One of the daughter languages of Proto Indo European (PIE) is the Germanic language. There are currently 53 descendants of the Germanic language, with English and German being the most frequently spoken. Approximately 310-375 million people currently speak English, and over 100 million speak German. Scholars normally divide the Germanic languages into three groups: Eastern Germanic, Western Germanic and Northern Germanic. Refer to the chart below for further information on the lineage of the Germanic language.


The great German tribal migration of the 4th century A.D. describes a time when the ancient tribes of the North Sea (around 800 - 700 B.C.), spread out toward the south over a period of 500 years. Due to increased population over a period of a few centuries, the tribes continued migrating further, developing their own dialects and changing pronunciation and spellings in the process. All of these linguistic variations are termed the Germanic Languages.

Evidence of this migration is largely philologic in nature. There are faint references to the Germanic tribes of 200 B.C. within the writings of Greek and Roman historians. In particular, the Roman historian Tacitus noted in his work Germania in 98 A.D. that Germanic tribes had split and migrated due to cultural differences. (Old English and its Closest Relatives by Orrin W. Robinson). Furthermore, it is believed that certain Runic inscriptions found scratched on metal, bone, wood and stone were made directly by these tribes. In 1925, Norwegian linguist Carl Marstrander deciphered an inscription found on an ancient helmet to be pre-Roman writing, "Germanic in language," inferring that the Germanic people lived there (in the Alpine region) around the 3rd century B.C. (The Science of the Swastika by Bernard Mees).

Eastern Germanic Languages

  • Burgundian
  • Gothic
  • Vandalic

The only East Germanic language of which texts are known is Gothic; other languages that are assumed to be East Germanic include Vandalic, Burgundian, and Crimean Gothic. Crimean Gothic is believed to have survived until the 18th century and was spoken in the area of the world now known as the Ukraine.

Gothic conquests where Gothic conquerors would have carried their language with them; however, it is unlikely that the natives learned more than what was needed to communicate with their rulers and that their native language survived.

Western Germanic Languages

  • Ingvaeonic (includes Old, Middle, and New English, Frisian, and Low German)
  • High German (includes Alemannic, Bavarian, Franconian, and Yiddish)

High German is not a single language. It is a group of languages including standard German and Germanic languages spoken in Germany, Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland, Poland & Northern Italy. "High" refers to the higher altitudes of southern Germany rather than the lowlands of northern Germany.

Northern Germanic Languages

  • Northeastern: Swedish, Danish, and Gutnish
  • Northwestern: Faroese, Icelandic, Norn, and Norwegian

Also known as the Nordic languages or the Scandinavian languages, speakers of the North Germanic branch became distinguishable from other Germanic speakers sometime about 200 AD.

Swedish is an East Scandinavian language of the Northeastern Germanic branch of Indo-European languages.

Faroese is a west Sandinavian language and descended from Old Norse.

Germanic Languages Descriptions

  • Derived from 17th century Dutch
  • One of 11 official languages of South Africa
  • Approximately 6 million native speakers

  • Language of people who settled in Southeastern France, Western Switzerland, and Northwestern Italy in the 5th century
  • Extinct language

  • Descendent of Middle Dutch
  • The same language that is referred to as Dutch in the Netherlands and Flemish in Belgium
  • One of two official languages of the Netherlands
  • One of three official languages of Belgium
  • Approximately 23 million people currently speak Dutch

East Germanic
  • Spoken by those who moved to the Danube and Black Sea areas in the 2nd through 4th centuries
  • All East Germanic languages are extinct

East Norse
  • Eastern branch of North Germanic languages spoken in Denmark and Sweden
  • Derived from North Germanic

  • Contemporary language used in Faroe Islands
  • Descendant of West Norse

  • Extinct language
  • Formerly spoken in Northern Gaul and Low Countries

  • Spoken in Netherlands and Germany
  • One of two official languages of the Netherlands
  • Very closely related to English as compared to the rest of the Germanic languages
  • 1300-1575: referred to as Old Frisian
  • 1600-1800: referred to as Middle Frisian
  • Currently referred to as Modern Frisian
  • Modern Frisian has approximately six dialects

For Further Information:
Germanic Language Tree & Descriptions
Encyclopedia of Hinduism: Germanic Language

Major Differences Between Germanic & Indo-European

There were 7 major changes from Indo-European to Germanic:

  1. There were a large number of words in Germanic without known Indo-European cognates. It is speculated that perhaps these words were "lost" (no longer used) in Indo-European, or perhaps these words were borrowed from non-Indo-European languages originally spoken in the area. Certainly, either of these two theories would make it impossible to trace cognates. [The following are some words considered to be Germanic, with no Indo-European root (written in Modern English): broad, drink, drive, fowl, hold, meat, rain, wife.]
  2. There were only two verb tenses (present & past). Indo-European had a more complex system of expressing verb tenses that was simplified in the Germanic language. Of course, other tenses exist in Germanic languages, for example in Modern English there is not only present and past, but also future, present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect. Though this is not considered a complicated system, the verbs themselves do not necessarily change when forming each of those tenses; we add helping verbs and form verbal phrases.
  3. There was a change in how the past tense was formed. "Strong" verbs formed their past tense with vowel gradation, e.g. sing became sang. "Weak" verbs formed their past tense by adding a dental suffix (-d or -t). Verbs that were referred to as "strong" were so because they could easily be formed with a gradual internal vowel change; nothing had to be added. Whereas "weak" verbs could not be formed as easily, and so a suffix had to be added, e.g. -d or -t.
  4. There were weak and strong declensions of adjectives. A weak declension occurs when an adjective modified a definite noun and came after what was later known as an article (e.g. the, an, a). The strong declension was used when the adjective modifying a definite noun did not come after an "article." It is difficult to describe with examples because there are none in Modern English. Beyond Old English, over the course of its development, English lost such declensions. It is, however, still present in Modern German.
  5. There was a regular stress of the first syllable. In Indo-European, the stressed syllable changed/shifted from one syllable to another depending on the form of the word. However, in Germanic, the stress regularly occurred on the first syllable. There were some exceptions, for example when the first syllable in the word was a prefix.
  6. There were modifications to Indo-European vowels. The Indo-European o was changed to a in Germanic.
  7. Grimm's Law: First Sound Shift - Indo-European stops gradually became new sounds. (See below for the specific stops and their corresponding new sounds.)

Grimm's Law

Grimm's Law deals with the phonetic change of words, under the principle that sound change is a regular phenomena. p, t,kf, th,h;b, d,gp, t,k;bh, dh,ghb, d,g. "Linguists tried hard to formulate general procedures to explain how the formation and the phonetic character of a word changes in different languages, and in this connection Grimm's & Verner's laws came into light" (Encyclopedia of Authentic Hinduism.Org). Jacob Grimm (1785 - 1863) found that there was a set order to the sound change of vowels and consonants from Proto Indo-European (PIE) to Proto-Germanic (PrGmc).

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3 main classes of consonants:
  • Hard (p, t, k)
  • Soft (b, d, g)
  • Aspirate (ph, th, kh, or bh, dh, gh)

3 principle systems of Germanic language:
  • Classical (Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Zend)
  • Low German (Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Anglo-Saxon)
  • High German

Grimm's Law requires that "a given mute in any one [system] shall be represented in each of the others by a different mute of the same family" (Information courtesy of Grimm's Law, by Thomas Le Marchant Douse).
Example (where H stands for Hard consonants, S stands for Soft consonants and A stands for Aspirates):
Classical H equals Low German A equals High German S
Classical A equals Low German S equals High German H
Classical S equals Low German H equals High German A

or, another view

If Classical system is HAS or ASH or SHA, then
corresponding L.G. is ASH or SHA or HAS, and
corresponding H.G. is SHA or HAS or ASH

p, t, k
b, d, g
bh, dh, gh

f, q, x
p, t, k
b, d, g

Other consonant shifts were applied to other PIE languages such as Latin and Greek

f, q, x
p, t, k
b, d, g

p, t, c
b, d, g
f (or b), f (or b, or d), h

p, t, k
b, d, g
f, , x

Because English has Germanic roots, we are able to apply Grimm’s law to many English words. For example, the foot can be described in the following way; it is related to a "Latin" word like ‘pedal’ (where the ‘-al’ is a familiar Latinate suffix) through Grimm’s law. We can then further compare the morphemes (related in meaning), but not in form.
1. The root can be separated from its suffix
The Morphemes:
Foot ped-al
2. Both consonants correspond to these meanings

f-p (foot-pedal; fire-pyromania; five-pentagon)

f (foot, fire)

Latin Root
p (pedal)

Here we are able to see the changes explained by Grimm’s law via the study of the English word 'foot.' It is also important to note that many pairs (and possibly even triplets) of words in Contemporary English can be traced back to the same Indo-European roots through differing lines of descent.
Below is a chart showing this occurrence:


rub-ric, rub-y

Problem with Grimm's Law:

According to Grimm's law, the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) voiceless stops p, t, and k should have changed into the Germanic f, þ, and h. However, there were a number of words where the change really became b, d, and g. This caused a huge problem for linguists, who strived for laws or rules without exceptions.

Given Grimm's Law, the Sanskrit, Greek and Latin p should have changed into the Germanic (Gothic and English) f
Instead, we have the Gothic b and English v

Given Grimm's Law, the Germanic d should have come from the Sanskrit dh and Greek th
Instead, the d comes from t

(Example from Historical Linguistics, by Lyle Campbell

Verner's Law

Danish linguist Karl Verner sought to account for this irregularity in Grimm's Law by focusing on accents and stress. Verner found that Grimm's law was valid whenever the accent fell on the root syllable; if the accent fell on any other syllable, the Germanic equivalents became b, d, and g.

According to the above two principles, we can look at examples, "seven" and "father," and see that in the Sanskrit and Greek words (saptá, heptá and pitár, patẽ'r respectively), the accent is not on the initial but on the second syllable.
Because the accent is not on the root syllable of saptá, for example, Verner's law gives the Gothic b (sibun) instead of what Grimm's law would call for, f (sifun)

So, Verner's Law does not exactly validate or invalidate Grimm's Law; rather, it adds another component-- that the location of accents or stress on certain syllables is important in that word's transformation from PIE to PrGmc.

Another example of Grimm's Law vs. Verner's Law, from Daniel Paul O'Donnell, PhD Website

To find the result of Grimm's Law, starting at the lower right corner of a triangle, go one step clockwise. PIE bh becomes PrGmc b; PIE b becomes PrGmc p; PIE p becomes PrGmc f (same result for other two triangles)
To find the result of Verner's Law (when the accent of a word is on any other syllable than the first), go two steps clockwise. PIE p becomes PrGmc b, and so on.

The Oldest Surviving Germanic Text

“The oldest extensive written text we know of in Germanic is a Christian text, the Gothic translation of the New Testament by the missionary Wulfila [Ulfilas].” Wulfila composed this translation in the 3rd Century, and this version of the Bible is comprised of mainly New Testament translation. Scholars call this translation the “Wulfila Bible” and the translation proves especially important because it marks the birth of the Gothic alphabet. Up until this point, the Goths used runes to write; however, seeing the impracticality of this practice, Wulfila invented the Gothic alphabet. This alphabet is inspired by the Greek alphabet, and thus the translation draws heavily from the Greek translation of the Bible. You can find the original text alongside a modern translation, here: Wulfila Project: Gothic Bible

A sample of Gothic text from Wulfila’s Bible, "The Lord's Prayer":
Note: þ is pronounced like the English th in the.

atta unsar þu ïn himina
weihnai namo þein
qimai þiudi nassus þeins
wairþai wilja þeins
swe ïn himina jah ana airþai
hlaif unsarana þana sin teinan gif uns himma daga
jah aflet uns þatei skulans sijai ma

For further reference:
Orbis Latini Encyclopedia: Germanic
Gates of Vienna Blogspot
Wikipedia: Wulfila Bible

Wulfila’s Gothic Alphabet
The table below shows Wulfila’s Gothic alphabet. Most of the letters come directly from the Greek alphabet, but a few letters are innovated to accurately express Gothic phonology.

ahsa / aza
/a, aː/

bairkan / bercna
/b, β/

giba / geuua
/ɡ, ŋ/

dags / daaz
/d, ð/

aiƕus / eyz
/e, eː/

qairþra (qairthra) / qertra


hagl / haal

þ, th
þiuþ (thiuth) / thyth

eis / iiz
/i, iː/

kusma / chozma

lagus / laaz


nauþs (nauths) / noicz


jer / gaar


urus / uraz
/u, uː/

pairþra (pairthra) / pertra


raida / reda

sauil / sugil

teiws / tyz

winja / uuinne
/w, y/

faihu / fe

iggws / enguz

ƕ, hw

ƕair / uuaer

oþal (othal) / utal
/o, oː/



Wulfila created the Gothic alphabet because he felt the Runic alphabet could not properly express the complexity of the ideas in his Biblical translation. Below is a sample of Runic script for comparison. This particular script is Elder Futhark (2nd to 8th c.), the same time period in which Wulfila wrote.

Proto-Germanic name


"wealth, cattle"


"aurochs" (or *ûram "water/slag"?)

/θ/, /ð/

"the god Thor, giant"


"one of the Æsir (gods)"


"ride, journey"


"ulcer"? (or *kenaz "torch"?)






"hail" (the precipitation)






"year, good year, harvest"

ï (or æ)


meaning unclear, perhaps "pear-tree".


unclear, possibly "elk".




"the god Tiwaz"








"water, lake" (or possibly *laukaz "leek")


"the god Ingwaz"


"heritage, estate, possession"


For Further Reference:


In linguistics, rhotacism is a phenomenon relating to the usage of the consonant “r” (whether as an alveolar tap, alveolar trill, or the rarer uvular trill). Some examples of the phenomenon include: In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a sound in spoken language that is characterized by a closure or stricture of the vocal tract sufficient to cause audible turbulence. ... Look up R, r in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... The alveolar tap or flap is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. ... The alveolar trill is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. ... The uvular trill is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. ...
    • the excessive or idiosyncratic use of the r,
    • conversely, the inability or difficulty in pronouncing r.
    • the conversion of another consonant, e.g., s, into r.

In The Cambridge History of the English Language, authors cite regional dialects, especially the noticeable lack of an “r” in northeastern dialects, as modern evidence of rhotacism. While it is uncertain as to how this shift occurred, early linguist Noah Webster initially explained the phenomenon of the dropping of the “r” as indicative of a non-elitist manner of speaking. He wrote, “In New England, where there are few slaves and servants, and less family distinctions than in any part of America, people are accustomed to address with diffidence, or attention to the opinion of others, which marks a state of equality.” The book goes on to explain the shift, citing a more political explanation: “The emergence of the rhotic dialect as more prestigious in the United States is a post-Civil-War phenomenon. Before the Civil War, the wealthiest and most politically powerful regions in America were nonrhotic Boston and Virginia, which were under the strongest influence of the British elite. After the war, wealth and political power passed to New York, Pennsylvania, and the trans-Appalachian Middle West, which had been least under influence of the British elite.” The book goes on to explain that after the emergence of television and radio, the rhotic dialect gained favor over the nonrhotic dialects of Boston and Virginia.
In English Words: History and Structure, scholars offer a phonological explanation of the phenomenon, arguing that rhotacism “occurred regularly in conjunction with specific grammatical changes,” specifically “the present vs. the past tense of one and the same verb” and the “nominative vs. the genitive case of the same noun.” Further, scholars account for the change because of obscured grammatical constructions, as well as a “change to [r] in a vocalic environment” and “prosodic conditions restricting the process [of speech].”
Aside from a linguistics explanation, there is a physiological side to the phenomenon. Rhotacism is also a speech impediment, where a person cannot pronounce, or finds it difficult to pronounce, the “r” sound. Speech pathologists note that this sound is usually the last one a child masters, and in fact, some people never learn to produce it correctly and substitute other sounds, like a velar or uvular approximant.

For further reference:
Bookrags Rhotacism

English Words: History and Structure, by
The Cambridge History of the English Language, by Richard M. Hogg, et al.

Rasmus Rask and Comparative Linguistics

Rasmus Christian Rask (1787-1832), was a linguistic scholar from Denmark who is credited with being the primary founder of comparative linguistics. The online version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica defines comparative linguistics as the "study of the relationships or correspondences between two or more languages and the techniques used to discover whether the languages have a common ancestor"(Encyclopedia Britannica ). Rask's mastery of more than twenty-five languages and dialects and further study of other languages likely played greatly into his comparative approach to linguistics.

One of Rask's greatest contributions to the field of linguistics is in the study of Germanic languages. In 1818, he discovered a regular variation in consonant sounds between Germanic languages and other Indo-European Languages. His findings would later serve as the basis for Grimm's law, posited by Jacob Grimm. In addition for laying the groundwork for Grimm's law, he is credited for identifying relationships between certain languages with their predecessors. For example, he showed that the Celtic languages (including Breton, Welsh, and Irish) are derived from Indo-European.

For further reading:
Encyclopedia Britannica - Rasmus Rask

Generative Linguists

Some linguists, generative linguists, believe the study of language should determine whether the mind's capacity for grammar is innate, learned through experience, or both- and why. The study of Germanic language, then, would become a pursuit not of origin but instead of how individuals understand and adapt along with linguistic evolution.

Miscellaneous Facts of Interest

The Gothic or Black Letter form (called Fraktur in German) of the Roman alphabet, which first appeared in Europe around the 12th century, is now rarely used; however, knowledge of Fraktur is needed in order to read many works printed before 1945. The Roman alphabet is now exclusively used in printing. The following symbols were added: ß, representing a voiceless s (as in the English word mouse), now often replaced with ss; and the umlauted vowels ä, ö, and ü.
German is the only language in which all nouns are capitalized, common as well as proper.
There is a closer relationship between German spelling and pronunciation than there is in English.

The East Germanic languages are considered more difficult to analyze given that most of the languages (Burgundian and Gothic) are extinct.