Early Germanic Dialects: Old Norse

While on the subject of Scandinavian people who move around a lot, let’s talk Vikings!
Actually, we have to look a bit further back first: to the Age of Migrations (the first phase of which is considered to be roughly between the years 300 and 500 CE, and the second between 500 and 700 CE). During the first phase, many Germanic tribes migrated from their homeland in the north (hence the Age of Migration), but the ancestors of the speakers of Old Norse stayed fairly close to home.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t move around quite a bit within that area: the Danes moved out of the south of Sweden, to Zealand and the Jutland peninsula, while the Swedes stayed put and expanded their territory to central Sweden and Götland through… well, somewhat hostile efforts. What eventually became the royal house of Norway came from Sweden to the Oslo region, as reported by the Old Norse genealogical poem Ynglingatal.

However, while a lot was going on in the frozen north of the world, the world went on much as per usual – until around the mid-eighth century when the rest of the world had a… probably somewhat unpleasant surprise. We’ve reached the Viking Age.

I won’t linger too much on the Vikings; most of you probably know quite a bit about them anyway. What you may not know is that the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Vikings actually focused their attentions quite differently.

When you do think about Vikings, it is quite likely you might be thinking of the Norwegian or Danish Vikings. These are the ones that came to Britain and Ireland, and they must have been an unpleasant surprise indeed.

The first we hear (read) about the Danish Vikings is this:

Her nom Beorhtric cyning Offan dohtor Eadburge ⁊ on his dagum cuomon ærest .iii. scipu ⁊ þa se gerefa þærto rad ⁊ hie wolde drifan to þæs cynginges tune þy he nyste hwæt hie wæron ⁊ hiene mon ofslog þæt wæron þa ærestan scipu Deniscra monna þe Angelcynnes lond gesohton.

Which was translated by J.A. Giles in 1914 as:

This year king Bertric took to wife Eadburga, king Offa’s daughter; and in his days first came three ships of Northmen, out of Hæretha-land [Denmark]. And then the reve [sheriff] rode to the place, and would have driven them to the king’s town, because he knew not who they were: and they there slew him. These were the first ships of Danishmen which sought the land of the English nation.
(The bold font here is, of course, our addition.)

This was written in the year 789, and it was but the first of many ‘visits’ that the Scandinavian Vikings paid England. And, of course, it didn’t stop there. In 793, Norwegian Vikings were most likely responsible for sacking the Lindisfarne monastery in northeast of England; this event may be considered to be start of the ‘true’ Viking Age.

While we all enjoy a bit of historic tidbits on the Vikings, I think we might often forget how truly terrifying these people were to those that were attacked. Some may even have believed that the Viking incursion was the fulfilment of Jeremiah 1.14: “The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land”.

To put it short and sweet: the Vikings were terrifying. Of course, they continued to plague England for a long time, and one could even (a bit weakly) argue that the Anglo-Norman Invasion was, at least partly, a Scandinavian one; the duchy of Normandy in France, of which William the Conqueror was the duke, was created by Danish Vikings, and France had actually conceded the region to the Danes in 911. Of course, by the time of the invasion in 1066, the Normans were more French than Danish, but the ancestral relationship was still recognised.

Unlike the Danes and Norwegians, the Swedish Vikings mostly left England alone and instead focused their attentions on establishing profitable trading towns on the Baltic. They seem to have been somewhat less aggressive in their travels – though don’t mistake that to mean that they weren’t aggressive at all – and could perhaps be described as piratical merchants who traded with people as far away as Constantinople and Arabia. Their principal trading routes, however, lay in what is now Russia, and some even claim that the Swedish Vikings, under the name Rus, were the founders of some major cities, such as Novgorod and Kiev (though whether this is true is somewhat unclear).

But let’s also not forget that the Vikings were more than pirates: they were great explorers. They discovered the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and ‘Vinland’ (nowadays, we know – or strongly believe – this to be some part of North America).

Anyway, eventually, the Vikings became christianized and, thanks to the conversion, the excesses of the Viking Age were moderated and eventually came to an end. With Christianity came also something else extremely important: the introduction of the pen.

Old Norse, as Orrin W. Robinson puts it, “is unique among the Germanic languages in the volume and richness of its literature” , which of course also gives us a rich insight into the language itself. I won’t be taking you through the literary genres of Old Norse here but they are certainly worth a look! Instead, I’ll do the same thing as I did with Gothic and take you through some of the features of Old Norse that make it unique (or almost) and distinctive in comparison to the other Germanic languages.

Let’s get going!

First, let’s look at some consonants.

Like Gothic, Old Norse underwent sharpening. There’s a bit of a difference in comparison to Gothic, though. As you may recall, in Gothic, the medial consonant clusters jj and ww in Proto-Germanic became ddj and ggw respectively, while in Old Norse, they both became gg clusters followed by j or v respectively. So, you’ll find consonant clusters like tveggja ‘of two’ and hoggva ‘strike’.

Unlike Gothic, Old Norse underwent rhotacism, meaning that it turned Proto-Germanic z to r, and also underwent a process known as gemination. Gemination means that if the consonants g or k were preceded by a short vowel, they doubled. So, we find Old Norse leggja ‘lay’ but Gothic lagjan.

Old Norse also had a number of ‘assimilatory’ phenomena, meaning that one sound becomes like (or identical) to an adjacent sound. These are:

[ht] becomes [tt]: Gothic þûhta ‘seemed’ corresponds Old Norse þotti

[nþ] becomes [nn]: Gothic finpan ‘find’ corresponds Old Norse finna

[ŋk] becomes [kk]: Gothic drincan ‘drink’ corresponds Old Norse drekka

[lþ] becomes [ll]: Gothic gulþ corresponds Old Norse gull

As a group, these are highly distinctive features of Old Norse.

That’s enough of consonants, I think, but let’s also have a brief look at the vowels. As you may recall, Old Norse has undergone umlaut. Actually, Old Norse underwent three varieties of umlaut: a-umlaut, i-umlaut and u-umlaut. I won’t be going through the details of umlaut here, but check out this post if you want to know more!

There are two more particularly interesting features of the Old Norse language that I’ll mention here – I’d keep going, but you’ll get sick of me.

First, the Proto-Germanic ending *-az, which was used for both masculine a-stem nouns and most strong masculine adjectives, has been preserved in Old Norse as –r. In Old Norse, you therefore find forms like armr for ‘arm’ and goðr for ‘good’.

Second, and this is a biggy: the definite article in Old Norse (in English, ‘the’) is regularly added to the end of nouns as a suffix rather than as a separated word before them. In Old High German, you find der hamar but in Old Norse, it’s expressed like this: hamarinn.

Of course, the Vikings (and their predecessors) also made use of runes, but I won’t get into that here. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, check out our previous post on runes.

Gosh, that was quite a bit, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t get too sick of me, but it is the historic stage of my own native language after all, so I suppose I was bound to keep talking too long.

Until we meet again, dear friends, I hope you enjoyed this post on Old Norse and please join us next week as we welcome guest blogger Sarah van Eyndhoven, PhD student in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, here at the HLC!


As before, our source for this post is Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives – a really excellent resource if you’re looking for an excellent overview of the Early Germanic Dialects. His quote above is taken from page 61 of this book.

The Old English text quoted here is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We’ve taken the quote from here and the translation from here. (While it is from 789, the listing will tell you 787.)

Early Germanic Dialects: The Gothic language

friaþwa usbeisneiga ist, sels ist:
friaþwa ni aljanoþ;
friaþwa ni flauteiþ, ni ufblesada,

Recognise that? No? What if I told you that a (somewhat modified) version of this exact thing is very popular to quote during wedding ceremonies (in fact, my husband and I had it read during ours). Still nothing? How about this:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind;
charity envieth not;
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Yes? Marvellous! This is 1 Corinthians 13:4, though nowadays, we usually say ‘love’ rather than ‘charity’ (yes, even the Bible changes throughout the centuries). But what is that weird little language we started out with? Well, that’s Gothic, our topic of the week!

Being the only East Germanic language (that we know of), it differs a bit from the rest of the Germanic languages, and in this post, I hope to highlight some of these differences and tell you a bit about the history of the language and the people who spoke it.

Let’s start there actually. Sit back, have a nice cup of tea, and let me tell you the story of the Goths.

Though less famous than the Vikings, the Goths also hailed from a Scandinavian country, the native country of half the HLC actually: Sweden! We see their influence in the names of two mainland counties: Västergötland, Östergötland, and the island Gotland! The mainland appears to be the most likely point of origin, though by the time we are first told something about the Goths, Roman and Greek sources place them along the Vistula River during the first and second century. The sixth-century historian Jordanes says that they originally came from across the sea, though, which would point to the Swedish mainland.

Why, exactly, they decided to move away from Sweden is a bit unclear, but it is sometimes suggested that it was due to population pressure. Regardless, we know that around the year A.D. 170, the Goths settled between the Don and Dniester Rivers (an area north of the Black Sea).

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Scandinavian people who moved around a lot, the Goths were a warlike people and, now, they were at the borders of the Roman Empire. Don’t think they didn’t do anything about that—in fact, they managed to force the Romans to abandon the province of Dacia, in present-day Romania, around the year 270.

From around the time of Dacia, the Goths split into two groups, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, and they pretty much became separate, independent groups thereafter. The Ostrogoths continued to consolidate power, while the Visigoths were moving around on the edges of the Roman Empire, sometimes fighting together with their Roman allies, and sometimes fighting against them.

The Visigoths eventually became Christianized, largely thanks to the Gothic bishop Wulfila, one of the most famous Goths in history thanks to his tireless efforts to convert the Goths and also for one of the results of those efforts: the Gothic Bible. I actually talked about this in my post on Proto-Germanic as well, but what I didn’t say is that the Gothic Bible is a marvellous witness to a very different language. In fact, it is one of the major sources of our knowledge of the Gothic language and it was written primarily by Wulfila—or at least it is attributed to him. In order to translate the Bible into Gothic, though, Wulfila first had to pretty much invent a Gothic alphabet! Until this point, the Goths had written primarily in runes, like many other of the Germanic tribes, but Wulfila’s alphabet was based on the Greek one, though some Latin and Runic symbols can be seen as well:

(From Omniglot)

The two letters without any information under them were adopted for their numeric value only  and supposedly borrowed from the Greek alphabet, according to Ancient Scripts (though, I’ll admit I’m somewhat confounded myself about ᛏ, as it closely resembles the rune Tyr or Tiwaz, and so I’m more inclined to see a runic origin for this letter. That’s just a personal opinion though, and I’m not familiar enough with the ancient Greek, or the Gothic, alphabet to say anything further on the subject).

Anyway, the Gothic Bible—or the Wulfila Bible as it is sometimes called—became a primary source for our knowledge of the Gothic language. On that note, let’s look at some of the features that distinguish Gothic from the other Germanic languages!

First, let’s look at a rather characteristic feature: a large number of words in Gothic show  long [eː] where most other Germanic languages show an [aː] or [oː]. The Gothic vowel is assumed to come from Proto-Germanic, probably with the phonetic value [æː]. For example:

Old High GermanGothic

So if you’re looking at a text and you keep seeing <e>, where you would expect an <a> or <o>, you might be looking at Gothic. But that’s hardly enough to be sure, so let’s look at some other features!

Gothic also underwent a change called sharpening. While this change is also found in Old Norse, it is otherwise fairly unique to Gothic. What it means is that some instances of <gg> represent a long [gg] sound, rather than [ŋg], which we would expect in English. These sharpened sounds always show up before the consonant <w> and represent a development from Proto-Germanic <ww>. The sharpening also happens in the Proto-Germanic sequence <jj>, which becomes <ddj> in Gothic. For example:

Old High GermanGothicEnglish
(gi)triuwitriggws 'true'
zweiiotwaddje'of two'

The last of the distinctive phonological features we’ll look at is a process called rhotacism. Rhotacism is a change, which affected all the Germanic languages except Gothic, in which the Proto-Germanic z became r. What this means is that if you find a <z> where you would otherwise expect an <r>, it is starting to become very likely that you’re looking at Gothic.

Aside from phonological features, Gothic also has a couple of other distinctive features. Specifically, I want to say a little something about the verbs of Gothic, as Gothic makes use of a process that is not used in the other Germanic languages. Traditionally, the strong verb conjugation in Germanic languages is said to have seven subclasses. I won’t go through this in detail because it quickly gets a bit complicated, but the first six use some kind of vowel alternation to show tense (e.g. PDE sing-sang-sung). This is also true for the seventh subclass in most Germanic languages. But not in Gothic.

Instead, Gothic uses something known as reduplication. What this means is that the past tense of the verbs in the seventh subclass is formed by repeating the first consonant, or consonant cluster, and adding <ai> after it – that is,  háit- (meaning to call, name, order, command, invite) becomes, in its past tense, haihait!

So, if you were to study a text without knowing what language you’re looking at and you keep seeing these features—well, then, you can be quite sure that you’re looking at Gothic (also, if you were to happen to stumble across something, please tell us because we can really never have enough textual evidence… Please?).

That’s just a little bit about Gothic! I hope you enjoyed this little trip, and do check in with us again next week when we’ll continue our journey through the early Germanic dialects by taking a look at Old Norse!

See you then!


This post relies primarily on Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives. The examples used here come from this excellent resource, as well as a lot of the information.

Other resources we’ve used for this post are:

The Wulfila Project – where you can find the Gothic text of Corinthians quoted above.
The Oxford English Dictionary
The English-Old Norse Dictionary, compiled by Ross G. Arthur (2002)
Ancient Scripts – an online resource, used here for the Gothic alphabet
Glossary from Joseph Wright’s Grammar of the Gothic Language
Omniglot – where you can find some more information on the Gothic alphabet

Do you do ‘do’, or don’t you?

I’m sure you haven’t missed that Sabina recently started a series about the early Germanic languages on this blog? The series will continue in a couple of weeks (you can read the latest post here), but as a short recap: when we talk about the modern Germanic languages, these include English (and Scots), Dutch (and Flemish), German, Icelandic, Faroese, and the mainland Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish). These languages, of course, also have a plethora of dialectal variation under their belts1. Today, I’m gonna tell you about one particular grammatical feature that we find in only a couple of Germanic languages. You see, when it comes to the grammar of the modern Germanic languages, they’re all relatively similar, but one quirky trait sets the ones spoken on the British Isles apart from the rest: do-support.

Before we begin, I want to clarify my terminology: Do-support is a feature of syntax, which means that it’s to do with word order and agreement. The syntax concerns itself with what is grammatical in a descriptive way, not what we prefer in a prescriptive way2. So, when I say something is (un-)grammatical in this post, I mean that it is (dis-)allowed in the syntax.

So what is do-support?

Take a simple sentence like ‘I like cheese’. If a speaker of a non-English (or Scots) Germanic language were to turn that sentence into a question, it would look something like ‘Like you cheese?’, and in most Germanic varieties a (clearly deranged) person who is not fond of cheese would answer this with ‘No, I like not cheese’. In their frustration, the person who asked may shout ‘Eat not cheese then!’ at the deranged person.

But, those sentences look weird in English, both the question and the negative sentence. The weirdness does not only arise from the meaning of these sentence (who doesn’t like cheese?), but they’re, in fact, ungrammatical!

English, and most Scots dialects, require do-support in such sentences:

  • Do you like cheese?
  • No, I do not (or, don’t) like cheese.
  • Don’t eat cheese then!’

The above examples of do-support, interrogative (the question), negative declarative (the negated sentence), and negative imperative (the command) are unique to English and Scots, but there are other environments where do is used, and where we also may find it in other Germanic languages, such as:

  • Tag-questions: ‘You like cheese, don’t you/do you?’
  • Ellipsis: ‘I ate cheese yesterday, and Theo did (so) today’
  • Emphasis: ‘I do like cheese!’
  • Main verb use: ‘I did/am doing a school project on do-support

In all the examples above except for the emphasis and main verb usage, do is essentially meaningless; it doesn’t add any meaningful (semantic) information to the sentence. Therefore, we usually call it a “dummy” auxiliary, or simply dummy do.
(Auxiliary is the name for those little verbs, like do, is, and have, which come before other verbs in a sentence, such as in ‘she is eating cheese’ and ‘I have eaten cheese’)

English and Scots didn’t always have do-support, and sentences like ‘I like not cheese’ used to be completely grammatical. We start to see do-support appearing in English around the 15th century, and in the 16th century for Scots. As is the case with language change, do-support didn’t become the mandatory construction overnight; in both languages we see a period where sentences with and without do-support are used variably which lasts for centuries before do-support eventually wins out (in the 18th-19th century).

Interestingly, in this period of change we also see do-support in non-negated sentences which aren’t intended to be emphatic, looking like: ‘I do like cheese’. These constructions never fully catch on though, and the rise and fall of this affirmative declarative do has been called a “failed change”.

It’s ok, affirmative declarative do, you’ve still contributed greatly to do-support research!

Why did we start using do-support, though?

Well, we aren’t exactly sure yet, but there are theories. Many scholars believe that this is a so-called language-internal development, meaning that this feature developed in English without influence from another language. This is based on that do used to be a causative verb in English (like cause, and make in ‘I made Theo eat cheese’), which became used so frequently that it started to lose its causative meaning and finally became a dummy auxiliary. This process, where a word gradually loses its meaning and gains a purely grammatical function, is called grammaticalisation.

There have also been suggestions that it was contact with Welsh that introduced do-support into English, since Welsh had a similar structure. This account is often met with scepticism, one reason being that we see very little influence from any celtic language, Welsh included, on English and Scots grammar in general. However, new evidence is regularly brought forward to argue this account, and the origin of do-support is by no means a closed chapter in historical linguistics research.

What we do know is that do-support came about in the same time period when English started to use auxiliaries more overall – you may have noticed that, in English, we’re more likely to say ‘I am running to the shop’ than ‘I run to the shop’, the latter being more common for other Germanic languages. So, we can at least fairly safely say that the rise of do-support was part of a greater change of an increased use of auxiliaries overall.

The humble dummy do has baffled historical linguists for generations, and this particular HLC writer has been trying to understand do-support in English and Scots for the past few years, and will most likely continue to do so for a good while longer. Wish me luck!


1I’ve written about the complex matter of language vs. dialect before, here.

2In our very first post on this blog, Riccardo wrote about descriptivism and prescriptivism. Read it here for a recap!

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.


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 etymonline.com and, yes, we’ll admit it, Wikipedia (oh, the horror!), for the Proto-Germanic forms that we discussed here.

Gender neutral pronouns – yay or nay?

‘Gender-neutral pronouns, do they exist?’ you might be saying to yourself at home, in front of whatever device you’re reading this on.

Well, yes. Of course they do. In many languages. In English, you have two: it and one. However, it isn’t really used to describe a person, right? Kinda disrespectful since it traditionally is used on a non-human entity – tables, chairs, pets (and, admittingly, some even dislike the use of it for pets, present writer included), etc. You could use one but it doesn’t really work in certain constructions and might seem a bit formal, wouldn’t you say?

Now, though we could make a list of languages that do have gender-neutral pronouns referring to human beings, that requires us to get into a discussion on grammatical versus natural gender. We don’t want to do that just yet (you’ll have to wait for two weeks! The horror!), and so, we will focus on the Germanic languages, in which it is quite uncommon. As far as we know, only one of the Germanic languages has a recognised, widely used, gender neutral third person pronoun: Swedish!

A couple of years back (and I’m now talking from personal experience since I am Swedish and remember this quite well), around 2010 to be specific, a new pronoun started to make its way into books, magazines and newspaper articles: hen, a pronoun used when the gender of the person is unknown or if it is not relevant or desired to specify the gender of the person. (The gendered pronouns in Swedish are han, ‘he’, and hon, ‘she’)

The pronoun raised a massive debate, and a good number of jokes, both in Sweden and abroad. The main objections to it, in Sweden, seemed to be that it was not necessary, nor desired. However, despite a rather massive resistance, this little word stuck around – and how it grew! In 2014, the language periodical Språktidningen concluded that hen had grown from occurring once for every 13,000 uses of han/hon in 2011, to occuring once for every 300 hon/han in 2013. That’s a pretty massive upswing and in 2014, hen was included in Svenska Akademiens Ordlista – pretty much the Swedish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Where does this idea of hen come from, you might wonder? Well, it certainly wasn’t a new idea: it had been proposed as a gender-neutral pronoun in 1966 and then again in 1994 but it didn’t stick – perhaps because we weren’t ready for it. While we could do a long section on gender equality, I think we’ll stick with the linguistic side of things and, in this, the addition of hen is a big thing! You see, pronouns are often considered an integral part of the grammar of a language and they rarely change – or, as the linguists say, they are a closed word class.

Think of language like an onion with multiple layers: when you peel an onion, the first couple of layers are going to be bendy and soft, right? You can twist them this way or that and it’s fine. This is the ‘open class’ vocabulary of the language, the parts of language that can easily change: we might borrow from other languages, some words might fall into disuse or completely change their meaning, etc.

However, the closer to the ‘core’ of the onion you get, the stiffer the layer. Try twisting one of the inner layers of an onion and it is more likely to break into bits in your hand than bend. This is the grammar of the language, and it is here, in this stiff, unyielding part that you’ll find pronouns (remember how we said that the borrowing of they, them and their was so fascinating because of the integral part pronouns play in a language’s grammar?)

So, adding, changing, removing… All of these things tend to be (very) uncommon in the pronoun-category of a language. In Swedish, the pronoun han (he) goes all the way back to Proto-Norse, spoken around the 2nd to 8th centuries, and hon (she) goes all the way back to Proto-Germanic! During all this time, the pronouns remained pretty much the same in Swedish (spelling changed a little bit – han used to be spelt hann, for example).

The word hen itself is often referred to as a Swedish equivalent of the Finnish pronoun hän, which is also a gender-neutral pronoun. In Swedish, the word can have a different meaning too (though very few people know it since it is pretty much extinct), equivalent to the Swedish word brynsten, meaning ‘whetstone’ (you can see why most people wouldn’t know it?).

Why are we going on and on about these pronouns you might ask? Well, it was really to lead us here: you see, like we’ve said, pronouns rarely change. Generally speaking, we don’t add to them, we don’t change them, we don’t ‘delete’ one. Yet, Swedish did exactly that: it added one – and what makes this addition all the more remarkable is that this was a deliberate addition to the language! And in terms of language development and change, that is spectacular.

Can you imagine? About 2500 years of, pretty much, unchanged pronouns and then, in 2010, Swedes deliberately decided to add one – and the Swedish language, eventually, came to include yet another pronoun! In case you were ever in doubt, this is rather clear evidence that the speakers control what a language includes, not the other way around (thus kind of putting the whole idea of ‘there is a right way to use language’ on rather thin ice, wouldn’t you say?). Isn’t that just amazing?

There has been debate on whether other Germanic languages will follow suit, though that has not really happened (yet).

Tell us what you think – gender-neutral pronouns: yay or nay?