The Place of English in the Indo-European Language Family Common Features of Germanic Languages

September 10th, 20112:01 pm


The Place of English in the Indo-European Language Family Common Features of Germanic Languages

The Germanic languages are a subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages, which were spoken by about 420 million people in many parts of the world (chiefly in Europe and the Western Hemisphere). All the modern Germanic languages are closely related; moreover, they become progressively closer grammatically and lexically when traced back to the earliest records. This suggests that they all derive from a still earlier common ancestor, which is traditionally referred to as Proto-Germanic and which is believed to have broken from the other Indo-European languages before 500 B.C. Although no writing in Proto-Germanic has survived, the language has been substantially reconstructed by using the oldest records that exist of the Germanic tongue.

West Germanic

Dutch (including Flemish)
Afrikaans (Boerish)

North Germanic


East Germanic


The Germanic languages today are conventionally divided into three linguistic groups: East Germanic, North Germanic, and West Germanic. This division had begun by the 4th century A.D. The East Germanic group is now extinct. However, the oldest surviving literary text of any Germanic language is in Gothic.

The North Germanic languages, also called Scandinavian languages or Norse, are spoken by about 20 million people. These modern North Germanic languages are all descendants of Old Norse and have several distinctive grammatical features in common.

The West Germanic languages are spoken by about 400 million people. Among the dead West Germanic languages are Old Franconian, Old High German, and Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) from which Dutch, German, and English respectively developed.

Common Characteristics:

Phonetics: Strong evidence for the unity of all the modern Germanic languages can be found in the phenomenon known as the first Germanic consonant shift (also called Grimm’s law), which set the Germanic subfamily apart from the other members of the Indo-European family (together with the Verner’s law and rhotacism phenomenon).

Before the 8th century a second shift of consonants took place in some of the West German dialects. The dialects in which this second consonant shift took place were the High German dialects, so called because they were spoken in more mountainous areas. The West Germanic dialects not affected by the second shift were the Low German dialects of the Lowlands, from which Dutch and English evolved.

Also peculiar to the Germanic languages is the recessive accent, whereby the stress usually falls on the first or root syllable of a word, especially a word of Germanic origin.
Another distinctive characteristic shared by the Germanic languages is the umlaut, which is a type of vowel change in the root of a word.

Morphology: All Germanic languages have strong and weak verbs. Also typically Germanic is the formation of the genitive singular by the addition of -s or -es. Moreover, the comparison of adjectives in the Germanic languages follows a parallel pattern, generally, -r and -st endings are added. The Germanic languages have two adjective declensions, a strong and a weak. The weak forms are used generally after articles, demonstrative pronouns, and possessive adjectives; the strong are used independently.

Vocabulary furnished evidence of a common origin for the Germanic languages in that a number of the basic words in these languages are similar in form; however, while word similarity may indicate the same original source for a group of languages, it can also be a sign of borrowing.

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