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How Germanic is English?

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United Kingdom
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Speaks: English*
Studies: Spanish, French, Russian

 Message 1 of 54
08 November 2010 at 7:51pm | IP Logged 
I know the roots of the English language can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes from Central/Northern Europe and Englands language has been heavily influenced by Latin and French.

When reading French, although I study the language and know a fair amount of vocabulary, I still recognise so many similar words between the two languages whereas when I read German and most other Germanic languages, I see very little resemblence.

How Germanic do you think English is? Is it the Germanic language which shares less in common with other Germanic languages?

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Senior Member
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 Message 3 of 54
08 November 2010 at 9:16pm | IP Logged 
When I learned French I too was surprised by the large number of roots it has in common with English. At times it seemed like 50% of the vocabulary is the same in both languages. You have to go back a few centuries to see comparable similarites between English and German. English has lost some powerful words, like whence and whither (German: woher, wohin) and replaced them with ugly hacks: where from, where to. Shakespeare can sound quite German with his inversions like "four-and-twenty", which corresponds to how you say 24 in German even today.

The way a language feels to me depends more on syntax than vocabulary. In that respect English, French, and German span an equilateral triangle. The rigid word order of English makes it feel very different from German. Often a phrase loses all its magic if you need to rearrange it to SPO. That is the same with Swedish, which has no case system either, but Swedish and German have much more vocabulary in common than English and French. Swedish feels like halfway between English and German.

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Super Polyglot
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 Message 4 of 54
09 November 2010 at 12:06am | IP Logged 
Historically English is Germanic, with Frisian as its nearest neighbour. It is quite intriguing to speculate about its fate if William the Conqueror had lost the battle at Hastings - which could have happened if Harold Godwinson hadn't been forced first the deal with the Norwegian king Harald Hårderåde before he and his army had to hurry down to fight the Norman invasion from the South. But as we all know the organic development of English was severely disrupted by the influx of a French speaking aristokracy.

If you look at modern English then a central core of Anglosaxon 'grammar' words has been preserved, but the rest of the vocabulary has been heavily influenced by French and Latin. The morphology (apart from the pronouns) has been reduced alot, but in what remains you find some peculiar developments. For instance the 'double' set of compund verbal forms, where one set is built on simple forms of auxiliary verbs plus a past participle, the other on auciliary verbs plus present participles. Of course other languages also have such construction (for instance "sto facendo" in Italian), but nowhere as systematically as in English. Another peculiar development is the use of 'to do' to avoid inversion, for instance in negative sentences and questions. There is a rudimentary use of similar construction in 'Ingväonian' languages, i.e. the linguistical realm formed by Frisian + Dutch + Low German. But again: nowhere in such a systematic and ubiquituous way as in English.

Another peculiar trait is the ease with which nouns become verbs or adjectives and the other way round. Actually English behaves more like Bahasa than German or Danish in this respect. On the other hand English still has kept the dichotomy between strong and weak verbs, which is common to all the Germanic languages so you can't say that it totally has cut the ties with other Germanic languages.

We say that English is a Germanic language because of its history, but from a lexical point of view it is half way Romance, and it has become so isolated in its verbal morphology (less so in the nominal morphology) that it must at least be assigned its own subgroup within the Germanic languages.

The rest of the group is traditionally divided into Western Germanic languages (Dutch and German) and Northern Germanic languages (the Nordic languages), with the Eastern Germanic languages represented by the extinct Gothic language and some sparsely documented relatives. But you could also say that Icelandic and German represent a very morphology-rich language type, while Dutch has discarded much of its morphology in analogy with the other Nordic languages and English. That division line is as relevant for language learners as the historically based traditional division line.

Edited by Iversen on 08 May 2012 at 10:39am

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SwedenRegistered users can see my Skype Name
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 Message 5 of 54
09 November 2010 at 12:08am | IP Logged 
Kuikentje wrote:
(generally, although the English's word order is more similar with French's because it doesn't put the infinitive to the end)

Are you confusing Germanic with German? The Scandinavian langauages (which are part of the Germanic group) don't have the infinitive at the end.
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Lucky Charms
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 Message 6 of 54
09 November 2010 at 1:05am | IP Logged 
OlafP wrote:
When I learned French I too was surprised by the large number of roots it has in common with English. At times it seemed like 50% of the vocabulary is the same in both languages.

That's probably about right. I learned that 60% of English vocabulary is ultimately derived from Latin, mostly via Old French. (I've just found another statistic online which claims that 30% of English vocabulary is derived directly from Old French).

But in general, the 'function words' (prepositions, this/that, wh- words, etc.) retain their Germanic (sometimes Anglo-Saxon, sometimes Old Norse) roots, as do many of the basic vocabulary (body parts, relative names [cousin being an exception that springs to mind], numbers, fire, house, water, cow, etc. etc.) I think this lends English the feeling of being Germanic at its core. Also, spoken language is sure to be more Germanic than written language (whence [see? I used it!] all these statistics regarding lexicon usually derive): for example, in writing we tend to use the more posh Latin strata (return, enter, search, remove) while in speech we're more apt to use down-to-earth Germanic words (go back/put back, go in/put in, look for, take away).

[Digression] Although we shy away from using these Germanic-based words in formal writing, I have to say that older writings (like Shakespeare's) seem to me all the more elegant for their rich use of Germanic vocabulary. Now out-of-date words like 'hearken' and 'beseech' strike me as so lovely and English. :) Reading Shakespeare or even just English authors from a few centuries back make me glad I learned German, because in these old text our shared ancestry really shines through.[ /digression]

It's difficult to judge how much of English word order and grammar has been influenced by French and how much is a natural development from Old English, because the grammar of the Latin and Germanic languages is so similar in the first place. (Relative clauses, for example, are formed more or less the same in French and German.) The few differences are probably not enough to come to a conclusion. (Adjectives precede their head nouns, as in German.The stricter word order is like French. Again, such similarities to French may or may not have had anything to do with the influence from the Norman Conquest.) So I think it's hard to say here.

Pronunciation is basically Germanic, with little influence from Old French.

Idioms are very interesting. There are many cases when they are word-for-word the same as in German, and many cases when they are word-for-word the same as in Spanish (I've never studied French). Consequently, when learning languages from either language family, the native English speaker can sometimes get away with literal translations in the most surprising places.

In the end, I think it's a mixed bag: a German linguistic core with a strong French influence which occasionally extends even more deeply than the lexicon. It's impossible to say which one has a stronger presence in Modern English today. I rather like OlafP's 'triangle' idea :)

By the way, when assessing the 'Germanicness' of Modern English, it's tempting to compare it to Hochdeutsch as the representative of modern Germanic languages, when in fact Dutch (or another Low Germanic language) would make for a fairer comparison. Even after removing any French or English loanwords from Dutch, the similarities to English are striking.

Edited by Lucky Charms on 09 November 2010 at 1:08am

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United States
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 Message 8 of 54
09 November 2010 at 2:09am | IP Logged 
English is a little more Germanic than is being implied here.

Check out the following article. It represents a brief discussion of atomic chemistry using only English words of Germanic origin. Despite many terms the author invented, it's very intelligible, with most of being made up of normal English. 9250bac6c7cbaff

For my part, English loses significant Germanic points, insofar as many basic concepts can only be expressed with a word of Norman-French origin.

In addition to what Iverson mentioned, the aspirated stops in English are a clear relic of it's Germanic nature.

Edited by RedKing'sDream on 09 November 2010 at 2:10am

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