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|Ethnicity||West Germanic peoples|
|Originally between the Rhine, Alps, Elbe, and North Sea; today worldwide|
|Linguistic classification|| Indo-European |
|Linguasphere||52-AB & 52-AC|
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 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, but also in countries such as Ghana or Nigeria.
Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so; a language is any specific example of such a system.
The North Germanic languages make up one of the three branches of the Germanic languages, a sub-family of the Indo-European languages, along with the West Germanic languages and the extinct East Germanic languages. The language group is sometimes referred to as the "Nordic languages", a direct translation of the most common term used among Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish scholars and laypeople.
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 and English as they were languages of colonial empires.
English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and eventually became a global lingua franca. It is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Great Britain that later took their name, as England. Both names derive from Anglia, a peninsula in the Baltic Sea. The language is closely related to Frisian and Low Saxon, and its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse, and to a greater extent by Latin and French.
German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.
The West Germanic languages share many lexemes not existing in North Germanic and/or East Germanic—archaisms as well as common neologisms.
A lexeme is a unit of lexical meaning that underlies a set of words that are related through inflection. It is a basic abstract unit of meaning, a unit of morphological analysis in linguistics that roughly corresponds to a set of forms taken by a single root word. For example, in English, run, runs, ran and running are forms of the same lexeme, which can be represented as RUN. One form, the lemma is chosen by convention as the canonical form of a lexeme. The lemma is the form used in dictionaries as an entry's headword. Other forms of a lexeme are often listed later in the entry if they are uncommon or irregularly inflected forms.
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.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: North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely
A proto-language, in the tree model of historical linguistics, is a language, usually hypothetical or reconstructed, and usually unattested, from which a number of attested known languages are believed to have descended by evolution, forming a language family. In the family tree metaphor, a proto-language can be called a mother language.
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.
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.
The Migration Period was a period that lasted from 375 AD to 538 AD, during which there were widespread invasions of peoples within or into Europe, during and after the decline of the Western Roman Empire, mostly into Roman territory, notably the Germanic tribes and the Huns. This period has also been termed in English by the German loanword Völkerwanderung and—from the Roman and Greek perspective—the Barbarian Invasions. Many of the migrations were movements of Germanic, Hunnic, Slavic and other peoples into the territory of the then declining Roman Empire, with or without accompanying invasions or war.
A runic inscription is an inscription made in one of the various runic alphabets. The body of runic inscriptions falls into the three categories of Elder Futhark, Anglo-Frisian Futhorc and Younger Futhark.
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,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 and/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).
Several scholars have published reconstructions of Proto-West-Germanic morphological paradigmsand 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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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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 English||Old Frisian||Old Saxon||Old Dutch||Old Central|
|Palatalisation of velars||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Unrounding of front rounded vowels||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Loss of intervocalic *-h-||Yes||Yes||Developing||Yes||Developing||No|
|Class II weak verb ending *-(ō)ja-||Yes||Yes||Sometimes||No||No||No|
|Merging of plural forms of verbs||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No||No|
|Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law||Yes||Yes||Yes||Rare||No||No|
|Loss of the reflexive pronoun||Yes||Yes||Most dialects||Most dialects||No||No|
|Loss of final *-z in single-syllable words||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Reduction of weak class III to four relics||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Monophthongization of *ai, *au||Yes||Yes||Yes||Usually||Partial||Partial|
|Diphthongization of *ē, *ō||No||No||Rare||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Loss of initial *h- before consonant||No||No||No||Yes||Yes||Developing|
|Loss of initial *w- before consonant||No||No||No||No||Most dialects||Yes|
|High German consonant shift||No||No||No||No||Partial||Yes|
The original vowel system of West Germanic was similar to that of Proto-Germanic; note however the lowering of the long front vowels.
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:
|Case||Nouns 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|
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 Frisian||English||Dutch||German||Old English||Old High German||Proto-West-Germanic||Proto-Germanic|
|kaam||comb||kam m.||Kamm m.||camb m.||camb m.||kąbă [see inscription of Erfurt-Frienstedt], *kambă m.||*kambaz m.|
|dei||day||dag m.||Tag m.||dæġ m.||tag m.||*dagă m.||*dagaz m.|
|rein||rain||regen m.||Regen m.||reġn m.||regan m.||*regnă m.||*regnaz m.|
|wei||way||weg m.||Weg m.||weġ m.||weg m.||*wegă m.||*wegaz m.|
|neil||nail||nagel m.||Nagel m.||næġel m.||nagal m.||*naglă m.||*naglaz m.|
|tsiis||cheese||kaas m.||Käse m.||ċēse, ċīese m.||chāsi, kāsi m.||*kāsī m.||*kāsijaz m. (late Proto-Germanic, from Latin cāseus)|
|kerk f.||Kirche f.||ċiriċe f.||chirihha, *kirihha f.||*kirikā f.||*kirikǭ f. (from Ancient Greek kuriakón "belonging to the lord")|
|sibbe||sibling||sibbe f.||Sippe f.||sibb f. "kinship, peace"||sippa f., Old Saxon: sibbia||sibbju, sibbjā f.||*sibjō f. "relationship, kinship, friendship"|
|kaai f.||key||sleutel 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 west||have been||ben geweest||bin gewesen|
|twa skiep||two sheep||twee schapen n.||zwei Schafe n.||twā sċēap n.||zwei scāfa n.||*twai skēpu n.||*twai(?) skēpō n.|
|brea||bread||brood n.||Brot n.||brēad n. "fragment, bit, morsel, crumb" also "bread"||brōt n.||*braudă m.||*braudą n. "cooked food, leavened bread"|
|hier||hair||haar n.||Haar n.||hēr, hǣr n.||hār n.||*hǣră n.||*hērą n.|
|ear||ear||oor n.||Ohr n.||ēare n. < pre-English *ǣora||ōra n.||*aura < *auza n.||*auzǭ, *ausōn n.|
|doar||door||deur f.||Tür f.||duru f.||turi f.||*duru f.||*durz f.|
|swiet||sweet||zoet||süß||swēte||s(w)uozi (< *swōti)||*swōtŭ||*swōtuz|
|wiet||wet||nat||nass||wǣt||naz (< *nat)||*wǣtă / *nată||*wētaz / *nataz|
|each||eye||oog n.||Auge n.||ēaġe n. < pre-English *ǣoga||ouga n.||*auga n.||*augō n.|
|dream||dream||droom m.||Traum m.||drēam m. "joy, pleasure, ecstasy, music, song"||troum m.||*draumă m.||*draumaz (< *draugmaz) m.|
|stien||stone||steen m.||Stein m.||stān m.||stein m.||*staină m.||*stainaz m.|
|bed||bed||bed n.||Bett n.||bedd n.||betti n.||*badjă n.||*badją n.|
Other words, with a variety of origins:
|West Frisian||English||Dutch||German||Old English||Old High German||Proto-West-Germanic||Proto-Germanic|
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.
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.
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 neighboring 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/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 or Low Saxon is a West Germanic language 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, also known as Ingvaeonic, is a postulated grouping of the northern West Germanic languages, consisting of Old Frisian, Old English and Old Saxon and their descendants.
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 who 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. The language itself is poorly attested, but it gave rise to numerous loanwords in Old French. After the 8th century Frankish developed into Franconian dialects in what today is the Netherlands, parts of Belgium and parts of Western Germany. Franconian dialects later developed into the Dutch language and took part in the forming of the German language. Franconian dialects are still spoken in larger parts of Germany. Old Dutch is the term for different Old Franconian dialects that were spoken in the Low Countries until about the 12th century when it evolved into Middle Dutch dialects.
The Anglo-Frisian languages are the West Germanic languages which include Anglic and Frisian.
Dutch is a West Germanic language, that originated from the Old Frankish dialects.
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.
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.
Weser-Rhine Germanic is a term introduced by the German linguist Friedrich Maurer for the group of prehistoric West Germanic dialects ancestral to Low Franconian and Rhine Franconian, and ultimately to Dutch and 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.
Dutch dialects are primarily the dialects that are both cognate with the Dutch language and are spoken in the same language area as the Dutch standard language. Dutch dialects are remarkably diverse and are found in the Netherlands and northern Belgium.
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.
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.