lingering on until the eighteenth century.

During the early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Middle English on one hand and, by the High German consonant shift on the continent on the other, resulting in Upper German and Low Saxon, with graded intermediate Central German varieties. By Early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South to Northern Low Saxon in the North and, although both extremes are considered German, they are hardly mutually intelligible. The southernmost varieties have completed the second sound shift, while the northern varieties remained unaffected by the consonant shift.

The North Germanic languages, on the other hand, remained more unified, with the peninsular languages largely retaining mutual intelligibility into modern times.


Note that divisions between and among subfamilies of Germanic rarely are precisely defined; most form continuous clines, with adjacent varieties being mutually intelligible and more separated ones not.


General Note: The table shows the succession of the significant historical stages of each language (vertically), and their approximate groupings in subfamilies (horizontally). Horizontal sequence within each group does not imply a measure of greater or lesser similarity.


Mentioned here are all the principal and some secondary contemporary varieties; individual articles linked to below, may contain larger family trees. For example, many Low Saxon varieties are discussed on Low Saxon besides just Northern Low Saxon and Plautdietsch.

Alternate classification of contemporary North Germanic languages

Vocabulary comparison

Several of the terms in the table below have had semantic drift. For example, the form Sterben and other terms for die are cognates with the English word starve. There is also at least one example of a common borrowing from a non-Germanic source (ounce and its cognates from Latin).
English Scots West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Low Saxon Groningan German Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokmål) Norwegian (Nynorsk) Limburgish
Apple Aiple Apel Appel Appel Appel Abbel Apfel Aplus Epli Epl(i) Äpple Æble Eple Eple Appel
Board Buird Board Bord Bord Boord Bred Brett / Bord Baúrd Borð Borð Bord Bord Bord Bord Bórdj
Beech Beech Boeke/ Boekebeam Beuk Beuk Böke Beukenboom Buche Bōka/-bagms Bók Bók Bok Bøg Bøk Bok/Bøk Beuk
Book Beuk Boek Boek Boek Book Bouk Buch Bōka Bók Bók Bok Bog Bok Bok Book
Breast Breest Boarst Bors Borst Bost Bôrst Brust Brusts Brjóst Bróst Bröst Bryst Bryst Bryst Bórs
Brown Broun Brún Bruin Bruin Bruun Broen Braun Bruns Brúnn Brúnur Brun Brun Brun Brun Broen
Day Day Dei Dag Dag Dag Dag Tag Dags Dagur Dagur Dag Dag Dag Dag Daag
Dead Deid Dea Dood Dood Dood Dood Tod Dauþs Dauður Deyður Död Død Død Daud Doeaje
Die (Starve) Dee Stjerre Sterf Sterven Döen/ Starven Straarven Sterben Diwan Deyja Doyggja Døy Stèrve
Enough Eneuch Genôch Genoeg Genoeg Noog Genog Genug Ganōhs Nóg Nóg/Nógmikið Nog Nok Nok Nok Genóg
Finger Finger Finger Vinger Vinger Finger Vinger Finger Figgrs Fingur Fingur Finger Finger Finger Finger Vinger
Give Gie Jaan Gee Geven Geven Geven Geben Giban Gefa Geva Ge/Giva Give Gi Gje(va) Gaeve
Glass Gless Glês Glas Glas Glas Glas Glas Gler Glas Glas Glas Glass Glas Glaas
Gold Gowd Goud Goud Goud Gold Gold Gold Gulþ Gull Gull Guld/Gull Guld Gull Gull Góldj
Good Guid Gód Goed Goed Guot - Gut Gōþ(is) Góð God God God God God Good
Hand Haund Hân Hand Hand Hand Haand Hand Handus Hönd Hond Hand Hånd Hånd Hand Handj
Head Heid Holle Hoof/ Kop Hoofd/ Kop Kopp Heufd/ Kop Haupt/ Kopf Háubiþ Höfuð Høvd/ Høvur Huvud Hoved Hode Hovud Huudj
High Heich Heech Hoog Hoog Hoog Hoog/Höch Hoch Háuh Hár Høg/ur Hög Høj Høy/høg Høg Hoeag
Home Hame Hiem Heim/ Tuis Heim/Thuis Heim Thoes Heim Háimōþ Heim Heim Hem Hjem Hjem/heim Heim Heim
Hook/Crook Heuk Hoek Haak Haak Haak Hoak Haken Kram/ppa Krókur Krókur/Ongul Hake/Krok Hage/Krog Hake/Krok Hake/Krok Haok
House Hoose Hûs Huis Huis Huus Hoes Haus Hūs Hús Hús Hus Hus Hus Hus Hoes
Many Mony Mannich/Mennich Menige Menig Mennig Ìnde Manch Manags Margir Mangir/Nógvir Många Mange Mange Mange Mäönech
Moon Muin Moanne Maan Maan Maan Moan Mond Mēna Máni/Tungl Máni/Tungl Måne Måne Måne Måne Maon
Night Nicht Nacht Nag Nacht Natt/ Nacht Nacht Nacht Nótt Nótt Natt Natt Nat Natt Natt Nach
No (Nay) Nae Nee Nee Nee(n) Nee Nee/Nai Nee/Nein/Nö Nei Nei Nej/Nä Nej Nei Nei Nae/Nein
Old (but: elder, eldritch) Auld Âld Oud Gammel /Oud Oll Old/Olleg Alt Sineigs Gamall (but: eldri, elstur) Gamal (but: eldri, elstur) Gammal (but: äldre, äldst) Gammel (but: ældre, ældst) Gammel (but: eldre, eldst) Gam(m)al (but: eldre, eldst) Aad (old) Gammel (decayed)
One Ane Ien Een Een Een Aine Eins Áins Einn Ein En En En Ein Ein
Ounce Unce Ûns Ons Ons Ons Onze Unze Unkja Únsa Únsa Uns Unse Unse Unse Óns
Snow Snaw Snie Sneeu Sneeuw Snee Snij/Snèj Schnee Snáiws Snjór Kavi/Snjógvur Snö Sne Snø Snø Snieë
Stone Stane Stien Steen Steen Steen Stain Stein Stáins Steinn Steinur Sten Sten Stein Stein Stein
That That Dat Daardie/Dit Dat/Die Dat/Dit Dat/Dij Das Þata Það Tað Det Det Det Det Det
Two/Twain Twa Twa Twee Twee Twee Twij/Twèje Zwei/Zwo Twái Tveir/Tvær/Tvö Tveir/Tvey/Tvær/Tvá Två To To To Twieë
Who Wha Wa Wie Wie Wokeen Wel Wer Ƕas/Hwas Hver Hvør Vem Hvem Hvem Kven Wae
Worm Wirm Wjirm Wurm Worm/Wurm Worm Wörm Wurm Maþa Maðkur/Ormur Maðkur/Ormur Mask/Orm  Orm Makk/Mark/Orm Makk/Mark/Orm  Wórm
English Scots West Frisian Afrikaans Dutch Low Saxon Groningan German Gothic Icelandic Faroese Swedish Danish Norwegian (Bokmål) Norwegian (Nynorsk) Limburgish

See also


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