5. English as a Germanic Language & Structural Innovations

1. Important concepts and terms to explain

Genetic origin: languages of the same genetic origin have a common ancestor from which they developed

Proto-language: common ancestor of languages, parent language (e.g. PIE, PG etc.)

Proto-Indo-European: common ancestor of all IE languages

Language family (“tree of languages”): a matter of decent, there is a parent (mother language) from which other languages (sister languages) developed (e.g. English, German, Icelandic (=sisters) developed from PG (=mother).

Mother and sister languages: above

Migration period: dispersal of the original linguistic community (which started early on and took a long time), PIE around 3000BC, Germanic around 250BC expanding in all directions (possibly because of overpopulation or poor agricultural technique and natural resources

Ingvaeones (=North Sea Germanic) – Istvaeones (=Central, the Rhine basin) – Irminones (associated with High German) = tribal groups of western Germanic people

Northwest Germanic: 1st - 3rd century AD – different dialects of PG → dialects, division between East Germanic and Northwest Germanic (NW – fragmented in 3rd-6th century AD)

Runes: textual evidence – runic inscriptions (from 3rd century AD), short, fragmentary. Letters in a runic alphabet were used by Germanic languages before the adaptation of Latin alphabet

Viking Age: 800-1050 AD, migrations, sea voyages, raids, overseas expansions, attacks on English coastal towns and they occupied large part of England → the “Danes”, but they were not successful in establishing their language on these newly conquered territories (only in Iceland and the Faroes)

2. In what ways do we define English as a Germanic language? Explain.

English is defined as a Germanic language based on historical grounds of being the product of unbroken transmission from a remote, unattested ancestor called Proto Germanic (PG).

3. Provide a rough chronology of the rise of English from its Indo-European background through the Germanic stage.

Proto-Indo-European (dividing into different branches by 3000BC at the latest, Germanic splitting from related languages around 1000BC) → Proto-Germanic (around 250BC→ linguistic community expanding in all directions) → North-west Germanic (NW is fragmented in 3rd-6th cent. AD) → West North-Sea Germanic (Ingvaeones) → Old English

4. Explain the principal geographical movements of the speakers of “Common Germanic” on their way towards becoming speakers of individual Germanic dialects and, later, languages.

Germanic = northwestern IE group (it shares a number of major affinities with the Slavic, Baltic, Celtic and Italic branches). Germanic as a unified language probably split from related Indo‐European languages sometime between the years 1500 and 1000 B.C.

Archaeological evidence suggests that about 750 BC a relatively uniform Germanic people was located in southern Scandinavia and along the North Sea and Baltic coasts from what is now The Netherlands to the Vistula River.

250 BC linguistic community expanding in all directions, they had spread south and five general groups are distinguishable:

– North Germanic in southern Scandinavia, excluding Jutland;

– North Sea Germanic, along the North Sea and in Jutland;

– Rhine Weser Germanic, along the middle Rhine and Weser;

– Elbe Germanic, along the middle Elbe;

– and East Germanic, between the middle Oder and the Vistula rivers.

as a result of these expansions, differences of dialect within Proto Germanic became more marked:

– 1st 3rd century A.D.: the first major division into East Germanic and Northwest Germanic

– 3rd 6th century A.D.: fragmentation of Northwest Germanic

5. Be prepared to classify Germanic languages, extant and living, into their genetic subbranches, along with their specific locations and most important historical and cultural dates/events.

East Germanic

The East Germanic subgroup was formed by the tribes that returned from Scandinavia back to the mainland. Their languages are now all extinct. The chief representatives are Gothic, Burgundian, Vandal, Langobardian or Lombardian, Rugian, Gepidic.

Gothic = only recorded representative of the East Germanic family and it offers the oldest consistent textual record of Germanic

North West Germanic

→ North Germanic

This branch of languages was formed by the Germanic speakers who stayed in Scandinavia after the departure of the Goths. 4th to 9th cent. - “Old Norse”, written evidence – runic inscriptions

Viking Age – 800-1050 – sea voyages, raids, overseas expansions, attacks on English coastal towns and occupied large part of England → the “Danes”, but they were not successful in establishing their language on these newly conquered territories (only in Iceland and the Faroes)

a) East Norse (→ Danish, Swedish)

b) West Norse (→ Norwegian, Faroese (developed from West Norwegian dialects brought to the Faroe Islands by settlers) Icelandic)

→ West Germanic

a) Ingvaeones (´North Sea Germanic´)

Old Saxon → Middle Low German → Low German

Anglo-Frisian → English, Frisian

b) Istvaeones (central, the Rhine basin), - Franconian → Dutch (→ Afrikaans), Flemish

c) Erminones (mainly associated with High German)

Old High German → Middle High German → German

Old Yiddish → Yiddish

6. Describe briefly what principal kinds of evidence do we have to base our ideas of the history of the early Germanic languages upon?

Archaeological evidence

Textual evidence

a) runic inscriptions (from 3rd century AD), short, fragmentary. Letters in a runic alphabet were used by Germanic languages before the adaptation of Latin alphabet. Many of these inscriptions are in Northwest Germanic

b) writings of classical authors (Ceasar) BUT German words and other elements are scattered over Greek and Latin writings so they don't represent a balanced set of data and are difficult to interpret. The authors described the “group” (Old Irish gair = neighbour)

7. Why is Tacitus particularly important as one of these sources of evidence?

Tacitus = Roman historian recognizes the “Germani” as a threat to Rome (and when he wrote it, they were pressing on the borders of the Roman Empire).

According to Tacitus, the western Germanic peoples were divided into three major tribal groups,

Ingvaeones (´North Sea Germanic´),

Istvaeones (central, the Rhine basin),

and Erminones (mainly associated with High German).

It is not clear just what these names correspond to ethnic, cultural or linguistic groupings, or a bit of all three

8. Which of the linguistic contacts the early Germanic peoples developed do you find most important? Why?

close linguistic contact in the early days (warfare, trade, diplomacy, etc.) with:

– Baltic speaking peoples

– Celtic speaking peoples

– Slavonic speaking peoples

– Finns → borrowings into Finnish (Uralic language family = non indo-european), Finnish changed phonetically little since that time (modern Finnish “rengas” possibly closed to the early germanic word from which it was borrowed) → important for reconstruction

– Latin

9. Why are – of all the attested Germanic languages – Gothic and Frisian particularly important for the study of HEL?

Gothic → it offers the oldest consistent textual record of Germanic, it is also the only recorded representative of the East Germanic family

Frisian → Old Frisian was very close to Old English, we can presuppose a prehistoric Anglo-Frisian linguistic relation or common dialect (it is likely that before the migration to England the ancestors of the English must have been close neighbors of the Frisians)


1. Explain the concept “(structural) innovation”

All languages from a family (e.g. Germanic in Indo-European family) have a common ancestor. A new language is created when there is a split from a language family. This split is only possible because of innovations = development of new structural features. Because of that, there are languages with different structure but with the same origin (e.g. English and Icelandic).

2. Describe briefly each of the principal Germanic innovations in phonology, morphology and lexis.

a) Phonology

1. restructuring of the accent system: change in the nature (acoustic loudness) and placing of stress (no longer free)

2. a nearly complete transformation of the plosive system

→ a. Grimm’s Law (1st Germanic Consonant Shift)

→ b. Verner’s Law

3.a number of individual sound developments (major vowel mergers,etc.)

b) Morphology

1. simplification of the inflectional system (linked to the weakening of inflectional endings)

2. introduction of the weak declension of the adjective

3. re organization of the verb system on a new basis

→ a. introduction of weak verbs

→ b. two tense system ‐ (present and preterite)

c) Lexis

distinctive vocabulary, historical components:

1. direct inheritances from PIE (by far the largest component: e.g. foot – eye – mother – two – sit – bind – full – new)

2. borrowings from other (non Gmc) IE dialects (lead, iron, street, tile, pound);

3. Items of unknown etymology, with no clear cognates in IE outside of the Germanic, and not relatable to forms in other language groups that PG was in contact with (e.g. Balto Finnic) – these ‐ ‐ may be loans from extinct and unattested languages, or PG inventions (sail, sea, drink, boat, finger)

4. new coinages of early date, before the E/NWGmc split, based on inherited IE materials (window, middle-earth).

3. Explain the following concepts: stress/accent; ablaut; strong/weak adjectives; strong/weak verbs.

Stress/accent: accent on a syllable which depends either on stress (acoustic loudness) or/and on intonation (musical pitch). The transition from PIE to PG = from predominant musical accent to the predominant stress accent; from free accent to more fixed one

Ablaut: vowel gradation, change of the vowel sound in the root which leads to a change of meaning, it is employed in morphology and in word formation. PDE examples: bear / born / burden. Ablaut was probably closely related with stress.

Strong/weak adjectives: there are just few distinct endings, there is a grammatical need of the adjective to co-occur with a determiner (e.g. demonstrative/possessive pronoun)

Strong/weak verbs: PG had inherited a whole series of verbs which showed change of tense by changing the vowel of the stem: the strong ones based on ablaut. (czech: beru, sbírat, bral)... BUT, PG started a new development → the invention of weak verbs based on the addition of the agglutinating dental/alveolar suffix. Weak verbs – already in the times of OE are seen as a majority. (the latter development may be a response to the decline of productivity of the strong conjugation, introflextional strategies and ablaut.)