Learning Germanic Languages: Everything You Need To Know

Learning a new language within the same language branch as another language you already know is much easier than learning something within a completely different branch or family. And knowing a central language in a language branch also makes it easier to understand things you see and hear in another language from that language branch, even if you don't know that language at all.

Germanic languages

The Germanic language branch of the Indo-European language tree has roots older than the Roman Empire. Germanic tribes can be traced back as far as 750 BCE, and common vocal elements defining Germanic language are believed to have occurred as early as 500 BCE. With writings that can be traced to at least the first century BCE, there can be no doubt that Germanic languages are at least as old as Latin.

Its varieties are known as East, West, and North Germanic. The East Germanic languages are all extinct now. North Germanic language include Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. And West Germanic languages include German, Dutch, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Frisian, Scots, and English.

Yes, you read that right: English is a Germanic language. I'll bet that came as a surprise to a few of you. The one that was surprising to me was Afrikaans.

Language Features

  • Verb tense and aspect are simplified into present tense and past tense.
  • Most verbs mark the past tense by the use of a /d/ or /t/ sound at the end of the word.
  • Word stress favors the word stem, or the first syllable of the word.
  • Verb comes second in word order. (Except in English, where it merely comes after the the subject, and not specifically second.)

Germanic languages tend to differ much more than those of the Slavic and Vulgar Latin branches of the Indo-European language tree, no doubt because they have a longer history, but probably also because they lack the strong influence of a significant Empire in their early history.

Similarities

If you have studied languages from different branches or families, you know how very different they can be, so you can probably appreciate the similarities in vocabulary. If you learn a word in one Germanic language, it's easy to remember in another.

Here are samples with the words house, book, and many:

EnglishhousebookmanyAfrikaanshuisboekmenigeDanishhusbogmangeGermanHausBuchmanchScotshoosebeukmony

I don't know Afrikaans or Danish, so I only know what I get from Google Translate. (Unfortunatley, they don't support Scots.) Still, the similarities are pretty noteworthy:

EnglishI have many books in my house.AfrikaansEk het baie boeke in my huis.DanishJeg har mange bøger i mit hus.GermanIch habe viele Bücher in meinem Haus.

This is just a small sample of the similarities between Germanic languages. You find similarities are even more notable within the Western or Northern subdivisions of the Germanic branch.

As with the Vulgar Latin languages, just learning the basic rules of pronunciation in a given language — something that can usually be done un an afternoon — is often enough to allow speakers of one language to understand what someone is saying in another.

I've studied German, and I speak it a bit, though not fluently, but I've found in the past that I can often understand what I hear or see in Dutch. My knowledge of English, coupled with an understanding of German grammar, gives me the ability to figure out quite a bit in a language I don't know at all!

The polyglot advantage?

So, if you're going to travel to Amsterdam and you already know German, grab yourself a good phrasebook and Google some Dutch grammar before you go, and be surprised by how well you're able to communicate! The same thing goes for Afrikaans, or Norwegian, or Danish.

No doubt if you were picking only one language from this language branch, German would be the most useful. But the nice thing is that there are enough similarities to really give you an advantage once you start learning a second language from this branch.

But don't forget... you already speak at least one language from this branch — English! Granted, English has probably deviated more than the rest of the Germanic languages, and picked up a lot of other influences (especially from French), but it still shares a lot of similarities in grammar and vocabulary... an advantage that shouldn't be overlooked.


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  • Very interesting! As a native English speaker who studied German at college (some time ago!) and who is now learning Swedish, I would agree that there are similarities. I have moved to Sweden and am now learning at a much quicker rate than when I tried to study in the UK before emigrating. There are many similar words in Swedish to German/English. To use your example:
    Swedish: hus (house), bok (book), många (many)...
    also sometimes, schoolgirl French helps... pineapple is "ananas" and umbrella is "paraply"!
    Christina

  • I know English is Germanic. Afrikaans surprised me also. I've heard it before and now that explains why I thought I was hearing German when I heard it. The way I heard the lady pronounce things and some words sounded as if it was German. Thanks for the post.

  • It has always fascinated me how English can be so similar to the vulgar Latin languages in some aspects, yet so similar to German in other aspects. I guess it's just historical influence. German is one of my goals for the next year.

  • Yes, we find grammatical similarities between English and other Germanic languages, but also many lexical (vocabulary) similarities to Latin. This is because the major English writers (from when the language was just a baby) had to borrow from other languages to supplement English vocabulary. Since they all had “classical” educations, they spoke Greek, and Latin, and so they just borrowed from what they knew.

  • I guess English speakers (from birth especially, but also any who learned the language) have a real advantage when it come to learning both Germanic and Romance languages. I’m interested in learning German or Dutch sometime soon, but I’m also fascinated by Icelandic. Oh, so many languages, so little time!

  • Actually, this is mainly a consequence of England having been conquered by the french-speaking Normans.https://en.wikipedia.org/wik...

  • The Scots for your sentence would be:
    Ah hae mony beuks in ma hooseI can also give the sentence in Norwegian:
    Eg har fleire boka i huset mitt

  • Actually, no it's not. The ruling classes did indeed speak French, but the pig farmers and ditch-sitters didn't. The vast majority of French/Latin vocabulary found in English today has been borrowed in since the early modern period of the English language (ca. Elizabethan times onward).

  • What about Germanic based creoles (if you're going to include Scots which is a dialect and Afrikaans which is a creole.)Jamaican Creole
    Mi aav auolipa buk dem ina mi ous.

  • I'm a native Afrikaans speaker and I attest to the Germanic similarities. For example the sentence: "My pen is in my hand" is written exactly the same in both Afrikaans & English, means the same as well, but is just pronounced a bit different.By being a native speaker of Afrikaans I can by default understand Flemish and Dutch. German needs a bit of work. So yeah, it's a great advantage.

  • I'm surprised that it's written exactly the same. Since learning that Afrikaans was Germanic, I've become much more interested in it.Thanks for your comment.

  • I really don't know which ones are and aren't creoles.

  • Thanks!

  • There's plenty of time! You can do one every year, like me. Just think of how old you'll be in 10 years, and then imagine being able to speak 10 more languages at that age!

  • Interesting. Thanks for the comment!

  • Very cool. Thanks for the additional examples!

  • I don't really see how Afrikaans is a creole. What's the substrate language?

  • Afrikaans is very close to Dutch, back in the 1980's I remember my South African relatives explaining the similarities. One Uncle of mine was complaining because his company had dealings with a Dutch company and insisted on using an interpreter (he claimed they were just being snooty at they could communicate ok and there were no legal documents to check etc.).

  • Exactly which is why I am learning German as my first European language. Also having South African relatives and an interest in Anglo Saxon history (Anglo Saxon English being even more Germanic) it all fits in nicely. Maybe for an American Spanish is one of the easiest languages (potential high background exposure) but I think for many English the easiest language is German.
    This is one of the reasons I really did not like the post Benny made about there being no point in accessing how hard a language is (can't comment on there of course as like many others I am banned :/, I got banned when you and I had that fall out over negativity), of course there is a point if you can find a language that is technically easier for you and you can be interested in, it is a great way to start learning languages. I even picked a "hard" language as my first second language (Chinese) deliberately as I am getting older and it seemed best to save "easier" ones for when I had improved my learning skills and my brain was declining).
    Benny in another post recommends starting with Esperanto (because it is easier even though there is "no such thing" as easier of course "doh") I think it would be better to find a language that is actually easier for you and actually has a country to go with it, unless of course your level of interest and other factors counteract the difficulty.

  • I agree. A language without a land is pointless. At least to me.And a lot of people think German is hard, but I actually found it to be rather straightforward and easy when I studied it.

  • Or in Glasgow dialect "Ah hiv loadsa books in ma hoose"

  • Yup, I've actually used this precise explanation before to explain to people why learning German probably isn't as hard as they think (German has a TERRIBLE reputation as far as how easy it is to learn goes, for some reason)--of course, I was speaking to native English-speakers at the time.Also, have you seen the video of Charlize Theron (she's South African) speaking Afrikaans and then switching to English: https://www.youtube.com/watc...Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Thanks for the cool video. It's interesting, based on what I know of German, I can actually understand most of what they're saying.

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