Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Germanic Languages: From Achterhoeks to Zeeuws

At the beginning of the month we took an in-depth look at the wide world of Romance languages, which extends far beyond languages such as Spanish and French. It seems to have caught the interest of lots of language lovers out there, so today we thought we'd look at another fascinating language family, the Germanic languages.

The most spoken Germanic languages in the world are English and German, followed by Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. However, you might be surprised to find out that according to the Ethnologue, there are actually 48 distinct Germanic languages! Today we're going to try to look at as many of them as we possibly can.

North Germanic Languages

There are five North Germanic languages: Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese, and Icelandic. These languages are also known as the Nordic languages or the Scandinavian languages. That said, some people don't include Faroese and Icelandic in the group of Scandinavian languages since Iceland and the Faroe Islands are not located in Scandinavia.

In any case, all of these languages are very closely related and share a high degree of mutual intelligibility. It is quite common for speakers of one of these languages to understand at least one of the others in the group, if not several of them.

A view of Edinburgh, Scotland from atop Calton Hill
Anglo-Frisian Languages

Another small branch of the Germanic language family tree consists of five languages known as the Anglo-Frisian languages: English, Scots, Frisian, North Frisian, and Saterland Frisian. One thing that makes this group stand apart from other Germanic languages is its palatalization of /k/, which is instead pronounced /tʃ/. This can be seen in words like cheese in English and tsiis in West Frisian, which contain the velar /k/ sound in German (Käse) and Dutch (kaas).

While you're undoubtedly familiar with English if you're reading this blog, you might not be familiar with the rest of these languages. Scots, which should not be confused with Scottish Gaelic, is so closely related to English that nobody can truly decide if it's a separate language or simply a distinct variety that evolved in Scotland. Then there are the Frisian languages: Frisian is spoken by over 450,000 people in the Netherlands, while North Frisian has about 10,000 speakers and Saterland Frisian has around 1,000 speakers, both in Germany.

High German Languages

The branch of High German languages consists of over a dozen languages closely related to German that are spoken in a very interesting array of countries. Germany is home to the largest number of these languages (or dialects, depending on your point of view), including standard German, Upper Saxon, Pfaelzisch, Swabian, Mainfränkisch, and Kölsch, which is spoken in and around Cologne.

Two High German languages, Lower Silesian and Wymysorys, are primarily spoken in Poland, though both are endangered. Luxembourg is also home to Luxembourgish, while Switzerland is home to Swiss German and Walser. There's also Limburgish, which is spoken in the Netherlands, while Bavarian is spoken throughout Austria and Bavaria and the closely related Cimbrian and Mócheno languages are both spoken in northeastern Italy.

The most interesting members of this group may be Pennsylvania German, Colonia Tovar German, and Hutterisch. Pennsylvania German is more commonly known by the name Pennsylvania Dutch in the United States, where it is spoken by over 100,000 people in Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities. Colonia Tovar German is also known as Alemán Coloniero, and is spoken in the Venezuelan town of Colonia Tovar, which was founded in the mid-1800s by German immigrants who turned the area into what is now known as "the Germany of the Caribbean". Finally, Hutterisch is spoken by nearly 30,000 members of the Hutterite group of Canada, an ethno-religious group similar to the Amish and Mennonites.

Hamburg Rathaus in Germany
Low Franconian Languages

The Ethnologue recognizes four languages in this group: Dutch, Afrikaans, Vlaams, and Zeeuws. Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, while Afrikaans, its daughter language, is an official language in South Africa. Vlaams, also known as West Flemish, is primarily spoken in Belgium, while Zeeuws is used in certain areas of the Netherlands.

Low Saxon Languages

There are eleven Low Saxon languages, which are all spoken in the Netherlands or Germany with the exception of Plautdietsch, which is spoken by Russian Mennonite communities around the world. The other ten languages are Achterhoeks, Drents, Gronings, Sallands, East Frisian Low Saxon, Low Saxon, Stellingwerfs, Twents, Veluws, and Westphalien, most of which are often considered to be dialects instead of distinct languages.

Finally, there's Yiddish, which is hard to categorize within the other groups in the Germanic language family since it has such a mysterious linguistic history. It is thought to have evolved from Middle High German, though it has also been suggested that Yiddish might actually be a Slavic language with Germanic vocabulary!