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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

The Germanic language family has three branches, of which two are of great importance in the history of English. Their relationship may be shown by the phrase Common Germanic, used by etymologists to give a source to words which can be found in many of the different Germanic languages. Old Germanic is a largely reconstructed ancestral form. Older writers on German often label this group Teutonic, from the name of one tribe within the German people, the Teutones or Teutons.

  • West Germanic is the family to which English actually belongs. Other members include German, Dutch and Frisian - as well as derivatives such as Afrikaans and Flemish. Note that two versions of German are recognized: High German (Hochdeutsch), here taken to mean 'the standard form of the language', 'the written German taught in schools', 'the most widely used and understood form of the language in broadcasting, politics, etc.'; and Low German, sometimes called by the German equivalent Plattdeutsch, which is "The collective term for those dialects of Germany which are not High German" (OED 2006).
    • Students of German and linguistics should be aware that another distinction between High and Low German is that the former is essentially the dialect (or family of dialects) spoken in the highlands of southern Germany, while the latter, which is a descendant of Old Saxon, contains the dialects spoken in the low lands of North Germany. The division is conveniently thought of as the Benrath line, which runs from Benrath (part of Düsseldorf) and Aachen to eastern Germany near Frankfurt an der Oder, in the area of Berlin, and Dessau. Low German can be thought of as including such languages as Dutch, Frisian, and English
  • North Germanic is the family of Scandinavian languages: Danish, Norse and Swedish, as well as derivatives like Icelandic and Faroese. In particular, Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, left its mark on the development of Old English, and can still be traced in the northern dialects of British English.
    • All East Germanic languages are now extinct. The best-known was Gothic, the language of some of the tribes of raiders from central Europe that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire: the Ostrogoths, who under Theodoric the Great (454 - 526) ruled Italy as well as large parts of the eastern Adriatic; and the Visigoths who, rather earlier, sacked Rome in 410 CE. Some fragments of a form of Gothic spoken in the Crimea were recorded as late as the 16th century. Other early forms of Germanic are also associated with the invaders of the Roman Empire, such as the Burgundians and Vandals.