I attempted a list of features of the English language that are clearly Germanic, and wrote only what came to mind off the top of my head. Doubtless it is woefully incomplete and has other flaws. What should be added or emended?

  1. Only two verb tenses in English are simple (as opposed to compound, i.e. requiring more than one word to express the verb). And they're the same two that are simple in German. In typical European languages, maybe six or more are simple.
  2. With many English verbs, the vowel changes with the tense: He sings/He sang/He has sung, He gives/He gave/He has given, He keeps/He kept, etc.
  3. One particular sequence of three vowels is often used in such "strong" verbs: He sings/He sang/He has sung, He swims/He swam/He has swum, The bell rings/The bell rang/The bell has rung. That same sequence, i/a/u is used in that same way in many verbs in German.
  4. As in German modal auxiliary verb is used to form a sort of future tense: He will sing/Er wird singen.
  5. "Reader", "singer", "runner", "worker", etc. In both English and German, that same suffix is used in that same way to make a noun from a verb.
  6. In English and German, the "-er" suffix on an adjective forms the comparative degree: "bigger", "cheaper", "slower", "healthier". And "good" is an irregular adjective in that its comparative is not "gooder" but "better"; likewise in German "gut" and "besser".
  7. In English and German, unlike most European languages, the infinitive is formed with an initial monosyllabic word rhyming with "who": "to sing", "to read", etc. ("to" in English and "zu" in German, with "z" pronounced as in "Mozart")
  8. In English and German, some verbs when used catenatively require the following verb to have "to" and others don't, thus:

    "I make him sing." versus "I force him to sing."
    "I let him sing." versus "I allow him to sing."
    "I must sing." versus "I have to sing."

  9. The plural of "he", "she", or "it" is "they". The distinction between masculine, feminine, and neuter pronouns is present only in the singular number, never in the plural. In English I think this is the last vestige; in German it effects all nouns and adjectives and many pronouns.
  10. If you know what "give" means and what "up" means, that doesn't tell you what "give up" means. English has many such phrasal verbs. So does German. (But in German the particle that completes the phrasal verb is a separable prefix.)
  11. Words like "herewith", "therefrom", "hereby", etc. are Germanisms, although their counterparts in German are used not only in somewhat formal writing but also in the most informal speech and writing.
  12. A certain amount of vocabulary. (But in English you hardly ever utter a sentence that isn't very short without also using words that evolved from French words or other sources. German has also borrowed from French and Latin, etc., but nowhere near so much.)

So how should one improve and complete this list?

  • 2
    Very nice list! Have you also checked these features against the Scandinavian languages? And would you mind if I numbered your list (easier for answers to reply to)? Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 2:20
  • @Cerberus : Thank you. Now I've done the numbering. I don't know any Scandinavian languages and haven't attempted any such comparisons. Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 2:44
  • 2
    A note--in linguistics, English is not called "Germanic" because it's especially similar to the modern language "German," it's called "Germanic" because it belongs to the same language family and the family happens to be named after German. Modern German has also diverged from the common ancestor, so comparing features with it is a quite indirect way of gauging the "Germanic-ness" or English. German is not, in fact, the prototypical Germanic language!
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 2:59
  • @sumelic : Obviously contrasting English with German is indirect. However, it seems obvious that divergence from the common source is far less with German than with English. Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 5:05

1 Answer 1


Just a few notes:

  • Some aspects of German and English that you mention may have evolved either through convergent evolution (independently), or because the daughter languages formed Sprachbund and borrowed various things from each other.

  • I don't know much about the Scandinavian languages, which are important in this comparison.

Ad 1: this may be true (but was this also the case in Proto-Germanic? I'm not sure).

Ad 2: this is common in all Indo-European branches, e.g. Greek, Latin.

Ad 3: this is probably correct, although those vowels have also changed somewhat in some Germanic languages, e.g. Dutch zingen/zong/gezongen, zwemmen, zwom, gezwommen.

Ad 4: I believe the future tense in various Romance languages was formed from the infinitive and forms of habere "to have", e.g. French j'irai > Latin infinitive ire + habeo ("I have" is now j'ai in French).

Ad 5: the same Indo-European suffix is used in Latin, -or. And the Greek suffix -ôr might also be related. But is the -e- perhaps common to all Germanic languages?

Ad 6: Latin (-(i)or) and Greek (-er-) also have this Indo-European suffix, I believe. In Swedish, I believe it is more like -ar(e).

Ad 7: this may be true. Dutch has te.

Ad 8: this may also be true.

Ad 9: this may be true, although I'm not sure whether Proto-Germanic had gendered plurals (my guess would be no).

Ad 10: Greek and Latin also combine 'prepositions' (like in) with verbs in ways that change their meaning unpredictably. The placement of a 'preposition' removed from the verb, and yet syntactically and semantically connected with it, may be typically Germanic, though. Even so, especially early Greek (Homer) could also use separable verbs, where the prefixed 'preposition' could be used like an adverb after the verb. Note that all or most prepositions were probably once adverbs, in Proto-Indo-European or the like, which explains the changing positions of prepositions in the modern languages.

Ad 11: this may be true: neither Greek nor Latin likes to put the preposition after the relative pronoun.

Ad 12: this is an essential one: of the, say, 50 commonest English words, probably 90% or more are of Germanic origin.

Another essential point is the unique combination phonological laws that changed our branch of Proto-Indo-European into Proto-Germanic: English has the results of those laws in common with all other Germanic languages, even though some of those results have been mixed up by later changes. Some of those laws are themselves unique to Germanic; others are not unique but form a unique combination of laws—one that is seen in all Germanic languages and in none of the other languages.

One grammatical thing I suspect is typically Germanic (thought perhaps not unique) is the basic preferred word order [subject] [finite verb] [object]. E.g. Latin generally prefers [subject] [object] [finite verb]. In general, the Germanic languages seem to depend on word order more than Latin or Greek.

A smaller sub-thing is this theory I have: in the Germanic languages, I suspect there was inversion of subject and finite verb when the (simple) sentence began with something other than the subject. This is still the case in Dutch and German, but it is not really visible in English, except after adverbs like only and never: never have I seen..., only twenty pence did I pay...

  • Negative polarity environments like the ones of only and never are like retirement homes for old constructions and inflections. It's easier to idiomatize them, or forget them, if they stick to one place. Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 16:32
  • @JohnLawler: Is this comment relevant to the historical development of the Germanic languages? Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 20:24
  • Probly not. feel free to delete it. Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 21:50
  • About word order in German: In main clauses, the verb comes second. The thing that comes first may be the subject or the object or an adverb or a phrase functioning as an adverb. In subordinate clauses, the verb comes last. Commented Oct 22, 2023 at 5:23

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