The Western Germanic languages

The Western Germanic languages form a branch of the Germanic languages (which themselves constitute a branch of the large Indo-European language family). Other branches are the Northern Germanic languages and the now extinct Eastern Germanic languages. The Western Germanic language with the largest number of speakers and the widest geographical distribution is English. Other languages in this group are Dutch, Afrikaans (a descendant of Dutch), Frisian and German. There are also dialects of English, Dutch and German that are sufficiently different from the standard languages (e.g. Scottish English and Swiss German) to justify considering them separate languages. Yiddish is another Western Germanic language and it was once spoken by millions of Jews in Europe. This language developed out of German but was eavily influenced by Hebrew and later by several Slavic languages.

Notwithstanding the differences in pronunciation, grammar and spelling between the various Western Germanic languages, even a layman in comparative linguistics will be able to deduce that these languages are related by comparing the words in them that make up the basic vocabulary. The following table shows a few of these words.


The common ancestor of the Western Germanic languages was a highly inflectional language, comparable in this respect to Latin or Classical Greek. But nowadays these languages have lost much of their inflectional character, although not all of them to the same extent. As far as inflections are concerned German is the most conservative of the Western Germanic languages, while English and Afrikaans are languages with almost no inflection. Dutch and Frisian are somewhere between these extremes. The following table shows the various forms of the verb sleep in English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German to illustrate these differences. Only the indicative mood is given here, but note that German still has forms for all persons and numbers in the subjunctive mood; in the other languages there are no special verb forms for the subjunctive at all, or only a few remnants (c.f. if I were you in English).

Present tense
I sleepek slaapik slaapich schlafe
you sleepjy slaapjij slaaptdu schläfst
he sleepshy slaaphij slaapter schläft
we sleepons slaapwij slapenwir schlafen
you sleepjulle slaapjullie slapenihr schlaft
they sleephulle slaapzij slapensie schlafen

Note: In the Dutch forms the change from aa into a is just a consequence of the Dutch spelling system and it does not reflect a difference in pronunciation.

Past tense
I sleptN/Aik sliepich schlief
you sleptN/Ajij sliepdu schliefst
he sleptN/Ahij slieper schlief
we sleptN/Awij sliepenwir schliefen
you sleptN/Ajullie sliepenihr schlief
they sleptN/Azij sliepensie schliefen

Note: Most Afrikaans verbs have no past tense form and the perfect tense is used instead (e.g. ek het geslaap = I slept or I have slept.

These examples show that German has the most complex verb conjugation of these languages. Note that the present tense forms for du and er not only have their own endings, but that the root vowel changes from a to ä as well!