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English is a Germanic language. Another significant Germanic language is of course German.

Which native English speakers are the closest to German basing on the following criteria?

  • accent-wise (South Africa?)
  • German words and phrases (US? e.g. "to schlep" for "to carry")
  • grammar-wise (US again? e.g. slang "If I would" for "If I was")
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"to schlep" is Yiddish that we happen to use, I wouldn't use it as an indicator of our use of german words. –  Claudiu Oct 22 '10 at 20:58
Dutch and Swedish are pretty big germanic languages too. And remember, just because it is called germanic doesn't mean that German is any more germanic and any of the other languages in the family. –  Kosmonaut Oct 22 '10 at 22:08
@Claudiu: Yiddish is a High German language. Schlep has deep Germanic roots, while carry comes from Latin. –  RegDwigнt Oct 23 '10 at 16:34
Oy veh! Any schlemiel knows that Yiddish has high German roots, but only a real schmuck would call it German, any more than English is Latin simply because much of it is derived therefrom. –  mickeyf Oct 26 '10 at 13:37
English is not actually derived from Latin at all, it has just borrowed a great deal of vocabulary from Latin. Yiddish and German, on the other hand, are sibling languages. –  Kosmonaut Oct 26 '10 at 19:00
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There's no really good answer to this question, but we can take a stab at it if we accept some very broad generalisations.

English is a Germanic language by virtue of being descended from Proto-Germanic (which is a matter of geography and historical migration patterns). Setting aside the question of English dialects for a moment, among all the Germanic languages we can say that a language is "more Germanic" if it has undergone fewer changes since splitting from Proto-Germanic. The ideal way to do this would be to do a detailed inventory of linguistic changes apparent in a language and analyse how many steps might have been taken to get from Proto-Germanic to the modern language, but that's a load of work. A very broad generalisation that is less work would be to look at how many forks in the family tree exist between a language and Proto-German. This is much easier to see. (As an amusing aside, you can see from the family tree that Swedish is—among several others—"more Germanic" than modern German.)

By analogy, we can say that the English dialect that is closest to Proto-Germanic is the English dialect that is closest to an earlier branch in the family tree. Or, put another way, the oldest dialect of English will be the closest to Proto-Germanic, and hence the "most Germanic" dialect of English.

We can quickly rule out any English dialect outside of the British Isles, since English dialects in the rest of the world are descended from some form of British Isles English, and hence would be at least one more step removed.

Of course, such a detailed analysis of English dialects is also prohibitively complicated, but at least it gives us the conceptual framework to figure out that "oldest British Isles English dialect" is what we're looking for. So, we'll have to go with anecdote and hearsay: the Geordie dialect is the oldest dialect in the British Isles, according to current opinion.

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Thank you, that is very interesting - esp. when you consider that the Geordie dialect is one of the most unintelligible, not only for Germans but for many native speakers as well. –  vonjd Oct 26 '10 at 13:01
I'm not convinced this approach of looking at the number of forks in the family tree is reliable. For instance, it could be that a dialect outside the British Isles underwent less change than British Isles English itself. The fundamental issue, more generally, is that if dialect B is derived from dialect A but A is not extinct, then it could easily happen that A subsequently changes more rapidly than B and in fact the modern form of B could be much closer to the original form of A than the modern form of A. –  Zach Conn Oct 28 '10 at 12:44
@Zach You're right of course. The right way would be to do an historical analysis of the syntactical, phonological, and phonetic changes of each English dialect, and then determine which one is "most similar" (fewest changes? most similarity?) to what we know of Proto-Germanic. I know there is existing research on many dialects, but I'm pretty sure the majority of dialects haven't been subject to that depth of analysis already. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 29 '10 at 16:49
@vonjd - actually, Geordie is reputed to be the easiest dialect of English for Scandinavians to understand. –  gpr Feb 14 '11 at 4:08
@vonjd Geordie could be the closest to German, eg. gangen = to go. –  mgb Apr 12 '11 at 17:40
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The answer is all of them. English is a Germanic language.

A far better question to ask would be "What other Germanic language is linguistically most like English?" (Hint, the answer would not be "German").

The problem with the original question is that it seems to imply that the language we today call "German" is the root of the English language, and thus there must exist some dialect of it which has diverged the least from "true German".

What instead happened was that some speakers of a (low) German language moved to England and slowly their language developed on its own, mostly isolated from the original tongue on the continent, into what we call "English". Meanwhile people on the continent had their own dialects which evolved into what we today call separate languages such as "German", "Dutch", "Danish", "Frisian", "Norwegian", etc.

All of those, and English too, are "Germanic" languages. Whatever exact language was spoken by the early German immigrants to England (let's call it "Germanic"), modern Germans would be no more able to understand it than they can English. If you don't believe me, pick up a copy of Beowulf (written in Old English) and see how easy it is to read.

Oh, and I understand the answer to the question I posed, is "Frisian". It is the sort of light-tan area in the map of Germanic language areas below.

enter image description here

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