Germanic Languages, subfamily of the Indo-European languages. Germanic languages are spoken by more than 480 million people in northern and western Europe, North America, South Africa, and Australia. In their structure and evolution they fall into three branches:

  1. East Germanic (extinct): the Gothic language and some other extinct languages. Substantial information survives only for Gothic.
  2. North Germanic or Scandinavian: western group - the Icelandic language, the Norwegian language, and Faroese; eastern group - the Danish language and the Swedish language.
  3. West Germanic:
    • Anglo-Frisian group - the English language and the Frisian language;
    • Netherlandic-German group - Netherlandic, or Dutch-Flemish and the Low German dialects, Afrikaans, the German language or High German, and the Yiddish language.

Germanic languages in Europe

The Germanic languages supported in Verbix are underlined with red on the European map below.


The earliest historical evidence for Germanic is provided by isolated words and names recorded by Latin authors beginning in the 1st century BC. From approximately AD 200 there are inscriptions carved in the 24-letter runic alphabet. The earliest extensive Germanic text is the (incomplete) Gothic Bible, translated about AD 350 by the Visigothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) and written in a 27-letter alphabet of the translator's own design. Later versions of the runic alphabet were used sparingly in England and Germany but more widely in Scandinavia--in the latter area down to early modern times. All extensive later Germanic texts, however, use adaptations of the Latin alphabet.

Earliest Recorded Germanic Languages

LanguageApproximate dates, AD
Early Runic200-600
Old English (Anglo-Saxon)700-1050
Old High German750-1050
Old Saxon (Old Low German)850-1050
Old Norwegian1150-1450
Old Icelandic1150-1500*
Middle Netherlandic1170-1500*
Old Danish1250-1500*
Old Swedish1250-1500*
Old Frisian1300-1500*

The Germanic languages are related in the sense that they can be shown to be different historical developments of a single earlier parent language. Although for some language families there are written records of the parent language (e.g., for the Romance languages, which are variant developments of Latin), in the case of Germanic no written records of the parent language exist. Much of its structure, however, can be deduced by the comparative method of reconstruction (a reconstructed language is called a protolanguage; reconstructed forms are marked with an asterisk). For example, a comparison of Runic -gastiz, Gothic gasts, Old Norse gestr, Old English giest, Old Frisian iest, and Old Saxon and Old High German gast 'guest' leads to the reconstruction of Proto-Germanic *astiz. Similarly, a comparison of Runic horna, Gothic haurn, and Old Norse, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old High German horn 'horn' leads scholars to reconstruct the Proto-Germanic form *hornan.

Such reconstructions are, in part, merely formulas of relationship. Thus, the Proto-Germanic *o of *hornan in this position yielded au in Gothic and o in the other languages. In other positions (e.g., when followed by a nasal sound plus a consonant) *o yielded u in all the languages: Proto-Germanic *dumbaz, Gothic dumbs, Old Norse dumbr, Old English, Old Frisian, and Old Saxon dumb, Old High German tumb 'dumb.' What may be deduced is that this vowel sounded more like u in some environments, but like o in others; it may be written as *uo, with the tilde indicating that it varied between these two pronunciations.

The above example shows that such reconstructions are more than mere formulas of relationship; they also give some indication of how Proto-Germanic actually sounded. Occasionally scholars are fortunate enough to find external confirmation of these deductions. For example, on the basis of Old English cyning, Old Saxon and Old High German kuning 'king,' the Proto-Germanic *kuningaz can be reconstructed; this would seem to be confirmed by Finnish kuningas 'king,' which must have been borrowed from Germanic at a very early date.




The Proto-Indo-European verb seems to have had five moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, injunctive, and optative), two voices (active and mediopassive), three persons (first, second, and third), three numbers (singular, dual, and plural), and several verbal nouns (infinitives) and adjectives (participles). In Germanic these were reduced to indicative, imperative, and subjunctive moods; a full active voice plus passive found only in Gothic; three persons; full singular and plural forms and dual forms found only in Gothic; and one infinitive (present) and two participles (present and past). The Proto-Indo-European tense-aspect system (present, imperfect, aorist, perfect) was reshaped to a single tense contrast between present and past.

The past showed two innovations:

  1. In the "strong" verb, Germanic transformed Proto-Indo-European ablaut into a specific tense marker (e.g., Proto-Indo-European *bher-, *bhor-, *bher-, *bhr- in Old English beran 'bear,' past singular b r, past plural bron, past participle boren).
  2. In the "weak" verb, Germanic developed a new type of past and past participle (e.g., Old English fyllan 'fill,' past fylde, participle gefylled). Weak verbs fell into three classes depending on the syllable following the root (e.g., Old High German full-e-n [from *full-ja-n] 'fill,' mahh-o-n 'make,' sag-e-n 'say'). Gothic also had a fourth class: full-no-da 'it became full.'

Many Proto-Germanic strong verbs showed a consonant alternation between *f and *, * and *, *x and *, and *s and *z that was the result, through Verner's law, of the alternating position of the Proto-Indo-European accent. In this particular word, English has generalized the *s (now z): 'freeze,' 'froze,' 'frozen.' German has generalized the *z (now r): frieren, fror, gefroren. And Netherlandic still shows the alternation: vriezen, vroor, gevroren. English has kept the alternation in only one verb: singular was, plural were. Traces of it still survive, however, in a few now isolated forms: seethe (Proto-Germanic * ) and its old past participle sodden (Proto-Germanic *); lose (Proto-Germanic *s) and its old past participle (for)lorn (Proto-Germanic *z).


Germanic Languages Sorted Alphabetically