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 West Germanic branch is classically subdivided into three branches: Ingvaeonic, which includes English and Frisian, Istvaeonic, which includes Dutch and its close relatives, and Irminonic, which includes German and its close relatives and variants.
|Originally between the Rhine, Alps, Elbe, and North Sea; today worldwide|
|Linguasphere||52-AB & 52-AC|
English is by far the most-spoken West Germanic language, with more than 1 billion speakers worldwide. Within Europe, the three most prevalent West Germanic languages are English, German, and Dutch. Frisian, spoken by about 450,000 people, constitutes a fourth distinct variety of West Germanic. The language family also includes Afrikaans, Yiddish, Luxembourgish, and Scots, which are closely related to Dutch, German and English respectively. Additionally, several creoles, patois, and pidgins are based on Dutch, English, or German.
Origins and characteristicsEdit
The Germanic languages are traditionally divided into three groups: West, East and North Germanic. In some cases, their exact relation was difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, so that some individual varieties have been difficult to classify. This is especially true for the unattested Jutish language; today, most scholars classify Jutish as a West Germanic variety with several features of North Germanic.
Until the late 20th century, some scholars claimed that all Germanic languages remained mutually intelligible throughout the Migration Period, others hold that speakers of West Germanic dialects like Old Frankish and speakers of Gothic were already unable to communicate fluently by around the 3rd century AD. As a result of the substantial progress in the study of Proto-West Germanic in the early 21st century, there is a growing consensus that East and West Germanic indeed have been mutually unintelligible at that time, whereas West and North Germanic remained partially intelligible.
Dialects with the features assigned to the western group formed from Proto-Germanic in the late Jastorf culture (ca. 1st century BC). The West Germanic group is characterized by a number of phonological, morphological and lexical innovations or archaisms not found in North and East Germanic. Examples of West Germanic phonological particularities are:
- The delabialization of all labiovelar consonants except word-initially.
- Change of *-zw- and *- đw- to *-ww- e.g. *izwiz > *iwwiz ‘you’ dat.pl.; *feđwōr > *fewwōr ‘four’.
- [ð], the fricative allophone of /d/, becomes [d] in all positions. (The two other fricatives [β] and [ɣ] are retained.). This must have occurred after *-zw- and *- đw- have become *-ww-.
- Replacement of the second-person singular preterite ending -t with -ī. Some scholars, including Karl-Heinz Mottausch and Wolfram Euler now explain this ending as a relict of the Indo-European aorist tense.
- Loss of word-final /z/. Only Old High German preserves it at all (as /r/) and only in single-syllable words. Following the later loss of word-final /a/ and /aN/, this made the nominative and accusative of many nouns identical.
- Loss of final *-a (including from PGmc. *-an#) in polysyllables: e.g. acc. sg. OHG horn vs. ORu. horna ‘horn’; this change must have occurred after the loss of word-final /z/.
- West Germanic gemination: lengthening of all consonants except /r/ before /j/.; this change must have occurred after the loss of final *-a.
- Change of Proto-Germanic *e to i before i and j.
A relative chronology of about 20 sound changes from Proto-Northwest Germanic to Proto-West Germanic (some of them only regional) has been published by Don Ringe in 2014.
A phonological archaism of West Germanic is the preservation of grammatischer Wechsel in most verbs, particularly in Old High German. This implies the same for West Germanic, whereas in East and North Germanic many of these alternations (in Gothic almost all of them) had been levelled out analogically by the time of the earliest texts.
Common morphological archaisms of West Germanic include:
- The preservation of an instrumental case,
- the preservation of the athematic verbs (e.g. Anglo-Saxon dō(m), Old Saxon dōm, OHG. tōm "I do"),
- the preservation of some traces[which?] of the aorist (in Old English and Old High German, but neither in Gothic nor in North Germanic).
Existence of West Germanic proto-languageEdit
Up until the 1990s, several scholars doubted that there was a Proto-West-Germanic proto-language common to the West Germanic languages and no others, but others maintained that Proto-West-Germanic did exist. Today, there is a growing consensus on what Don Ringe stated in 2012, that "these [phonological and morphological] changes amount to a massive evidence for a valid West Germanic clade".
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:[obsolete source] North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely
- North Sea Germanic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and Old Saxon
- Weser-Rhine Germanic, ancestral to Old Dutch and present as a substrate or superstrate in some of the Central Franconian and Rhine Franconian dialects of Old High German
- 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 (because of the 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, both terms were coined in the 1940s to refer to groups of archaeological findings, rather than linguistic features. Only later were the terms applied to hypothetical dialectal differences within both regions. Even today, the very small number of Migration Period runic inscriptions from the 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, including:
- The lowering of Proto-Germanic ē (/ɛː/, also written ǣ) to ā.
- The development of umlaut.
- The rhotacism of /z/ to /r/.
- The development of the demonstrative pronoun ancestral to English this.
Under that 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 while 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, but 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 also that there are 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 the other branches.
The debate on the existence of a Proto-West-Germanic clade was recently (2006) 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).
The reconstruction of Proto-West-GermanicEdit
Several scholars have published reconstructions of Proto-West-Germanic morphological paradigms 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, followed in 2014 by the study of Don Ringe and Ann Taylor.
Dating Early West GermanicEdit
If indeed Proto-West-Germanic existed, it must have been between the 2nd and 7th 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. By the end of the 6th century, the area in which West Germanic languages were spoken, at least by the upper classes, had tripled compared to the year 400. This caused an increasing disintegration of the West Germanic language and finally the formation of the daughter languages.
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.
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.
- North Sea Germanic / Ingvaeonic languages
- Anglo-Frisian languages
- Low German / Low Saxon
- Weser-Rhine Germanic / Istvaeonic languages / Netherlandic / Low Frankish
- Elbe Germanic / Irminonic languages / High German
- Alemannic, including Swiss German and Alsatian
- East Franconian
- South Franconian
- Rhine Franconian, including the dialects of Hessen, Pennsylvania German, and most of those from Lorraine
- Upper Saxon German
- Silesian (moribund)
- High Prussian (moribund)
- Lombardic AKA Langobardic (extinct, unless Cimbrian and Mocheno are in fact Langobardic remnants.)
- Pennsylvania German language
- Yiddish (a language based on Eastern-Central dialects of late Middle High German/Early New High German)
Comparison of phonological and morphological featuresEdit
The following table shows a list of various linguistic features and their extent among the West Germanic languages, organized roughly from northwest to southeast. 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||Partial||No||No||No|
|Unrounding of front rounded vowels||ø but not y||Yes||No||Southwestern||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|
West Germanic vocabularyEdit
The following table compares a number of Frisian, English, Scotch, Yola, Dutch, Limburgish, German and Afrikaans 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||Scots||Yola||Dutch||Limburgish||German||Afrikaans||Old English||Old High German||Proto-West-Germanic||Proto-Germanic|
|kaam||comb||kaim||khime / rack||kam m.||kâmp||Kamm m.||kam||camb m.||camb m.||kąbă [see inscription of Erfurt-Frienstedt], *kambă m.||*kambaz m.|
|dei||day||day||dei||dag m.||daag||Tag m.||dag||dæġ m.||tag m.||*dagă m.||*dagaz m.|
|rein||rain||rain||rhyne||regen m.||rengel, raege||Regen m.||reën||reġn m.||regan m.||*regnă m.||*regnaz m.|
|wei||way||wey||wei / wye||weg m.||weeg||Weg m.||weg||weġ m.||weg m.||*wegă m.||*wegaz m.|
|neil||nail||nail||niel||nagel m.||nieëgel||Nagel m.||nael||næġel m.||nagal m.||*naglă m.||*naglaz m.|
|tsiis||cheese||cheese||cheese||kaas m.||kieës||Käse m.||kaas||ċēse, ċīese m.||chāsi, kāsi m.||*kāsī m.||*kāsijaz m. (late Proto-Germanic, from Latin cāseus)|
|tsjerke||church||kirk||chourch||kerk f.||kêrk||Kirche f.||kerk||ċiriċe f.||chirihha, *kirihha f.||*kirikā f.||*kirikǭ f. (from Ancient Greek kuriakón "belonging to the lord")|
|sibbe||sibling[note 1]||sib||sibbe (dated) / meany||sibbe f.||-||Sippe f.||-||sibb f. "kinship, peace"||sippa f., Old Saxon: sibbia||sibbju, sibbjā f.||*sibjō f. "relationship, kinship, friendship"|
|kaai f.||key||key||kei / kie||sleutel m.||slueëtel||Schlüssel m.||sleutel||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||hae(s)/hiv been||ha bin||ben geweest||bin geweis(t)||bin gewesen||was gewees|
|twa skiep||two sheep||twa sheep||twye zheep||twee schapen n.||twieë schäöp||zwei Schafe n.||twee skape||twā sċēap n.||zwei scāfa n.||*twai skēpu n.||*twai(?) skēpō n.|
|hawwe||have||hae||ha||hebben||hebbe, höbbe||haben||het||habban, hafian||habēn||*habbjană||*habjaną|
|brea||bread||breid||breed||brood n.||mik, broeëd||Brot n.||brood||brēad n. "fragment, bit, morsel, crumb" also "bread"||brōt n.||*braudă m.||*braudą n. "cooked food, leavened bread"|
|hier||hair||hair||haar||haar n.||haor||Haar n.||haar||hēr, hǣr n.||hār n.||*hǣră n.||*hērą n.|
|ear||ear||lug||lug||oor n.||oeër||Ohr n.||oor||ēare n. < pre-English *ǣora||ōra n.||*aura < *auza n.||*auzǭ, *ausōn n.|
|doar||door||door||dher||deur f.||dueër||Tür f.||deur||duru f.||turi f.||*duru f.||*durz f.|
|swiet||sweet||sweet||sweet||zoet||zeut||süß||soet||swēte||s(w)uozi (< *swōti)||*swōtŭ||*swōtuz|
|wiet||wet||weet||weate||nat||naat||nass||nat||wǣt||naz (< *nat)||*wǣtă / *nată||*wētaz / *nataz|
|each||eye||ee||ei / iee||oog n.||oug||Auge n.||oog||ēage n. < pre-English *ǣoga||ouga n.||*auga n.||*augō n.|
|dream||dream||dream||dreem||droom m.||draum||Traum m.||droom||drēam m. "joy, pleasure, ecstasy, music, song"||troum m.||*draumă m.||*draumaz (< *draugmaz) m.|
|stien||stone||stane||sthoan||steen m.||stein||Stein m.||steen||stān m.||stein m.||*staină m.||*stainaz m.|
|bed||bed||bed||bed||bed n.||bed||Bett n.||bed||bedd n.||betti n.||*baddjă n.||*badją n.|
Other words, with a variety of origins:
|West Frisian||English||Scots||Dutch||Limburgish||German||Afrikaans||Old English||Old High German||Proto-West-Germanic||Proto-Germanic|
ros n. (dated)
|Pferd n. / Ross n.||perd||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.
- Original meaning "relative" has become "brother or sister" in English.
- Hawkins, John A. (1987). "Germanic languages". In Bernard Comrie (ed.). The World's Major Languages. Oxford University Press. pp. 68–76. ISBN 0-19-520521-9.
- Euler (2013): p.21, Seebold (1998): p.13
- Euler (2013): p.219, 224
- Euler (2013): p.224
- Robinson, Orrin W. (1992). Old English and Its Closest Relatives. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2221-8.
- Euler (2013): p. 53, Ringe / Tayler (2014): p. 104
- Stiles (1985): p. 91-94, with references.
- Ringe/Taylor (2014): p. 73, 104
- P. Stiles (2013): p. 15
- Euler (2013): p. 61
- Crist, Sean: An Analysis of *z loss in West Germanic. Linguistic Society of America, Annual Meeting, 2002
- Euler (2013): p. 53
- Ringe/Taylor (2014): p. 43
- Euler (2013): p.53
- Ringe/Taylor (2014): p. 50-54
- Euler (2013): p.54
- Ringe/Taylor (2014): 104.
- Stiles (2013): p. 24ff, Euler (2013): p. 49
- Euler (2013): p.230
- Euler (2013): p. 61, 133, 171, 174
- Euler (2013): p. 67, 70, 74, 76, 97, 113 etc.
- Euler (2013): p. 168-178
- Euler (2013): p. 170-173
- Meid, Wolfgang (1971). "Das germanische Präteritum", Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft, p. 13; Euler, Wolfram/Badenheuer, Konrad (2009), "Sprache und Herkunft der Germanen", pp. 168–171, London/Berlin: Inspiration Un Ltd.
- Euler (2013): p. 138-141
- Euler (2013): p. 179-193
- Euler (2013): p. 194-200
- Ringe/Taylor (2014): p. 126-138
- Robinson (1992): p. 17-18
- Don Ringe (2012): Cladistic Methodology and West Germanic - Yale Linguistics, p. 6
- Kuhn, Hans (1955–56). "Zur Gliederung der germanischen Sprachen". Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur. 86: 1–47.
- However, see Cercignani, Fausto, Indo-European ē in Germanic, in «Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung», 86/1, 1972, pp. 104–110.
- Ringe, Don. 2006: A Linguistic History of English. Volume I. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, Oxford University Press, p. 213-214.
- H. F. Nielsen (1981, 2001), G. Klingenschmitt (2002) and K.-H. Mottausch (1998, 2011)
- 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.
- Ringe, Donald R. and Taylor, Ann (2014). The Development of Old English – A Linguistic History of English, vol. II, 632p. ISBN 978-0199207848. Oxford.
- Euler (2013): p. 20-34, 229, 231
- 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.
- Map based on: Meineke, Eckhard & Schwerdt, Judith, Einführung in das Althochdeutsche, Paderborn/Zürich 2001, pp. 209.
- W. Heeringa: Measuring Dialect Pronunciation Differences using Levenshtein Distance. University of Groningen, 2009, pp. 232–234.
- Peter Wiesinger: Die Einteilung der deutschen Dialekte. In: Werner Besch, Ulrich Knoop, Wolfgang Putschke, Herbert Ernst Wiegand (Hrsg.): Dialektologie. Ein Handbuch zur deutschen und allgemeinen Dialektforschung, 2. Halbband. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1983, ISBN 3-11-009571-8, pp. 807–900.
- Werner König: dtv-Atlas Deutsche Sprache. 19. Auflage. dtv, München 2019, ISBN 978-3-423-03025-0, pp. 230.
- C. Giesbers: Dialecten op de grens van twee talen. Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, 2008, pp. 233.
- Ringe and Taylor. The Development of Old English. Oxford University Press. pp. 114–115.
- sources: Ringe, Don / Taylor, Ann (2014) and Euler, Wolfram (2013), passim.
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- Euler, Wolfram (2013) Das Westgermanische – von der Herausbildung im 3. bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert – Analyse und Rekonstruktion (West Germanic: from its Emergence in the 3rd up until its Dissolution in the 7th Century CE: Analyses and Reconstruction). 244 p., in German with English summary, Verlag Inspiration Un Limited, London/Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-9812110-7-8.
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