The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is English a Germanic language?

Q: I’ve read that a majority of the words in English are derived from Latin or French? So why is English considered a Germanic language, not a Romance language?

A: Let’s begin with where linguists place English among the world’s languages.

English, Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Frisian, Flemish, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, and Yiddish are the living languages that are part of the Germanic family.

This family is divided into North Germanic (Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish) and West Germanic (English, Frisian, Flemish, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Yiddish). The now defunct East Germanic branch consisted of Gothic, which is extinct.

The other principal European language family is the Italic (popularly called Romance). This consists of the modern languages derived from Latin: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Provençal, French, Italian, Rhaeto-Romance, and Romanian.

These two families are branches of a single prehistoric language called Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European.

The language group descended from Indo-European includes the Balto-Slavic, Albanian, Celtic, Italic, Greek, and Germanic families of languages.

It’s estimated that about half the earth’s population speaks a language from the Indo-European group, which is only one of several language groups that have been identified worldwide.

But back to English. Why do we call it a Germanic language?

As Calvert Watkins writes in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, one of the dialects of Indo-European “became prehistoric Common Germanic, which subdivided into dialects of which one was West Germanic.”

This in turn, Watkins says, “broke up into further dialects, one of which emerged into documentary attestation as Old English. From Old English we can follow the development of the language directly, in texts, down to the present day.”

But while English is Germanic, it has acquired much of its vocabulary from other sources, notably Latin and French.

As Watkins explains: “Although English is a member of the Germanic branch of Indo-European and retains much of the basic structure of its origin, it has an exceptionally mixed lexicon. During the 1400 years of its documented history, it has borrowed extensively and systematically from its Germanic and Romance neighbors and from Latin and Greek, as well as more sporadically from other languages.”

Where exactly does our modern vocabulary come from? The website AskOxford cites a computerized analysis of the roughly 80,000 words in the old third edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

The study, published in 1973, offered this breakdown of sources: Latin, 28.34 percent; French, 28.3 percent; Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch, 25 percent; Greek 5.32 percent; no etymology given, 4.03 percent; derived from proper names, 3.28 percent; all other languages, less than 1 percent.


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