The Germanic languages constitute one of the ten major branches of the Indo-European family. Proto-Germanic, the inferred common parent of the group, was a sister language to Proto-Greek, Proto-Italic, Proto-Indo-Iranian, and other descendants of Proto-Indo-European, which is presumed to have been spoken around 4000 bce. Proto-Germanic probably remained a fairly homogeneous speech community until the last four or five centuries before the beginning of the Common Era, when it divided into East and Northwest Germanic dialects; the latter subsequently split into North and West Germanic. The early Germanic peoples were illiterate at this time, so our knowledge of Proto-Germanic is based entirely on comparative reconstruction. Since all the early Germanic languages are still fairly close, however, the sounds and forms of Proto-Germanic are recoverable with reasonable accuracy.
The earliest and most archaic Germanic language of which we have extensive remains is Gothic, the only attested representative of the East Germanic dialect group. Our knowledge of Gothic is almost entirely based on the Bible translation made around the middle of the 4th century by the Arian Gothic bishop Wulfila. Of this translation substantial fragments survive, amounting to slightly more than half of the New Testament. Written in a Greek-based alphabet of Wulfila's invention, they are preserved in Italian manuscripts dating from the 6th century. Likewise of Italian provenance is the so-called Skeireins, a fragmentary commentary on the Gospel of St John. Gothic became extinct early in Italy and Spain, the two major areas of Gothic settlement, but a Gothic-speaking population survived in the Crimea, where a short word-list was compiled in the 16th century. Of the closely related East Germanic languages spoken by the Vandals, Gepids, Burgundians, and other tribes, nothing survives except the evidence of personal names.
Slightly older than the Gothic Bible, and reflecting a more archaic linguistic stage, are the earliest inscriptions in the runic alphabet. This writing system, ultimately derived from a North Italian prototype, was apparently common to all the pagan Germanic peoples; in a modified form, it continued in use in parts of Scandinavia until modern times. The oldest runic inscriptions, few in number and very brief, come from southern Scandinavia and go back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce. The language of these meagre texts is called Runic (or Primitive) Norse; though reckoned as North Germanic, it shows few divergences from Proto-Germanic before c. 500 ce. After the 5th century, the Scandinavian inscriptions grow longer and take on a more pronouncedly dialectal character, gradually approaching the literary Norse of the high Middle Ages. Significant records in Old Norse proper, written in the Roman alphabet, begin in the 12th century. In its Old Icelandic variety, this language is the vehicle of an important medieval literature, the older part of which was written down in the 13th century. Modern Icelandic has changed remarkably little from its medieval ancestor. Modern Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish (from c.1500), far less conservative, are descended from the corresponding Old Norse dialects of the Scandinavian mainland.
The West Germanic languages are attested only vestigially before the 8th century. They present a more diverse picture than the Scandinavian dialects—so much so that many scholars have doubted the utility of West Germanic as a basis of classification. Old English, generally written in the Roman alphabet (there are also a few early runic sources), is represented by a substantial and varied literature. Most of our texts are in the West Saxon dialect and date from the 9th–11th centuries, although some works, such as the epic Beowulf, incorporate a great deal of archaic and dialectal material. Middle and Modern English are conventionally dated from c.1100 and 1450, respectively. The closest relative of Old English is Old Frisian, attested in laws from the 13th century and continued in modern dialects spoken in the Frisian islands and the Dutch province of Friesland. The early continental West Germanic languages are Old Low Franconian, Old Saxon, and the assemblage of dialects traditionally grouped together as Old High German. Old Low Franconian, the ancestor of Middle and Modern Dutch, is chiefly known from the fragments of a 10th-century translation of the Book of Psalms. Old Saxon, spoken in north-western Germany, is best attested in the Heliand, a long poem on the life of Christ from the first half of the 9th century. Its immediate descendant, Middle Low German, was widely employed for literary purposes in the late Middle Ages, but the modern Low German dialects have only local currency. Old High German, distinguished from the neighbouring West Germanic languages by the High German Consonant Shift, is documented in glosses and literary texts from the Carolingian and Ottonian periods. The bulk of Old High German literature is of ecclesiastical inspiration, but the succeeding Middle High German period (from c.1050) is rich in texts of every description. Early Modern (or New) High German is dated from c.1350.
Of the many historical changes that marked the emergence of Germanic from the rest of the Indo-European family, perhaps the most conspicuous was Grimm’s Law, the shift of (a) Indo-European voiceless stops (*p, *t, *k, etc.) to voiceless fricatives (*f, *þ, *χ; cf. Go. fotus, Eng. foot beside Lat. ped-, Gk. ποδ-; Go. þreis, Eng. three beside Lat. trēs, Gk. τρεῖς); (b) Indo-European voiced stops (*b, *d, *g, etc.) to voiceless stops (*p, *t, *k; cf. Go. taihun, Eng. ten beside Lat. decem, Gk. δέκα; Go. kuni, Eng. kin beside Lat. genus, Gk. γένος); and (c) Indo-European voiced aspirates (*bh, *dh, *gh, etc.) to voiced stops (*b, *d, *g; cf. Go. bairan, Eng. bear beside Lat. ferō, Gk. φέρω, Skt. bhárati; Eng. do beside Gk. θη-, Skt. dhā-). The older Germanic languages retain considerable morphological complexity; Gothic comes close to Latin in the richness of its declensional forms. The verbal system was more drastically simplified. The functions of the Indo-European aorist and imperfect were taken over by the perfect, which became the sole exponent of past tense in primary (“strong”) verbs (cf. Go. beita [I bite]: pret. bait [I bit], with the same vowel alternation (ablaut) as in Gk. λɛίπω : perf. λɛλοίπα). Derived verbs, which had no inherited perfect, were provided with a new “weak” preterite, based on a periphrasis with the verb do (cf. Go. hausja [I hear]: pret. 1 sg. hausida, 1 pl. hausidedum; Eng. hear: heard).
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