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The Proto-Germanic language which evolved into three groups, the northern, eastern and western, covered a geographical area far beyond the borders of modern Germany. The northern branch is represented by Danish and Swedish in the northeast and Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian in the northwest. In the eastern branch was Gothic, the language of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths who descended on Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries. The western branch includes Frisian, Low German, Dutch (and its descendent in South Africa, Afrikaans), Flemish, Yiddish, German and English.

An Indo-European language family like Italic, Indo-Iranian, and Slavic, the Germanic languages experienced changes different from their southern "cousins." The most significant change is called Grimmís Law, after Jacob Grimm, who first published the theory (though Rasmus Rask first discovered it). Grimm, of Brothers Grimm fame, presented the theory that at some time in the past, before the Germanic languages diverged, the "Proto-Germanic" language experienced a systematic sound shift. In this theory Proto-Indo-European sounds consistently shifted to a predictable outcome in Germanic. This shift is illustrated as follows (the asterisk indicates a reconstructed form; that is, a word not found in a written form, that had to be pieced together):

 
PIE   Gmc   PIE   Gmc   PIE   Gmc
*bh > b > *b > p > *p > f
*dh > d > *d > t > *t > th
*gh > g > *g > k > *k > h
*gwh > b/g > *gw > kw/k > *kw > hw

(If there is an "s" if front of the sound in question, it prevents Grimm's Law; sonorants [r,l,m,n,w,y] do not change.)

During the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. many of the Germanic tribes began a migration into / invasion of southern and western Europe. The eastern Gothic tribes conquered Rome and ruled in Spain, while the western tribes harried Britain and Gaul. In Britain the Angles, Saxons and Jutes overran and displaced the native Celts, and Britain became England (Angle - land) while the Franks (and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, though to a lesser degree than in Britain) overran Gaul, which eventually came to be known as France. In fact, during the Merovingian Dynasty of Clovis in the fifth century through the early seventh century and through the Carolingian Dynasty, France and Germany were, more often than not, united under a common ruler, if not as one imperial state.

More recently, Germany played a major role in both World Wars. In 1949, after their defeat in World War II, Germany was divided into two separate republics; the Communist dominated German Democratic Republic in the east and the German Federal Republic of the west. The division was made physical when a wall was erected through the divided city of Berlin. This wall became symbolic of the struggle between the Communist east and the capitalist west. On November 9, 1989, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall signified the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War with the U.S., which had begun in the 1950's. Germany continues the process of reunification as it approaches the year 2000.