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2 min read
Trisha J.
November 13, 2023
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2 min read

English is a Germanic language: What’s that mean?

You may have heard someone say that German and English are sister languages. But languages don’t have genes, so what does that really mean?
English is a Germanic language: What’s that mean?

English is a Germanic language: What’s that mean?

You may have heard someone say that German and English are sister languages. In the genetic classification of languages, they are, along with several others, Germanic languages. But languages don’t have genes, and they don’t reproduce and pass those genes on, so what does that really mean?

The short (overly simplified) answer

Modern English and German are two uniquely evolved forms of what was once a single language: Proto-(West)-Germanic.

This may be difficult to accept, considering the vast differences between these modern languages, but we have two human phenomena to thank: inevitable language change and the movement of people.

To the chagrin of language purists everywhere, every language changes constantly, and when a population separates, their common language evolves in different directions. Over generations, constant change upon change yields not one language spoken by two distinct groups, nor one language borne of the other, but two languages, borne of one. Cool, huh?

The long(er) answer (a mini-history of English)

It’s a gross oversimplification to suggest that all the peoples covering the western reach of Proto-Germanic, the parent language, once spoke some standardized tongue. And it’s plainly wrong to suggest that one group divided into two, and then voilà: two languages. But for the sake of illustrating what it means to be sister languages, I hope the short answer can be forgiven.

At some point after 400AD, when Roman rule had ended in Britannia, several waves of Germanic tribes invading the isles ushered in a new language and culture. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes spoke mutually comprehensible varieties of language descended from Proto-Germanic. (That just means that even though they didn’t speak exactly the same, they understood one another, like Portuguese speakers from Portugal and Brazil.)

These dialects have been collectively referred to as Anglo-Saxon, and their arrival in the British Isles marks the beginning of English (cue trumpets). If those speakers of Anglo-Saxon, or Old English as we have come to call it, could have hopped on a plane to visit the motherlands now and again shortly after, they still would have been able to communicate with those back home for some time.

The Western Germanic language would have remained mutually comprehensible between populations, at least for a little. This is important, as mutual comprehensibility is what linguists often use to distinguish one language from another.

But: language change. History carried on in the newly established land of the Angles, as it did in the lands the tribes had left behind. Within generations, the descendants of the invaders inherited an evolved tongue that would no longer be understood by their own ancestors (not a lot unlike you and your great grandparents).

To say that English is Germanic is to point to its roots, and these are the very same roots of modern German. Over the millennia, human populations have developed, separated, invaded, conquered, coalesced, and separated again. All the while, language is brought with them, changing, taking on new sounds and structures, losing others, and mixing, just as their speakers did, and all of this, endlessly.

Man saying 'over and over again'

If the concept of language change is still difficult to wrap your head around, just consider the evolution of English over the last few centuries. The Brits who settled in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand all brought with them the language of home. Despite the fact that English was a fully standardized, written language at each of these points in history, the gap between these Englishes yawns deep and wide. And that is another story.