All In The Language Family: The Germanic Languages

Which languages belong to the Germanic language family, and how similar are they today? An expert explains.
Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, Germany at sunset

You might have heard about language families before, and today we’ll be talking about Germanic languages. When we say Germanic languages, we’re referring to all of the languages that were once part of the language ancestor Proto-Germanic. Linguists believe this language was spoken between ca. 500 BCE until around the 5th century CE, when it began to split into different branches (more on these branches in a minute).

So which languages are in this family, and how do they compare to each other today? Let’s have a look.

Which Languages Are Members Of The Germanic Family?

Besides the obvious answer, German, there are at least 47 living Germanic languages around today. Most linguists talk about this language family in terms of three branches: the Northern, Eastern and Western Germanic languages. From these three branches, we can group all the Germanic languages we know today.

The Northern Germanic languages (also known as Scandinavian or Nordic languages) include Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese. This whole branch descended from Old Norse, and still enjoys quite a bit of mutual intelligibility between the languages today.

The Western Germanic languages include German, English, Dutch, Frisian, Pennsylvania Dutch, Luxembourgish, Yiddish and Afrikaans, along with a variety of disparate languages that often get lumped together as German or Dutch dialects. Unfortunately, all of the Eastern Germanic languages went extinct starting in the 4th century, and the last living language of this branch died in the late 18th century.

How Many People Speak Germanic Languages?

Around 515 million people speak a Germanic language natively, with English accounting for around 360 million speakers. (The next biggest language of the group is German with approximately 76 million native speakers.)

However, if we include the number of second-language speakers, then the number jumps up to around 2 billion speakers (mostly, again, from English).

Did All Germanic Languages Evolve From German?

While quite a few people still believe that all Germanic languages evolved from different German dialects, it would be more accurate to say that they are all linguistic siblings. In this case, German isn’t the parent language, but just another offspring of Proto-Germanic. This is why they seem so similar!

So how does this look today? We’ve already spent a whole article delving into the Scandinavian languages, but to what degree can we compare the similarities and differences between the Western Germanic languages? Let’s have a closer look at German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and the other living languages from this branch.


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How Similar Are Germanic Languages?

Let’s start by taking a look at two of the biggest members of this branch: German and Dutch. I’ve often noticed that German speakers have this surprised, curious facial expression when they see Dutch words written out. That’s because, for German speakers, many words in Dutch look like incorrectly-spelled German words. For example, the German word finden (to find) is spelled vinden in Dutch. Or the German word Antwort (answer) is spelled antwoord in Dutch. Here are a couple other cognates (along with their English equivalents):

German Dutch English
kreativ creatief creative
Wasser water water
grün groen green
besser beter better

But what about the other Western Germanic languages? As in all language families, the different languages often share common root words. Here are some prominent examples:

English Frisian Dutch Afrikaans German
two twa twee twee zwei
summer simmer zomer somer Sommer
flower blom bloem blom Blume
apple apel appel appel Apfel
house hûs huis huis Haus
old âld oud oud alt

Reading Is One Thing, Listening Is Another

On paper, the West Germanic languages can look extremely similar (especially if you’re comparing Dutch and Afrikaans, but we’ll get to that in a minute). However, just because the words look alike, it doesn’t mean they’re mutually intelligible.

For one, German maintains a complicated grammatical case system that most of the others got rid of. Secondly, Western Germanic languages went through several sound shifts over the last two millennia, including a couple of large consonant shifts. You might have noticed one of these prominent shifts in the first table, where the German words Wasser and besser have similar (but slightly different) English and Dutch equivalents of water and beter/better.

Then if we look at the most widely spoken language of the bunch — English — a whole host of other issues come up. A glance at the history of English shows that this language absorbed thousands of words from Old Norse and French. That’s why even our closest linguistic relatives are nearly impossible to understand for an English speaker who doesn’t have another Germanic language in their tool-belt.

So, what about Afrikaans and Dutch? Why are these two languages so similar?


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Afrikaans, the Little Daughter of Dutch

Afrikaans can best be considered as “the Dutch daughter” of the Germanic language family, as it evolved from Dutch. In fact, almost 90% of Afrikaans’ vocabulary comes from Dutch. Today it’s spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but it developed during the Dutch colonial period in what is now South Africa.

Eighteenth-century Dutch colonists brought their language with them to South Africa, where it mingled with the local languages. As a result, the structure of the language was significantly regularized and simplified. Now Afrikaans is considered to be a separate language, though clearly descended from Dutch.

Which Germanic Language Should I Learn First?

If you’re reading this article right now, the good news is that you already speak a Germanic language: English! Being an English speaker will give you a solid foundation for learning other languages in this family.

Now if you’re keen on taking on a few others, where you start depends on your goals. If you want to speak to the greatest number of people, then you should learn German to start your journey. However, if the idea of tackling one of the most difficult languages to learn makes you worried, try starting with Dutch or Norwegian. They’re two of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, and they’ll give you a great base for picking up additional Germanic languages in the future.

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