Ladies and gents, welcome back to the HLC!

We had a talk the other day and you know what we realised?

We talk a lot about Proto-Germanic but we’ve never really talked about Proto-Germanic, have we?

We’re sorry, let’s make it right! Today, we’ll take a closer look at this mother of the Germanic languages (though it will be brief glance, I’m afraid: it is an entire language after all)!

As you might remember, a proto-language is a language that has never actually been attested. Instead, such a language has been reconstructed through the comparative method. This means that nothing from Proto-Germanic actually survives the long centuries since it was spoken but we still know quite a bit about the language itself (isn’t the comparative method awesome?!)

One of the things that we can say that we know with reasonable confidence is that Proto-Germanic was spoken in and around Denmark, probably no earlier than ca 500 B.C.

Eventually, it developed into three different branches: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic. We’ll talk more about these branches, and the early Germanic dialects, a bit more later on, but let’s focus on Proto-Germanic for now.

Proto-Germanic developed from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which you probably already knew, and one of the unique features that separates the Germanic languages from the, for example, Italic ones, is a sound change that we’ve spoken about earlier: Grimm’s Law!

As a reminder, Grimm’s Law is a sound change that changed some consonantal sounds into other consonantal sounds: for example, p became f so Latin pater is English father.

Grimm’s Law was completed at some point during the Proto-Germanic period, something that we may be relatively confident about because the other PIE-languages don’t have it (so it must have happened after Proto-Germanic ‘broke away’ from the other PIE-languages) but all the Germanic languages do (so it must have happened before the Germanic dialects grew apart).

We also find a good number of other sound changes that we’ve already talked about, like ablaut and umlaut. As you may remember, ablaut is the regular vowel variation that you find in forms like sing, sang, sung, and umlaut, a sound change in which one vowel changes to become more similar to a following (or preceding) vowel.

We won’t say too much about the ablaut of Proto-Germanic, because frankly it gets complicated real fast, but it retained the ablaut system of PIE in the strong verb classes (and if you really want to know about ablaut in Proto-Germanic, check out Don Ringe’s excellent account referenced below), which is why you do find vowel alternation in, for example, English (or German: gewinnen, gewann, gewonnen, meaning win, won, won or Swedish vinna, vann, vunnit, also meaning win, won, won).

We will spend a moment on umlaut thought, because something quite significant happened before the early Germanic dialects ‘separated’: i-mutation (or i-umlaut).

You’ve heard about this sound change here at the HLC before (check it out) but in case you forgot (I mean, it was quite a while ago), i-mutation is the reason why you get examples like foot – feet, mouse – mice, but not house – hice!

I-mutation is so called because one vowel raised due to a following /i/ or /j/ sound in the next syllable. These syllables were then lost, making the sound change kinda hard to immediately recognise. Let’s take foot – feet as an example.

So, the Proto-Germanic form for foot was something like *fōts. No /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable there, so *fōts became Eng. foot, Dutch voet, Ger. Fuß, Swe/Nor fot, Dan. fod, and so on.

But! The Proto-Germanic plural was *fōtiz! The vowel ō then changed, becoming closer to the i, a process we might call assimilation. Having done so (or at least been enough underway), the -iz ending was lost and, suddenly, we have a word that doesn’t really look any different from *fōts but with an already changing (or changed) vowel. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it always changes to an e/ee as in English feet. In Swedish, it became ö (fötter) for example and in German ße.

Right, enough phonology. Let’s take a look at morphology too, while we’re at it.

Proto-Germanic inflected for 6 cases: vocative, nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and instrumental; 3 genders: masculine, feminine and neuter; 3 numbers: singular, dual, and plural and 3 moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative.

Woof, that’s quite a bit. Of all these things though, there really is only one thing that we haven’t said anything about before (though we’ll tell you more about case in the future too): the number dual. You all recognise, I assume, the singular and the plural but what, exactly, is the dual?

Well, it is precisely what you would expect: a form that refers to exactly two entities, no more, no less. The dual was a surviving number-category from PIE but came to be shown only in the first- and second-person pronouns in Proto-Germanic before eventually dwindling away entirely in the daughters of Proto-Germanic (though they retain it for a while in pronouns).

So, now, you have just a little bit of an understanding of Proto-Germanic (though it is very brief, of course)! This will be really useful for the coming weeks here at the HLC as we’ll be taking a bit of a closer look at the early Germanic dialects, their common ground and their differences!

Welcome back then!


An excellent resource is:

Ringe, Don. 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

which we have consulted for this post. It’s quite advanced, however, and you might find yourself just a bit overwhelmed of the sheer number of detailed descriptions in it. Bear with it though, it really is quite amazing!

We’ve also consulted

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

which doesn’t talk that much about Proto-Germanic itself but is a great resource for the early Germanic dialects (we should know: taking the course with the same name two years ago, this was the course book).

and briefly

Barber, Charles. 2000. The English language: A historical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

regarding the dual number.

Aside from that, we’ve used the excellent online resource and, yes, we’ll admit it, Wikipedia (oh, the horror!), for the Proto-Germanic forms that we discussed here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *