West Germanic languages

The West Germanic languages constitute the largest of the three branches of the Germanic family of languages (the others being the North Germanic and the extinct East Germanic languages).

The three most prevalent West Germanic languages are English, German, and Dutch. The family also includes other High and Low German languages including Afrikaans (which is a daughter language of Dutch), Yiddish and Luxembourgish (which are sister languages of German), and Frisian and Scots (which are sister languages of English). Additionally, several creoles, patois, and pidgins are based on Dutch, English, and German, as they were each languages of colonial empires.


Origins and characteristics

The Germanic languages are traditionally divided into three groups: West, East and North Germanic. Their exact relation is difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, so that some individual varieties are difficult to classify. Although some scholars claim that all Germanic languages remained mutually intelligible throughout the Migration Period, others hold that speakers of West Germanic dialects like Old Frankish and speakers of Gothic were already unable to communicate fluently by around the 3rd century AD. Dialects with the features assigned to the western group formed from Proto-Germanic in the late Jastorf culture (ca. 1st century BC). The West Germanic group is characterized by a number of phonological, morphological and lexical innovations or archaisms not found in North and East Germanic. Examples of West Germanic phonological particularities are:

  • The delabialization of all labiovelar consonants except word-initially.
  • West Germanic gemination: lengthening of all consonants except /r/ before /j/.
  • [ð], the fricative allophone of /d/, becomes [d] in all positions. (The two other fricatives [β] and [ɣ] are retained)
  • Replacement of the second-person singular preterite ending -t with .
  • Loss of word-final /z/. Only Old High German preserves it at all (as /r/) and only in single-syllable words. Following the later loss of word-final /a/ and /aN/, this made the nominative and accusative of many nouns identical.

A remarkable phonological archaism of West Germanic is the preservation of grammatischer Wechsel in most verbs, particularly in Old High German. This implies the same for West Germanic, whereas in East and North Germanic many of these alternations (in Gothic almost all of them) had been levelled out analogically by the time of the earliest texts.

A common morphological innovation of the West Germanic languages is the development of a gerund.

Common morphological archaisms of West Germanic include:

Furthermore, the West Germanic languages share many lexemes not existing in North Germanic and/or East Germanic – archaisms as well as common neologisms.

Existence of West Germanic proto-language

Most scholars doubt that there was a Proto-West-Germanic proto-language common to the West Germanic languages and no others, but a few maintain that Proto-West-Germanic existed. Most agree that after East Germanic broke off (an event usually dated to the 2nd or 1st century BC), the remaining Germanic languages, the Northwest Germanic languages, divided into four main dialects: North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely

  1. North Sea Germanic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and Old Saxon
  2. Weser-Rhine Germanic, ancestral to Low Franconian and in part to some of the Central Franconian and Rhine Franconian dialects of Old High German
  3. Elbe Germanic, ancestral to the Upper German and most Central German dialects of Old High German, and the extinct Langobardic language.

Although there is quite a bit of knowledge about North Sea Germanic or Anglo-Frisian (because of the characteristic features of its daughter languages, Anglo-Saxon/Old English and Old Frisian), linguists know almost nothing about "Weser-Rhine Germanic" and "Elbe Germanic". In fact, both terms were coined in the 1940s to refer to groups of archaeological findings, rather than linguistic features. Only later were the terms applied to hypothetical dialectal differences within both regions. Even today, the very small number of Migration Period runic inscriptions from the area, many of them illegible, unclear or consisting only of one word, often a name, is insufficient to identify linguistic features specific to the two supposed dialect groups.

Evidence that East Germanic split off before the split between North and West Germanic comes from a number of linguistic innovations common to North and West Germanic, including:

  • The lowering of Proto-Germanic ē (/ɛː/, also written ǣ) to ā.
  • The development of umlaut.
  • The rhotacism of /z/ to /r/.
  • The development of the demonstrative pronoun ancestral to English this.

Under that view, the properties that the West Germanic languages have in common separate from the North Germanic languages are not necessarily inherited from a "Proto-West-Germanic" language but may have spread by language contact among the Germanic languages spoken in Central Europe, not reaching those spoken in Scandinavia or reaching them much later. Rhotacism, for example, was largely complete in West Germanic while North Germanic runic inscriptions still clearly distinguished the two phonemes. There is also evidence that the lowering of ē to ā occurred first in West Germanic and spread to North Germanic later since word-final ē was lowered before it was shortened in West Germanic, but in North Germanic the shortening occurred first, resulting in e that later merged with i. However, there are also a number of common archaisms in West Germanic shared by neither Old Norse nor Gothic. Some authors who support the concept of a West Germanic proto-language claim that not only shared innovations can require the existence of a linguistic clade but also that there are archaisms that cannot be explained simply as retentions later lost in the North or East because the assumption can produce contradictions with attested features of the other branches.

The debate on the existence of a Proto-West-Germanic clade was recently summarized:

The reconstruction of Proto-West-Germanic

Several scholars have published reconstructions of Proto-West-Germanic morphological paradigms and many authors have reconstructed individual Proto-West-Germanic morphological forms or lexemes. The first comprehensive reconstruction of the Proto-West-Germanic language was published in 2013 by Wolfram Euler.

Dating Early West Germanic

If indeed Proto-West-Germanic existed, it must have been between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Until the late 2nd century AD, the language of runic inscriptions found in Scandinavia and in Northern Germany were so similar that Proto-North-Germanic and the Western dialects in the south were still part of one language ("Proto-Northwest-Germanic"). After that, the split into West and North Germanic occurred. By the 4th and 5th centuries the great migration set in which probably helped diversify the West Germanic family even more.

It has been argued that, judging by their nearly identical syntax, the West Germanic dialects were closely enough related to have been mutually intelligible up to the 7th century. Over the course of this period, the dialects diverged successively. The High German consonant shift that occurred mostly during the 7th century AD in what is now southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland can be considered the end of the linguistic unity among the West Germanic dialects, although its effects on their own should not be overestimated. Bordering dialects very probably continued to be mutually intelligible even beyond the boundaries of the consonant shift.

Middle Ages

During the Early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Old and Middle English on one hand, and by the High German consonant shift on the continent on the other.

The High German consonant shift distinguished the High German languages from the other West Germanic languages. By early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South (the Walliser dialect being the southernmost surviving German dialect) to Northern Low Saxon in the North. Although both extremes are considered German, they are not mutually intelligible. The southernmost varieties have completed the second sound shift, whereas the northern dialects remained unaffected by the consonant shift.

Of modern German varieties, Low German is the one that most resembles modern English. The district of Angeln (or Anglia), from which the name English derives, is in the extreme northern part of Germany between the Danish border and the Baltic coast. The area of the Saxons (parts of today's Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony) lay south of Anglia. The Angles and Saxons, two Germanic tribes, in combination with a number of other peoples from northern Germany and the Jutland Peninsula, particularly the Jutes, settled in Britain following the end of Roman rule in the island. Once in Britain, these Germanic peoples eventually developed a shared cultural and linguistic identity as Anglo-Saxons; the extent of the linguistic influence of the native Romano-British population on the incomers is debatable.

Family tree

Grouping of the main Germanic languages, including historical dialects, according to Friedrich Maurer.

Note that divisions between subfamilies of continental Germanic languages are rarely precisely defined; most form dialect continua, with adjacent dialects being mutually intelligible and more separated ones not.

Comparison of phonological and morphological features

The following table shows a list of various linguistic features and their extent among the West Germanic languages, organized roughly from northwest to southeast. Some may only appear in the older languages but are no longer apparent in the modern languages.


The original vowel system of West Germanic was similar to that of Proto-Germanic; note however the lowering of the long front vowels.

The consonant system was also essentially the same as that of Proto-Germanic. Note, however, the particular changes described above, as well as West Germanic gemination.



The noun paradigms of Proto-West Germanic have been reconstructed as follows:

West Germanic vocabulary

The following table compares a number of Frisian, English, Dutch and German words with common West Germanic (or older) origin. The grammatical gender of each term is noted as masculine (m.), feminine (f.), or neuter (n.) where relevant.

Other words, with a variety of origins:

Note that some of the shown similarities of Frisian and English vis-à-vis Dutch and German are secondary and not due to a closer relationship between them. For example, the plural of the word for "sheep" was originally unchanged in all four languages and still is in some Dutch dialects and a great deal of German dialects. Many other similarities, however, are indeed old inheritances.


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External links

Uses material from the Wikipedia article West Germanic languages, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.