All In The Language Family: The Germanic Languages (2023)

You might have heard about language families before,and today we’ll be talking about Germanic languages. When we say Germanic languages, we’re referring to all of the languages that were once part of the language ancestor Proto-Germanic. Linguists believe this language was spoken between ca. 500 BCE until around the 5th century CE, when it began to split into different branches (more on these branches in a minute).

So which languages are in this family, and how do they compare to each other today? Let’s have a look.

Which Languages Are Members Of The Germanic Family?

Besides the obvious answer, German, there are at least 47 living Germanic languages around today.Most linguists talk about this language family in terms of three branches: the Northern, Eastern and Western Germanic languages. From these three branches, we can group all the Germanic languages we know today.

The Northern Germanic languages (also known as Scandinavian or Nordic languages) include Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese. This whole branch descended from Old Norse, and still enjoys quite a bit of mutual intelligibility between the languages today.

(Video) Germanic Language Family

The Western Germanic languages include German, English, Dutch, Frisian, Pennsylvania Dutch, Luxembourgish, Yiddish and Afrikaans, along with a variety of disparate languages that often get lumped together as German or Dutch dialects. Unfortunately, all of the Eastern Germanic languages went extinct starting in the 4th century, and the last living language of this branch died in the late 18th century.

How Many People Speak Germanic Languages?

Around 515 million people speak a Germanic language natively, with English accounting for around 360 million speakers. (The next biggest language of the group is German with approximately 76 million native speakers.)

However, if we include the number of second-language speakers, then the number jumps up to around 2 billion speakers (mostly, again, from English).

Did All Germanic Languages Evolve From German?

While quite a few people still believe that all Germanic languages evolved from different German dialects, it would be more accurate to say that they are all linguistic siblings. In this case, German isn’t the parent language, but just another offspring of Proto-Germanic. This is why they seem so similar!

(Video) Germanic languages family tree

So how does this look today? We’ve already spent a whole article delving into the Scandinavian languages, but to what degree can we compare the similarities and differences between the Western Germanic languages? Let’s have a closer look at German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and the other living languages from this branch.

How Similar Are Germanic Languages?

Let’s start by taking a look at two of the biggest members of this branch: German and Dutch. I’ve often noticed that German speakers have this surprised, curious facial expression when they see Dutch words written out. That’s because, for German speakers, many words in Dutch look like incorrectly-spelled German words. For example, the German word finden (to find) is spelled vinden in Dutch. Or the German word Antwort (answer) is spelled antwoord in Dutch. Here are a couple other cognates (along with their English equivalents):


But what about the other Western Germanic languages? As in all language families, the different languages often share common root words. Here are some prominent examples:


Reading Is One Thing, Listening Is Another

On paper, the West Germanic languages can look extremely similar (especially if you’re comparing Dutch and Afrikaans, but we’ll get to that in a minute). However, just because the words look alike, it doesn’t mean they’re mutually intelligible.


For one, German maintains a complicated grammatical case system that most of the others got rid of. Secondly, Western Germanic languages went through several sound shifts over the last two millennia, including a couple of large consonant shifts. You might have noticed one of these prominent shifts in the first table, where the German words Wasser and besser have similar (but slightly different) English and Dutch equivalents of water and beter/better.

Then if we look at the most widely spoken language of the bunch — English — a whole host of other issues come up. A glance at the history of English shows that this language absorbed thousands of words from Old Norse and French. That’s why even our closest linguistic relatives are nearly impossible to understand for an English speaker who doesn’t have another Germanic language in their tool-belt.

So, what about Afrikaans and Dutch? Why are these two languages so similar?

Afrikaans, the Little Daughter of Dutch

Afrikaans can best be considered as “the Dutch daughter” of the Germanic language family, as it evolved from Dutch. In fact, almost 90% of Afrikaans’ vocabulary comes from Dutch. Today it’s spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but it developed during the Dutch colonial period in what is now South Africa.

(Video) Is English Really a Germanic Language?

Eighteenth-century Dutch colonists brought their language with them to South Africa, where it mingled with the local languages. As a result, the structure of the language was significantly regularized and simplified. Now Afrikaans is considered to be a separate language, though clearly descended from Dutch.

Which Germanic Language Should I Learn First?

If you’re reading this article right now, the good news is that you already speak a Germanic language: English! Being an English speaker will give you a solid foundation for learning other languages in this family.

Now if you’re keen on taking on a few others, where you start depends on your goals. If you want to speak to the greatest number of people, then you should learn German to start your journey. However, if the idea of tackling one of the most difficult languages to learn makes you worried, try starting with Dutch or Norwegian. They’re two of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, and they’ll give you a great base for picking up additional Germanic languages in the future.


How many languages are in the Germanic language family? ›

How many languages are Germanic language? Aside from German, there are about 47 living Germanic languages spoken today. Divided into three main branches, West-, North-Germanic and East-Germanic (extinct).

What are the 2 main Germanic languages? ›

All Germanic languages are derived from Proto-Germanic, spoken in Iron Age Scandinavia. The West Germanic languages include the three most widely spoken Germanic languages: English with around 360–400 million native speakers; German, with over 100 million native speakers; and Dutch, with 24 million native speakers.

What languages comprise the Germanic group of languages? ›

The Western Germanic languages include German, English, Dutch, Frisian, Pennsylvania Dutch, Luxembourgish, Yiddish and Afrikaans, along with a variety of disparate languages that often get lumped together as German or Dutch dialects.

Did all the Germanic languages descend from the German language? ›

The Germanic Languages

The proto-Germanic language evolved into North, West, and East-Germanic. The German language that we know today (high German) developed from the West-Germanic languages like the English language did. As a result, German vocabulary is sometimes similar to English vocabulary.

WHAT ARE 4 Germanic languages? ›

Scholars often divide the Germanic languages into three groups: West Germanic, including English, German, and Netherlandic (Dutch); North Germanic, including Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Faroese; and East Germanic, now extinct, comprising only Gothic and the languages of the Vandals, Burgundians, and a ...

Is English still a Germanic language? ›

Linguists use many factors, such as grammar, phonology, and vocabulary, to determine the historical ancestry of modern languages. The overall composition of English reveals strong Germanic roots. It's official: English is a proud member of the West Germanic language family!

What are the 3 Germanic tribes? ›

Tacitus relates that according to their ancient songs the Germans were descended from the three sons of Mannus, the son of the god Tuisto, the son of Earth. Hence they were divided into three groups—the Ingaevones, the Herminones, and the Istaevones—but the basis for this grouping is unknown.

What is the most common Germanic language? ›

The West Germanic language branch is the largest of the three and also includes the three most widely spoken Germanic languages, which are English, German and Dutch.

Is French a Germanic language? ›

No, French is a Romance language. The Romance languages are languages that evolved from Latin. Some other Romance languages are: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and Catalan. French is spoken in a number of countries.

Who speaks Germanic languages? ›

It includes, for example, the English-, German-, Dutch-, Danish-, Swedish- and Norwegian-speaking communities. Over 200 million Europeans (some 30%) speak a Germanic language natively.

What defines a Germanic language? ›

Definitions of Germanic language. a branch of the Indo-European family of languages; members that are spoken currently fall into two major groups: Scandinavian and West Germanic.

Can all Germanic languages understand each other? ›

Dutch, German, English, Swedish and Danish are all Germanic languages but the degree of mutual intelligibility between these languages differs. Danish and Swedish are the most mutually comprehensible, but German and Dutch are also mutually intelligible.

Did English develop from a Germanic language? ›

English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects and was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders (8th and 9th centuries AD). One second invasion took place by the Normans of the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and developed an English form of this.

Was English originally a Germanic language? ›

German is widely considered among the easier languages for native English speakers to pick up. That's because these languages are true linguistic siblings—originating from the exact same mother tongue. In fact, eighty of the hundred most used words in English are of Germanic origin.

How many English words are Germanic? ›

In fact, according to language statistics around 26% of English words are of Germanic origin.

Is Japanese a Germanic language? ›

While German is a germanic language, hailing from the same linguistic “family” as English, Japanese comes from a totally different linguistic “family.” Both languages, though, can be intimidating for language learners.

Is Greek a Germanic language? ›

Suffice it to say that English is at least distantly related to all these languages.
§4. The Indo-European Family of Languages.
1. Hellenic:Ancient Greek; Modern Greek
3. Germanic:English, German, Dutch, Flemish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic
4. Celtic:Irish, Gaelic, Manx; Welsh, Cornish, Breton
1 more row

Is Polish a Germanic language? ›

The Polish language belongs to the Slavic language family, which is the third-largest language family in Europe behind the Romance languages and the Germanic languages. All of these language families descend from proto-Indo-European, and they've continued to splinter over time.

Is Latin a Germanic language? ›

Your premise is false. Latin is the ancestor of a small group of Indo-European languages - the Romantic group, of which Spanish is the major member. The Germanic group, of which English is part, is descended from Gothic.

What is the difference between German and Germanic? ›

In modern English, the adjective Germanic is distinct from German, which is generally used when referring to modern Germans only. Germanic relates to the ancient Germani or the broader Germanic group.

Are the Vikings Germanic? ›

Yes, the Vikings were one of many different Germanic peoples. There are three major branches of the Germanic languages: East Germanic, West Germanic, and North Germanic. The Vikings spoke a North Germanic...

Who are the Germanic people today? ›

As a linguistic group, modern Germanic peoples include the Afrikaners, Austrians, Danes, Dutch, English, Flemish, Frisians, Germans, Icelanders, Lowland Scots, Norwegians, Swedes, and others (including diaspora populations, such as some groups of European Americans).

What was the name of the old Germanic tribe? ›

The western German tribes consisted of the Marcomanni, Alamanni, Franks, Angles, and Saxons, while the Eastern tribes north of the Danube consisted of the Vandals, Gepids, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths.

What country speaks Germanic? ›

German is the most widely spoken mother language and an official language in four countries in the European Union: Germany, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg. German is also an official language in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

What is the oldest Germanic language? ›

Old High German (OHG; German: Althochdeutsch (Ahd.)) is the earliest stage of the German language, conventionally covering the period from around 500/750 to 1050.

Is English mostly Germanic or Latin? ›

Although English is a Germanic language, it has Latin influences. Its grammar and core vocabulary are inherited from Proto-Germanic, but a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources.

Is Dutch A Germanic language? ›

Together with English, Frisian, German, and Luxembourgish, Dutch is a West Germanic language. It derives from Low Franconian, the speech of the Western Franks, which was restructured through contact with speakers of North Sea Germanic along the coast (Flanders, Holland) about 700 ce.

Who actually spoke Latin? ›

Originally spoken by small groups of people living along the lower Tiber River, Latin spread with the increase of Roman political power, first throughout Italy and then throughout most of western and southern Europe and the central and western Mediterranean coastal regions of Africa.

What was the first language ever? ›

Sumerian can be considered the first language in the world, according to Mondly. The oldest proof of written Sumerian was found on the Kish tablet in today's Iraq, dating back to approximately 3500 BC.

How many Germanic countries are there? ›

The six countries that have German as their official language, in alphabetical order, are: Austria, Belgium, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Over 78% of the world's total German speakers live in Germany.

What is Germanic parent language? ›

In historical linguistics, the Germanic parent language (GPL) includes the reconstructed languages in the Germanic group referred to as Pre-Germanic Indo-European (PreGmc), Early Proto-Germanic (EPGmc), and Late Proto-Germanic (LPGmc), spoken in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE.

When was Germanic language spoken? ›

The recorded history of Germanic languages begins with their speakers' first contact with the Romans, in the 1st century bce. At that time and for several centuries thereafter, there was only a single “Germanic” language, with little more than minor dialect differences.

What do all Germanic languages have in common? ›

All Germanic languages also share similarities when it comes to their sentence and word structure. They all share the same three elements, which are: the root, the inflection, and the stem-forming suffix. The root expresses the lexical meaning. The inflection, also called the ending, shows grammar form.

Why are they called Germanic? ›

They are identified by their use of Germanic languages, which diversified out of Proto-Germanic during the Pre-Roman Iron Age. The term “Germanic” originated in classical times when groups of tribes living in Lower, Upper, and Greater Germania were referred to using this label by Roman scribes.

Where did Germanic language come from? ›

However, the original Germanic language was born in the 1st millennium BC, when the first Germanic Sound Shift occurred, commonly referred to as Grimm's Law. From then on, the evolution of the Germanic language was shaped by major historical events.

What is unique about Germanic languages? ›

German has a unique letter

German uses the Latin alphabet. It has, however, an additional consonant: the ß, called "Eszett". The letter never stands at the beginning of the word and, following a long vowel or diphtong, takes the form of a double-s.

What is the hardest Germanic language to learn? ›

Of all the Germanic languages, the FSI considers Icelandic the most difficult to learn, ranking it as Category IV, which requires around 1,100 of studying to achieve proficiency. With archaic vocabulary, complex grammar and tricky pronunciation, Icelandic certainly poses a challenge for the average English speaker.

What is the easiest Germanic language to learn? ›

#1 Easiest Germanic language: Norwegian

The Norwegian alphabet is very similar to the English alphabet, it just has three additional letters (æ, ø, å) . In terms of conjugating verbs, Norwegian is one of the easiest Germanic languages.

Which is older German or English? ›

German is older. Old English developed from the language of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, which were Germanic tribes that migrated to (i.e., invaded) the British Isles from what is now northern Germany around 500 AD. This is why Old English is sometimes called Anglo-Saxon.

Who created the first language? ›

Sumerian is the oldest attested written language. It was used by the people of Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia and is an isolate language, which means it's not related to any other existing language.

Why is English considered Germanic and not Latin? ›

The easy answer is that English and German follow very similar syntax (word order) and grammar. Adjectives and adverbs come before nouns in a sentence. Romance languages follow the opposite pattern. For example, English-speakers say “the red car,” but in Spanish the phrase could be “el auto rojo” (or, “the car red”).

What is the closest language to English? ›

The closest language to English is one called Frisian, which is a Germanic language spoken by a small population of about 480,000 people. There are three separate dialects of the language, and it's only spoken at the southern fringes of the North Sea in the Netherlands and Germany.

Is English Roman or Germanic? ›

English is not a Romance language. Instead, it belongs to the Germanic language family, and includes the following languages: Afrikaans. Danish.

How many Germanic languages are in the modern world? ›

On the other hand, the verbal morphology of *Proto-Indo-European survived relatively intact in all modern Germanic languages, although there are fewer strong (irregular) verbs today. Some 50 modern Germanic languages are spoken today (Ethnologue) . They are usually divided into two groups.

Is English more Germanic or Latin? ›

German is widely considered among the easier languages for native English speakers to pick up. That's because these languages are true linguistic siblings—originating from the exact same mother tongue. In fact, eighty of the hundred most used words in English are of Germanic origin.

Is Japanese a germanic language? ›

While German is a germanic language, hailing from the same linguistic “family” as English, Japanese comes from a totally different linguistic “family.” Both languages, though, can be intimidating for language learners.

What is the largest Germanic language? ›

When you think of the Germanic languages, German is probably the first one that comes to mind. But, believe it or not, English is actually the most widely spoken Germanic language, with around 1.35 billion speakers worldwide.

What language is closest to Germanic? ›

German is most similar to other languages within the West Germanic language branch, including Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German, Luxembourgish, Scots, and Yiddish.

Is Spanish Germanic or Latin? ›

For example, languages, such as Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, and French, all belong to the language family known as “romance languages.” The romance languages evolved from Latin, the language used in ancient Rome.

How do you know if a word is Germanic? ›

The Germanic words are viewed as powerful, strait forward and more exciting. Germanic words, unsurprisingly, are usually shorter and only one or two syllables long. Latinate ones tend to be longer and two or more syllables.

What is the hardest language to learn? ›

Across multiple sources, Mandarin Chinese is the number one language listed as the most challenging to learn. The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center puts Mandarin in Category IV, which is the list of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.


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