The common ancestor of Germanic languages
Proto-Germanic, also referred to as Primitive Germanic, Common Germanic, or UrGermanic,is one of the descendants of Proto-Indo-European and the common ancestor
of all Germanic languages. Th is Germanic proto-language, which was reconstructed by
the comparative method, is not attested by any surviving texts. Th e only written records
available are the runic Vimose inscriptions from around 200 AD found in Denmark,
which represent an early stage of Proto-Norse or Late Proto-Germanic. (Comrie 1987)
Proto-Germanic is assumed to have developed between about 500 BC and the beginning
of the Common Era. (Ringe 2006, p. 67). It came aft er the First Germanic
Sound Shift , which was probably contemporary with the Nordic Bronze Age. Th e period
between the end of Proto-Indo-European (i.e. probably aft er 3 500 BC) and the
beginning of Proto-Germanic (500 BC) is referred to as Pre-Proto-Germanic period.
However, Pre-Proto-Germanic is sometimes included under the wider meaning of ProtoGermanic,and the notion of the Germanic parent language is used to refer to both stages.
Th e First Germanic Sound Shift , also known as Grimm’s law or Rask’s rule, is a chain
shift of Proto-Indo-European stops which took place between the Proto-Indo-European
and the Proto-Germanic stage of development and which distinguishes Germanic languages from other Indo-European centum languages.

Branches of Germanic languages
Germanic languages are spoken as a native language by several hundred million people in Western Europe, North America, and Australasia. Germanic languages share many features with other Indo-European languages because they have developed from the same reconstructed parent language. Th ey therefore represent a branch of the Indo-European phylogenetic tree. However, the internal diversifi cation of the Germanic subfamily is considered to be non-treelike, and the position of the Germanic branch within Indo-European is somewhat ambiguous due to the fact that from an early stage the individual Germanic languages (especially members of the West Germanic group) developed in close contact with neighbouring languages, adopting many features from them, which weakened the evidence of the genetic ancestry. (Nakhleh, Ringe and Warnow 2005)
Although the history of Germanic languages has been studied by numerous scholars,
many details of their earliest history are still uncertain. Archaeological research suggests
that around 750 BC, Proto-Germanic speakers lived in southern Scandinavia and
along the coast of the North and the Baltic Seas from the Netherlands in the west to the
Vistula in the east. By 250 BC, Proto-Germanic had branched into several subgroups
of Germanic languages. (Th e New Encyclopaedia Britannica “Languages of the World:
Germanic languages”).
The migration of Germanic tribes and the spread of their languages are illustrated on
the charts below.


Map of the Pre-Roman Iron Age culture(s) associated with Proto-Germanic, ca. 500 BC
Source: Wiglaf. Map of the Nordic Iron Age and the Jastorf culture. Wikimedia Commons [online] 15. 8. 2005. [accessed 2014-07-11]. Available at:


Source: Berig. The expansion of the Germanic tribes AD 1 – AD 100 (aft er the Penguin Atlas of World History 1988).
Wikimedia Commons [online] 17. 2. 2009. [accessed 2014-07-11]. Under the license CC BY-SA 3.0 (see
Available at:

Germanic languages are traditionally divided into three branches: East Germanic,
North Germanic, and West Germanic. Th ese branches are further subdivided into
groups as illustrated in the table below.


Main grammatical features of Proto-Germanic
Th e reconstructed Proto-Germanic grammatical system resembled the grammatical systems of Greek or Latin of about 200 AD. It included six or more different cases, three
numbers, three genders, two voices, and three moods.
Within the inflectional system of nouns, the following cases were distinguished: nominative,genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, and instrumental. Th e Proto-Indo-European ablative and locative cases merged into other cases, though traces of the two cases were probably preserved in some pronominal and adverbial forms. Pronominal declension included the same cases as nouns except the vocative. In addition to singular and plural forms, pronouns occurred in dual forms. Verbal, nominal, and adjectival dual forms disappeared before the earliest records, though verbal dual survived in Gothic.
Th e nominal inflectional system included paradigms distinguished according to
stems inherited from Proto-Indo-European. (For more details see subchapters 2.3 and
4.2.1.) The most productive paradigms were probably the a-stems, ō-stems and n-stems,
followed by u-stems and i-stems. Variants of the fi rst two paradigms were ja-, wa-, jō,
and wō-stems; subclasses of the n-stems were ōn-, an-, and īn-stems. In addition, there
were several smaller classes of nouns: athematic nouns (root nouns), and nouns ending
in -er, -z, and -nd.
Proto-Germanic verbs can be divided into a small group of athematic verbs and a large
group of thematic verbs. THematic verbs were further divided into seven classes of strong and fi ve classes of weak verbs, according to their preterite forms. (Only four of the five classes of weak verbs survived in attested languages.) Strong verbs formed the preterite (originally Proto-Indo-European perfect) form by means of ablaut or reduplication while in weak verbs, a dental suffi x was added to the root of the verb. Within the thematic verbs,there was another small group of preterite-present verbs, whose present tense forms correspond to the preterite forms of strong verbs and preterite forms to the preterite forms of weak verbs. (For more details on the distinction between the different classes and their later development see Chapter 4.2.2.) Th e tense system of Proto-Germanic consisted of only two tenses (present and preterite), while Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit had six or seven different tenses.

The chapter above draws on the following sources:
Baugh, Albert C. and Cable Th omas (1993). A history of the English language. Routledge.
Blažek, Václav (2012). On the Internal Classification of Indo-European Languages: A Survey.
Studia Indogermanica Lodziensia 7, pp. 9–30.
Blažek, Václav (2011). Staré germánské jazyky: historický a gramatický přehled. 1. vyd. Brno:Masarykova univerzita.
Comrie, Bernard (ed.) (1987). Th e World’s Major Languages. New York: Oxford University Press.pp. 69–70.
Nakhleh, Luay, Ringe, Don and Warnow, Tandy (2005). Perfect Phylogenetic Networks: A New Methodology for Reconstructing the Evolutionary History of Natural Languages. Language –Journal of the Linguistic Society of America, Volume 81, Number 2, pp. 382–420.
Ringe, Donald A. (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Linguistic history of English,v. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vachek, Josef. (1994). Historický vývoj angličtiny. Brno: Masarykova univerzita.
Vachek, Josef (1991). English past and present – an introductory course. Praha: SPN.
Th e New Encyclopaedia Britannica (1993) “Languages of the World: Germanic languages”.
Chicago, IL, United States: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1993.
Wikipedia:Germanic Languages. Wikipedia. Th e Free Encyclopedia [online] 27. 9. 2014. [accessed 2014-09-27]. Available at:
Germanic Paren Language. Wikipedia. Th e Free Encyclopedia [online] 5. 1. 2014. [accessed 2014-09-27]. Available at:
Proto-Germanic. Wikipedia. Th e Free Encyclopedia [online] 3. 10. 2014. [accessed 2014-10-06].
Available at:
Northwest Germanic. Wikipedia. Th e Free Encyclopedia [online] 23. 1. 2014. [accessed 2014-09-27]. Available at:



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