Early Germanic Dialects – The secrets of the HLC

We’ve come to the very end of our Early Germanic Dialect series!

I’ve simply run out of dialects! We’ve done Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Low Franconian, and Old High German! We’ve even done a reminder, a post on the relationship between the Germanic dialects and a post on Proto-Germanic itself!

So now what?

Well, I figure that I’ve been throwing features of phonology, syntax, morphologyl, etc., etc., at you for quite some time now – how will anyone ever remember all those details?!

Instead of continuing to throw such facts at you (however interesting they may be), today, I thought I’d tell you about my very special trick – a simple one that works in (some) cases – though not all – to separate all these dialects from each other, fairly quickly. (Just don’t quote me on it – it’s just to give you an inkling of what you’re working with so that you can continue with further tests to make sure.)

So, what do I do?

Well, if presented with a new text where I am unsure of which Germanic dialect I am dealing with, the first thing I do is start looking for pronouns. But not just any old pronoun – I look specifically for the masculine third person pronoun in the nominative form!

Gosh, that was specific. But, you see, these pronouns differ a bit from each other in some of the Germanic dialects.

GothicOld NorseOld EnglishOld SaxonOld FrisianOld Low FranconianOld High German

As you can see, using this technique means that you can exclude a number of choices: if the text is using hann it is likely Old Norse; if it uses er, it is likely Old High German.

Gothic may be a bit tricky as the morphological structure may allow for excluding the pronoun itself – in that case: look for reduplication as Gothic is the only Germanic language that has retained the feature!

But, as you can also see, that won’t help you all the way: Old English, Old Saxon, and Old Low Franconian all use he. So what do we do here?

Well, here, we start looking for a-stem nominative plurals in Proto-Germanic – like arms.

And, here, we see some differences between these languages too!

Old EnglishOld SaxonOld Low Franconian

And that is it! That is really all that I do (in the initial stages – then it all needs to be checked of course).

Basically, just ask yourself:
  1. Does it use reduplication? – If YES, you’re dealing with Gothic
  2. Which masculine third person plural is it using? – If a unique one, you’re in luck. If not:
  3. Which declension of Proto-Germanic a-stem nouns is the text using?

And you’re… well, not really golden but a step closer to figuring out exactly what you’re dealing with!


And with that, I am hereby declaring our Early Germanic Dialect series at an end.

I hope you enjoyed hearing about these dialects as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to read more about them!

Next week, we’re doing a bit of a breather for you (and me) with a book review before we dive into our next topic (and no, I won’t tell you what it is – surprises are delightful!).

So, join me next week when I take a look at the  #1 New York Times bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (and perhaps an inkling of what is to come….)!



As always, take a look at Robinson’s book Old English and its closest relatives.

For this post, I’ve also made use of Wikipedia’s entry for the etymology of day

Easy-peasy morphology: Reduplication

Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.

Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.

In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.

Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:

“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”

In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.

There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.

Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!


1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication.
2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?