Indo-European Germanic

1 Act voiceless stops p t k voiceless fricatives f þ h


Lat. pater O.E. fæder (father)

Lat. tres Goth. þreis (three)

Greek kardia OHG herza (heart)


2 Act voiced stops b d g voiceless stops p t k


Rus. болото O.E. pōl (pool)

Lat. duo Goth. twai (two)

Greek. egon O.Icl. ek (I)


3 Act voiced aspirated stops voiced non-aspirated stops

Bh dh gh b d g


Snsk. bhratar O.E. brōþor (brother)

Lat. frater

Snsk. madhu O.E. medu (mead)

Snsk. songha O.Icl. syngva (sing)


Verner’s law explains the changes in the Germanic voiceless fricatives f þ h resulting from the first consonant shift and the voiceless fricatives depending upon the position of the stress in the original Indo-European word, namely:


Indo-European Germanic

p t k s b ð/d g z/r


Gk. hepta Goth. sibun (seven)

Gk. pater OSc. Faðir O.E. fæder

Gk. dekas Goth. Tigus (ten, a dozen)

Snsk. ayas Goth. aiz, OHG ēr (bronze)


According to Verner’s Law, the above change occurred if the consonant in question was found after an unstressed vowel. It is especially evident in the forms of Germanic strong verbs, except the Gothic ones, which allows concluding that at some time the stress in the first two verbal stems fell on the root, and in the last two – on the suffix:


O.E. tēon tēah tuзon toзen (to tug)

OSx. tiohan tōh tugun gitogan

Goth. tiuhan tauh tauhum tauhans


O.E. cēosan cēas curon coren (to choose)

OIcl. kiósa kaus kørom kørenn

Coth. kiusan kaus kusum kusan





One of the main processes in the development of the Germanic morphological system was the change in the word structure. The common Indo-European notional word consisted of the three elements: the root, expressing the lexical meaning, the inflexion or ending, showing the grammatical form, and the so-called stem-forming suffix, a formal indicator of the stem type. However, in the Germanic languages the stem-forming suffix fuses with the ending and is often no longer visible, thus making the word structure a two-element one. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account when explaining the differences in the categorical forms of words originally having different stem-forming suffixes.

It should also be mentioned that Germanic languages belonged to the synthetic type of form-building, which means that they expressed the grammatical meanings by changing the forms of the word itself, not resorting to any auxiliary words.

The Germanic nouns had a well-developed case system with four cases (nominative, genitive, dative and accusative); some languages had elements of the instrumental and vocative cases and two number forms (singular and plural). They also had the category of gender (feminine, masculine and neuter) the means of form-building were the endings added to the root/stem of the noun.

The Germanic adjectives had two types of declension, conventionally called strong and weak. Most adjectives could be declined both in accordance with the strong and weak type. Agreeing with the noun in gender, case and noun, the adjective by its type of declension expressed the idea of definiteness (weak declension) or indefiniteness (strong declension), the meaning which was later to become expressed by a grammatical class of words unknown in the Common Germanic – the article.

The adjective also had degrees of comparison, the forms of which were in most instances formed with the help of suffixes –iz/ōz and –ist/-ōst, but there were also instances of suppletivism, i.e. use of different roots for different forms – a means common for many Indo-European languages:


Goth leitils – minniza – minnists (little – less – least)

Rus. Хороший – лучше – лучший


The Germanic verbs are divided into two principal groups: strong and weak verbs, depending on the way they formed their past tense forms.

The past tense (or preterit) of strong verbs was formed with the help of Ablaut, quantitative and qualitative. Depending upon the phonetic root structure, the exact manifestation of Ablaut could be somewhat different, and accordingly strong verbs were further subdivided into classes.

Weak verbs expressed pretirite with the help of the dental suffix –d/t. they also had stem-forming suffixes, depending on which they fell into separate classes.

There were also a small group of highly frequent suppletive verbs forming their forms from different roots, the same as in other Indo-European languages:

Goth am (I/am) Rus. есть

was (I / was) был


The Germanic verb had a well-developed system of categories, including the category of person (first, second, third), number (singular and plural), tense (past, present, the latter also used for expressing future actions). Mood (indicative, imperative and optative) and voice (only in gothic – active and mediopassive). The categorical forms employed synthetic means of form-building.




Although the people of the Germanic tribes were mostly illiterate, some of the Germanic nations had their own mode of writing, with a distinctive alphabet called runic, each letter of which was called a rune. We know that runes were used to record early stages of Gothic, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, English, Frisian, Frankish and various tribal tongues of central Germania and they may also have supplied other Germanic languages without leaving any evidence surviving till today. On archeological grounds the earliest runes are dated to the second century AD. The script continued in use in some regions throughout the Middle Ages and into early modern times.

The early runes were not written, but incised – runic script was designed for inscribing, at first on wood, which explains many of its characteristics. Since runes were designed for incising in wood, the letter forms, in their earliest stages, eschew curves, which are hard to cut in such a grainy material. Letters were made up of vertical strokes, cut at right angles to the grain, and of slanting strokes which mingle with the grain and be hard to distinguish, were avoided.

Even the earliest examples of the script show there were variations in some letter forms, so it is not possible to give a standard pattern for the Germanic runic alphabet.

The earliest known runic alphabet had twenty-four letters arranged in a peculiar order, which, from the values of its first letters, is known as the futhark. In early times texts could be written not only from left to right, but from right to left equally well. Some texts could be even being written with alternate lines in opposite directions. Even in left-to-right texts an individual letter could be reversed at whim, and occasionally a letter might be inverted. There was no distinction between capital and lower-case letters.

The Roman equivalents for the Germanic runes given above are only approximate, for the sounds of Early Germanic did not coincide with those of Modern English.

It is unknown where and when runes were invented. The obvious similarities with the Roman alphabet brought early scholars to the belief that the script first appeared among Germanic peoples living close to the Roman Empire, and that the runes were an adaptation of the more prestigious alphabet. Early finds of rune-inscribed objects in Eastern Europe (Pietroassa in Rumania, Dahrmsdorf in central Germany and Kowel in the Ukraine) suggested that runes may have been invented by Goths on the Danube or beside the Vistula. This is further supported by the similarity of occasional runes to letters of one or other of the Greek alphabets. However, continued discovery of early runic texts in various regions of Europe do not allow considering the matter of the origin of runes conclusively proven.

Runes spread over the Germanic world and by 500 AD they are found not only in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England but also in Poland, Russia and Hungary, recording different Germanic languages and being cut, stamped, inlaid or impressed on metal, bone, wood and stone.

Runes were used for many centuries and in many lands, gradually changing in their passage through time and space. In England the script died out, superseded by Roman, somewhere in the eleventh century; in Germany rather soon. In Scandinavia and its colonies, however, runes continued well into the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the later runic inscriptions are of comparatively little interest, for there is plenty of other evidence for the state of the language they record, whereas the early inscriptions are of great importance to the linguist, for they record material for which there is otherwise little or no evidence.





Thus we may summarize the above discussion stating that the principal features common to all the languages of the Germanic area were:

· Fixation of the main stress on the initial syllable of the word;

· The first, or Germanic sound shift affecting the Indo-European voiceless and voiced stops and the spirant [s];

· Certain vowel changes;

· Reduction in the number of cases as compared to Common Indo-European;

· Full development of the weak declension of the adjective with particular categorical meaning;

· Development of a dental preterite and appearance of the strong/weak verb distinction;

· A peculiar alphabet.




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