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Peculiarities of Germanic languages

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

1. Germanic has a number of unique words: there are no similar words in other Indo-European languages. These words may have been lost in the other Indo-European languages, borrowed from non-Indo-European languages, or perhaps coined in Germanic. Among these words are Modern English rain, drink, drive, broad, hold, wife, meat, fowl, sea.

2. The stress in Germanic languages fell on the first syllable (except prefixes), while in IE stress was free.

3. The Indo-European verbal system was simplified. Indo-European distinctions of tense and aspect (indicates whether an action or state is viewed with regard to beginning, duration, incompletion, etc.) were lost except for the present and preterite (past) tenses. Thus, in ancient Germanic languages existed only two tenses: Present and Past.

4. One of the main phonological and morphological instruments in Common Germanic and practically in all Germanic languages was the Ablaut, or Gradation, the vowel interchange in the root of nouns and verbs. This is found, for example, in Russian in such pairs as / , / . There are different opinions why the Ablaut appeared. One of the opinions is that it was due to the stress shift that the vowels in the root became reduced and changed in pronunciation. This specific feature, though known in all Indo-European groups as a phonetic means, was of great importance particularly in Germanic, where it was sometimes used instead of verb endings and noun inflections. The system of gradation in Germanic languages is best seen in the so-called strong verbs. Every strong verb was characterized by four basic forms: (1) The Infinitive, (2) The Past Singular, (3) The Past Plural, (4) The Second Participle. All strong verbs fell into seven classes according to the type of gradation. As example, let us consider the two classes of strong verbs in Gothic:


Class Infinitive Past Singular Past Plural Second Participle
I reisan (ModE rise) rais risum risans
II kiusan (ModE choose) kaus kusum kusans


As can be seen from these forms, gradation is as follows:

Class I: i: ai i i

Class II: iu au u u

5. Germanic developed a preterite tense (called weak or regular) with a dental suffix, -d or -t (e.g. fish, fished, etc.). Germanic languages thus have two types of verbs, weak (regular) and strong (irregular). Strong verbs indicate tense by an internal vowel change (ablaut, gradation) (e.g. swim, swam, swum). There are several views concerning the origin of the dental suffix with weak verbs. According to one of them, the suffix d- originated from a verb meaning do (Old English dūn, German tun).

6. The Noun in Germanic, as well as in other Indo-European languages, had the following structure:

the root + a stem-building suffix + a grammatical inflection

The root carried the lexical meaning of the noun, the case inflection showed various grammatical categories (case, number); a stem-building suffix did not have any special meaning at that time. Long time before it presumably had some classificational meaning which was then lost. In the later period of the Proto-Germanic language the stem-building suffix merged with the case inflection changing the declension pattern of a noun. Thus, in Old Germanic languages there are several types of noun declension depending on the type of the substantive stems (on the sound on which the stem originally ended): (1) Vocalic stems: -a-, - ō-, -i-, -u- stems. Declension of these substantives has been called strong declension; (2) N-stems. Declension of these is called weak declension; (3) Stems in other consonants: -s- and r- stems; (4) Root stems. This is a peculiar type: these substantives never had a stem-building suffix, so that their stem had always coincided with their root. For example, Gothic dative plural nouns: dagam (to days) belong to the a- stem, gibōm (to gifts) belong to the ō-stem, sunum (to sons) -u- stem.

7. Germanic developed weak and strong adjectives. The weak declension was used when the modified noun was preceded by another word which indicated case, number, and gender. The strong declension was used in other situations. These declensions are no longer found in modern English, but compare these examples from Old English: þa geongan ceorlas 'the young fellows' and geonge ceorlas 'young fellows.' (The weak adjective ends in -an while the strong adjective ends in -e.) The strong and weak forms of adjectives still exist in German as well.

8. Some Indo-European vowels changes in Germanic languages:

Indo-European Vowel Ancient Germanic Vowel
o (Russian) a Nahts (Gothic)
ā mater (Latin) ō mōdor (Old English)

9. A consonant shift (change of sounds) occurred in Germanic.

The first was describe by Jacob Grimm and is often called Grimms law.

Three groups of consonants started to be pronounced differently in Germanic languages:

IE consonants Corresponding Germanic consonants
I. IE voiceless stops became fricatives in Germanic
p (Russian) t tres (Latin) k (Russian) f flame (Old English) þ þreis (Gothic) h hrov (Old English)
II. IE voiced stops became voiceless in Germanic
b (Russian) d duo (Latin) g genu (Latin) p pool (English) t twai (Gothic) k Knee (Old English)
III. IE aspirated voiced stops lost aspiration in Germanic
bh bhratar (Sanscrit) gh dh Note: these consonants are ancient, they no more exist in any of Indo-European languages b broþor (Gothic) g d


When Grimm's law was discovered, a strange irregularity was spotted in its operation. The Proto-Indo-European voiceless stops *p, *t and *k should have changed into Proto-Germanic *f, (dental fricative) and (velar fricative), according to Grimm's Law. However, there appeared to be a large set of Germanic words in which voiced stops (*b, *đ or *g), rather than voiceless fricatives, correspond to IE voiceless stops. For example, Latin pater, Greek patēr, Sanscrit pitat and Gothic fadar, Old English fæder. It is a Germanic d that corresponds to IE t. Karl Verner was the first scholar who observed that the shift of a consonant depended upon the primitive Germanic stress. He observed that the apparently unexpected voicing of voiceless fricatives occurred if they were non-word-initial and if the vowel preceding them carried no stress in PIE. The original location of stress was often retained in Greek and early Sanskrit, though in Germanic stress eventually became fixed on the initial (root) syllable of all words. The law, which has since been termed Verners law, adds the following note to Grimms law. If an IE voiceless stop was preceded by an unstressed vowel, the voiceless fricative which developed from it in accordance with Grimms law became voiced, and later this voiced fricative became a voiced stop.

This also affected the existing unvoiced fricative [s], which similarly changed to [z] in these circumstances. Eventually this [z] becomes [r] in Western Germanic and Northern.

e.g. Gothic wesun (were) Old English waran

Date: 2015-01-29; view: 1790

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