Episode 22: Early Germanic Grammar

We look at the grammar of the early Germanic tribes. The decreasing use of inflections is explored. Elements of modern English grammar are identified within the original Germanic language.


14 thoughts on “Episode 22: Early Germanic Grammar

  1. Thank you for your interesting podcast. Actually, Old English did have a dual for the first and second person. Cf. Obst/Schleburg 2004. p. 40.


    • Hi Hanspeter,

      Yes, you are correct. There was a dual form attested in early Old English documents. However, that dual form appears to have disappeared around the 10th century. So the bulk of Old English documents produced in the 10th and 11th centuries don’t have that dual form. However, I got the time frame wrong in this episode when I suggested that the dual form was never present in Old English. (By the way, I did mention those dual forms when I discussed Old English pronouns in Episode 54: Pronouns Pros and Cons.)

      • Hi Kevin,

        Where are you getting 10th century from? The dual pronouns were present well into the early Middle English period, with the last attested usage being dated to c 1300 according to the Middle English Dictionary (in Havelock the Dane). Orrm and Laȝamon in the late 12th century use all of them not infrequently.
        Maybe some dialects dispensed with them considerably earlier though? Also, at some point (not sure when) dual pronouns became optional, and may only have been used to emphasise the two-ness of the people concerned, with regular plurals being used elsewhere.
        In any case, I’m really enjoying your podcast so thank you for making it!

        • It was in my research at the time, but that ‘time’ was about 8 or 9 years ago, so I don’t have the citation for you. It is very possible that the source was suggesting that the dual pronouns started to fall out of use around that time.

  2. 马跳了
    The horse jumped.

    You don’t have to specify when to do past tense in Chinese. You just add a 了。 It isn’t really a word, it indicates tense. Also, it can operates on the clause, not necessarily the word. It can be used like -ed, but doesn’t have to be.
    Otherwise you were right about Chinese.

  3. I’m really enjoying this series, even though I’m way behind you. I will catch up.

    It occurred to me to wonder whether, in addition to the stress factor you mention, the loss of inflections in Proto-Germanic may have been caused by the mixing of languages and cultures you’ve previously mentioned. In general, that process doess tend to result in simplification of grammar.

    By the way, one other inflection modern English has kept is the possessive of nouns – the ‘s, which is a reduction of the Old and Middle English -es.

    • Hi Nyki.

      I think most modern linguists agree that the simplification of English grammar (especially the loss of inflectional endings) was highly influenced by interactions between English speakers and Norse speakers after the settlement of the Danelaw, and interactions with French speakers after the Norman Conquest. I am not sure if similar influences played a role in shaping Proto-Germanic grammar. Also, I discuss the evolution of English inflections in later episodes – including the modern -‘s genitive ending.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    Do you know much about the origins of the modern sibilant German letter which resembles an upper case “B” and is pronounced “es-tsett?” I’m curious as to where it came from and why it’s absent from English.


    • Hi Avery. It was a development within German and was originally a combination of S and T, thus its name in German. It represented a specific sound within German. I have not really studied its history, but here is a link to a Wikipedia article that does mention its development within German: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9F.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Your podcasts continue to amaze: I never thought I would find an essay on Early Germanic Grammar interesting. Great job.

    I was wondering if the comparative forms like ‘larger’ were a dual holdover from Old German, like the 1st person pronoun you discussed (and which we no longer have). It would seem that the comparative isn’t really necessary except that it indicates a paired comparison.

    • Thanks for the feedback! Yes, the comparative ‘-er’ suffix and the superlative ‘-est’ suffix are both derived from the inflections used in the older Proto-Germanic language. However, those suffixes underwent quite a bit of change between Proto-Germanic and Old English.

  6. Hi Kevin,

    Thank you very much for this podcast! I’m very late to the game but I enjoy it a lot.

    In this episode you mention that go/went is an example of a strong verb, but from what I’ve learned, there was a different past form of “go”, but “went” came in through suppletion, from the past to the verb “to wend”. My question is, therefore, is “to go” a true strong verb?

    • Hi Dror. Thanks for the question. I think that verbs like “be” and “go” are technically neither strong nor weak verbs; they’re ‘anomalous’ verbs because they combine forms from different verb roots. It has been nearly a decade since I prepared this episode, so I had to go back and read the transcript. I included “go” in the discussion of irregular verbs, but I don’t think I intended to include it as a strong verb, but admittedly the wording of that passage was a little unclear. At any rate, I hope this answers your question and clarifies the matter.

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