Chief characteristics of the Germanic languages


The barbarian tribes – Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Franks, Frisians, Teutons, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Scandinavians – lived on the fringes of the Roman Empire. All these spoke Germanic languages, which had distinctive characteristics of structure and pronunciation which are reflected in its descendents.




One of the most important common features of all Germanic languages is its strong dynamic stress falling on the first root syllable. The fixed stress emphasized the syllable bearing the most important semantic element and to a certain degree later contributed to the reduction of unstressed syllables, changing the grammatical system of the languages.

The most important feature of the system of Germanic vowels is the so-called Ablaut, or gradation, which is spontaneous, positionally independent alteration of vowels inhabited by the Germanic languages from the Common Indo-European period. This ancient phenomenon consisted in alteration of vowels in the root, suffix or ending depending on the grammatical form or meaning of the word.

There are two types of Ablaut: quantitative and qualitative. The qualitative Ablaut is the alteration of different vowels, mainly the vowels [e]/ [a] or [e]/ [o]


Old Icelandic bera (to give birth) – barn (baby)

Old High German stelan (to steal) – stal (stole)

Cf.: Russian бреду (I stroll, I wade) – брод (ford, wade)

Latin tego (to cover, to close) – toga (clothes)

Qualitative Ablaut means the change in length of qualitatively one and the same vowel: normal lengthened and reduced. A classic example of the Indo-European Ablaut is the declension of the Greek word “pater” (father):

[e:] [e] [-]

patēr patěr patros

(nominative case, (vocative case, (genitive case,

Lengthed stage) normal stage) reduced stage)


Ablaut in Germanic languages is a further development of Indo-European alterations. Here we often find cases with both the quantitative and qualitative ablaut. It should be also mentioned that in the zero stage before sonorants an extra-short vowel [u] was added:

Quantitative ablaut

Goth qiman (to come) – qums (the arrival)

Qualitative ablaut

OHG stelan (to steal) – stal (stole)

Quantitative + qualitative ablaut

OE fīndan (to find) – fand (found, past tense) – fundan (past participle)

Ablaut as a kind of an internal flexion functioned in Old Germanic languages both in form- and word-building, but it was the most extensive and systematic in the conjugation of strong verbs.

Another phenomenon common for all Germanic languages was the tendency of phonetic assimilation of the root vowel to the vowel of the ending, the so-called Umlaut, or mutation. There were several types of mutation, but the most important one was palatal mutation, or i-Umlaut, when under the influence of the sounds [i] or [j] in the suffix or ending the root vowels became more front and more closed. This process must have taken place in the 5th – 6th centuries and can be illustrated by comparing words from the language of the Gothic Bible (4th century) showing no palatal mutation with corresponding words in other Germanic languages of a later period:


Goth harjis OE here (army)

Goth dōmjan OE dēman (deem)

Goth kuni OE cynn (kin)

Traces of this tendency can be seen both in word-building and form-building as a kind of internal flexion:


OHG gast (guest) – gesti (guests)

man (man) – mennisco (human)


Speaking about Germanic consonants, we should first of all speak of the correspondence between Indo-European and Germanic languages which was presented as a system of interconnected facts by the German linguists Jacob Grimm in 1822. This phenomenon is called the first Consonant Shift, or Grimm’s law.

The table below shows a scheme of Grimm’s law with the examples from Germanic and other Indo-European languages.

However, there are some instances where Grimm’s law seems not to apply. These cases were explained by a Dutch linguist Karl Verner, and the seeming exceptions from Grimm’s law have come to be known as Verner’s law.


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