The Germanic language family - Part 1

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

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