Germanic Languages and their Common Linguistic Features.

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Germanic Languages and their Common Linguistic Features.

The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European language familyspoken natively by a population of approximately 500 million people[nb 1] mainly in North America, Oceania, Central Europe, Western and Northern Europe.

All Germanic languages of the past and present have common linguistic features. That are not shared by other groups of languages in the indo-european family.

1. Word stress (accent).

Indo-European – free stress (movable), can appear in any part of a word (root, prefix, suffix), pitch stress (musical)

Proto-Germanic – fixed stress (unmovable), usually placed on root or prefix, dynamic stress (force, breath stress)

2. Vowels.

Vowels underwent different types of changes:

PG group.

1- qualitative change. Affects the quality of a sound. (nox -> nacht : latin “o” -> Germanic “a”)

2- quantitative change. Affects the length of a sound. ([I] -> [I:])

3- dependent change. Change that occurs in certain position or in certain phonetic conditions. (bit - bite)

4- independent change. Affects a certain sound in all positions irrespective of phonetic conditions and serves to distinguish grammatical phenomenon (ablout)

After all these changes the vowel system contained the following sounds:

Short vowels: i,e,a,o,u

Long vowels: i:, e:, a:, o:, u:

There was an exact parallelism of long and short vowels.

3. Consonants.

The consonants in Germanic languages look shifted. And these changes were first formulated by Jacob Grimm in the early 19th century. That’s why these alterations are called “grimm’s law” (first consonant shift).

1. Voiceless stops (глухие смычные), developed into voiceless fricatives (глухие щелевые). P,t,k – f,th,h (pater – father) (tres – three)

2. IE. Voiced stops changed into Germanic voiceless stops. (IE) B,d,g – p,t,k (ger) (болото – pool)

3. IE voiced aspirated stops changed into Germanic voiced non-aspirated stops. (IE bh, dh, gh – b, d, g Ger)

Verner’s law. Carl Verner a Dansih scholar in 19th century explained the consonant correspondences as gradual historical process. p, t, k -> f, θ, h-> v, th/d,g

Septen – seofen - seven

This process usually happens on condition that the consonant were situated between vowels and if preceded by unstressed vowel.


The Proto-Germanic and the old Germanic languages were synthetic languages (the relationships between the parts of the sentence were shown by the forms of the words rather than position in the sentence or by auxiliary words). One the main processes in the development of the Germanic morphological system was the change in the word structure. The common I-E notional word consisted of 3 elements: root (expressing the lexical meaning), inflexion (ending) (showing the grammatical form), stem-forming suffix. However in Germanic languages the stem-forming suffix fuses with the ending and is often no longer visible.

The Germanic nouns had a well-developed case system with 4 cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative. And two number forms: singular and plural. They also had the category of gender: feminine, masculine, neuter.

Germanic adjectives had two types of declination: weak and strong. They also had degrees of comparison.

Germanic verbs are divided into 2 principal groups: strong and weak. Depending on the way they formed their past tense forms. The past tense of strong verbs was formed with the help of ablaut(чередование гласных). Weak verbs expressed past tense with the help of the dental suffix “d/t”. The Germanic verb had a well-developed system of categories including the category of person 1st, 2nd, 3rd; category of number singular/plural. Also Germanic verb had tense: past and present. They also had mood: indicative, imperative, optative.

The grammatical forms of the word were built by means of suppletion (образование форм одного и того же слова от разных корней) (the usage of two or more different roots as forms of one and the same word) (I, my, mine, me) (ich, mich, mir).


Though in the Germanic languages inflections were simpler and shorter than in other in other I-E languages. Sound interchange. The usage of interchange of vowels and consonants for the purpose of word and form building. (tooth-teeth, build-built).

Ablaut or vowel gradation. An independent vowel interchange unconnected with any phonetic conditions used to differentiate between grammatical forms of one and the same word. The Germanic ablaut was consistently used in building the principal forms of strong verbs.


1. Historically, all the Germanic languages originated from one ancestor language. It is called Proto-Germanic. It developed from P-I-E spoken in pre-historic times. Speaking about the date. Archeological findings provide data that I-E tribes came to Europe in 3000-2500 B.C. (Northern part of Europe). Before that time the coasts of the Baltic and the North Seas were inhabited by a different group. I-E newcomers mixed with this group and formed the tribes that later became known as Germanic tribes. The Germanic group of languages developed its specific trades during the first millennium B.C. At about this time the Germanic tribes separated from other west I-E tribes. In the course of many centuries radical developments occurred in the P-I-E spoken by those I-E tribes who lived in Denmark and origins there. The result of these developments was that P-G became a separate language between the 15th – 10th centuries B.C. P-G was distinctive in many of its sounds, inflections, stress patterns and vocabulary. The ancient Germans moved further than other tribes and settled on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea in the region of the Elbe. Southern Scandinavia including Jutland peninsula is the probable homeland of P-G. It was only a spoken language. P-G was most probably spoken just before the beginning of the Christian era. The forms of P-G can only be reconstructed. This was done in the 19th century by methods of comparative linguistics. The Germans didn’t lose touch with other I-E languages. They migrated and these migrations caused new contacts. This was reflected in the speech. The Germanic tribes came into contact with East European tribes, and the languages later formed the Baltic and Slavonic groups. The Germanic tribes also had contacts with Italian tribes that lived in southern Europe. Thus, Latin language influenced the language of Germanic tribes. These contacts found reflections in the borrowings into the languages of these nations. Most important are the borrowings into the Finnish language in the beginning of our era. The borrowings were well preserved in the Finnish language. They had the ancient type of morphological structure that can hardly be found in the forms of the verbs in the earliest documents written in Germanic languages. Suffixes and inflections are used in their full forms that were lost by the time the Germans had their first written documents. By the third and the 4th centuries suffixes and inflections had undergone the process of reduction.

The history is known from the writings of Greek and Roman authors. The earliest paper is written by Pytheas. He lived in the second half of the 4th century B.C. Pytheas sailed much. The description of his journeys is not preserved. But something was quoted in the papers of old historians as in Titus Livy and Polybius in the second century B.C. They provided extracts from a paper of Pytheas. It was also mentioned that Old Germanic tribes raided the Hellenic countries of south-eastern Europe, Italy and Gall. In the beginning of our era the Greek historian Strabo wrote about Germans nomads. They moved from forest to forest, built houses, and were engaged in cattle bringing. The great writer Plutarch described Germans as wild nomadic tribes who had constantly been in war. They were not interested in agriculture or in cattle bringing, but only in war. The Roman general Julius Caesar devoted several chapters to the militant Germanic tribes in his “Commentaries on the war in Gall” (1044 B.C.). Caesar fought with them on the Rhine. He took two expeditions against the Germanic tribes who wanted to get hauled on some territories. The Romans defeated the Germans in both expeditions. Caesar wrote about their military tactics, described how they prepared their attacks and so on. Caesar wrote that Germans lived in tribal unions. He also gave a detailed description of the structure of their society and peculiarities of their life.

The next great historian Pliny spent many years in the Roman provinces of Low and High Germany. He was a prominent encyclopedias. He wrote a book called “Natural History”. He was the first who enumerated and classified the military tribes. It was proved by many scientists. According to Pliny there were several Germanic tribes:

  • The Vindili. They lived in the eastern part of the territory inhabited by the Germanic tribes. They consisted of the Goths, the Burgundians and the Vandals. The Vandals first inhabited the territory between the Oder and the Vistula. Later they moved to Northern Africa through Spain. The word vandalism originated from Vandal (means Barbary).
  • The Burgundians came to the continent from the island of Bornholm. It was in the Baltic Sea. Later they moved to the west and settled in south-eastern part of France in the area called Burgundia.
  • The Goths first inhabited the lower coast of the river Vistula. Later they moved to the south and formed powerful tribal unions of Ostrogoths and Visigoths.
  • The Ingvaenoes. They lived in the north-western part of the Germanic territory. They inhabited the Jutland peninsula and the coast of the North Sea. The tribes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians were formed later of this group.
  • The Istaevones. They lived on the Rhine. Later they formed a very powerful tribal union of Franconians. In the early Middle Ages they were powerful group of West Germans.
  • The Herminones lived in the centre of Germany and later the German nation was formed of these tribes.
  • The Hilleviones were isolated from other Germanic tribes. They inhabited Scandinavia. Modern Scandinavian nations are the descendants of these tribes.

The Vindili spoke eastern Germanic; the Hilleviones spoke northern Germanic, the Ingvaones, Istaevones and Herminones – West Germanic.

The Roman historian Tacitus made a detailed description of the life and customs of ancient Germans. Tacitus was a prominent Roman historian. He himself had never been to Germany. Being a Roman senator he got information from military travelers, actions, etc. he also used papers written about the Germans before him. In the time of Tacitus there were constant arm conflicts between the Germans and Romans. Numerous attempts of the Roman generals to conquer the Germanic tribes failed. In the second half of the second century after a short period without wars they began their attacks again. The ancient Germans had a tribal society. In the head of each tribe there was a chief who was called ‘kuning’. Some modern place-names testify to this social structure of the Germans. The whole tribe had the name of the Chief.

Subdivision of GLs

E belongs to a group of related languages, which have descended from common Germanic, or

Proto-Germanic as a distinct branch of Indo-European (IE) family of languages. Ethnic and

linguistic disintegration resulted in division into three subgroups of GLs:

1) East Germanic: Gothic, Vandalic, Burgundian. All are dead.

2) North Germanic: Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish.

3) West Germanic: English, German, Frisian, Afrikaans and others.

Inspite this subdivision GLs make a distinct group with the IE linguistic family due to their

common features in: 1) phonetics; 2) grammar; 3) vocabulary. These features were either

inherited from the Proto-Germanic parent language or developed parallel in separate GLs later

due to their mutual source.

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