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The old Germanic languages, their classification and principal features


The history of the Germanic group begins with the appearance of what is known as the Proto-Germanic language. As the Indo-Europeans extended over a large territory, the ancient Germans or Teutons moved further north than other tribes and settled on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea in the region of the Elbe. PG is an entirely pre-historical language: it was never recorded in written form. The first mention of Germanic tribes was made by Pitheas, a Greek historian and geographer of the 4th. C.B.C. in COMMENTARIES ON THE GALLIC WAR. In the 1st c. A.D. Pliny the Elder, a prominent Roman scientist and writer, in NATURAL HISRORY made a classified list of Germanic tribes grouping them under six headings. Tacitus – the Roman historian – compiled a detailed description of the life and customs of the ancient Teutons. According to this division PG split into three branches: East Germanic (Vindili in Pliny’s classification), North Germanic (Hillevonies) and West Germanic (which embraces Ingveones, Istevones and Herminones),

East Germanic. The East Germanic subgroup was formed by the tribes who returned from Scandinavia at the beginning of our era. The most numerous and powerful of them were Goths. Their western branch, the Visigote, invaded Roman territory. Linguistically the Western Goths were soon absorbed by the native population, the Romanised Celts. The Eastern Goths, Ostrogote, consolidated into a powerful tribal alliance in the lower basin of the Dniester. They set up a kingdom in Northern Italy. The Gothic language, now dead, has been preserved in written records of the 4th – 6th century. The Goths were the first of the Teutons to become Christian. In the 4th c. Ulfilas, a West Gothic bishop, made a translation of the Gospels from Greek into Gothic using a modified form of the Greek alphabet. It is written on red parchment with silver and golden letters and is known as the SILVER CODEX. It is one of the earliest texts in thelanguages of the Germanic group.

North Germanic. The North Germanic tribes lived on the southern coast of the Scandinavian peninsula and in Northern Denmark. They didn’t take part in the migrations and were relatively isolated. The speech of the North Germanic tribes showed little dialectal variation until the 9th c. and called Old Norse or Old Scandinavian. It has come down to us in runic inscriptions. RI were carved on objects made of hard material in an original Germanic alphabet known as the runic alphabet or the runes. The principal linguistic differentiation in Scandinavia corresponded to the political division into Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The earliest written records in Old Danish, Old Norwegian and Old Swedish date from the 13th c. Later Danish and Swedish developed into national literary languages. Norwegian was the last to develop into an independent national language.

Also this group include the Icelandic and Faroese languages, whose origin goes back to the Viking Age. In the Faroe Islands the West Norwegian dialects brought by the Scandinavians developed into a separate language called Faroese. For many centuries all writing was done in Danish, it was until 18th c. Faroese is spoken nowadays by about 30.000 people. Icelandic developed as a separate language in spite of the political dependence of Iceland upon Denmark and the dominance of Danish in official spheres. Icelandic has retained a more archaic vocabulary and grammatical system, Written records date from the 12th and 13th c. The most important records are: the ELDER EDDA- a collection of heroic songs of the 12th c., the YOUNGER EDDA (a text-book for poets) and Old Icelandic Sagas.

West Germanic. The would-be West Germanic tribes dwelt in the Lowlands between the Oder and the Elbe bordering on the Slavonian tribes in the East and the Celtic tribes in the South. The West Germans include several tribes: the Franconians (or Franks), occupied the lower basin of the Rhine. They divided into Low, Middle and High Franconians. The Angles anf the Frisians, the Jutes and the Saxons inhabited the coastal area of the modern Netherlands, the Federal Republic of Germany and the southern part of Denmark. A group of tribes known as High Germans (the Alemanians, the Swabians, the Bavarians, the Thuringians and others) lived in the mountainous southern regions of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the Early Middle Ages the Franks consolidated into a powerful tribal alliance. Towards the 8th c. their kingdom grew into one of the largest states in Western Europe. In the 9th c. it broke up into parts. Its western part eventually became the basis of France. The eastern part, the east Franconian Empire, comprised several kingdoms: Swabia or Alemania, Bavaria, East Franconian and Saxony, Lorraine and Friesland. The Franconian dialects were spoken in the extreme north of the Empire; in the later Middle Ages they develop into Dutch – the language of the Low Countries (the Netherlands) and Flemish – the language of Flanders. The earliest texts in Low Franconian date from the 10th c. The modern language of the Netherlands, formerly called Dutch, and its variant in Belgium, known as the Flemish dialect, are now treated as a single language, Netherlandish (20 mln people). The High German group of tribes did not go far in their migration. The High German dialects consolidated into a common language known as Old High German. The first written records in OHG date from the 8th and 9th c. Towards the 12th c. High German had intermixed with neighboring tongues, especially Middle and High Franconian, and eventually developed into the literary German language. (100 mln people) Yiddish grew from the High German dialects which were adopted by numerous Jewish communities in the 11th and 12th c. These dialects blended with elements of Hebrew and Slavonic. At the later stage of the great migration period – in the 5th c. – a group of West Germanic tribes started out on their invasion of the British Isles. They were The Angles, part of the Saxon and Frisian, and, probably, the Jutes. Their dialects in the British Isles developed into the English language.

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