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Classification of Germanic Languages

It has long been common for linguists to speak in terms of a fundamental three-way division of the Germanic speech community into an East Germanic part, a North Germanicpart and a West Germanicpart, which includes Old English.

Table 1.1

Germanic Languages


  East Germanic North Germanic West Germanic
Old Germanic languages Gothic Old Norse (Old Scandinavian) Anglian, Frisian, Jutish, Saxon, Franconian, High German
(now extinct) Burgundian Old Icelandic (Alemanic, Thüringian,
  Swabian, Bavarian)
    Old Norwegian Old English
    Old Danish Old Saxon
    Old Swedish Old High German
      Old Dutch
Modern Germanic No living languages Icelandic Norwegian English German
languages   Danish Netherlandish
    Swedish Afrikaans
    Faroese Yiddish



The principal East Germanic language is Gothic. At the beginning of our era the Goths lived on a territory from the Vistula to the shores of the Black Sea. For some time the Goths played a prominent part in European history, making extensive conquests in Italy and Spain. In that area, however, their language was soon replaced by Latin, and even elsewhere it did not live for long.

North Germanicis found in Scandinavia and Denmark. Runic inscriptions from the 3rd century preserve the earliest traces of the language. In its earlier form the common Scandinavian language is spoken of as Old Norse. The Scandinavian languages fall into two groups: the eastern group including Swedish and Danish, and the western group including Norwegian and Icelandic.

West Germanicis the group of languages to which English belongs. In early times we distinguish Old Saxon, Old Low Franconian, Old Frisian, and Old English. The last two are closely related and constitute a special Anglo-Frisian subgroup. Old Saxon has become an essential constituent of modern Low German or Plattdeutsch; Old Low Franconian, with some mixture of Frisian and Saxon elements, is the basis of modern Dutch in Holland and Flemish in northern Belgium; and Frisian survives in the Dutch province of Friesland, in a small part of Schleswig, in the islands along the coast, etc.

Germanic tribes spoke a range of dialects and interacted with speakers of other varieties of their own language, as well as with people speaking quite different languages, namely the Celtic languages of the native British population, and the form of Latin which many of those people seem to have used under the recently ended Roman governance of Britain.


Germanic Alphabets

Germanic tribes used three different alphabets for their writings.

1. The most ancient alphabet was Runic, in which each separate letter was called a Rune. Written records in runes can be found in Germany, England and especially in Scandinavia. Runes were not written but carved or cut on wood, metal, stones, so they were not round but angular. Their angular shape is due to the material those inscriptions were made on – wood, stone, bone – and the technique of “writing”, as the letters were not written but carved on those hard materials. The word “rune” meant “mystery”, and those letters were originally considered to be magic signs known to very few people, mainly monks, and not understood by the vast majority of the illiterate population.

The Runic alphabet was used by different Germanic tribes: Goths, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. Eventually the Runic alphabet underwent changes with different Germanic tribes: new letters were added, some of the original ones were dropped.

2. The Gothic alphabet is believed to have been invented by the Gothic bishop Ulfila, so it is often referred to as the Ulfilian alphabet. It was based chiefly on the Greek alphabet, with a number of Latin and Runic letters added, and was only used by the Goths. That alphabet was used in the translation of the Bible made by Ulfila for the Goths who lived in the lower reaches of the Danube.

3. The latest alphabet to be used by Germanic tribes is the Latin alphabet. It superseded both the Runic and the Gothic alphabets when a new technique of writing was introduced, namely that of spreading some colour or paint on a surface instead of cutting or engraving the letters. Introduction of the Latin alphabet accompanied the spread of Christianity.

The Latin alphabet was not suitable to represent all sounds of Germanic languages, so it had to be adapted to the peculiar needs of the languages. The Latin alphabet could not denote, for example, the sounds [w], [θ] in Old English. For that purpose some runes were preserved — w, þ, h, or some Latin letters were slightly altered, e.g. ð to denote the sounds [θ], [ð] together with the rune þ.


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