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The Germanic languages


English is a Germanic language as are German, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese and Icelandic. This means that it belongs to an early grouping of Indo-European which distinguishes itself from other languages of this family by having undergone a series of changes to consonants in initial position. In general, stops become fricatives due to the operation of the Germanic Sound Shift (sometimes also called Grimm’s Law). This is assumed to have taken place many centuries BC. The operation of this law can be recognised by comparing words in Latin with their cognates (etymologically related forms) in English as in the following table.

Latin English Old English
pes  [p] foot  [f] fot
tres  [t] three  [þ] þreo
collis  [k] hill  [x] hyl
quod  [kw] what  [xw] hwæt

North Germanic
      Runes (3/4c) and Old Norse (13c)
      Icelandic, Faroese, Swedish, Norwegian (Bokmål+Nynorsk) and Danish

East Germanic
      Gothic (4c)   —   (none)

West Germanic
      Old High German (8c)   —   High German (Yiddish)

      Old English (7c)   —   English

      Old Saxon (8c)   —   Low German

      Old Frisian (14c)   —   Frisian (North and West)

      Old Low Franconian (12c)   —   Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans

The West Germanic group


Anglo-Frisian    —    Old Frisian    —    Frisian

Continental West Germanic

(1) Old English    —    Middle English    —    Modern English

(2) Old High German    —    Middle High German    —    Modern High German

(3) Old Low Franconian    —    Dutch, Flemish

(4) Old Saxon    —    Low German

Note. The Anglo-Frisian and Old Low German sections are sometimes joined to a group called Ingvaeonic, named after the Latin term for tribes on the North sea coast in the early centuries of our era before they crossed over to Britain.

The Germanic languages today

Today, the Germanic languages are to be found throughout Scandinavia (North Germanic) and in central Europe in the area of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and on the North Sea coast in the Low Countries (present-day Netherlands and Belgium). Frisian, a separate Germanic language, is still spoken in northern Netherlands and in the west of Schleswig-Holstein (present-day Germany, south of mainland Denmark). The local language of Luxemburg – Letzebergisch – is also Germanic. English is of course a Germanic language still (but with strong Romance elements due to language contact in history). Scots is also derived from West Germanic (from northern forms of Old English dialects). The status of Scots as a separate language is a question of debate.

Present-day German can be divided into three broad dialect regions. The most northerly one is to be found in the low-lying area around the North Sea and Baltic Sea coast. Here Low German is also spoken which is regarded by many as a separate language (compare this with Scots). South of this is the central band which stretches across from Luxemburg in the west to Saxony in the east. Below this is the Upper German dialect area which derives its name from its mountainous terrain. It includes Bavarian, which extends from Bavaria in Germany into adjoining Austria, and Alemannic, which is found in the south-west of present-day Germany and in the German-speaking sector of Switzerland. The term High German is not intended as a geographical label, but refers to the standard of present-day German.


König, Ekkehard and Johan van der Auwera (eds) 2002. The Germanic Languages. New edition. London: Routledge.

Harbert, Wayne 2006. The Germanic Languages. Cambridge: University Press.

Markey, Thomas 1976. A North Sea Germanic reader. München: Fink.

Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives. A survey of the earliest Germanic languages. Stanford, CA: University Press.

Wolff, Gerhart 2004. Deutsche Sprachgeschichte von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. [German language history from its beginnings to the present-day] Fifth edition. Tübingen: Francke.