The Germanic language family - Part 2

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Germanic language family - Part 1

Now it is the Germanic language characteristic more than any other group to fix the stress as near to the beginning of the word as possible. Inevitably, as we may hear every day from ordinary speech, the syllables at the end of a word in such a language which puts a strong stress at the beginning of the word, will tend to be first blurred in utterance and finally even lost completely. It is this fixing of the stress near the beginning of a word in the Germanic languages that is the primary cause of the reduction and loss of inflexions which has been so marked a characteristic of English.

It is, as has been said, a Common Germanic tendency: but its effects in inflexional reduction have been varied in speed among the different Germanic languages, though clearly perceptible in all. It is a mistake, as some have done, to think of this simplifying of inflexions, which is so marked a quality in English, as necessarily anything to do with progress. These are advantages in a fully inflected 1 like some of the Slavonic group, which English cannot have, such as avoidance of ambiguity, for instance.

This loss of inflexions, then, is mainly just the natural result, which follows from the Germanic fixation of the primary stress, the syllables farthest away from this stress tending to become weak and later to cease to be heard.

Indo-European had an elaborate system of verb conjugation, in which the multitude of forms, that in historic times came mainly to indicate the time or tense of the action, showed rather the way the action was thought of or looked at by the speaker, or its 'aspect', as the grammarians have called it. But the outstanding feature of the Germanic verb is that it has properly only two tenses, a present and a past, which are indicated by the primary forms of the verb, the other tenses being shown by means of auxiliary verbs and compound tenses, etc.

Now this extreme simplification of the verb in Germanic has fundamentally affected the character of the languages concerned, resulting not only in a multiplying of compound tenses, but also in a great increase of flexibility of expression, greater subtly and, at times, in greater opportunities for looseness in the language.

A third characteristic in Germanic is its peculiar development of the two main classes of its verbs into the so-called strong and weak kinds. STRONG verbs (the term was first used by Jacob Grimm of the FAIRY TALES who made the first scientific comparative German grammar from 1822) are those, which indicate their tense by change of vowel according to regular series, as in the modern forms DRIVE, DROVE, DRIVEN. Such series of vowel variation in relation to change of meaning were called by Grimm ABLAUT SERIES and are known in English as vowel-gradations: we see such a gradation in FIDUS, FOEDUS, FIDES.

But the distinctive feature of Germanic is that it uses such gradations to show regularly change of tense in the verb, whereas in other languages this is only a less frequent device. But this method of showing tense by change of vowel in a series was originally only used in primary verbs, i.e. in those, which denoted simple actions and were not merely derived from the forms of other words. Verbs, which denote actions, derived from other words (such as to love from the noun love) Grimm called weak because they are secondary or derivative and because they do not change their root-vowel in conjugation.

Weak verbs, then, are those which are secondary or derived, which show their tense not by gradation of vowel, but merely by adding something (a suffix ending in -d or -t) to their end (such as love-loved).

The Germanic language family - Part 1

Probably in the millennium preceding the Christian era there grew up in the Northern Europe a type of Indo-European from which descended all those languages, which we call Germanic. Its forms can only be reconstructed on probabilities by working back from known languages, and it is merely for convenience that it is usually referred to as 'Primitive Germanic'. A better term might be 'Common Germanic', since we do not know for certain that it was ever a 1 in the full sense of the term, but only that there were a number of prehistoric forms to which the known Germanic languages can be traced back.

In ancient times the territory of Germanic languages was much more limited. Thus, in the first century A.D. Germanic languages were only spoken in Germany and in territories adjacent to it, and also in Scandinavia.

Germanic languages are classified into three groups: l. East Germanic; 2.North Germanic; 3.West Germanic East Germanic languages have been dead for many centuries. Of the old East Germanic languages only one is well known, viz., Gothic: a vast written document has come down to us in this language, namely, a translation of the Bible made in the 4th century A.D. by the Gothic bishop Ulfilas from the Greek.All North Germanic and West Germanic languages have survived until our own times.

Primitive Germanic, as we may deduce from its historical and known derivatives, had certain characteristics which distinguish it and all its developments from other Indo-European groups. They are, first, a strong tendency to fix the stress of a word on its root syllable or as near to its beginning as possible: and secondly the building up of a 'two-tense' system in the verb.
During the centuries immediately before Christ, the Common Germanic collection of forms used among tribes of Northern Europe developed within itself separatist tendencies; and with the progress of the migrations of its users into Western and Central Europe, there arose those historical languages from one section of which English is descended. A so-called Eastern group of Germanic languages has only left written monuments in the Gothic translations of the Bible made near the end of the 4th century A.D.

But a Northern group has given us the Scandinavian tongues with monuments from almost all periods since the 4th c: and a Western group, to which English belongs, has given us the languages of Germany, Holland, Friesland, Flemish Belgium and England, with historical records which in England, where early monuments are fullest, go back to the 7th c. A.D.

All of these languages and their dialects show the Common Germanic characteristics of which the most significant two, namely the system of fixed stress and the two-tense verb, have already been mentioned. Let us glance for a moment at these and their effects. Stress plays a great part in languages, and its relative importance varies from one group of tongues to another.

In Indo-European stress was free, that is it could be on different parts of the same word according to context and meaning. This free stress has been preserved in some conservative languages such as Russian, for instance, where we have [dom]=house as against [doma]=houses and [pis'mo]=letter, but [pis'ma]=letters.

The Germanic language family - Part 2