Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
This is episode 22, Early Germanic Grammar.
In this episode, we’re going to continue our look at the earliest Germanic language.
Specifically, we’re going to focus on the grammar of the early Germanic tribes.
But before I begin, let me thank all of you who’ve purchased the History of the Alphabet
That series is still available through iTunes and Amazon.com and my website, historyofenglishpodcast.com.
And I also want to thank all of you who’ve sent me emails regarding the Alphabet series
or this podcast.
You can always reach me at Kevin at historyofenglishpodcast.com.
And I also want to thank all of you who’ve left reviews and ratings on iTunes.
I haven’t mentioned that lately, but I appreciate the feedback from all of you who’ve taken
the time to do that.
So let’s turn our attention to this episode.
Now last time, we looked at some of the vocabulary of the early Germanic tribes at a time when
there was a common Germanic language, which was the ancestor of English and German and
the Scandinavian languages, among others.
But how did they use those words?
In other words, what was their grammar like?
Well, a good place to start is with the original Indo-European language.
The Germanic languages evolved from that original Indo-European language, so the Germanic tribes
inherited their grammar from the first Indo-Europeans.
And so you might consider going back and listening to Episode 8 of the podcast where I took a
look at the Indo-European grammar, because this episode will focus on how that original
language began to change in the hands and in the mouths of the early Germans.
And the key to understanding all of this is that concept of inflections, which I discussed
back in Episode 8.
The overall theme here is that the original Indo-European language had lots of those inflections,
but over the centuries, English has lost most of them, but not all of them.
And this process of losing inflections began with the early Germanic speakers.
And some of the basic changes within the early Germanic language is still reflected in modern
So let’s begin by reviewing the concept of inflections.
Inflections are basically changes or variations of a word to indicate something specific about
And the important thing to understand here is that language allows us to express basic
concepts and ideas, but it also allows us to express subtle variations in those concepts.
So let’s take a basic sentence like, The horse jumps the fence.
The idea that’s being conveyed is very simple.
But I can create subtle variations like, The horses jump the fences.
So instead of one horse and one fence, I’m now referring to many horses and many fences.
Or how about this sentence, The horse jumped the fence.
I’m now expressing the same idea, but I put it in the past, so I’m using past tense.
The point here is that language allows us to make very slight changes to words to alter
the meaning of the words.
So when I put an s or an es at the end of a noun, like horse or fence, that’s my way
of telling you that there was more than one of them.
And that may seem incredibly obvious, but not all languages do that.
In Chinese, for example, the word for horse doesn’t change.
So if I want to indicate multiple horses, I have to insert an extra word to indicate
So I would say something like, Two horse jump the fence.
Or many horse jump the fence.
Or several horse jumps the fence.
But in English, I don’t have to add an extra word.
I can simply tweak or modify the word horse by adding an es to the end.
That little suffix, es, is an inflection.
And English can make that subtle change to indicate plurality because it’s an Indo-European
This is a feature of all Indo-European languages.
Rather than having to insert extra words, Indo-European languages tend to use little
variations of the words themselves.
This is why Chinese can be written in characters, but English can’t.
The Chinese words stay the same, but English words have these little variations and can
only really be represented with an alphabet.
Again, these little variations are inflections.
The same rules basically apply for past tense.
In English, I can distinguish something happening now from something which happened yesterday
by simply adding a little ed at the end of the word.
So to change the horse jumps the fence from present tense to past tense, I just change
jump to jumped with an ed.
Again, this little suffix is an inflection.
But Chinese doesn’t use inflections, so you would have to say something like yesterday
the horse jumped the fence or last week the horse jumped the fence.
Again, in English, we can just modify the word jump by putting an ending on it like
ed and that does the same trick.
So these little endings or inflections are still a feature of modern English.
But English has relatively few of them today compared to Old English.
And the earlier forms of the language like Germanic and Indo-European, well they had
even more of those inflections.
Those people basically communicated with each other by constantly modifying and changing
basic words to indicate time and case and almost every aspect and variation of the basic
But as I’ve said, we use relatively few inflections today compared to the earlier versions of
And the process of losing inflections began with the early Germanic tribes who spoke that
common Germanic language.
And this process is best represented in verbs, where the Germanic tribes got rid of inflections
in most cases.
In fact, these Germanic speakers got rid of inflections for verbs in all tenses except
present tense and past tense.
And this is still the case in modern English.
And it’s still the case in all modern Germanic languages like German, Swedish, Norwegian,
So let’s look at that a little more closely.
Let’s begin with present tense.
The horse jumps the fence.
Like all Germanic languages, we can indicate present tense with an inflection.
In the case of English, it’s the s at the end of the word jump.
And that indicates that the action is happening right now.
Now let’s take a look at past tense.
The horse jumped the fence.
Again, we usually use that little ending, ed.
But what about the future?
What if I want to indicate that something is going to happen at a later date?
Well, you’ll notice that there’s no ending I can put on the word jump to indicate that
the horse will do it at a later time.
And that’s because English has lost the ending or inflection which used to do that.
So I can say, the horse will jump the fence, or the horse is going to jump the fence.
But I have to add new words rather than just changing the word jump.
The word jump actually stays the same.
But the original Indo-European language had an ending for future tense.
And it still exists in most other European languages.
And if you’ve studied other Indo-European languages, you’ll know all the different verb
tenses that you had to learn.
Like for example, the conditional tense.
The horse could jump the fence.
Or the horse would jump the fence.
Many other European languages can stick a different ending on the word jump to indicate that.
But the original Germanic language lost that ending.
Now we have to use words like could or would to indicate that tense.
And then there’s the subjunctive tense.
The horse may jump the fence.
Again, other European languages can stick a specific ending on the word jump to express
But the original Germanic language lost it.
And now we have to use the word may.
And then there’s the imperfect indicative tense.
The horse was jumping the fence.
Again, the original Indo-European language had a specific ending to indicate that tense.
But the original Germanic language lost it.
And now we have to use the phrase was jumping.
So all of these verb inflections or endings were lost within the original Germanic language.
The only endings which were retained were the ones used for present tense like jumps
and past tense like jumped.
But for all other verb tenses, we have to add new words to express the idea.
In other words, we have to use a verb phrase.
But the major point here is that this is common throughout all Germanic languages.
So it was something that happened very early on among the original Germanic speakers.
And this is something that distinguished the original Germanic language from Latin.
Latin retained most of those endings.
And that’s why modern Romance languages like French and Spanish still have all those
different verb forms.
And it’s why English speakers have so much fun learning how to pronounce and spell those
verbs in future tense, perfect tense, pluperfect tense, conditional tense, and so on.
But English largely avoids all of that complication thanks to those early Germanic tribes in northern
and central Europe.
They simplified the verb forms considerably.
And this marks one of the first major steps in simplifying that original Indo-European
So the early Germans got rid of the different verb forms except, as I mentioned, in present
and past tense.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they had all of the ways of expressing tense that
we have in modern English.
For example, will jump, is going to jump, could jump, would jump, may jump, was jumping.
Most of these specific verb phrases developed during later periods of English.
The original Germanic language did use some basic verb phrases to express these ideas,
but they were used much more rarely.
Instead, they relied on the basic present and past tenses to do most of the work.
Thus, the present tense of the verb could also be used to express a future meaning,
but the context would indicate exactly how the verb was being used.
So it would have been somewhat awkward early on, but over time the various Germanic languages
developed more sophisticated verb phrases to replace those lost inflections.
But again, the transition from verb inflections to verb phrases began with the early Germanic
Now, before we move on from talking about Germanic verbs, I want to mention one other
thing about past tense verbs.
During the period of the original Indo-European language, the verbs tended to be very irregular.
In other words, the verbs changed significantly in various tenses, and it was really the vowels
or the internal structure of the verb that tended to change.
And we still see that in some of the very old basic verbs which have survived into modern
A classic example is the verb to be in modern English, which appears as am, is, are, was,
were, been, being.
The different versions of these words seem random and not related to each other in any
We also see it, to a lesser extent, in a verb like to go.
The past tense of go is went.
We also see it in words like sing, which appear as sing, sang, sung, and a word like bite,
which appears as bite, bit, and bitten.
All of these variations are also inflections, but you’ll notice that the verbs tended to
blow, blew, blown, catch, caught, drive, drove, driven.
In modern English, we call these strong verbs because they each have their own internal
rules as they change tense.
You just have to learn them.
But during the very early Germanic period, as the early Germans were starting to get
rid of those Indo-European inflections, they developed a new class of verbs.
These are what we know today as weak verbs.
These tended to be newer verbs.
For these verbs, a general rule was adopted.
The internal structure of the verb would stay the same, but past tense would be indicated
by adding a t or a d sound at the end.
You might remember that these sounds are closely related.
The t and the d sounds are both stops, and the t sound is the unvoiced version of the
And this is actually still the general rule for verbs in modern English.
The past tense of jump is jumped.
The past tense of sleep is slept.
The past tense of weep is wept.
The past tense of push is pushed.
I noted that the original Germanic language retained an inflexive for past tense.
But this specific inflection, the d or the t sound at the end, it was unique to the Germanic
And again, this occurred very early on while there was still a common Germanic language
because these features exist throughout the Germanic languages today.
So the generic ed suffix that we use today to indicate past tense, that goes back to
these same original Germanic tribes.
So why did these Germanic tribes create this ed or t ending for past tense verbs?
Well, no one knows for sure.
One theory is that it came from the verb to do, so that walk in past tense became something
akin to walk did, or how we might say today did walk.
The walk did became walked.
But this is just a theory and one that’s not accepted by all linguists.
It’s also believed that most of the initial weak verbs that use this ed or t ending were
words that began as other parts of speech and therefore didn’t have an established conjugation
under the traditional Indo-European verb system.
So walk was initially a noun as in take a walk, but eventually it began to be used as
And the generic t or d suffix was used to indicate past tense.
Again, this is just a theory.
By the way, I talked about Jacob Grimm in the last episode and we’ve looked at his
sound changes in some detail.
Well, it was Jacob Grimm who coined the terms strong verb and weak verb to describe these
different types of verbs.
And that’s become the standard terminology which we still use today.
All new verbs are weak verbs because the ed ending is the only way to make those verbs
And again, this specific ed or sometimes t ending is unique to all Germanic languages.
So we’ve looked at verbs in the original Germanic language.
Now let’s look at nouns.
The first thing I should note is that the original Germanic language continued to have
masculine and feminine nouns.
So this goes back to episode 8 about the original Indo-European grammar.
You may remember that the original Indo-Europeans classified all nouns as either masculine,
feminine or neutral.
And most modern European languages still make these distinctions, at least into masculine
Modern German still uses the neutral version as well.
Well, again, the original Germanic tribes didn’t change that.
Now modern English is somewhat unique among Indo-European languages in that it no longer
makes those distinctions.
But that change came much later, during the period of Old English.
Now I noted earlier that we still use inflections for nouns to indicate plurality.
But other than that, we no longer use inflections for nouns.
So we have one car and several cars with an S. That’s an inflection.
And we have one ox and several oxen, just like we have one child and several children.
Again, these are all inflections because the noun itself changes.
In other words, the noun is pronounced differently to indicate that there’s more than one of
Well, the original Germanic language basically did the same thing.
It also had certain inflections to distinguish one of something from several of something.
But again, the Germanic language was much more inflexive than modern English.
So unlike today, the Germanic language used lots of other inflections with nouns.
So for example, they continued to put little endings on nouns to indicate whether a noun
was the subject of a sentence or the object of a sentence.
I covered all of this back in episode 8 with respect to the Indo-Europeans.
The early Germans basically continued this aspect of the original Indo-European language.
So for example, the dog chased the cat.
Or the cat chased the dog.
The exact same five words appear in both sentences.
The only difference is the order in which they appear.
But the order is essential in modern English.
When the word dog appears before the verb chased, we know the dog is the one doing the
In other words, we know that it’s the subject.
But when the word dog appears after the verb, we know that it was the one being chased.
In other words, it’s the object of the sentence.
Now there are occasional exceptions to this strict rule, but the point here is that we
rely on word order to determine these things today.
But during the time of the Germanic tribes, much like the earlier Indo-Europeans, word
order wasn’t really all that important because the little endings which they placed on the
end of the nouns told you which was the subject of the sentence and which was the object.
So you may recall from back in episode 8 that the Indo-European word for horse was the root
of the modern English word equine and equestrian.
You’ve probably figured out by now that I like to use the same examples.
Well when that word for horse was used as the subject of the sentence, like the horse
jumped the fence, the word was equos with an os ending.
But when the horse was the object of the sentence, like I saw the horse, the word was pronounced
as equam with an om ending.
So the ending or inflection told you whether the word was the subject or the object of
And so it really didn’t matter where you put the word in the sentence.
So word order was much looser and more flexible in the original Indo-European language.
And it was still the same way in the original Germanic language.
And it’s still the case in modern German as well.
And in fact it was the case in Old English.
It wasn’t until the late Old English and early Middle English period that English finally
lost those noun inflections or endings.
So that’s nouns.
What about pronouns?
Well I, me, us, you, he, it, they, and them all derived from earlier versions within the
original Germanic language.
As I mentioned in the last episode, the pronouns they and them were borrowed from the Old Norse
speakers but they originated within the earlier Germanic tribes.
And she came into English around the time of Early Middle English.
Now in the last episode I stated that she also came from Old Norse.
And nobody called me out on that.
But that may actually have been a bit of a misstatement.
The etymology of she is still disputed.
In fact some argue that it actually has Celtic origins because the Celtic word was very similar.
But regardless of its specific origins, we do know that it didn’t appear in English
until after the Old English period.
And let’s keep in mind that the Germanic and Old English pronouns were also highly inflexive.
So just like nouns, the actual pronoun that you used depended on how it was being used
in the sentence.
But let’s assume the third person pronoun he, she, or it was being used as the subject
of a sentence.
In Old English, the masculine version was he, just like today, but it was pronounced
more like hey.
The neutral version was h-i-t, pronounced heat.
But over time the h fell away at the beginning and it just became i-t, eventually pronounced
The loss of the h sound was quite common.
We see it in the modern pronunciation of words like hour, h-o-u-r, and honor.
The h sound in those words has long since disappeared, but the spelling still reflects
the original pronunciation.
By the way, I discussed the loss of the h sound in the alphabet series, so check that
out if you want to learn more about that.
But anyway, heat eventually became pronounced as it in modern English without the h sound
at the beginning.
When used as the subject, the feminine version was he-o.
So hey, heat, and he-o had that initial h sound.
And we still see that in him and her, and his and hers, all of which retain the h sound.
But as I noted, the feminine version, he-o, was eventually replaced by she in early Middle
And no one knows for sure why that happened, but the main point of this discussion about
he, she, and it is to help you see the connections between those pronouns.
During the earlier Germanic period, these various third person pronouns were much more
similar to each other than they are today.
By the way, those are the third person pronouns, but with respect to the first and second person
pronouns, the original Germanic speakers had a singular and plural version just like today,
but they also retained a dual version from the original Indo-Europeans, which referred
to a pair of something.
So they not only had a version of I and us, they also had a pronoun which meant we two
or the two of us.
And they not only had a version of you singular and you plural, like you all, but they also
had a version which meant you two or the two of you.
So again, this goes back to the original Indo-Europeans, and the early Germans retained
And in fact, those dual pronouns passed into early Gothic and Old Norse.
So the Eastern and Northern dialects retained it for a while, but the Western dialects dropped
the dual version early on.
So Old English never really had a dual version.
So I’ve discussed verbs, nouns, and pronouns.
Let me mention something about adjectives.
Like everything else, adjectives also use lots of inflections or endings to convey specific
And we still have a few of those in Modern English.
For example, we still use inflections to indicate the comparative and superlative cases.
That sounds very fancy, but it’s the difference between large, larger, and largest.
Those are really perfect examples of inflections.
Those little endings convey essential meanings, and again, we get them from the original Germanic
I also wanted to note another sound shift which occurred within the early Germanic language.
I discussed the sound changes associated with Grimm’s Law in the last episode.
Well, in addition to those changes, there was another subtle change that occurred during
this early period.
The early Germanic language had a sound that was somewhere between an S or Z sound and
an R sound.
It was a unique sound that we don’t really have in Modern English.
But it was the product of a sound shift.
There was an earlier Z sound which eventually shifted to an R sound.
And this sound was right in the middle of that change during the early Germanic period.
And we can still see relics of that sound shift in Modern English.
We can see it in was vs. were and most vs. more.
One version retains the original sibilant sound, the S or Z sound, and the other reflects
the newer R sound which developed within the later Germanic languages.
And these differences develop largely due to different stresses in the syllables of
Differences in stress led to certain shifts in the sound.
In fact, this particular sound shift is very common across many different languages.
In fact, it has its own name in linguistics.
It’s called rhoticism.
But the point here is that this particular sound shift was still in the process of change
during the early Germanic period.
Now I should note that linguists who have studied Gothic have discovered that Gothic
apparently didn’t have this particular sound shift to the R sound.
So linguists used this as evidence to indicate that those Gothic tribes began their eastward
migration very early on and this R sound change occurred shortly thereafter.
And if that’s the case, that means that this sound shift was not part of the original
common Germanic language.
It must have developed slightly later after the Goths split off.
But this is kind of a technical point because this sound shift is common throughout the
other Germanic languages, including all of the modern Germanic languages.
So that brings me to the final point which I wanted to discuss in regard to Germanic
And interestingly, it’s one of the easiest aspects of Germanic grammar to understand,
but it may have had the most far-reaching implications as far as modern English is concerned.
And this particular aspect of the original Germanic language was the way multi-syllable
words were stressed when they were pronounced.
And surprisingly enough, this is actually very simple.
In the original Germanic language, the stress was almost always placed on the first syllable
of a word.
Now some words had prefixes and in those cases, the prefixes were not stressed.
So to be a little more accurate, we can say that the base syllable was stressed.
Now in modern English, there is no general rule for stress.
Stress can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end.
And this is actually much like the original Indo-European language where the stress could
appear at various locations.
Now part of the reason why the stress varies a lot in modern English is because English
has so many borrowed words.
And many of those words had the stress in the middle or at the end when they were borrowed.
But despite the lack of consistency in modern English, we can still say that there is a
default tendency to emphasize the first syllable in modern English.
And that’s also true of modern German, by the way.
So let’s look at this default tendency by comparing modern English words to French words
where the tendency is to emphasize the final syllable.
So in English, we have a word like Paris.
But in French, it’s Paris.
In English, we have a word like mansion.
But in French, it’s maison.
In English, we have voyage.
In French, you have voyage.
In English, we have difference.
In French, it’s différance, as in vive la différence.
So English still has this tendency to put the emphasis on the first syllable.
But it’s really just a tendency today.
One of my favorite examples of this is American aluminum versus British aluminium.
Each dialect puts the emphasis in a different place.
But neither puts it on the A at the beginning.
But again, if you go through lots of multi-syllable words in English, you’ll find that English
tends to put the stress on the first syllable more often than not.
Now modern English is actually much like the original Indo-European language in this respect.
As I noted earlier, the original Indo-European language also put the stress on different
syllables and different words.
So there doesn’t appear to be a consistent rule in the original language.
But by the time we get to the Germanic period, the emphasis was consistently put on the first
And that’s part of the reason why we still have that tendency in modern English.
But again, this wasn’t a tendency in the original Germanic language.
It was a pretty much universal rule, with very limited exceptions, like prefixes, which
I mentioned earlier.
And linguists have even determined that this shift of emphasis to the first syllable occurred
after the sound changes associated with Grimm’s Law.
And the reason for that conclusion is because sound shifts are actually closely tied to
the way syllables are stressed.
And in fact, the reason why some of those consonants shifted in some words and didn’t
shift in other words is because of the way syllables in the words were stressed.
You might remember that Jacob Grimm never called the rules he formulated laws, because
there were lots of exceptions which he couldn’t explain.
Well, later linguists like Carl Werner explained those exceptions largely based on the way
syllables were stressed.
So sometimes a consonant didn’t shift to a new sound because the immediately preceding
syllable was stressed.
Anyway, based on all that research, later linguists concluded that there was more variation
in the way words were stressed early on, but by the later period of the original Germanic
language, the stress had shifted to the first syllable.
So big deal, you say.
Why is it that stress on the first syllable is so important?
Well, the answer has to do with what happens when you emphasize the first part of a word.
You tend to de-emphasize the end of the word.
Take the word syllable.
We don’t normally enunciate every syllable in the word syllable.
We don’t typically say syllable.
We just say syllable.
So the end of the word comes out sounding something like buh or buh.
So in other words, we tend to slur or cut off the end of the word.
And so if the stress is always on the first syllable, then the end of the words routinely
get cut short or they’re slurred.
But think about where all of those inflections that I’ve talked about are located.
They were typically placed at the end of the words.
So now, within the original Germanic language, many of those inflections were being de-emphasized
and they were often being lost in common speech.
Now many linguists believe that this may have been part of the reason why the early Germanic
language began to lose some of its inflections altogether.
So all of those verb inflections in the Indo-European language were reduced to just two situations
in the Germanic languages, present tense and past tense.
Otherwise, the Germanic language required a verb phrase.
In other words, it required additional words to be added into the sentence.
And the Indo-European language had eight separate cases for nouns, which I discussed back in
But now the Germanic tribes got rid of at least two of those and rarely used a couple
Of course, some of those various inflections were retained into later versions of the language
like Old English and German.
But some of those lost inflections were likely the result of this syllable stress pattern.
So anyway, I hope you found this episode interesting.
My goal here was to illustrate how the early Germanic language was beginning to change
in certain fundamental ways from the earlier Indo-European language.
Not only were old words being pronounced differently, and new words being adopted from other peoples,
but the early Germans were beginning to use those words in new and unique ways.
So this was really a transitional period for the language.
Now next time, I’m going to return to the actual history of the Germanic tribes.
We’ll look at the state of the tribes around the first century A.D., or Common Era.
This was the time of the Roman historian Tacitus, and he gives us the first detailed written
account of these people.
And we’ll look at certain cultural aspects of these tribes which are reflected in words
from this period, and which are still found in modern English.
So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.