The Germanic languages form one of the branches of the Indo-European (IE) language family. The largest Germanic languages are English and German, with ca. 340 and 120 million native speakers, respectively. Other Germanic languages have perhaps 50 million speakers.
Other significant languages include a number of Low Germanic languages (including Dutch, Afrikaans) and the Scandinavian languages (principally Danish, Norwegian and Swedish). The SIL Ethnologue lists 53 different Germanic languages and dialects.
Their common ancestor is Common Germanic, probably spoken in the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age Northern Europe. Common Germanic, and all its descendants, is characterised by a number of unique linguistic features, most famously the consonant change known as Grimm's law. Early Germanic dialects enter history with the Germanic peoples who settled in northern Europe along the borders of the Roman Empire from the 2nd century.
Characteristics of some Germanic languages
Germanic languages differ from each other to a greater degree than do some other language families such as the Romance or Slavic languages. Roughly speaking, Germanic languages differ in how conservative or how progressive they are with respect to an overall trend towards analycity. Some, like German, Dutch and Icelandic, have preserved much of the complex inflectional morphology ultimately inherited from the Proto-Indo-European language. Others, like English, Swedish and Afrikaans have moved towards a largely analytic type.
A characteristic of all Germanic languages except English is verb second or V2 word order, which is quite uncommon cross-linguistically. English has largely replaced this structure with an overall SVO structure.
Most Germanic languages have fairly complex vowel systems with a large phoneme inventory.
The Germanic languages in Europe
?? Low Germanic (West Germanic)
?? High Germanic (West Germanic)
?? Insular Anglo-Frisian (West Germanic)
?? Continental Anglo-Frisian (West Germanic)
?? East North Germanic
?? West North Germanic
?? Line diving the North and West Germanic languages.
Our earliest evidence of Germanic is from names, recorded in the 1st century by Tacitus, and in a single instance in the 2nd century BC, on the Negau helmet. From roughly the 2nd century AD, some speakers of early Germanic dialects developed the Elder Futhark. Early runic inscriptons are also largely limited to personal names, and difficult to interpret. The Gothic language was written in the Gothic alphabet developed by Bishop Ulfilas for his translation of the Bible in the 4th century. Later, Christian priests and monks who spoke and read Latin in addition to their native Germanic tongue began writing the Germanic languages with slightly modified Latin letters, but in Scandinavia, runic alphabets remained in common use throughout the Viking Age.
In addition to the standard Latin alphabet, various Germanic languages use a variety of accent marks and extra letters, including umlauts, the ß (Eszett), IJ, Ø, Æ, Å, Ð, ?, and Þ and ?, from runes.
Some unique features of Germanic languages are:
The levelling of the IE tense system into past and present (or common)
The use of a dental suffix (/d/ or /t/) instead of vowel alternation (Indo-European ablaut) to indicate past tense. See: Germanic weak verb.
The presence of two distinct types of verb conjugation: weak (using dental suffix) and strong (using ablaut). English has 161 strong verbs; almost all are of native English origin. See: West Germanic strong verb.
The use of strong and weak adjectives. Modern English adjectives don't change except for comparative and superlative; this was not the case with Old English, where adjectives were inflected differently depending on whether they were preceded by an article or demonstrative, or not.
The consonant shift known as Grimm's Law.
A number of words with etymologies that are difficult to link to other Indo-European families, but variants of which appear in almost all Germanic languages. See Germanic substrate hypothesis.
The shifting of stress onto the root of the stem. Though English has an irregular stress, native words always have a fixed stress regardless of what's added to them. This is arguably the most important change.
All Germanic languages are thought to be descended from a hypothetical Proto-Germanic, united by their having been subjected to the sound shifts of Grimm's law and Verner's law. These took place probably during the Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe from ca. 500 BC, but other common innovations separating Germanic from Proto-Indo European suggest a common history of pre-Proto-Germanic speakers throughout the Nordic Bronze Age.
From the time of their earliest attestation, the Germanic dialects are divided into three groups, West, East and North Germanic. Their exact relation is difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, and they remained mutually intelligible throughout the Migration period, so that some individual dialects are difficult to classify. The 6th century Lombardic language, for instance, may constitute an originally either North or East Germanic dialect that became assimilated to West Germanic as the Lombards settled at the Elbe. The Western group would have formed in the late Jastorf culture, the Eastern group may be derived from the 1st century dialect of Gotland (see Old Gutnish), leaving southern Sweden as the original location of the Northern group . The earliest coherent Germanic text preserved is the 4th century Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas. Early testimonies of West Germanic are in Old High German and Old English from about the 9th century. North Germanic is only attested in scattered runic inscriptions, as Proto-Norse, until it evolves into Old Norse by about 800. Longer runic inscriptions survive from the 8th and 9th centuries (Eggjum stone, Rök stone), longer texts in the Latin alphabet survive from the 12th century (Íslendingabók), and some skaldic poetry held to date back to as early as the 9th century.
By about the 10th century, the dialects had diverged enough to make intercomprehensibility difficult. The linguistic contact of the Viking settlers of the Danelaw with the Anglo-Saxons left traces in the English language, and is suspected to have facilitated the collapse of Old English grammar that resulted in Middle English from the 12th century.
The East Germanic languages were marginalized from the end of the Migration period. The Burgundians, Goths and Vandals became linguistically assimilated to their respective neighbors by about the 7th century, with only Crimean Gothic lingering on until the 18th century.
During the early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Middle English on one hand, and by the High German consonant shift on the continent on the other, resulting in Upper German and Low German, with graded intermediate Central German dialects. By Early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South to Northern Low Saxon and Frisian in the North, and although both extremes are considered German, they are hardly mutually intelligible. The southern dialects have completed the second sound shift, but remained closer to the Middle German vowel system, while the northern dialects remained unaffected by the consonant shift, but simplified the vowel system.
The North Germanic languages, on the other hand, remained more unified, with the larger languages largely retaining mutual intelligibility into modern times.
Note that divisions between subfamilies of Germanic are rarely precisely defined; most form continuous clines, with adjacent dialects being mutually intelligible and more separated ones not.
Mentioned here are only the principal or unusual contemporary dialects; individual articles linked to below contain larger family trees. For example, many Low German dialects are discussed on Low German besides just Northern Low Saxon and Plautdietsch.
West Germanic languages
High Germanic languages
East Central German
West Central German
Pennsylvania German (spoken by the Amish and other groups in southeastern Pennsylvania)
Swabian German, including Stuttgart
Low Alemannic German, including the area of Lake Constance and Basel German
High Alemannic German, including Zürich German and Bernese German
Highest Alemannic German, including the Bernese Oberland dialects and Walliser German
North Bavarian (including Nuremberg)
Middle Bavarian (including Munich and Vienna)
South Bavarian (including Innsbruck, Klagenfurt and Bozen-Bolzano, Italy)
Hutterite German (aka "Tirolean")
Yiddish (with a significant influx of vocabulary from Hebrew and other languages, and traditionally written in the Hebrew alphabet)
Wymysojer (with a significant influence from Low German, Dutch, Polish and Scots)
Low German languages
Afrikaans (with a significant influx of vocabulary from other languages)
Limburgish (considered to be highly developed dialect by most people, including native speakers.)
West Low German
Northern Low Saxon
East Frisian Low Saxon
East Low German
Plautdietsch (Mennonite "Low German")
Insular North Frisian
Mainland North Frisian
English. Huge influx of Latinate vocabulary, mostly via Norman French. See List of dialects of the English language.
Northern Scots, including Doric
Urban Scots (City dialects)
Norwegian Norwegian is geneaologically West Nordic, but heavily influenced by East Nordic.
Jamtlandic Dialect spoken in Sweden
Alternative classification of North Germanic