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).