Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Simplification of English – Stage 1, Proto-Germanic

While our children were in high school we hosted several European exchange students in our home for whom English was a second, third, or even fourth language. I was surprised when they told me that they considered English an easy language to learn, or at least less complicated than their own (French, Polish, German and Hungarian). What they meant by this was the lack of gender for most nouns and the simplified verb forms, not our beloved illogical English spelling.

John McWhorter, in “Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage” (The Great Courses), explains two quite different stages in the development of English where simplification occurred. The first occurred at the Proto-Germanic stage and therefore affected all the Germanic languages. The second occurred between Old and Middle English. In this post I’ll explore the first.

Compared to the other branches of Indo-European (e.g. Latin, Greek, Celtic, Persian, Sanskrit and Slavic), Proto-Germanic is different in several striking ways. One was the shift in consonants which is known as Grimm’s Law (discussed in an earlier post) where “p” becomes “f”, “k” becomes “h” etc. Another was a significant loss of complexity of verb forms. Where other IE language families have different verb forms for I, we (you & I), we (you, I & others), you (singular), you (plural) and they, PG had only one “we” and had the same verb form for “we”, “you all” and “they”. Verb tenses were also simplified to four (present, past, subjunctive and passive) from six in Indo-European. There were also some internal vowel changes in verb tenses introduced to Proto-Germanic (which I don’t understand so won’t attempt to explain here). Then there is vocabulary – many Germanic words were borrowed early on from the neighboring Indo-European languages of Roman and Celtic, but up to a third of Germanic roots are believed to be of non-Indo-European source.  What was going on here?

This type of language change (significant simplification) is not the normal pattern. In fact it is only seen when a language is learned by a group as adults. Who could these adults be?

First keep in mind that nearly all of the wide distribution of Indo-European languages is the result of imposition of the language on existing inhabitants by an introduced ruling class (either military or mercantile), rather than by mass migration of Indo-European speakers. See my post on the PIE Homeland. It had been proposed by Colin Renfrew (and others) that the Indo-European languages were introduced to Europe along with agriculture by farmers migrating west and north from Anatolia (modern Turkey). It made a nice neat theory but turned out not to be true – agriculture preceded IE languages by several thousand years in Europe. There were therefore, by the time the Indo-European language was advancing up the Danube into northwest Europe, farmers settled there with their own languages, whatever they may have been. It was these people who learned Indo-European as adults and adopted it as their own.

There is some linguistic evidence suggesting that these northwestern European people who learned Indo-European, and made it into Proto-Germanic, spoke a Semitic language (of which Arabic and Hebrew are members). Semitic languages are rich in the internal vowel changes of the kind seen in Proto-Germanic verbs; the fricative consonants “f”, “h”, and “th” introduced to Proto-Germanic as explained in Grimm’s Law are common in Semitic languages, and a few of the non-PIE Germanic roots seem to have a Semitic connection. This Semitic influence theory, promoted by Prof. Theo Vennemann, is quite controversial.

One theory to explain a Semitic influence on Germanic languages has the Phoenicians, a Semitic speaking sea-faring people who are known to have reached Portugal, to have sailed all the way around to north-western Europe – the Netherlands perhaps or even Denmark. This is highly speculative at best, as there is no archaeological evidence and so far to my knowledge no genetic evidence, to support their presence that far north. My theory (and you saw it here first) is that some influence of Semitic languages had accompanied agriculture as it made its way from the middle east to northwestern Europe. One of Bryan Sykes' maternal ancestors of modern Europeans described in his 2001 book " The Seven Daughters of Eve" is Jasmine who originated in the middle east and is associated with the spread of agriculture into Europe. Her genes spread into Europe and it seems quite likely that her language did as well, hundreds of years before the introduction ofGermanic Indo-European languages.

Whoever the first speakers of Proto-Germanic were, we owe them our gratitude for helping to simplify not only English but every other Germanic language spoken today.

The next stage of simplification for English, which occurred during the transition from Old English to Middle English, is credited to, of all people, the Norse Vikings who settled in northern England. But that’s a story for another week.


  1. No I am beginning to understand this. If agriculture originated in the Middle East, spread to Anatolia and then into Europe, up the Danube, it makes sense that Semitic languages would have moved with it. So IE languages, inflicted from on high, would have been learned by adults as a second language and naturally simplified.

    I keep wondering why Russian hasn't been simplified. The endings drive me nuts. But English verb tenses drive Tanya crazy. How many are there anyhow? Dozens, I think. How did THAT happen?

  2. In any particular Language Vocabulary are words. The key part of any Language is to learn and understand its vocabulary. One of the best sites i find is