"A Common Source"

Sir William Jones, while in the service of the British Empire as a Supreme Court Justice in India, studied Sanskrit and was struck by the affinity among Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. In 1786, in a paper delivered to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, he proposed that these languages, as well as Germanic and Celtic languages were descended from a common source, Indo-European, which was probably first spoken between 5,000 and 3,000 B.C.E. (see Millward 51-2).

The English language is a member of the Germanic family of languages, which is itself a subset of the Indo-European family of languages (IE). The IE family comprises some 140 languages out of a total of approximately 10,000 languages world-wide,1 yet it is believed that half of the people in the world speak an IE language.

One group of IE speakers developed a variety of the language that eventually diverged far enough from its parent language to be recognizable as a distinct language, referred to variously by present-day scholars as "Primitive Germanic," "Common Germanic," or "Proto-Germanic." This language in turn underwent changes and branched into three identifiable speech communities: North Germanic ( witnessed by present-day Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and the language of the Faeroese Islands); West Germanic (present-day High German, Low German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and English); and East Germanic, the records for which establish only one, now-extinct witness, Gothic. Millward (p. 62) suggests 100 B.C.E. as a date by which Germanic had become an identifiable linguistic entity..

Germanic poses significant problems for historical linguists trying to place it on the Indo-European family tree. Don Ringe, Tandy Warnow, and Ann Taylor, employing computational cladistics, have recently proposed that Germanic emerged as a discrete linguistic community as part of the Satem branch of the I-E tree (the branch including Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian), but very early on its speakers borrowed from the vocabulary of Pre-Proto-Celtic and Pre-Proto-Italic, with the result that Germanic exhibited key characteristics associated with the Centum branch of the family.

The features that characterize the evolution of Germanic from its parent Indo-European are:

  1. A vocabulary sharing cognates with no other languages;
  2. Fixed stress on the first syllable (excepting prefixes), whereas IE had "free stress";
  3. A reduction of verbal tense and aspect to a system that has only present and past tense inflections;
  4. The development of a "dental" (or "alveolar") past tense/preterit suffix (i.e., containing the consonant t or d), used with weak verbs;
  5. A system of strong and weak adjective declensions
  6. Long and short IE o become long and short Germanic a respectively;
  7. The First Consonant Shift, or "Grimm's Law"


Germanic Grammatical Features


The following paradigm summarizes the forms of the Germanic personal pronoun system, as found in Gothic (the earliest Germanic language for which there is a written record). In the second person singular, the letter that resembles a 'p' in initial position is a "thorn": a character derived from the runic alphabet that has the values of the "th" combination in present-day English. The dual pronoun, as the label suggests, signifies the relationship between two people (a subtlety lost by the end of the Old English period; for an example of the use of the dual pronoun in OE, click here). Asterisks signify forms that have been reconstructed inferentially. (Paradigm adapted from Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and Its Closest Relatives [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992], 35-6.)

OE Personal Pronouns

ME Personal Pronouns

EME Personal Pronouns

PDE Personal Pronouns


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1Until recently, the number of languages world-wide has been pegged at around 5,000. Dr. David Dalby, director of the Observatoire Linguistique, announced in July 1997 that he and his team have catalogued more than 10,000 in a 1,600-page global register produced for UNESCO (John Carvel, "Global study finds the world speaking in 10,000 tongues,"The Guardian [July 22, 1997]: Home News 5). See also Bill Frost, "Why I want to save all the world's languages," The Times (August 6, 1997). (return)