Early Germanic Dialects – Let’s get going!

Willkommen zurück, everyone! (I have no idea if you would actually say that in German but we’ll stick to it!)

You might remember that we, three weeks ago, kicked off a new little series by introducing you a little bit to Proto-Germanic? Well, this series is called Early Germanic Dialects (coincidentally, this is also the name of a course on this particular topic that we took during our studies), and in it, we will be introducing you a little bit to – you guessed it – the early Germanic dialects!

Before we study those, though, we need to talk to you a bit about the relationship of these dialects. We’re sure you remember that we’ve talked quite a lot about the concept of ‘families’ of languages (Germanic, Italic, Finno-Ugric, etc.). Today, we’ll look closer at the Germanic language family!

So, of course you know by now that the Germanic languages are languages that comes from Proto-Germanic (which, in turn, hails from Proto-Indo-European). What you may not know (or at least we haven’t outright told you) is that the Germanic language family is also divided into different branches, three in total. These are: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic.

East Germanic, unfortunately, had only one known descendent and that language has gone extinct: Gothic. We know that Gothic once existed and we have a pretty good idea about what it looked like because of a few surviving texts. One of the most recognised of these is the so-called Codex Argenteus, a beautiful 6th century manuscript which contains a 4th century gothic translation of the Bible. Known most commonly as the Silver Bible or the Silver Book, the manuscript is an impressive sight: its thin vellum pages are stained a regal purple, the script and illuminations are made in silver and gold with an ornate jewelled binding. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there, but truly, it’s quite remarkable. If you ever find yourself in Stockholm, Sweden, make a bit of a detour and see it IRL at the University of Uppsala, its current home.

Anyway, back to linguistics. So, Gothic is the only descendent of East Germanic, meaning, of course, that there are currently no living descendents of East Germanic. That is not the case for the other two branches though. Let’s look at North Germanic first.

The North Germanic branch of the tree are the languages that come from Old Norse, meaning, of course, the Viking languages!

Kidding (kind of). The languages that comes from Old Norse are Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. These languages share a couple of features which are not found in most of the East and West Germanic languages, such as u-umlaut (though you may see u-umlaut in other Germanic languages, such as Old English, too, but it is commonly more limited than the u-umlaut found in Old Norse and not to be confused with the ‘umlauted’ vowel Ü in German).
You’ve heard us talk about umlaut before, quite a bit actually, but we’ve primarily focused on i-umlaut. U-umlaut works in a very similar fashion: when a /u/ or a /w/ followed in the next syllable, stressed vowels were rounded so instead of milk, as in English, you get mjòlk (Icelandic), mjölk (Swedish), for example. Of course, there are important differences within these languages too, but we’ll get there in due time.

Now, the West Germanic branch is a bit bigger than East and North. This branch consists of all languages that comes from Anglo-Frisian, that is Old English and Old Frisian, and the languages that comes from Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic), that is Old High German, which eventually produced German and Yiddish, as well as all languages that comes from Old Low German, also known as Old Saxon and Old Dutch, which eventually became Low German, Dutch and Afrikaans.

Let’s put that in a tree for you:

This makes it a bit easier to visualize, of course, but this way of representing things have shown to be somewhat problematic. As you may notice, for example, it gives you no indication of timeline, and of course, all of the language changes that makes West Germanic different from North or East Germanic didn’t happen at the same time. Consider the tree, if you will, an extremely simplified visualization of a very complex relationship.  

This post has aimed to give you some insight into the relationship of the Germanic languages, but we will end on another note of caution: this relationship is far from uncontroversial. For example, there are some features shared by the Anglo-Frisian languages and the North Germanic languages but not by the Proto-German languages, and there are some features shared by Old High German and Gothic that set them apart from the other languages – some have even gone so far as to claim that English is a North Germanic language, not a West Germanic one.  This, of course, indicates a closer relationship than what is readily evident by the traditional tree that you see here.

So, keep this with you, always: don’t accept the tree as the unequivocal truth, because really, it’s not.  



Our primary reference for this post is:

Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives. London: Routledge.

If you would like to know more about the Silver Bible, check it out at the University of Uppsala

And if you would like to know more about the claim that English is actually a North Germanic language, check out Emonds and Faarlund’s book English: The language of the Vikings, published in 2014. Fair warning though: the hypothesis has been questioned by many voices in the historical linguistic community and we suggest you also check out a couple of reviews on the book to get an understanding of both schools of thought. We will not be discussing our personal thoughts on this topic here, but if you want to know more and discuss it with us, just send us an email or ask us a question on Facebook or Twitter.

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