Classification of Modern Germanic Languages and their Distribution

Classification of languages means their placement into families or phyla [‘failə] on the basis of lexical or typological similarity or shared ancestry. Languages may thus be classified either genetically or typologically. A genetic classification assumes that certain languages are related in that they have evolved from a common ancestral language. This form of classification employs ancient records as well as hypothetical reconstructions of the earlier forms of languages, called protolanguages. Typological classification is based on similarities in language structure. As for the English language, genetically (historically) it belongs to the Germanic or Teutonic group of languages of the Indo-European linguistic family. Old Germanic languages comprised 3 groups: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic. East Germanic languages no longer exist, as they are dead. Only one language belonging to this group is known, Gothic, as a written document came down to us in this language.

It is a translation of the Bible made in the 4th century A.D. by the Gothic Bishop Ulfilas from the Greek language. Modern Germanic languages embrace 2 groups: North Germanic and West Germanic as they have survived until today. The table below illustrates their division and distribution. Researchers are not unanimous in their estimation of the number of Germanic languages and their distinction. Until recently Dutch and Flemish were named as separate languages, now there is a common term for them – the Netherlandic (Netherlandish) (Note 7) language as spoken in The Netherlands, together with the same language in northern Belgium, which is popularly called Flemish. In the European Middle Ages, the language was called Dietsc, or Duutsc, historically equivalent to German Deutsch and meaning simply “language of the people,” as contrasted with Latin, which was the language of religion and learning.

The form Duutsc was borrowed into English and gives modern “Dutch.” The official name of the language is Nederlands, or Netherlandic. In the Netherlands it is also called Hollands (Hollandish), reflecting the fact that the standard language is based largely on the dialect of the old province of Holland (now North Holland and South Holland). Frisian and Faroese are regarded as dialects since they are spoken over small politically dependent areas (Note 8); British English and American English are sometimes thought to be 2 independent languages. By one estimate, the number of people speaking Germanic languages amounts to 440 million (T.A. Rastorguyeva) plus an indefinite number of bilingual nations with English spoken as one of the official languages.

Old Germanic Languages and their Classification

The history of the Germanic group begins with the appearance of what is known as the Proto-Germanic (PG) language also termed Common or Primitive Germanic, Primitive Teutonic or simple Germanic. PG is the linguistic ancestor or the parent-language of the Germanic group. It is believed to have split from the IE related tongues sometime between the 15th and 10th c.c.BC. The ancient Germans or Teutons are supposed to have settled on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea in the region of the Elbe. This place is regarded as the most probable original home of the Teutons. PG is an entirely pre-historical language: it was never recorded in written form. In the 19th century it was reconstructed by methods of comparative linguistics from written evidence in descendant languages. It is believed that at the earliest stages of history, PG was one language, though dialectally coloured. In its later stages dialectal differences grew, so that towards the beginning of our era Germanic appears divided into dialectal groups and tribal dialects. Dialectal differentiation increased with migrations and geographical expansion of the Teutons caused by over population, poor agricultural technique and scanty natural resources in the areas of their original settlement.

Earliest records of Germanic tribes

The records of ancient Germanic tribes are based on testimonies by Greek and Roman travellers and geographers. The earliest of them refers to the IV c. B.C. made by Phytheas, a Greek astronomer and geographer who sailed from Gaul (France) to the mouth of the river Elbe. He described the tribes of the Teutons. The next major description of the Teutons came from Julius Caesar, the Roman general and statesman which he left in his book ‘Commentaries on the War in Gaul’ (1 c. BC.) A century later (1 c. A.D.) Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, gave a classification of the Germanic which until quite recently had basically been accepted by modern researchers. According to it, the tribes in 1st c.A.D. comprised 5 major groups which fell into 3 subgroups: Eastern Germanic, Western Germanic and Northern Germanic. They were 1) the Vindili 2) the Ingaevones 3) The Istsaevones 4)the Hermiones 5) the Hilleveones. Table 2 illustrates this division.

A few decades later the Roman historian Tacitus compiled a detailed description of the life and customs of the ancient Teutons where he reproduced Pliny’s classification of the Germanic tribes. Having made a linguistic analysis of several Germanic dialects of later ages, F. Engels came to the conclusion that Pliny’s classification of the Teutonic tribes accurately reflected the contemporary dialectal division. The traditional tri-partite classification of the Germanic languages was reconsidered and corrected in some recent publications (Rastorgueyva). It appears that the development of the Germanic group was not confined to successive splits; it involved both linguistic divergence and convergence. It has also been discovered that originally PG split into two main branches and that the tri-partite division marks a later stage of its history.

The earliest migration of the Germanic tribes from the lower valley of the Elbe consisted in their movement north, to the Scandinavian peninsula, a few hundred years before our era. This geographical segregation must have led to linguistic differentiation and to the division of PG into the northern and southern branches. At the beginning of our era, some of the tribes returned to the mainland and settled closer to the Vistula basin, east of the other continental Germanic tribes. It is only from this stage of their history that the Germanic languages can be described under three headings: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

Table 2
Classification of Ancient Germanic Tribes

4th c. B.C. – Pytheas, Greek astronomer and geographer
1st c. B.C. – Julius Caesar< Roman general and statesman
1st c. A.D. – Pliny the Elder, Roman naturalist: classification of the Germanic tribes:

East Germanic

The Vindili (including the Goths and the Burgundians)

Eastern part of Germanic territory

Western Germanic
The Ingaevones
North-western part of Germanic territory, the shores of the Northern Sea, modern Netherlands

The Istsaevones
The western part of the Germanic territory, on the Rhine (the Franks)

The Hermiones
Southern part of the Germanic territory (southern Germany)

Northern Germanic
The Hilleveones
– 2nd c. A.D. Cornelius Tacitus, Roman historian

Characterized the

social structure of the

old Germanic tribes

Material Culture

According to Julius Caesar, the Germans were pastoralists, and the bulk of their foodstuffs—milk, cheese, and meat—came from their flocks and herds. Some farming was also carried out, the main crops being grain, root crops, and vegetables. Both the cattle and the horses of the Germans were of poor quality by Roman standards. The Iron Age had begun in Germany about four centuries before the days of Caesar, but even in his time metal appears to have been a luxury material for domestic utensils, most of which were made of wood, leather, or clay. Of the larger metal objects used by them, most were still made of bronze, though this was not the case with weapons. Pottery was for the most part still made by hand, and pots turned on the wheel were relatively rare. The degree to which trade was developed in early Germany is obscure.

There was certainly a slave trade, and many slaves were sold to the Romans. Such potters as used the wheel—and these were very few—and smiths and miners no doubt sold their products. But in general the average Germanic village is unlikely to have used many objects that had not been made at home. Foreign merchants dealing in Italian as well as Celtic wares were active in Germany in Caesar’s time and supplied prosperous warriors with such goods as wine and bronze vessels. But from the reign of Augustus onward, there was a huge increase in German imports from the Roman Empire. The German leaders were now able to buy whole categories of goods—glass vessels, red tableware, Roman weapons, brooches, statuettes, ornaments of various kinds, and other objects—that had not reached them before. These Roman products brought their owners much prestige, but how the Germans paid for them is not fully known.


In the period of the early Roman Empire, German weapons, both offensive and defensive, were characterized by shortage of metal. Their chief weapon was a long lance, and few carried swords. Helmets and breastplates were almost unknown. A light wooden or wicker shield, sometimes fitted with an iron rim and sometimes strengthened with leather, was the only defensive weapon. This lack of adequate equipment explains the swift, fierce rush with which the Germans would charge the ranks of the heavily armed Romans. If they became entangled in a prolonged, hand-to-hand grapple, where their light shields and thrusting spears were confronted with Roman swords and armour, they had little hope of success. Even by the 6th century, few of the Germanic peoples had adequate military equipment.

Form of Government

No trace of autocracy can be found among the Germans whom Caesar describes. The leading men of the pagi (kindred groups) would try to patch up disputes as they arose, but they acted only in those disputes that broke out between members of their own pagus. There appears to have been no mediatory body at this date. In fact, in peacetime there appears to have been no central authority that could issue orders to, or exercise influence over, all the pagi of which any one people was composed. In wartime, according to Caesar, a number of confederate chieftains were elected, but they were joint leaders and held office only in time of war. By Tacitus’ time a new type of military chieftainship had come into being. For this office only the members of a recognized “royal clan,” such as is known to have existed among the 1st-century Cherusci and Batavians, the 6th-century Heruli, and others, were eligible. Any member of this royal clan was eligible for election, and the chieftainship was in no way hereditary. A chief of this type held office for life and had religious as well as military duties.

He could be overruled by the council of the leading men, and his proposals to the general assembly of the warriors might be rejected by them. The degree of his influence depended largely on his own personal qualities. A rudimentary judicial apparatus had come into existence among the Germanic peoples by Tacitus’ time. The general assembly elected a number of the leading men to act as judges, and these judges traveled through the villages to hear private suits. Each of them was accompanied by 100 attendants to lend authority to his decisions. A person who was found guilty by these judges had to pay a number of horses or cattle proportionate to the gravity of his offense. But many disputes (e.g., those arising from homicide, wounding, or theft) continued to be settled by the kindreds themselves, and the blood feuds to which they gave rise might continue from generation to generation.

Long after the conversion to Christianity the German rulers found it difficult to stamp out the blood feud. .The monarchy did not become fully established in the Germanic world until German peoples had settled as federates inside the Roman Empire, and the leaders of the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Gaul and Spain, the Vandals in Africa, and so on are the first Germanic kings. Other famous German chieftains in this period, such as Athanaric and Alaric, who either lived outside the Roman frontier or whose peoples were not federates settled in the provinces under a treaty (foedus) to defend the frontier, seem to have had little more personal authority than the leaders described by Tacitus.

Conversion to Christianity

Evidence suggests that before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, none of the great Germanic peoples was converted to Christianity while still living outside the Roman frontier, but that all the Germanic peoples who moved into the Roman provinces before that date were converted to Christianity within a generation. The Vandals seem to have been converted when in Spain in 409–429, the Burgundians when in eastern Gaul in 412–436, and the Ostrogoths when in the province of Pannonia about 456–472. In all these cases the Germans embraced the Arian form of Christianity (Note 9); none of the major Germanic peoples became officially Catholic until the conversion of the Franks under Clovis (496) and of the Burgundians under Sigismund. The reason for their adoption of Arianism rather than Catholicism is very obscure. The last Germanic people on the European continent to be converted to Christianity were the Old Saxons (second half of the 8th century), while the Scandinavian peoples were converted in the 10th century. England had been converted in the 7th century.

Germanic Alphabets and Old Germanic Writings

Germanic tribes used 3 different alphabets for their writings which partly succeeded each other in time. The earliest of these was the Runic alphabet (Note 10) each separate letter being called a rune. The word rune originally meant ‘secret’, ‘mystery’ and hence came to denote inscriptions believed to be magic. According to scholars, this alphabet was derived either from Latin or from some other Italic alphabet, close to Latin, in the 2nd c. A.D. somewhere on the Rhine or the Danube where the Germanic tribes came into contact with Roman culture. This alphabet was used by such tribes as the Goths, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. The runes were used as letters, each symbol indicating a separate sound. Besides, a rune could also represent a word beginning with that sound and was called by that word. For example, the rune denoted the sound [θ], [ð] was called ‘thorn’ and could stand for OE Þorn(NE thorn).

The letters of the runic alphabet are angular, straight lines are preferred, curved lines are avoided. This is due to the fact that runic inscriptions were cut in hard material: stone, bone or wood. The shapes of some letters resemble those of Greek and Latin; others have not been traced to any known alphabet. The number of runes in different OG languages varied from 28 to 33 runes in Britain against 16 or 24 on the continent. That is the number of runes in England was larger: new runes were added as new sounds appeared in English. Neither on the mainland nor in Britain were the runes ever used for everyday writing or for putting down poetry and prose works. Their main function was to make short inscriptions on objects, often to bestow on them some special power or magic. The two best known runic inscriptions in England are the earliest extant OE written records.

One of them is an inscription on a box called the ‘Franks Casket, the other is a short text on a stone cross known as the Ruthwell Cross. The Franks Casket was discovered in the early years of the 19th c. In France, and was presented to the British Museum by a British archeologist A.W. Frank. The Casket is a small box of whale bone; its four sides are carved: there are pictures in the centre and runic inscription around. The longest of them, in alliterative verse, tells the story of the whale bone, of which the Casket is made. The Ruthwell Cross is a 15ft tall cross inscribed and ornamented on all sides. The principal inscription has been reconstructed into a passage from an OE religious poem” The Dream of the Rood”, in which Christ’s Passion is told from the point of view of the Cross on which he was crucified. The Cross speaks: Ic wæs miÞ blodi bistemid (Old English translation) (I was with blood bedewed).

Many runic inscriptions were preserved on weapons, coins, amulets, tombstones, rings, various cross fragments. Some runic insertions occur in OE manuscripts written in Latin characters. The total number of runic inscriptions in OE is about 40; the last of them belong to the end of the OE period. Next came Ulfiala’s Gothic alphabet used in his translation of the Bible. It’s a peculiar alphabet based on the Greek alphabet with some admixture of Latin and Runic letters. (The Gothic alphabet should not be confused with the so-called Gothic script which is used in German writings and is a modified version of Latin script). The latest alphabet to be used by the Germanic tribes is the Latin alphabet. It superceded both the Runic and the Gothic alphabets when a new technique of writing was introduced, namely that of spreading some colour or paint on a surface instead of cutting or engraving the letters.

The material used for writing was either parchment or papyrus. Introduction of the Latin alphabet accompanied the spread of Christianity and Christian religious texts written in Latin. Since the Latin alphabet was adequate to represent all the sounds of Germanic languages, it was adapted to the peculiar needs of the separate languages. For example, to denote the dental fricative [θ], [ð] the runic Þ was used (derived from Latin D). Ulfilas’s Bible, otherwise called the Silver Code (Codex Argenteus) is kept in Sweden. Along with other OG writings, next comes the Old High German Song of Hilderbrandt, a fragment of an epic, 8th century, and the Beowulf, an OE epic, probably written in the 8th c. Then come Old Icelandic epic texts collected in the so-called Older Edda comprising songs written down in the 13 c. A most important role in the history of the English language was played by the introduction of Christianity.

The first attempt to introduce the Roman Christian religion was made in the 6th century during the supremacy of Kent. In 597 a group of missionaries from Rome dispatched by Pope Gregory the Great landed on the shore of Kent. They made Canterbury their centre and from there the new faith expanded to Kent, East Anglia, Essex, and other places. The movement was supported from the north; missionaries from Ireland brought the Celtic variety of Christianity to Northumbria. In less than a century practically all England became Christianized. The introduction of Christianity gave a strong impetus to the growth of learning and culture.

Monasteries were founded all over the country, with monastic schools attached. Religious service and teaching were conducted in Latin. A high standard of learning was reached in the best English monasteries, especially in Northumbria as early as the 8th and 9th centuries. During the Scandinavian invasions the Northumbrian culture was largely wiped out and English culture shifted to the southern kingdoms, most of all to Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great. From that time till the end of the OE period, Wessex with its capital at Winchester remained the cultural centre of England. OE scribes used two kinds of alphabet: runic and Latin.

The bulk of the OE records is written in Latin characters but the scribes made certain modifications and additions to indicate OE sounds. Like any alphabetic writing, OE writing was based on a phonetic principle: every letter indicated a separate sound. This principle, however, was not always observed, even at the earliest stages of phonetic spelling. Some OE letters indicated two or more sounds; some letters stood for positional variants of phonemes: a and æ. Fricatives stood for 2 sounds each: a voiced and a voiceless consonant. The letters could indicate short and long sounds. The length of the vowels is shown by a macron or by a line above the letter; long consonants are indicated by a double letter.

Linguistic Features of Germanic Languages

Phonetic peculiarities of Germanic Languages. Word Stress and its role in further development of Germanic languages

In ancient IE, prior to the separation of Germanic, there existed two ways of word accentuation: musical pitch and force stress (otherwise called dynamic, expiratory or breath stress). The position of the stress was movable and free, which means that it could fall on any syllable of the word – a root morpheme, an affix or an ending – and could be shifted both in form building and word-building. (cf. Russian: домом, дома, дома, etc.). But these properties of the word accent were changed in PG. Force or expiratory stress became the only type of stress used. The stress was now fixed on the first syllable, which was usually the root of the word and sometimes the prefix; the other syllables – suffixes and endings – were unstressed.

The stress could no longer move either in form-building or in word-building. This phenomenon has played an important role in the development of the Germanic languages, and especially in phonetic and morphological changes. Due to the difference in the force of articulation, the stressed and unstressed syllables underwent different changes: accented syllables were pronounced with great distinctness and precision, while unaccented became less distinct and were phonetically weakened. The differences between the sounds in stressed position were preserved and emphasised, whereas the contrasts between the unaccented sounds were weakened and lost. Since the stress was fixed on the root, the weakening and loss of sounds mainly affected the suffixes and grammatical endings. Many ending merged with the suffixes, were weakened and dropped. E.g. (the reconstructed word )PG *fiskaz Goth fisks Oicel fiscr OE fisc

The First or Proto-Germanic Consonant Shift (Grimm’s Law)

Comparison with other languages within the IE family reveals regular correspondences between Germanic and non-Germanic consonants. It looks as if the Germanic consonants ‘shifted’ as compared with their non-Germanic counterparts. This phenomenon was first observed and later formulated in terms of phonetic law (1822) by (Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm. Hence its name- Grimm’s Law. By Grimm’s Law, which includes 3 acts, voiceless plosives (stops) developed in PG into voiceless fricatives (1 act); voiced aspirated plosives were shifted to pure voiced plosives or voiced fricatives; and voiced plosives changed into voiceless plosives (stops).

The Danish scholar Karl Verner was the first to explain them as the result of further development of Germanic languages. According to Verner, all the early PG voiceless fricatives [f, θ, h] which arose under Grimm’s Law, became voiced between vowels if the preceding vowel was unstressed; otherwise they remained voiceless. The voicing of fricatives occurred in early PG at the time when the stress was not yet fixed on the root-morpheme. [f – v- b] seofon

[θ – ð – d] O Icel. hundrað – hundert [h – g] Goth. swaihro –OE sweger [s – z – r] Lat. auris – Goth. auso – Icel. eyra (ear) The change of [z] into [r] is called rhotacism.

As a result of voicing, there arose an interchange of consonants in the grammatical forms of the word, termed grammatical interchange. Part of the forms retained a voiceless fricative, while other forms acquired a voiced fricative. For example, heffen (Inf.) – huob Past sg.) heave; ceosan (choose) curon (Past pl.). Some modern English words retained traces of Verner’s Law: death – dead; was- were, raise – rear. Throughout history, PG vowels displayed a strong tendency to change. The changes were of the following kinds: qualitative and quantitative, dependent and independent.

Qualitative changes affect the quality of the sound, for example [o – a] or [p – f]; quantitative changes are those which make long sounds short or short sounds long. For example,[ i – i:]; dependent changes are restricted to certain positions when a sound may change under the influence of the neighbouring sounds or in a certain type of a syllable; independent changes or regular (spontaneous) take place irrespective of phonetic conditions, that is they may affect a certain sound in all positions. In accented syllables the oppositions between vowels were carefully maintained and the number of stressed vowels grew. In unaccented positions the original contrasts between vowels were weakened or lost; the distinction of short and long vowels in unstressed syllables had been shortened.

As for originally short vowels, they tended to be reduced to a neutral sound, losing their qualitative distinctions and were often dropped in unstressed final syllables (fiskaz). Strict differentiation of long and short vowels is regarded as an important characteristic of the Germanic group. Long vowels tended to become closer and to diphthongize, short vowels often changed into more open vowels. IE short [o] changed in Germanic into more open vowel [a] and thus ceased to be distinguished from the original IE [a]; in other words in PG they merged into [o]. IE long [a:] was narrowed to [o:] and merged with [o:]. For example, Lat. nox Goth. nahts; Lat. mater OE modor; Sans. bhra:ta OE bro:ðor .