So Why Exactly is English Classified as a Germanic Language and not a Romance Language (or Creole)? An In-Depth Analysis

By J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD

Medical researcher, physician, linguist, musician (“Scary Fairy Tales” http://bit.ly/2caPDpp )

Author, Echoes of the Mystic Chords: A Novel: www.hyperurl.co/echomystic  Ebook: http://amzn.to/2cZ3uz4

Despite the remarkable diversity of its vocabulary and its distinctive orthography and sound system, English is a West Germanic language through and through, just like its Continental cousins Dutch and German. The grammar, syntax, and core vocabulary of English are all unequivocally Germanic, and notwithstanding the common proclivity to assign such terms, English cannot be considered part-Romance, a hybrid, or a creole based on any standard linguistic treatment. Nevertheless, confusion on this complex and multifaceted topic is entirely understandable based on both the language itself and the related history, since there are so many entangled influences to tease out.

I’ve laid out a comprehensive answer here to provide something definitive on this perennially bewildering subject. Long-ish story short, I addressed this very issue at an educational forum years ago, on top of a project on the topic back in college, and have continued with a good deal of language teaching and tutoring in the intervening years. The classification of English, needless to say, is something that vexes quite a few of my students as they seek out cognates to help familiarize themselves with the languages they’re picking up. I’ll break my answer to this question down into sections to make the explanation a bit easier to digest, with the two key takeaways that 1. German (along with Dutch and most other Germanic tongues) is, like English, profoundly shaped in its vocabulary by Latin and the Romance languages, a fact that often goes unappreciated, and 2. conversely the core vocabulary and structure of German and English are both unquestionably (and equally) Germanic, which is why they’re classed exclusively as Germanic languages.

Key Point 1: The single most essential take-home message is that German and English demonstrate a remarkably parallel historical evolution in their source vocabulary (Germanic vs. Latinate), contrary to the usual assumptions.

Summary: German, Dutch, and other Germanic languages outside Icelandic have, like English, been heavily shaped by Latin, directly and indirectly (through the Romance languages), oftentimes with a majority of their total lexicon deriving from Latin or Greek. Yet for German, English, and Dutch alike, the core vocabulary – not to mention the grammar, syntax, phonology, and overall structure – is still Germanic through-and-through. Thus German, English, and Dutch are unequivocally, and correctly, classified as Germanic, even though their lexical character at higher registers does appear more and more Latinate.

Detailed Explanation: As I’ll tackle in more detail below, the confusion about English's Germanic nature (as a modern language, not only in its heritage) is largely an outgrowth of several common but understandable myths and misconceptions. The etymological evolution of the Germanic languages, alas, is a relentlessly long and winding historical road. Likewise, it’s tall order to compare English with German and Dutch without some fluency in the latter two and some awareness of their common etymology, since it’s only then that one realizes how much modern German, just like modern English, has been transformed by Latin and the Romance tongues. Regardless, as a general rule the vocabularies of West Germanic languages (e.g. German, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, or Frisian) and even the North Germanic Scandinavian languages (other than Icelandic, which avoids loanwords and still hearkens back to the Vikings’ Old Norse) exhibit the same basic pattern of historical development. Namely, all of them – German and English in particular – rest on the foundation of a Germanic wordstock (the terms we learn as kids and utter on a daily basis) with Greco-Latin-based vocabulary becoming more prominent at higher registers of expression.

English is thus no more or less Germanic than German or Dutch are, and if one wants to argue that the Latin borrowings into English render it a “creole” or “hybrid” Germanic-Romance language, then the same case must be made for German and Dutch. This fact is overlooked simply because the Latin influence on German, for various reasons, often goes unappreciated, As I’ll detail in subsequent sections, thousands of Greco-Latin-based words in German (all independently imported from French, Italian, or Latin itself, not via English) closely resemble their fellow loanwords in English. A tiny sample: Musik, Priorität, abrupt, Faktor, Album, Plan, rollen, Patriot, Text, Dokument, Studio, Region, Platz, Version, Militär, legal, Revolution, Direktor, Statue, Phase, Titel, Dessert, Restaurant, Option, Kopie, Chance, Emotion, Charme, Schule. In fact, an astonishing number of words in modern German are spelled in exactly the same manner (and often pronounced in similar fashion) as their counterparts in English, and while some (such as Arm, Finger, and Hammer) are of Germanic origin, the vast majority of such close cognates are tandem Latin-based imports into both Germanic tongues. Full list at the following link on my Website: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/kissing_cognates.htm

Note that there are myriad other instances where the word in German is falsely presumed to be Germanic, yet is actually of Latin origin itself. For example, the words “sure,” “safe,” “secure,” “insurance,” and “certain” in English (all of ultimately Latin extraction) are expressed in German by some variation on “sicher,” which is itself of Latin, not Germanic, origin. Likewise with German “Fackel” (“torch” in English), “Brief” (letter), “Pilz” (mushroom), “Regel” (rule), “Spiegel” (mirror), “Muster” (pattern), or “liefern” (to deliver). Not to mention the many surprising examples in which German opts for a Latinate word where English prefers a Germanic one, e.g. “schreiben” (“to write” in English), “Fenster” (window), “Körper” (body), “kurz” (short), “Kopf” (head), “kaufen” (to buy), “verkaufen” (to sell), “kämpfen” (to fight), “dauern” (to last), “rasieren” (shave), “Kapuze” (hood), “pfeifen” (to whistle), “Taille” (waist), “Schüssel” (bowl), “spazieren” (to go for a stroll), “Brille” (glasses), “Scharnier” (hinge), “horse” (Pferd), and countless other instances.

I’ve compiled a more extensive list of Latin-based German vocabulary that resembles English loanwords (without having the exact same spelling, i.e. the entries in the link above) here: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/common_grecolatin.htm . As with the identically spelled words, all of these were imported into German directly from Latin or the Romance languages, not from English (or, in rare cases for words like service, were modified by subsequent usage in French, English, and other languages). All of these constitute close and recognizable cognates between modern English and German even without having identical orthography. Likewise, I’ve put together a list of Latinate imports into German that differ from their English Latinate counterparts here: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/different_latin_loanwords.htm 

Even with such a profound Latin imprint on their modern vocabularies, no serious linguist would argue that German and Dutch are creoles or “half Germanic-Romance hybrids,” and since English, German, and Dutch all exhibit fundamentally Germanic core vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and overall structure, they are rightfully classified as Germanic. Stated another way: The heavy borrowing of words from Latin and its progeny (French, Italian, and other Romance languages) does not in any way diminish the Germanic character of English, nor does it do so for German, Dutch, or the Scandinavian languages, which also borrowed extensively from Latin and French in particular.

I can’t emphasize this historical point enough. For more than two millennia, after all, Greek and especially Latin enjoyed overwhelming cultural prestige in Western civilization. This was a product of the direct influence of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire followed by (after the Fall of Rome in 476 A.D.) the towering influence of Latin in the medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern periods. The latter influence, in turn, was imparted through the Latin church, interest in classical antiquity, use of Latin as an intellectual standard and, indirectly, through the high cultural standing of Latin Europe – with the Romance languages, having evolved from Latin itself, imparting primarily Latin-based loanwords to their Germanic neighbors. Again, German reflects this influence as much as English, even without a parallel to the Norman Conquest in England; Moreover in many respects – as reinforced by the examples of the similarly transcribed words at the links above –  the Conquest actually brought English closer to what would become modern German which, as a Continental language, was profoundly sculpted by Latin and the Romance tongues spoken in its midst.

Key Point 2: Resolving common myths and misconceptions about German and English

a. The Myth: What we call “German” (high German) today is “more Germanic” than English, which is more of a creole (or hybrid) between the Germanic and Romance families.

Why it’s wrong: Essentially banging on the same drum as above, but the aforementioned lists together furnish a ready-made counterpoint to debunk this ever common myth. The vocabulary of Modern German, just like English, has also been heavily molded by Latin and the Latin-derived Romance languages, particularly French and Italian – a fact generally overlooked amid the corollary myth that German is, well, “more German” than English. Yes, it's true that if you tally up all the dictionary words in English, you'll wind up with a clear majority that derive in some way from Latin or Greek (though not the core, day-to-day vocabulary, which is overwhelmingly Germanic in both English and German alike). But the same goes for German when it comes to simply adding up dictionary entries. Both German and English exhibit a similar pattern, with their “higher-level” lexicons disproportionately comprised of Latin and Greek roots – especially when it comes to the vast register of technical terms, which are overwhelmingly of Greco-Latin origin across Europe’s linguistic map. (Even today, scientists, physicians, and engineers are “speaking Greco-Latin” – that is, a lexical superstratum of overwhelmingly Greco-Latin influence – whenever they invoke technical lingo in virtually any specialized field, whatever their native tongue.) Here again, some listings of this immense Latin-based heritage in modern German, its close kinship to the stock of English loanwords readily apparent: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/kissing_cognates.htm and http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/common_grecolatin.htm

Surprisingly, as laid out before, the molding of modern German by Latin also applies to a good deal of basic vocabulary, including the unexpected cases, as spelled out above, in which German opts for a Latin term where English prefers Germanic (e.g. write, window, shower, buy, sell, to last, short, shop, glasses, hinge, shave, hood, whistle, bowl, horse).

b. The Myth: English simply doesn’t “sound” Germanic.

Why it’s wrong: There's a common tendency to, at least half-consciously, equate "Germanic languages" with "sounds like German" phonetically (a.k.a. going all out with the gutturality), but this is misleading. Danish, Swedish, and other Scandinavian languages in particular – like English – tend toward a "softer" and far less guttural consonantal sound than German and Dutch. Remember, “Germanic” is not tantamount to German (i.e. the modern High German language), and Dutch, English, and the Scandinavian tongues are all just as Germanic as German itself is.

c. The Myth: Modern English differs markedly from the much more obviously Germanic Old English, which raises questions about whether Modern English is still Germanic at all.

Why it’s wrong: Yes, the adrenaline-pumped Old English passages of Beowulf sound quite exotic to modern Anglophone ears, and Modern English is notably distinct from its Anglo-Saxon ancestor; likewise, both the Danish Norse Conquest (by Swein Forkbeard and Canute) and especially the Norman Conquest had a lot to do with that. But then, Modern German is also notably different from Old High German, which would be unrecognizable to modern German speakers. Because of the singular nature of the Norman Conquest, it's easy to erroneously assign all kinds of developments in English to the Normans, when Norman French was in fact only one factor – among many – leading to changes in English (and even then, primarily only in vocabulary).

The principal source of the Latin lexical infusion into English is simply the cultural prestige of Latin and Latin Europe (as well as the Christian faith, rooted in the Latin Church) over so many centuries after the Fall of Rome in the 5th century A.D. And because of this, German and Dutch also absorbed thousands of Latin-based loanwords in parallel to English. The phonetic and especially grammatical changes (esp. the loss of inflectional endings) in English actually have very little to do with the Norman Conquest; these were already well underway in previous centuries, and owed more to the Danish (Norse Viking) invasions of England and the need for Anglo-Saxons and Danes to communicate across their related, but grammatically distinct dialects.

Similarly, the mounting floodtide of Latinate vocabulary was already streaming into English well before the Norman Conquest, and it shaped other Germanic tongues – German, Dutch, even the Scandinavian languages – right alongside English itself. In fact, the influx had already begun even before the Anglo-Saxons themselves had left the Continent in the 5th century to settle in Britain. Words like pan (German Pfanne), wine (German Wein), cat (German Katze), chest (German Kiste), cook (German Koch), kettle (German Kessel), mill (German Mühle), pillar (German Pfeiler), pipe (German Pfeife), school (German Schule), sock (German Socke), street (German Straße), and (probably) chip were all imported from Latin into the common West Germanic ancestor that gave rise to English, German, Dutch, and several other languages. Others took hold coincident with the Christianization of England, and still others from Old French before William the Conqueror’s invasion (as French had already become a prestigious court and literary language since the reign of Charlemagne). Extended list of such pre-Norman Latin imports: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/early_latin_loanwords 

d. Most of the words in an unabridged English dictionary are of Greco-Latin rather than Germanic origin; therefore, English can’t be Germanic.

Why it’s wrong: A bit of a rehash of and expansion upon myth (a) above. Although English – and, yes, German too – does boast a majority of Greco-Latin-based vocabulary (from the standpoint of sheer dictionary listings), the words most commonly used in both languages are predominantly of Germanic origin, in the 21st century as much as the Middle Ages. Consult any listing of the 100 or 1,000 most frequent words in English, or simply listen to snippets of your favorite pop songs, nursery rhymes, poems, or film or TV dialogue – the repository of the language as it’s actually spoken – and you’ll find a recurring pattern. Upwards of 90% of the English words are of Germanic origin, most of them from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), with healthy servings of Old Norse, Dutch, and Low and High German-origin words added to the mix – along with a smattering of lesser-known Germanic vocabulary borrowed in from French or Italian. (To get a bit more specific: Listen to a popular classic rock song from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, Pink Floyd, or Peter Frampton; dialogue snippets from Breaking Bad; or the US national anthem, for example. Then tally up the words by etymology. You’ll find that almost all are of Germanic origin, including the entirety of the first two lines of The Star-Spangled Banner outside of “proudly,” and even that was a Latin-French loanword imported prior to the Norman Conquest.)

Keep in mind that the potent role of Greek and Latin as media of standard communication for nearly two millennia – in law, the sciences, religion, administration, engineering, and numerous other domains – has given rise to a wealth of technical terms that are in rare use, at best, in general conversation. Many have even become obsolete in their original fields. Therefore, even though a tally of dictionary entries alone may show a preponderance of Latin and Greek, such an enumeration would fail to capture the significance of the English lexicon as its words are actually uttered by its speakers.

On a related note, while English has also imported loanwords from other (non-Latinate and non-Germanic) sources, these are overall a rather minor part of English vocabulary – even Celtic loanwords, somewhat surprising given the geographical proximity of the Anglophone homeland to regions of active Celtic language use. While English did snap up a number of loanwords from native languages within the British Empire – such as loot, pajamas, and jungle, all from Hindi or other Indian languages – their tally overall is exceedingly small. (A bit of a shame if you’ll allow me that little digression – Hindi and other Indian languages have an almost lyrical phonology to them. Heck, hearing even a rasping spoken sentence on bare trivialities leaves little doubt about why Bollywood churns out thousands of sweet, catchy songs in the Subcontinent’s languages every year.) Britain undoubtedly had an immense global empire (along with the Mongols, Russians, Spaniards, Chinese, Arabs, and Portuguese at various points – theirs perhaps even larger or relatively more populous depending on the metric), yet the English language was already so well-developed by the British Imperial heyday (in the 1800s) that there was comparatively little impetus to import new words at that point. Likewise, in spite of its size, the British Empire ultimately disintegrated more rapidly from its peak (after the World Wars) than, for example, the Spanish or Portuguese domains (let alone the Chinese, Romans, Ottomans, Byzantines, or Persians before them), allowing relatively less opportunity for profound cultural contact. In fact, many of the most common indigenous words in English today (such as tomato, avocado, tobacco, and chocolate) entered the language through Spanish or Portuguese, given the Iberian countries’ role as navigational pioneers in the Age of Exploration and the comparative durability of their empires.

e. English hosts the richest vocabulary of any language, thus it’s inaccurate to “confine” it to the Germanic language family.

Why it’s wrong: The oft-repeated assertion about English hosting the largest vocabulary of any language is plausible, but ultimately doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Besides the general issues with even tallying up words in a language (Do different inflections of a given word count as different words themselves? Do rarely used technical or obsolete terms count as words? Do all those varied and sometimes frightening compounds in German – famously lampooned by Mark Twain – count as distinct word entries?), there are historically and etymologically specific reasons to doubt this claim as well. As noted, both German and Dutch also borrowed heavily from Latin, Greek, and the Latin-based Romance languages, generally for the same reason as English: the relative cultural prestige of Latin and Latin Europe for 2,000 years. German in particular houses a dizzying range of synonyms for expressing even basic concepts, distinguished by fine nuances and connotational differences to allow for precise communication. Need to call an “ambulance” to take you to a “hospital” to see a “doctor” (really no other way to say those words in English)? You could ask for an “Ambulanz” or “Krankenwagen” in German to take you to the “Krankenhaus” or “Spital” to see the “Arzt” or “Doktor” (with Ambulanz, Spital, Arzt, and Doktor all of Greco-Latin origin, not Germanic). Want some “fruit” with your restaurant order? You can ask for either “Obst” (Germanic) or “Frucht” (Latinate).

Prince Charles or William, meanwhile, can be referred to as a “Furst” (Germanic) or a “Prinz” (Latinate), while a jewel can be marketed as an “Edelstein” (Germanic) or equally as a “Juwel” (Latinate). When describing our “career” in English there’s really only one commonly-used word for the concept, whereas in German, we have four in regular usage: the Germanic “Werdegang,” “Lebenslauf,” and “Laufbahn” alongside the Latinate (originally a Celtic borrowing) “Karriere.” We can speak of an “ingredient” or “component” (basically exact synonyms) in English; in German, we can ask for a “Bestandteil” or “Zutat” (Germanic origin) or equally an “Ingredienz” or “Komponente” (Greco-Latin origin). And even these examples pale next to the lexical variety German boasts for a number of multifunctional verbs or colorful, descriptive adjectives.

German has an arsenal of terms, often half a dozen or more in common use, to express notions like “cause,” “considerable,” “excellent,” “ingredient,” or “reject,” which in English are generally denoted by one or two words at most. For English “considerable,” for example, there’s German “beträchtlich,” “ansehnlich,” “erheblich,” “beachtlich,” and “weitgehend.” The English verb “cause” (in daily usage) does have an array of synonyms to call on:  “occasion,” “bring about,” or the seldom-used “beget” or “effect.” In German, however, we have a veritable smorgasbord of alternatives on the verbal menu: “verursachen,” “hervorrufen,” “bewirken,” “veranlassen,” “Anlaß (zu etwas) geben,” “anrichten,” and – when all else fails – “kausieren.” For English “excellent” or “outstanding,” we have German “ausgezeichnet,” “hervorragend,” “ausgefallen,” “vorzüglich,” and, yes, “exzellent.” (A sample of such native Germanic and Latinate “doublets” side-by-side, in German and English, can be glimpsed at the following link: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/dueling_doublets.htm Tally up all the synonyms, and German is at least a match for English in the sheer cornucopia of its lexical offerings to express fine distinctions and subtle shades of meaning. This may account in part for why German, surpassed perhaps only by the ancient Greek of Plato and Aristotle, became such a powerful international vehicle for philosophical and scientific advances beginning in the 18th century.

f. The Germanophone world has no historical equivalent to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Therefore, German has remained more “purely Germanic” over the centuries than English.

Why it’s wrong: Likewise a bit of a rehash of earlier points in this particular myth-debunking, but here goes. German, just like English, tends to become “more Latinate” as the language veers into more formal, sophisticated, technical, or legalistic territory. This, again, is the ongoing linguistic imprint left by prominent historical trends and events. Even though German lacked a Norman Conquest-style calendar marker of its own to parallel the impact of 1066 A.D. on English, the evolution of the two languages shared striking common threads, especially in realms identified with elite prestige. The Germanophone world also came under heavy Italian and French influence during many epochs (especially throughout the Thirty Years’ War, when French troops occupied the German heartland), on top of the general associations of Latin and Latin Europe with high culture. This is why young Germans, for example, speak of their “Onkel” and “Tante” just as Anglophones refer to their “uncle” or “aunt” – these Latinate-French imports inexorably came to supplant their Germanic equivalents.

Just as important, aristocratic Germans, like the medieval nobles of England, often mocked the Germanic speech of the people as a peasant tongue, and not a few German nobles – much in the style of their English counterparts – preferred French as the language of the court. Even Frederick the Great of Prussia, who went to battle (Seven Years’ War) against the French, nonetheless disdained his native German and preferred to speak la langue française at Sanssouci, his summer palace near Potsdam. Latin was the language of law in Germany, and the common idiom of scholarship in German universities until the late 18th century. 

g. While modern English may have retained some base Germanic vocabulary, it has diverged considerably from German and Dutch (from the Scandinavian languages even more so), preferring Latin-based terminology even for basic everyday speech.

Why it’s wrong; Not at all, the best demonstration probably being this table, which lists hundreds of common, everyday English words (of the sort we pick up as kids and use most often in actual speech) right alongside their equivalents in German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. In the vast majority of cases, there are obvious cognates across all the languages hailing from the same common Germanic ancestor – a core that’s been reliably retained by English as much as its Continental and Nordic country cousins. Even this table is but a modest fraction of the common Germanic heritage; here’s a more broadly encompassing list of the words in English with similarly close and obvious relations in the West and/or North Germanic tongues (usually both). And that’s not all.

The independent evolution of the different Germanic languages – the insular development of English versus its cousins on the Continent and in Scandinavia – has given rise to historical contingencies that have displaced many Germanic roots from their original meaning, but not expelled them from the modern language. As a result, you can often sniff out a “hidden cognate” of English in German or Dutch, for example, that no longer retains the same meaning, but still conjures up some sort of lexical connection with the common Germanic ancestor they all share. For example, English “clean” is a cognate of German and Dutch “klein” (small), with the sense evolution of the English word tracking along a path relating “small” to “dainty” and, from there, “refined and free of dirt.” Likewise, English “slay” is cognate to German “schlagen” and Dutch “slaan” (to beat up, sometimes with a killing blow); English “starve” is cognate to German “sterben” and Dutch “sterven” (to die, which can happen with prolonged starvation); English “ridge” is cognate with German “Rücken” and Dutch “rug” (the back, shaped like a ridge); English “harvest” is cognate to German “Herbst” and Dutch “hervst” (the fall, autumn, when harvests are reaped); English “mood” is cognate to German “Mut” and Dutch “moed” (courage, a commendable sort of mood); and so on.  The sense evolution of the cognates isn’t always so obvious, for example with English “nimble” (a term related to Old English “niman” which meant “to take” – having been displaced by the Old Norse ancestor of “take”) cognate to German “nehmen” and Dutch “nemen” (which still mean “to take”). However, in most cases, you can suss out some logical connection between the displaced English Germanic root and its more distant cousins in Continental Germanic languages – a valuable aid to soaking up a language like German, Dutch, or Swedish a little more quickly. (Here’s an extended list of such displaced Germanic English roots: http://wesulm.angelifre.com/languages/long_lost_relatives )

Finally, English has a rich treasury of its own, a unique “Anglo-Saxon Germanic wordstock” – sometimes hailing directly from Anglo-Saxon itself (Old English), in other cases assimilated from Old Norse, Dutch or Low German, High German, or the Germanic substrata of Romance languages like French or Italian. Whatever the source, this unique wordstock has become lexically orphaned, without recognizable cognates in the other Germanic tongues. Oftentimes these are terms absorbed from rough Scandinavian slang, spoken especially by the Danish Vikings who settled thickly in northern England. In other cases they’re imports from Dutch or Frankish (often via French) in arenas like nautical terminology, important for English traders who did business with North Sea and Hanseatic League merchants in the Middle Ages. Some cases are simply onomatopoeic, while others derive from extended corruptions or folk etymology that butchered a previous shared Germanic root. Still others apparently relate to the unique Germanic speech of the Anglo-Saxons who crossed the North Sea and settled in Roman Britain in the 5th century A.D. A few examples: amaze, braid, browse, cram, creek, elope, fluster, glee, hint, hunt, kick, look, lumber, mail, nap (vb), ooze, pull, quake, range, rather, rid, scowl, slake, sprint, stitch, sulk, tether, thrill, thrust, tilt, trend, ugly, wag, whip, whistle. (Extended list here: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/orphaned_germanic )

Key Point 3: Some seldom-recognized subtleties about the Germanic vs. Latinate origin of vocabulary in English and German

a. Even “sophisticated English” (like its German counterpart) is far more Germanic than we often think.

It is true, as spelled out before, that both English and German (as well as most other Germanic languages) exhibit a heavy overlay of Latin-based vocabulary at higher and more prestigious registers – the language of high society, law, literature, medicine, science, and cuisine. It’s also true that the structural and syntactical differences between English and German become more evident at such registers, especially the way in which German can fluidly coin new compound Germanic words alongside Latin-based loanwords. Yes, sometimes these Germanic compounds are unwieldy verbal Rube Goldberg contraptions, as Mark Twain acidly observed, but sometimes the word combinations are clever, witty, even poetic, much like the kennings (evocative metaphors) of Old Norse poetry. Nevertheless, this faculty isn’t exclusive to German. English also exhibits an oft-unappreciated propensity to forge new, sophisticated vocabulary at the high-culture level too, using its base Germanic wordstock in a way much like German itself does, and these aren’t obscure terms either. In fact, they’re favorites of charismatic authors and speakers, since they unite verbal prestige with the gut-level pithiness that’s inherent in the base Germanic vocabulary that native-speakers first encounter as kids, not so much present in the “book-learning” connotations of our Latinate vocabulary.

Invoking a “breakthrough” or “watershed” means calling on word roots entirely from Anglo-Saxon Old English – and sounding cultured and sophisticated, yet with more of an emotional kick than would normally be delivered by the more remote Latin-based equivalents. Managers, educators, physicians, and other professionals will emphasize the need for “feedback” in formal reports, while computer techies will toss around terms like “hardware,” “software,” “bandwidth,” “inputs,” “outputs,” and “throughput” – all composed of Germanic roots derived from the original speech of the Anglo-Saxons.  Again I’ve compiled an extensive list of such high-culture Anglo-Saxon (and other Germanic) compounds and other terms in English here: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/germanic_gets_sophisticated.htm

b. For both English and German, the Latin influence (both directly and through the Romance tongues) did not replace the native Germanic vocabulary as much as displace it into (usually) related meanings and contexts.

Both of the major Germanic languages are chock-full of pairings resulting from displacement by a Latin-based loanword. These displacements fall under two general classes. In the first, the Romance borrowing displaced a native Germanic term into a completely different semantic category (that is, a different lexical grouping based on the meaning and application of the word). For example, “use,” “employ,” and “utilize” in English are all French borrowings ultimately rooted in Latin, all of which displaced a native Germanic word – the ancestor of the modern verb “brook” (cognate to German gebrauchen) – which now means “to tolerate” or “bear.” The word “part,” which was first borrowed in from French before the Norman Conquest, displaced the native English equivalent (the ancestor of “deal”) so that the word now has the meaning of “transaction.” The same pattern holds for the French-based loanword “judge” and Germanic “deem,” and French-based “enemy” and Germanic “fiend.”

The second, much larger class of Romance-induced displacements involved a more gentle “nudge” of the original Germanic word, so that it now rests comfortably side-by-side with the imported Latin-based loanword. These are so-called “doublets,” with both the Germanic and Latinate terms in common usage. For instance, we can speak of items as being “alike” (Germanic) or “similar” (Latinate). We can be “earnest” or, equally, “serious” in our demeanor. A hard-edged comedian can be “raw” or “crude” in the jokes that stir the audience. We can traverse a “hallway” or “corridor” to reach the classroom, or give an idled car a “shove” or a “push.” At the gym you could “sweat” or “perspire,” and ask the “staff” or “personnel” for a towel.

German is if anything even more teeming with such Germanic/Latinate pairings, given its astounding vocabulary range as indicated above. An officer’s command can be issued as a “Befehl” or a “Kommand,” and listed alternatively as “dringend” or “urgent.” A fast-spreading cold virus can be described as “ansteckend” or “kontagiös.” A new building in the plaza can be “gebaut” or “konstruiert.” We can sing the praises of a “Gedicht” or (equally) a “Poem” by Schiller, Goethe, or Novalis, and engage in a seminar to “besprechen” (discuss) or “diskutieren” said poem. Once again, I’ve assembled another list of such Germanic-Latinate doublets – in both German and English – at this link: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/dueling_doublets.htm

Keep in mind that such “multiplets” in both English and German, with Germanic and Latin-origin words used alongside each other, exist alongside many cases of “all-Germanic multiplets” called on to express a given concept. That is, in English in particular, a native Germanic (usually Anglo-Saxon) term has been paired up not with a Latin-based partner, but with Germanic imports from fellow Germanic languages (or other sources from Anglo-Saxon). For instance, “leap,” “hop,” “skip,” “jump,” and “spring” all denote a similar motion with fine variations in each case – with all of these terms originating from a Germanic source (Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, or Dutch or Low German). There’s really no Latinate equivalent that ever made its way into daily or even sophisticated English speech (i.e. a loanword akin to French “sauter” or Spanish “saltar”). Similarly, when describing large groups of people, we can speak of “crowds,” “throngs,” “droves,” or simply “groups,” all of which likewise boast a Germanic origin (“group” originating in Italian and French but from Germanic roots). The much lesser-used “multitudes” or “legions” are generally confined to more specialized (or deliberately affected) speech.

And on that note…

c. Loanwords borrowed into English have hardly been a Latin-only affair; the language of Keats and Wordsworth has also borrowed in thousands of words from other Germanic languages like Old Norse, Dutch, Low German, and High German.

As covered above, English has been extensively shaped by the North Germanic language Old Norse – the ancestor of modern Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, and the language of the Vikings and the Danes who invaded and conquered England before the Normans (not to mention the ancestral tongue of the Normans themselves). Norse not only contributed hundreds of critical words to English – such as take, call, window, husband, fellow, egg, sister, give, sky, leg, happy, happen, skin, skull, skirt, die, skip, gap, dirt, cast, booth, get, guess, stack, and countless others – but also simplified the grammar and sound system of English from the more heavily inflected forms of Old English. (Once again, this had nothing to do with the Norman Conquest – that English sounds “softer” than many Continental Germanic languages, or lacks articles and other grammatical forms, is a result of contact with Norse speakers, not the Old French-speaking nobility that took root after 1066.)

Dutch and its close cousin, Low German (“Low” referring to the shoreline lowlands abutting the North Sea), both had a formative impact on what has become modern English. Like Anglo-Saxon itself, Dutch and Low German are both North Sea Germanic languages which, in wonky linguist terms, essentially means that they did not undergo the Second Germanic Sound Shift that turned a word like “tame” (Dutch “tam”) into German “zahm” or “dough” (Dutch “deeg”) into German “Teig.” Middle Low German (MLG) in fact was the lingua franca of the medieval Hanseatic League – in essence a common trade language of northern Europe. MLG had a major impact on the Scandinavian languages, but Middle English speakers of an entrepreneurial bent also made sure to brush up on their MLG to boost their profit margins, and it shows in the rich lexical heritage of modern English in areas like trade, shipping, and practical items and invention. Words like clip, bundle, drug, snack, pack, deck, swab, suds, pad, trigger, tuck, slim, poll, plug, switch, freight, boss, sled, slip, bubble, brake, brandy, and trade itself were all imported into English from Dutch or Low German.

German itself – specifically High German (the ancestor or current form of what we today simply call German) – also had a much more significant impact than often realized, in part due to the cultural contributions of German-speakers in North America. One of the most important words in the modern English tongue – dollar – began as a coinage into the High German spoken throughout the Holy Roman Empire. (“Dollar” was simply a corruption of “Taler,” itself an abbreviation of the “Joachimstaler,” a 16th-century coin minted in central Europe. Spaniards then applied the term to the Spanish pieces-of-eight in their colonial empire – one of the first global reserve currencies – from which it traveled north to denote the medium of exchange in the early USA.) Hundreds of scientific, philosophical, and cultural terms entered into English from German (which was essentially the common language of academia through much of the 19th and 20th centuries in particular). Staples of high-minded discourse or technical communication like zeitgeist, weltanschauung, angst, schadenfreude, zugzwang, doppelganger, gestalt, neuron, tryptophan, zinc, wunderkind, enzyme, meisterwerk, leitmotif, phagocyte, mitosis, diesel, statistics, realpolitik, kulturkampf, bildungsroman, verboten, gedankenexperiment, Bauhaus, and many others streamed in from German – in some cases from native Germanic roots (or eponyms from proper names, like diesel), in others from Greek or Latin roots that German scientists themselves utilized to create new terms.

But English has inherited far more than highbrow speech from its Continental High German cousin, either in the form of modern German or its ancestors or cousins (such as Yiddish, also descended from Middle High German). Everyday lingo and essential food items like halt, hamburger, kindergarten, lager, pretzel, the ubiquitous prefix “uber” and the suffix “fest,” plunder, bum, nosh, noodle , fake, glitch, kitsch, schtick, spiel, schmutz, mensch, kaput, holster, hut, hamster, waltz, delicatessen, coach, hinterland, wanderlust, and a host of other such imports. In most cases the loanwords have been borrowed directly into English, though in others (such as for halt, coach, or hut), they were absorbed through an intermediary language (usually French).

While the imprint of German onto modern English is much greater than usually appreciated, even this pales to a much more surprising source of Germanic loanwords: the Romance languages themselves, particularly French and (to a lesser extent) Italian. A bit of additional history here: The Romance languages evolved directly out of Vulgar Latin – the rough, colloquial Latin of the Roman soldiers who settled in Gaul (leading to French), Dalmatia (leading to Romanian), Hispania (leading to Spanish), and other Roman provinces. Nevertheless, Rome’s empire in the West rather inconveniently fell apart in the 5th century, with its various domains quickly overrun and ruled over by Germanic chieftains: the Ostrogoths and Lombards in Italy, the Vandals and Visigoths in Spain, the Angles and Saxons in Britain, and the Franks and Burgundians in Gaul.

Of these successor Germanic kingdoms, however, only the Anglo-Saxons wound up fully retaining their Germanic speech. The Frankish domains in some Roman-ruled Gallic regions did evolve to speak Dutch, German, or related dialects in what’s now eastern France (Alsace-Lorraine) and Luxembourg, western Germany, the Low Countries, Austria, and Switzerland. Nevertheless, in the core Roman territory and vast majority of these kingdoms, the Germanic rulers intermarried with the locals and gradually adopted the region’s Vulgar Latin for themselves, which is why Spaniards speak Latin-derived Spanish and not Visigothic. That said, the Germanic conquerors (as well as the Moors in Spain and Portugal) did leave some important linguistic traces on the Romance languages that later arose – especially French, whose syntax, pronunciation, and especially vocabulary were substantially molded by Frankish, Burgundian, and even by the Normans’ own Old Norse.

This is particularly true of French place and personal names. France and French, after all, are named after the Franks themselves, while common personal names like Charles (Karl), Louis (Ludwig), Robert (Rupert), Roger, William (Wilhelm), Richard, Howard, and many others derived from the names of Germanic warrior-chiefs and soldiers. (A New York Times Magazine article in 1999, recounting major events of the millennium, mused at how the Norman Conquest had altered the personal names used in England. They had supposedly taken on a more “Latin European” character. moving away from tongue-twisters like Æthelstan or Leofric toward Robert, William, and Charles – with the article apparently failing to realize that this was merely swapping one group of Germanic personal names for another!) However, this is also true of basic vocabulary.

In fact, amid the vast influx of French vocabulary that poured into Middle English in and around Geoffrey Chaucer’s time, hundreds of the new loanwords derived from a Germanic source (usually Frankish), not Latin or Greek! For example, guard, guarantee, blue, garage, ramp, march, random, gauche, balloon, hash, ticket, group, spy, spell, hardy, hurt, haste, harass, pledge, allegiance, ambush, strife, lure, waiver, screen, group, equip, baron, warranty, lobby, troop, wage, goal, furnish, perform, balcony, refurbish, fur, forage, hangar, coat, garment, garnish, crochet, garrison, gain, bargain, etiquette, boulevard, screen, guide, bucker, harness, scroll, and many other common words were imported into English via the Norman Conquest. Yet all of these stem from Germanic roots in French, not Latin.

An interesting illustration of this effect can be seen with the following example. The English word “peace” is a Latin-based French import which eventually nudged out the native Anglo-Saxon root (which was similar to modern German “Frieden”). Yet ironically, the very same Germanic root was added right back to English by another French borrowing: the source of “afraid” (related to modern French effrayer, “to scare”), which can roughly be parsed as the Latin prefix “ex” + a Frankish derivative of Germanic “Fried” or “Frieden” (that is, “to push one out of one’s comfort zone”).

And this is a mere glimpse into the Germanic impact on French in general; perhaps unsurprisingly given France’s geography, French is the most “Germanic” of the Romance languages by far. About 5-10% of French vocabulary is Germanic-derived which, while this might seem modest at first glance, represents a fundamental substratum of the French lexicon. In addition to modern French offshoots of the sources for most of the English borrowings above, basic French terms like the compass points, the word for left (gauche), the ubiquitous “but” and “bout” (representing a goal or target), to save or spare (épargner), wood (bois), list (liste), bateau (a boat), blesser (to injure), trottoir (sidewalk), souhaiter (to wish), havre (a harbor), and many others are often of Germanic origin. There are even many cases when English uses a Latin-based term where modern French prefers a Germanic source: curb (French bord de trottoir), custody (garde), curtain (rideau), display (étalage), the flu (grippe), unexpected defeat (contre-performance), frown (froncer les sourcils), gare (train station), bailiff (huissier), pantry (garde-manger), save (épargner), squat (s’ accroupir), to store (ranger), dress (robe), and others.

A more detailed list of these lesser-known but widespread Germanic borrowings into English (from Dutch/Low German, High German, and the Germanic substratum of the Romance languages): http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/germanic_loanwords.htm

The bottom line is that by any rigorous, consistent categorization scheme, modern English is correctly classified exclusively as a Germanic language. This can be understood on the one hand by keeping in mind that Latin and its Romance language progeny have profoundly influenced the vocabulary of German and Dutch just as they have English, and conversely by appreciating the fundamental Germanic core of English in all linguistic facets. Not only in its grammar, syntax, pronunciation, spelling, and core lexicon, but also even in much of its sophisticated vocabulary and stock of loanwords.

 

For questions or follow-ups to this material, you can write to me at (remove the hyphens and append standard suffix) m-e-i-g-u-o-2-a (at) yahoo dot com (alternate address I check about once a week). Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite this essay as, “So Why Exactly is English Classified as a Germanic Language and not a Romance Language (or Creole)? An In-Depth Analysis,” by J.Wes Ulm, originally published on Harvard University personal website, URL: http://wesulm.angelfire.com/languages/english_why_germanic , © 2016