The Grammarphobia Blog

A family affair

Q: I’ve studied German for many years and clearly see similarities in sentence structure with English. But I also see many English words of Latin or Greek origin. Why is English considered a Germanic and not a Romance language?

A: Many centuries ago, what etymologists and linguists now call the Germanic family of languages covered much of northern Europe and included early Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian, High and Low German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, English, and Gothic, among others.

Those old Germanic languages were the foundations for modern English, German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages.

So structurally, English is Germanic. It had its beginnings 1,500 years ago, when the Angles (hence the name “England”) arrived in ancient Britain along with Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and probably other Germanic tribes. This was the beginning of Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon.

The other major European language group – the Romance family derived from Latin – includes French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. Over the centuries, English absorbed huge numbers of Latin vocabulary words, but it has resisted attempts by Latinists to impose Latinate sentence structure as well.

These language categories aren’t as clear-cut as they appear. There’s been borrowing between the language families, as well as between the languages within families. (Latin, for example, derived much of its vocabulary from Greek.)

What’s more, all these languages (Germanic plus Romance), along with some in southern Asia, have a common ancestor: they’re all descended from a prehistoric language, Indo-European.

This accounts for why the words “one,” “two,” and “three,” for example, are so similar in languages as varied as English, Welsh, Dutch, Icelandic, German, Latin, and Greek. And why the verb “bear” (meaning to carry) is strikingly similar in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, and Old English.

Much of this information comes from a wonderful book, The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.), by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

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