West Germanic languages

West Germanic
Ethnicity: West Germanic peoples
Originally between the Rhine, Alps, Elbe, and North Sea; today worldwide
Linguistic classification:


ISO 639-5: gmw
Linguasphere: 52-AB & 52-AC
Glottolog: west2793[1]

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 and dialects including Luxembourgish and Yiddish, in addition to other Franconian and Ingvaeonic languages such as the Frisian languages, Scots and Afrikaans (which are closely related to but separate from English and Dutch, respectively). Additionally, several creoles, patois, and pidgins are based on Dutch and English as they were languages of colonial empires.


The Germanic languages in Europe:
North Germanic languages
West Germanic languages
Dots indicate areas where multilingualism is common.


The West Germanic languages share many lexemes not existing in North Germanic and/or East Germanic—archaisms as well as common neologisms.

Existence of a 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, though a few maintain that Proto-West-Germanic existed.[2] 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:[3] North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely

  1. North Sea Germanic (Ingvaeonic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and also Old Saxon)
  2. Weser-Rhine Germanic (Istvaeonic, ancestral to Old Frankish, its successors Low Franconian and several dialects of Old High German)
  3. Elbe Germanic (Irminonic, ancestral to several dialects of Old High German, most probably including the extinct Langobardic language).

Although there is quite a bit of knowledge about North Sea Germanic or Anglo-Frisian (due to 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, these two terms were coined in the 1940s to refer to groups of archeological findings rather than linguistic features. Only later were these terms applied to hypothetical dialectal differences within both regions. Even today, the very small number of Migration Period runic inscriptions from this 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,[4] including:

The distribution of the primary Germanic dialect groups in Europe in around AD 1:
  North Sea Germanic, or Ingvaeonic
  Weser-Rhine Germanic, or Istvaeonic
  Elbe Germanic, or Irminonic
  East Germanic, or Gothic

Under this 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 at a time when 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, whereas 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 that there can be also archaisms that cannot be explained simply as retentions later lost in the North and/or East because this assumption can produce contradictions with attested features of these other branches.

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

That North Germanic is .. a unitary subgroup [of Proto-Germanic] is completely obvious, as all of its dialects shared a long series of innovations, some of them very striking. That the same is true of West Germanic has been denied, but I will argue in vol. ii that all the West Germanic languages share several highly unusual innovations that virtually force us to posit a West Germanic clade. On the other hand, the internal subgrouping of both North Germanic and West Germanic is very messy, and it seems clear that each of those subfamilies diversified into a network of dialects that remained in contact for a considerable period of time (in some cases right up to the present).[6]

The reconstruction of Proto-West-Germanic

Several scholars have published reconstructions of Proto-West-Germanic morphological paradigms[7] 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.[8]

Dating Early West Germanic

If indeed Proto-West-Germanic actually existed, it must have been between the 3rd and 7th centuries. Until the 3rd 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 a part of one language ("Proto-Northwest-Germanic"). On the other hand, the High German consonant shift that occurred during the 7th century AD in what is now southern Germany and Switzerland ended the linguistic unity among the West Germanic dialects of that time.

Before that time, it has been argued that, judging by their nearly identical syntax, the West Germanic languages were closely enough related to have been mutually intelligible.[9] Thus, West Germanic as a group of mutually intelligible Germanic dialects was spoken during the Migration Period up until the 7th century AD.

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 Anglo-Saxons, two Germanic tribes, were a combination of a number of peoples from northern Germany and the Jutland Peninsula.

Family tree

Simplified diagram of the modern West Germanic languages

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

Also note that English is part of the North Sea Germanic branch of the West Germanic languages.

Comparison of phonological and morphological features

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

Old English Old Frisian Old Saxon Old Dutch Old Central German Old Upper German
Palatalisation of velars Yes Yes No No No No
Unrounding of front rounded vowels Yes Yes No No No No
Loss of intervocalic *-h- Yes Yes No Yes No No
Class II weak verb ending *-(ō)ja- Yes Yes Sometimes No No No
Merging of plural forms of verbs Yes Yes Yes No No No
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law Yes Yes Yes Rare No No
Loss of the reflexive pronoun Yes Yes Yes Most dialects No No
Loss of final *-z in single-syllable words Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Reduction of weak class III to four relics Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Monophthongization of *ai, *au Yes Yes Yes Usually Partial Partial
Final-obstruent devoicing No No No Yes No No
Diphthongization of *ē, *ō No No Rare Yes Yes Yes
Loss of initial *h- before consonant No No No Yes Yes Yes
Loss of initial *w- before consonant No No No No Yes Yes
High German consonant shift No No No No Partial Yes


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

Monophthong phonemes of West Germanic
Front Central Back
unrounded unrounded rounded
short long short long short long
Close i u
Mid e o
Open æ: a

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.

West Germanic vocabulary

Comparison of Frisian, English, Dutch and German words with common West Germanic (or older) origin:

West Frisian English Dutch German Old English Old High German Proto-West-Germanic[10] Proto-Germanic
kaam comb kam Kamm m. camb m. camb m. kąbă [see inscription of Erfurt-Frienstedt], *kambă m. *kambaz m.
dei day dag Tag m. dæġ tac m. *dagă m. *dagaz m.
rein rain regen Regen m. reġn regan m. *regnă m. *regnaz m.
wei way weg Weg m. weġ weg m. *wegă m. *wegaz m.
neil nail nagel Nagel m. næġel nagal m. *naglă m. *naglaz m.
tsiis cheese kaas Käse m. ċēse, ċīese chāsi, kāsi m. *kāsī m. *kāsijaz m. (late Proto-Germanic, from Latin cāseus)
tsjerke church
kirk (Scotland)
kerk Kirche f. ċiriċe chirihha, *kirihha f. *kirikā f. *kirikǭ f. (very hypothetical, since anachronistic)
tegearre together samen
sibbe sibling[note 1] sibbe Sippe f. sibb f. "kinship, peace" sibba f., Old Saxon: sibbia sibbju, sibbjā f. *sibjō f. "relationship, kinship, friendship"
kaai f. key sleutel Schlüssel m. cǣġ(e), cǣga f. "key, solution, experiment" sluzzil m. *slutilă m., *kēgă f. *slutilaz m. "key"; *kēgaz, *kēguz f. "stake, post, pole"
ha west have been ben geweest bin gewesen
twa skiep two sheep twee schapen zwei Schafe n. *twai(?) skēpō n.
hawwe have hebben haben habban, hafian habēn *habbjană *habjaną
ús us ons uns ūs uns *uns *uns
hynder horse paard
ros (dated)
Ross n. / Pferd n. hors n. (h)ros n. / pfarifrit n. / ehu- (in compositions) *hrussă n. / *ehu m. *hrussą n., *ehwaz m.
brea bread brood Brot n. brēad n. "fragment, bit, morsel, crumb" also "bread" brōt n. *braudă m. *braudą n. "cooked food, leavened bread"
hier hair haar Haar n. hēr, hǣr hār n. *hǣră n. *hērą n.
ear ear oor Ohr n. ēare n. < pre-English *ǣora ōra n. *aura < *auza n. *auzǭ, *ausōn
doar door deur Tür f. duru turi f. *duru *durz
grien green groen grün grēne gruoni *grōnĭ *grōniz
swiet sweet zoet süß swēte s(w)uozi (< *swōti) *swōtŭ *swōtuz
troch through door durch þurh duruh *þurhw
wiet wet nat nass wǣt naz (< *nat) *wǣtă / *nată *wētaz / *nataz
each eye oog Auge n. ēaġe n. < pre-English *ǣoga ouga n. *auga n. *augō n.
dream dream droom Traum m. drēam m. "joy, pleasure, ecstacy, music, song" troum m. *draumă m. *draumaz (< *draugmaz) m.


  1. Original meaning "relative" has become "brother or sister" in English.


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "West Germanic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Robinson (1992): p. 17-18
  3. Kuhn, Hans (1955–56). "Zur Gliederung der germanischen Sprachen". Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur. 86: 1–47.
  4. Robinson, Orrin W. (1992). Old English and Its Closest Relatives. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2221-8.
  5. But see Cercignani, Fausto, Indo-European ē in Germanic, in «Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung», 86/1, 1972, pp. 104–110.
  6. Ringe, Don. 2006: A Linguistic History of English. Volume I. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, Oxford University Press, p. 213-214.
  7. H. F. Nielsen (1981, 2001), G. Klingenschmitt (2002) and K.-H. Mottausch (1998, 2011)
  8. Wolfram Euler: Das Westgermanische – von der Herausbildung im 3. bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert — Analyse und Rekonstruktion (West Germanic: From its Emergence in the 3rd Century to its Split in the 7th Century: Analyses and Reconstruction). 244 p., in German with English summary, London/Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-9812110-7-8.
  9. Graeme Davis (2006:154) notes "the languages of the Germanic group in the Old period are much closer than has previously been noted. Indeed it would not be inappropriate to regard them as dialects of one language. They are undoubtedly far closer one to another than are the various dialects of modern Chinese, for example. A reasonable modern analogy might be Arabic, where considerable dialectical diversity exists but within the concept of a single Arabic language." In: Davis, Graeme (2006). Comparative Syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic: Linguistic, Literary and Historical Implications. Bern: Peter Lang. ISBN 3-03910-270-2.
  10. sources: Ringe, Don / Taylor, Ann (2014) and Euler, Wolfram (2013), passim.

Bibliography and further reading

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