West Germanic languages

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West Germanic
Originally between the Rhine, Alps, Elbe, and North Sea; today worldwide
Linguistic classification Indo-European
ISO 639-5 gmw
Linguasphere 52-AB & 52-AC
Glottolog west2793 [1]
Germanic languages in Europe.png
Extent of Germanic languages in present day Europe

North Germanic languages


West Germanic languages

Dots indicate areas where multilingualism is common.

The West Germanic languages constitute the largest of the three branches of the Germanic family of languages (the others being the North Germanic and the extinct East Germanic languages).


The three most prevalent West Germanic languages are English, German, and Dutch. The family also includes other High and Low German languages including Afrikaans and Yiddish (which are daughter languages of Dutch and German, respectively), in addition to other Franconian languages, like Luxembourgish, and Ingvaeonic (North Sea Germanic) languages next to English, such as the Frisian languages and Scots. Additionally, several creoles, patois, and pidgins are based on Dutch, English and German as they were languages of colonial empires.



The West Germanic languages share many lexemes not existing in North Germanic or East Germanic—archaisms as well as common neologisms.

Existence of a West Germanic proto-language

Most scholars doubt that there was a Proto-West-Germanic proto-language common to the West Germanic languages and no others, though a few maintain that Proto-West-Germanic existed. [2] Most agree that after East Germanic broke off (an event usually dated to the 2nd or 1st century BC), the remaining Germanic languages, the Northwest Germanic languages, divided into four main dialects: [3] [ obsolete source ] North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely

  1. North Sea Germanic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and Old Saxon
  2. Weser-Rhine Germanic, ancestral to Low Franconian and in part to some of the Central Franconian and Rhine Franconian dialects of Old High German
  3. Elbe Germanic, ancestral to the Upper German and most Central German dialects of Old High German, and the extinct Langobardic language.

Although there is quite a bit of knowledge about North Sea Germanic or Anglo-Frisian (due to characteristic features of its daughter languages, Anglo-Saxon/Old English and Old Frisian), linguists know almost nothing about "Weser-Rhine Germanic" and "Elbe Germanic". In fact, these two terms were coined in the 1940s to refer to groups of archaeological findings rather than linguistic features. Only later were these terms applied to hypothetical dialectal differences within both regions. Even today, the very small number of Migration Period runic inscriptions from this area—many of them illegible, unclear or consisting only of one word, often a name—is insufficient to identify linguistic features specific to the two supposed dialect groups.

Evidence that East Germanic split off before the split between North and West Germanic comes from a number of linguistic innovations common to North and West Germanic, [4] including:

Under this view, the properties that the West Germanic languages have in common separate from the North Germanic languages are not necessarily inherited from a "Proto-West-Germanic" language, but may have spread by language contact among the Germanic languages spoken in central Europe, not reaching those spoken in Scandinavia or reaching them much later. Rhotacism, for example, was largely complete in West Germanic at a time when North Germanic runic inscriptions still clearly distinguished the two phonemes. There is also evidence that the lowering of ē to ā occurred first in West Germanic and spread to North Germanic later, since word-final ē was lowered before it was shortened in West Germanic, whereas in North Germanic the shortening occurred first, resulting in e that later merged with i. However, there are also a number of common archaisms in West Germanic shared by neither Old Norse nor Gothic. Some authors who support the concept of a West Germanic proto-language claim that not only shared innovations can require the existence of a linguistic clade but that there can be also archaisms that cannot be explained simply as retentions later lost in the North or East because this assumption can produce contradictions with attested features of these other branches.

The debate on the existence of a Proto-West-Germanic clade was recently summarized:

That North Germanic is .. a unitary subgroup [of Proto-Germanic] is completely obvious, as all of its dialects shared a long series of innovations, some of them very striking. That the same is true of West Germanic has been denied, but I will argue in vol. ii that all the West Germanic languages share several highly unusual innovations that virtually force us to posit a West Germanic clade. On the other hand, the internal subgrouping of both North Germanic and West Germanic is very messy, and it seems clear that each of those subfamilies diversified into a network of dialects that remained in contact for a considerable period of time (in some cases right up to the present). [6]

The reconstruction of Proto-West-Germanic

Several scholars have published reconstructions of Proto-West-Germanic morphological paradigms [7] and many authors have reconstructed individual Proto-West-Germanic morphological forms or lexemes. The first comprehensive reconstruction of the Proto-West-Germanic language was published in 2013 by Wolfram Euler. [8]

Dating Early West Germanic

If indeed Proto-West-Germanic existed, it must have been between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Until the late 2nd century AD, the language of runic inscriptions found in Scandinavia and in Northern Germany were so similar that Proto-North-Germanic and the Western dialects in the south were still part of one language ("Proto-Northwest-Germanic"). After that, the split into West and North Germanic occurred. By the 4th and 5th centuries the great migration set in which probably helped diversify the West Germanic family even more.

It has been argued that, judging by their nearly identical syntax, the West Germanic dialects were closely enough related to have been mutually intelligible up to the 7th century. [9] Over the course of this period, the dialects diverged successively. The High German consonant shift that occurred mostly during the 7th century AD in what is now southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland can be considered the end of the linguistic unity among the West Germanic dialects, although its effects on their own should not be overestimated. Bordering dialects very probably continued to be mutually intelligible even beyond the boundaries of the consonant shift. In fact, many dialects of Limburgish and Ripuarian are still mutually intelligible today.

Middle Ages

During the Early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Old and Middle English on one hand, and by the High German consonant shift on the continent on the other.

The High German consonant shift distinguished the High German languages from the other West Germanic languages. By early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South (the Walliser dialect being the southernmost surviving German dialect) to Northern Low Saxon in the North. Although both extremes are considered German, they are not mutually intelligible. The southernmost varieties have completed the second sound shift, whereas the northern dialects remained unaffected by the consonant shift.

Of modern German varieties, Low German is the one that most resembles modern English. The district of Angeln (or Anglia), from which the name English derives, is in the extreme northern part of Germany between the Danish border and the Baltic coast. The area of the Saxons (parts of today's Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony) lay south of Anglia. The Angles and Saxons, two Germanic tribes, in combination with a number of other peoples from northern Germany and the Jutland Peninsula, particularly the Jutes, settled in Britain following the end of Roman rule in the island. Once in Britain, these Germanic peoples eventually developed a shared cultural and linguistic identity as Anglo-Saxons; the extent of the linguistic influence of the native Romano-British population on the incomers is debatable.

Family tree

Grouping of the main Germanic languages, including historical dialects, according to Friedrich Maurer. Einteilung der Germanen nach Maurer.en.svg
Grouping of the main Germanic languages, including historical dialects, according to Friedrich Maurer.

Note that divisions between subfamilies of continental Germanic languages are rarely precisely defined; most form dialect continua, with adjacent dialects being mutually intelligible and more separated ones not.

Comparison of phonological and morphological features

The following table shows a list of various linguistic features and their extent among the West Germanic languages. Some may only appear in the older languages but are no longer apparent in the modern languages.

Old EnglishOld FrisianOld SaxonOld DutchOld Central
Old Upper
Palatalisation of velarsYesYesNoNoNoNo
Unrounding of front rounded vowelsYesYesNoNoNoNo
Loss of intervocalic *-h-YesYesDevelopingYesDevelopingNo
Class II weak verb ending *-(ō)ja-YesYesSometimesNoNoNo
Merging of plural forms of verbsYesYesYesNoNoNo
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law YesYesYesRareNoNo
Loss of the reflexive pronoun YesYesMost dialectsMost dialectsNoNo
Loss of final *-z in single-syllable wordsYesYesYesYesNoNo
Reduction of weak class III to four relicsYesYesYesYesNoNo
Monophthongization of *ai, *auYesYesYesUsuallyPartialPartial
Diphthongization of *ē, *ōNoNoRareYesYesYes
Final-obstruent devoicing NoNoNoYesDevelopingNo
Loss of initial *h- before consonantNoNoNoYesYesDeveloping
Loss of initial *w- before consonantNoNoNoNoMost dialectsYes
High German consonant shift NoNoNoNoPartialYes


The original vowel system of West Germanic was similar to that of Proto-Germanic; note however the lowering of the long front vowels.

Monophthong phonemes of West Germanic
Front Central Back
unrounded unrounded rounded
short long shortlongshortlong
Close iu
Mid eo
Open æ:a

The consonant system was also essentially the same as that of Proto-Germanic. Note, however, the particular changes described above, as well as West Germanic gemination.



The noun paradigms of Proto-West Germanic have been reconstructed as follows: [10]

CaseNouns in -a- (m.)Nouns in -ja-Nouns in -ija-Nouns in -a- (n.)Nouns in -ō-Nouns in -i-Nouns in -u-Nouns in -u- (n.)
Nominative*dagă*dagō, -ōs*harjă*harjō, -ōs*hirdijă*hirdijō, -ijōs*joką*joku*gebu*gebō*gasti*gastī*sunu*suniwi, -ō*fehu(?)
Dative*dagē*dagum*harjē*harjum*hirdijē*hirdijum*jokē*jokum*gebē*gebōm*gastim*suniwi, -ō*sunum*fehiwi, -ō

West Germanic vocabulary

The following table compares a number of Frisian, English, Dutch and German words with common West Germanic (or older) origin. The grammatical gender of each term is noted as masculine (m.), feminine (f.), or neuter (n.) where relevant.

West FrisianEnglishScotsDutchGerman Old English Old High German Proto-West-Germanic [11] Proto-Germanic
kaamcombkaimkam m.Kamm m.camb m.camb m.kąbă [see inscription of Erfurt-Frienstedt], *kambă m.*kambaz m.
deidaydaydag m.Tag m.dæġ m.tag m.*dagă m.*dagaz m.
reinrainrainregen m.Regen m.reġn m.regan m.*regnă m.*regnaz m.
weiwayweyweg m.Weg m.weġ m.weg m.*wegă m.*wegaz m.
neilnailnailnagel m.Nagel m.næġel m.nagal m.*naglă m.*naglaz m.
tsiischeesecheesekaas m.Käse m.ċēse, ċīese m.chāsi, kāsi m.*kāsī m.*kāsijaz m. (late Proto-Germanic, from Latin cāseus)
tsjerkechurchkirkkerk f.Kirche f.ċiriċe f.chirihha, *kirihha f.*kirikā f.*kirikǭ f. (from Ancient Greek kuriakón "belonging to the lord")
sibbesibling [note 1] sibsibbe f.Sippe f.sibb f. "kinship, peace"sippa f., Old Saxon: sibbiasibbju, sibbjā f.*sibjō f. "relationship, kinship, friendship"
kaai f.keykeysleutel m.Schlüssel m.cǣġ(e), cǣga f. "key, solution, experiment"sluzzil m.*slutilă m., *kēgă f.*slutilaz m. "key"; *kēgaz, *kēguz f. "stake, post, pole"
ha westhave beenhae(s) beenben geweestbin gewesen
twa skieptwo sheeptwa sheeptwee schapen n.zwei Schafe n.twā sċēap n.zwei scāfa n.*twai skēpu n.*twai(?) skēpō n.
hawwehavehaehebbenhabenhabban, hafianhabēn*habbjană*habjaną
breabreadbreidbrood n.Brot n.brēad n. "fragment, bit, morsel, crumb" also "bread"brōt n.*braudă m.*braudą n. "cooked food, leavened bread"
hierhairhairhaar n.Haar n.hēr, hǣr n.hār n.*hǣră n.*hērą n.
earearearoor n.Ohr n.ēare n. < pre-English *ǣoraōra n.*aura < *auza n.*auzǭ, *ausōn n.
doardoordoordeur f.Tür f.duru f.turi f.*duru f.*durz f.
swietsweetsweetzoetsüßswētes(w)uozi (< *swōti)*swōtŭ*swōtuz
wietwetweet/watnatnasswǣtnaz (< *nat)*wǣtă / *nată*wētaz / *nataz
eacheyeeeoog n.Auge n.ēaġe n. < pre-English *ǣogaouga n.*auga n.*augō n.
dreamdreamdreamdroom m.Traum m.drēam m. "joy, pleasure, ecstasy, music, song"troum m.*draumă m.*draumaz (< *draugmaz) m.
stienstonestanesteen m.Stein m.stān m.stein m.*staină m.*stainaz m.
bedbedbedbed n.Bett n.bedd n.betti n.*badjă n.*badją n.

Other words, with a variety of origins:

West FrisianEnglishScotsDutchGerman Old English Old High German Proto-West-Germanic [11] Proto-Germanic
hynderhorsehorsepaard n.
ros n. (dated)
Pferd n. / Ross n.hors n. eoh m.(h)ros n. / pfarifrit n. / ehu- (in compositions)*hrussă n. / *ehu m.*hrussą n., *ehwaz m.

Note that some of the shown similarities of Frisian and English vis-à-vis Dutch and German are secondary and not due to a closer relationship between them. For example, the plural of the word for "sheep" was originally unchanged in all four languages and still is in some Dutch dialects and a great deal of German dialects. Many other similarities, however, are indeed old inheritances.


  1. Original meaning "relative" has become "brother or sister" in English.

Related Research Articles

Frisian languages Group of Germanic languages

The Frisian languages are a closely related group of Germanic languages, spoken by about 500,000 Frisian people, who live on the southern fringes of the North Sea in the Netherlands and Germany. The Frisian languages are the closest living language group to the Anglic languages; the two groups make up the Anglo-Frisian languages group and together with the Low German dialects these form the North Sea Germanic languages. However, modern English and Frisian are not mutually intelligible, nor are Frisian languages intelligible among themselves, due to independent linguistic innovations and foreign influences.

Germanic languages Sub-branch Indo-European language

The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family spoken natively by a population of about 515 million people mainly in Europe, North America, Oceania and Southern Africa. The most widely spoken Germanic language, English, is the world's most widely spoken language with an estimated 2 billion speakers. All Germanic languages are derived from Proto-Germanic, spoken in Iron Age Scandinavia.

The High German languages or High German dialects comprise the varieties of German spoken south of the Benrath and Uerdingen isoglosses in central and southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, as well as in neighbouring portions of France, Italy, the Czech Republic (Bohemia), and Poland. They are also spoken in diaspora in Romania, Russia, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Namibia.

Low Franconian languages Language family

Low Franconian/Low Frankish are a group of several West Germanic languages spoken in the Netherlands, northern Belgium (Flanders), in the Nord department of France, in western Germany, as well as in Suriname, South Africa and Namibia that originally descended from the Frankish language.

Old Frisian is a West Germanic language spoken between the 8th and 16th centuries in the area between the Rhine and Weser on the European North Sea coast. The Frisian settlers on the coast of South Jutland also spoke Old Frisian but no medieval texts of this area are known. The language of the earlier inhabitants of the region between the Zuiderzee and Ems River is attested in only a few personal names and place-names. Old Frisian evolved into Middle Frisian, spoken from the 16th to the 19th century.

Low German West Germanic language spoken mainly in northern Germany and the eastern part of the Netherlands

Low German or Low Saxon is a West Germanic language variety spoken mainly in Northern Germany and the northeastern part of the Netherlands. It is also spoken to a lesser extent in the German diaspora worldwide.

North Sea Germanic Group of West Germanic languages

North Sea Germanic, also known as Ingvaeonic, is a postulated grouping of the northern West Germanic languages that consists of Old Frisian, Old English and Old Saxon and their descendants.

Old Saxon Germanic language spoken 8C-12C

Old Saxon, also known as Old Low German, was a Germanic language and the earliest recorded form of Low German. It is a West Germanic language, closely related to the Anglo-Frisian languages. It is documented from the 8th century until the 12th century, when it gradually evolved into Middle Low German. It was spoken throughout modern northwestern Germany, primarily in the coastal regions and in the eastern Netherlands by Saxons, a Germanic tribe that inhabited the region of Saxony. It partially shares Anglo-Frisian's Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law which sets it apart from Low Franconian and Irminonic languages, such as Dutch, Luxembourgish and German.

Frankish, also known as Old Franconian or Old Frankish, was the West Germanic language spoken by the Franks between the 4th and 8th century.

Anglo-Frisian languages Group of West Germanic languages

The Anglo-Frisian languages are the West Germanic languages which include Anglic and Frisian varieties.

German dialects dialects

German dialects are dialects often considered languages in their own right and are classified under the umbrella term of "German". Though varied by region, those of the southern half of Germany beneath the Benrath line are dominated by the geographical spread of the High German consonant shift, and the dialect continua that connect German to the neighboring varieties of Low Franconian (Dutch) and Frisian.

Northwest Germanic is a proposed grouping of the Germanic languages, representing the current consensus among Germanic historical linguists. It does not challenge the late 19th-century tri-partite division of the Germanic dialects into North Germanic, West Germanic and East Germanic, but proposes additionally that North and West Germanic remained as a subgroup after the southward migration of the East Germanic tribes, only splitting into North and West Germanic later. Whether this subgroup constituted a unified proto-language, or simply represents a group of dialects that remained in contact and close geographical proximity, is a matter of debate, but the formulation of Ringe and Taylor probably enjoys widespread support:

There is some evidence that North and West Germanic developed as a single language, Proto-Northwest Germanic, after East Germanic had begun to diverge. However, changes unproblematically datable to the PNWGmc period are few, suggesting that that period of linguistic unity did not last long. On the other hand, there are some indications that North and West Germanic remained in contact, exchanging and thus partly sharing further innovations, after they had begun to diverge, and perhaps even after West Germanic had itself begun to diversify.

Dutch is a West Germanic language, that originated from the Old Frankish dialects.

Franconian languages language family

Franconian includes a number of West Germanic languages and dialects possibly derived from the languages and dialects originally spoken by the Franks from their ethnogenesis in the 3rd century AD. A famous likely speaker was Emperor Charlemagne. Linguists have different views about whether these languages and dialects have descended from a single Franconian proto-language, also known as Istvaeonic.

Old Dutch set of Franconian dialects spoke in the Low Countries during the Early Middle Ages

In linguistics, Old Dutch or Old Low Franconian is the set of Franconian dialects spoken in the Low Countries during the Early Middle Ages, from around the 5th to the 12th century. Old Dutch is mostly recorded on fragmentary relics, and words have been reconstructed from Middle Dutch and Old Dutch loanwords in French.

Elbe Germanic Theoretical Germanic protolanguage

Elbe Germanic, also called Irminonic, is a term introduced by the German linguist Friedrich Maurer (1898–1984) in his book, Nordgermanen und Alemanen, to describe the unattested proto-language, or dialectal grouping, ancestral to the later Alemannic, Lombardic, Thuringian and Bavarian dialects. During Late antiquity and the Middle Ages, its supposed descendants had a profound influence on the neighboring West Central German dialects and, later, in the form of Standard German, on the German language as a whole.

Weser-Rhine Germanic Language group

Weser-Rhine Germanic is a term introduced by the German linguist Friedrich Maurer for the group of prehistoric West Germanic dialects ancestral to Dutch and, to some extent, the West Central German dialects. It is a replacement for the older term Istvaeonic, with which it is essentially synonymous. The term Rhine-Weser-Germanic is sometimes preferred.

Old Saxon Baptismal Vow manuscript, short before 800

The Old Saxon Baptismal Vow, also called the Old Saxon Catechism, Utrecht Baptismal Vow and Abrenuntiatio Diaboli, is a baptismal vow that was found in a ninth-century manuscript in a monastery library in Mainz, Germany. The vow mentions three Germanic pagan gods of the early Saxons which the reader is to forsake: Uuôden ("Woden"), Thunaer and Saxnōt. Scholar Rudolf Simek comments that the vow is of particular interest because it is the sole instance of the god Saxnōt mentioned in a religious context. One of many baptismal vows, it is now archived in the Vatican Codex pal. 577.

Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law Sound change law in the familys language evolution

In historical linguistics, the Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law is a description of a phonological development that occurred in the Ingvaeonic dialects of the West Germanic languages. This includes Old English, Old Frisian, and Old Saxon, and to a lesser degree Old Dutch.


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "West Germanic". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Robinson (1992): p. 17-18
  3. Kuhn, Hans (1955–56). "Zur Gliederung der germanischen Sprachen". Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur. 86: 1–47.
  4. Robinson, Orrin W. (1992). Old English and Its Closest Relatives. Stanford University Press. ISBN   0-8047-2221-8.
  5. But see Cercignani, Fausto, Indo-European ē in Germanic, in «Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung», 86/1, 1972, pp. 104–110.
  6. Ringe, Don. 2006: A Linguistic History of English. Volume I. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, Oxford University Press, p. 213-214.
  7. H. F. Nielsen (1981, 2001), G. Klingenschmitt (2002) and K.-H. Mottausch (1998, 2011)
  8. Wolfram Euler: Das Westgermanische – von der Herausbildung im 3. bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert — Analyse und Rekonstruktion (West Germanic: From its Emergence in the 3rd Century to its Split in the 7th Century: Analyses and Reconstruction). 244 p., in German with English summary, London/Berlin 2013, ISBN   978-3-9812110-7-8.
  9. Graeme Davis (2006:154) notes "the languages of the Germanic group in the Old period are much closer than has previously been noted. Indeed it would not be inappropriate to regard them as dialects of one language. They are undoubtedly far closer one to another than are the various dialects of modern Chinese, for example. A reasonable modern analogy might be Arabic, where considerable dialectical diversity exists but within the concept of a single Arabic language." In: Davis, Graeme (2006). Comparative Syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic: Linguistic, Literary and Historical Implications. Bern: Peter Lang. ISBN   3-03910-270-2.
  10. Ringe and Taylor. The Development of Old English. Oxford University Press. pp. 114–115.
  11. 1 2 sources: Ringe, Don / Taylor, Ann (2014) and Euler, Wolfram (2013), passim.