Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Germanic Languages and Language History

Speakers of English might also be interested to know a little bit about the history of the Germanic languages.  Contrary to what the average native speaker of English is aware - English is a Germanic language!
So, where did English come from?  Where did German come from?  What other European languages  are  Germanic?  How are they related to each other?  What languages were the roots of the modern Germanic languages?  What was the history and time-frame of the languages that eventually became modern English and modern German?  This article touches on answers to these seemingly simple but actually complex questions  

My sources here are primarily textbooks and notes from language history courses I completed while doing graduate studies in German linguistics at Ohio State University.

The history of documented Germanic languages begins somewhere in the 8th century with the literary works published by Karl the Great.  At that time there existed many more languages than exist today due to the general less mobile nature of the world at that period in history.  We could go further back, but starting in the 8th century is the point at which it is possible to identify languages that are similar to can be correlated to our modern versions.

The Roots of Language in Europe
Around that period there were 8 identifiable language groups in the modern worl  Europe had become, for all intents and purposes, the center of the civilized during that era.  Its languages found their roots in the eastern languages.  The major language groups may be familiar to some readers:

Indo-European Languages - These languages had their origins in the Far East.  The Indian languages come from this group and survive today as Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and some less defined gypsy languages.  Iranian falls in this family and has links to modern Persian, Kurdish, and Pashtu, the national language of Afghanistan.   Hindi and Sanskrit have been found to have been heavy influences on the development European languages, although nothing like the Indo-European languages exists in Europe today.   All of the languages groups listed below have Indo-European roots.

 Greek – Old Greek belongs to the family of ancient Indo-European languages.  New Greek developed in the post classical time of Greece.  Among other things, it is well known as the language in which the New Testament was written.  Modern Greek is something else again.

Romance Languages – Latin, the language of ancient Rome, was a language comprised of many regional languages from areas conquered by Rome, and more or less forced as an official language.  Its modern descendants include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, and Rhetoromansch (still alive but dying in Graub√ľnden in Switzerland).
Keltic Languages – Gaelic and Welsh people were geographically separated from the speakers of Germanic and Roman languages and developed on their won. There still exist a few million speakers of variants of these languages.
Baltic and Slovak Languages - Members of this group still surviving today include Latvian, Russian, Sorbic (spoken in eastern Germany ), Polish, Slavic, Czech, Srbo-Croatian, Bulgarian.  This is not an all inclusive list.
Germanic Languages – Modern Germanic Languages include but are not limited to English, German, Dutch, Swiss German, Fresian, Luxembourgish, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Yiddish.  

Non Indo European Languages -  Languages which were imported into Europe through migrations from elsewhere during the time the Indo-European languages were developing into their modern forms include Finnish and its cousin Bulgarian, Basque, Turkish, Lapplandish, Tocharic.

In a follow up blog we will discuss the development of German and English from about the time of Karl the Great to modern times, including Old Saxon, Old High German, Middle High German, Old English, Middle English, and variants of German like Dutch and Swedish

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