Germanic languages are considered a subdivision of the Indo-European language family, which consists of a total of 10 subdivisions and hundreds of languages and dialects. Although Germanic languages are spoken across the world, they are primarily concentrated in the majority of Europe (with the exception of the Eastern regions), North America, Southern Africa, and Oceania. Approximately 500 million people speak a Germanic language as their native tongue. This article takes a look at the history of this language subdivision, its branches, and the most widely spoken Germanic languages in the world.
History Of Germanic Languages
Linguists believe that all Germanic languages developed from the Proto-Germanic language, which began to develop sound changes during the Iron Age (around 500 BC). These changes moved throughout Europe with the spread of the Germanic tribes. The oldest, decipherable written Germanic language is the now-extinct Gothic language. These Gothic texts date back to the 4th century AD. Today, Germanic languages are divided into 3 branches: East, North, and West.
East Germanic Languages
The East Germanic language branch consists of extinct languages, including: Burgundian, Gothic, and Vandalic. Crimean Gothic survived longer than the other languages and was used for communication until the 18th century.
North Germanic Languages
North Germanic languages are sometimes referred to as the Nordic languages due to their main geographic distribution. These languages are spoken in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, Finland, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands. The following languages are considered North Germanic: Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese, and Elfdalian. A total population of approximately 20 million people speaks these languages.
West Germanic Languages
The West Germanic languages are the most widely spoken in the world, with well over 500 million native speakers. This language branch consists of a number of languages, including: Afrikaans, Luxembourgish, Yiddish, Scots, English, German, and Dutch.
Most Popular Germanic Languages Spoken In The World
Of the above mentioned Germanic languages, the most popularly spoken in the world belong to the West Germanic branch and include: English, German, and Dutch.
The English language is one of the most widely spoken languages. Research indicates that it has between 360 and 400 million native speakers, 400 million second language speakers, and between 600 and 700 million foreign language speakers around the world. It has become one of the most important means of international communication and is most commonly used among among international businesses, financial institutions, academic research, media outlets, and even the entertainment industry. Additionally, it is the official language of 59 sovereign countries, the most common official language in the world.
This language, as it is known today, has developed over the last 1,400 years. It originated from the Old English language, which was introduced to Great Britain by the Anglo-Saxon people when they settled in the area during the 5th century AD. Old English gradually became Middle English during 11th century, when the Norman conquest occurred. During this stage of development, the language became heavily influenced by French. Middle English gave way to early Modern English in the latter part of the 15th century. Modern English has become one of the most widely spoken languages because it was spread around the globe with the help of the printing press and the British Empire. Later, the US became an important international superpower, which helped to secure the English language as the most popular Germanic language.
The German language is the second most popularly spoken Germanic language in the world. Linguistic research indicates that it has between 90 and 95 million native language speakers and between 10 and 15 million second language speakers. Its use is concentrated in Central Europe, where it is the official or co-official language of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, the German-speaking community of Belgium, and South Tyrol in Italy. It is the most widely used language and the third most commonly taught language of the European Union.
German is considered a High German dialect, which in turn is a subdivision of the Central German and Thuringian-Upper Saxon dialect. This language has its origins in the Migration Period of Europe, which occurred between 21 and 700 AD. During this period, German and Slavic tribes moved westward across the continent, invading the weakening Roman Empire. This migratory movement brought with it changing language patterns and the Old High German dialect was born from the Old Saxon language. The oldest, understandable written record of this dialect dates back to the 9th century. A variety of dialects were spoken across the ancient German states by the 10th century, including: Old Saxon, Old Alemannic, Old Frisian, Old Bavarian, and Old Franconian. Writers of the time worked to standardize the language to increase their audience base. During the 1500’s, the evolving Modern German language was still divided across the region, although two types emerged: Protestant German and Catholic German. These two languages were very similar and used by religious leaders to translate the Christian bible. The Modern German language was not standardized in writing until the late 18th century.
The third most widely spoken Germanic language in the world is Dutch with approximately 23 million native speakers and 5 million second-language speakers. Dutch is spoken by the majority of the population of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname and is the official or co-official language of Sint Maarten, Curaçao, and Aruba. Dutch-speaking minorities can also be found in Indonesia, Germany, France, Australia, Canada, and the US.
The origins of the Old Dutch language date back to around the same time frame as that of Old English and Old High German. Its roots can be traced back, however, to the dialect spoken by the Salian Franks of the 5th century AD. As this population grew, the language gradually replaced the Old Saxon language that had previously been spoken in the eastern regions of present-day Germany. By the 12th century, the Old Dutch language evolved into Middle Dutch and the same time that Medieval Dutch literature became prevalent, again developing out of the need to reach a wider reader base. Actual standardization of the language, however, began in the 1400’s, when Modern Dutch emerged. It was spread around the world with the help of the independence of the Dutch Republic and the colonization efforts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.