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I am not a linguist. I do not know German nor French. The majority of English vocabulary is derived from Romance languages. Given these facts, I ask for a simple and convincing demonstration (using an example) that the "basic structure" of English is of Germanic, rather than Romantic origin.

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This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

You might be interested in the book "The Adventure of English" which I reviewed in our blog. –  Matt Ellen Jun 10 '14 at 12:12
English coalesced from the language dialects spoken by Germanic immigrants (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes) who came to England from c. 450. –  TheMathemagician Jun 10 '14 at 16:33
Your "Danes" were the Angles and Jutes. The fourth group was the Frisians (an island chain off what is now the Netherlands). I watched The Story of English (Jim McNeil) and it's amazing how close Frisian and (to a lesser extent) Danish is to English. –  Phil Perry Jun 10 '14 at 17:09
If you look at examples of English prior to 1066CE, you'll find significantly less Romance influence. This is because it was during the Norman Conquest that a vast majority of borrowings and influence occurred during their rule. –  Andy Jun 10 '14 at 18:27
Languages are usually classified by common ancestry. One could try to define synchronous language groups by select common features, as found in WALS, but I don’t think that leads anywhere. –  Crissov Jun 10 '14 at 22:46

9 Answers 9

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There is a common assumption in all the answers so far, which I think is mistaken. It is that the question has a well-definied, categorical answer, that English is either Germanic or Romance, and cannot be some mix of the two. The assumption is clearly enunciated in some of the answers, but it is present in all, even in Janus very good answer, when he speaks of an early pre-viking "stage of English", as is a language has at any time T in the past a unique and well-defined ancestor.

We should remember that language have no parent like a bacteria has one parent and a human being has two. They are complicated structure with not so-well defined boundaries which evolves over time in part by borrowing a lot form other language. Most of the time, however, it is true that it is a very good approximation of the reality to suppose that a language has a unique ancestor at a given type of the past. For instance, it is relatively safe to say that the ancestor of Modern french at time 50BC is Latin, because even if there has been much vocabulary borrowing in French since 2064 years, it is marginal and most of the vocabulary and almost all of the grammars can be traced back from Latin.

But English has a very special history. At some point, French-speaking Normans invaded england and became the ruling class of the country. Progressively their French language mixed with old English of the former inhabitants, to give a new language which will in turn evolve into modern English. Now we need to turn to facts to see if this language comes mainly from old English with some French influence, or from French with some old english influence, or anything in between.

Most of the facts have been recalled by Janus, but let me remind them here and new ones:

  • A majority of the vocabulary of Literary English comes from French while an important minority is of germanic origin.

  • A majority of the vocabulary of everyday spoken English comes from common Germanic but an important minority comes from French (for example, current words such as arm, table, chair, plate, car, flower, to push, to cry, etc.)

  • The grammar also shows the double influence: some traits, like the Saxon genitive "The man's car" are clearly germanic, while some other, like the fact that most names take an s in plural comes from French.

So I believe it is safe to say that English has both a Romance and Germanic origin, arguably slightly more Germanic in view of the importance of the Germanic words in its basic vocabulary, and of the form if Germanic origin in its grammar (as a more precise analysis would show). Remember that it is only a convenient approximation to say that a language is "the genetic continuation" of some language of the past, sometimes a very good approximation ("Polish comes from common Slavic"), sometimes just a decent approximation ("French comes from Latin", but 10% of its basic vocabulary is of Germanic origins, and some of its grammar too, like the "passé composé"), sometimes really an over-simplification ("English comes from common Germanic").

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-1 As the other answers explain, the categorization of languages into families if historical and genetic, and only concerns how the language evolved rather its present state. –  Anixx Jun 11 '14 at 20:20
Anixx, what does "genetic" means? –  Joël Jun 11 '14 at 20:25
see the above answers –  Anixx Jun 11 '14 at 20:30
"like the fact that most names take an s in plural comes from French." Whether French influenced the fact -s is now the only productive plural, I don't know, but the -s itself is definitely inherited from Germanic: etymonline.com/index.php?term=-s –  dainichi Jun 12 '14 at 5:34

Classification of languages is a historical thing, rather than a synchronic one. Just like genetic classification of humans—someone who marries into a new family and goes and lives with them is nonetheless still genetically related to the family they came from.

The majority of the total vocabulary in English may be borrowed rather than inherited, but the majority of the most common and basic vocabulary is inherited. This includes such things as numbers (all inherited), most pronouns (except they, which is Germanic, but not inherited), many basic non-administrative nouns (wood, name, stone, man, woman, ship, way, ox, hound, house, etc.), and many basic verbs (be, have, should, can, will, go, do, live, die, think, bear, etc.).

Much of this basic vocabulary is also among the most irregular in the language, which usually indicates it's been around much longer. Words borrowed from other languages tend to be force-fitted into the borrowing language's most regular morphology, while inherited words suffer no such restrictions.

If you go back to Old English from before the Vikings settled in England, you can clearly see a language (or several closely related languages, if you prefer) that has a high degree of resemblance to other West Germanic languages of the time, in almost every aspect. This (and the fact that this language can be reconstructed back to the common Proto-Germanic language that all Germanic languages go back to) is really the best direct indicator that English is genetically Germanic, rather than Romance. You won't find a stage of English where it is almost identical to any stage of any Romance language.

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Your wording suggests that it is irrelevant to classification how similar a language is to other languages today. I think it would help to add that vocabulary is quite a superficial trait of language (it's easy to borrow words from another language), and that when it comes to grammar or pronunciation (phonology, stress), English is much closer to other Germanic languages than to French. –  reinierpost Jun 10 '14 at 10:29
@Morg. And yet, with the way English has evolved, there are quite a few features English now shares with French and Spanish, but not with, say, German (no cases, no grammatical umlaut, no distinction between reflexive and non-reflexive possessives, no verb-final word order, etc.). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 10 '14 at 12:13
@Phil Accented letters is a matter of orthography; it's irrelevant to genetic affiliation (compare Hindi and Urdu: basically twin languages, but one written in Devanāgarī, the other in the Arabic script). Romance languages have all lost non-pronominal cases, too (except Romanian). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 10 '14 at 17:35
@Voo I meant grammatical in the narrower sense that umlaut does not play a part in any regular morphological processes in English anymore. All instances of umlaut are one-offs, irregular plurals and derivations. In German, on the other hand, it is still morphologically function (ich laufe, du läufst, for example). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 10 '14 at 21:25
@JanusBahsJacquet, and I think you're talking about ablaut, not umlaut. Umlaut is an orthographic concept. –  dainichi Jun 12 '14 at 3:21

If you don't want to get into details of linguistics (which I take it you don't) the best way to see the family resemblance is to take a comparative look at English's closest linguistic relative found on mainland Europe: Frisian.

Some sample words in Frisian, English, Dutch, and German:

  • dei, day, dag, Tag
  • rein, rain, regen, Regen
  • wei, way, weg, Weg
  • neil, nail, nagel, Nagel

Frisian is of course indisputably a Germanic language, and just from the above its pretty clear both that these very basic words are all related, and that the Frisian variant looks far closer to the English than the other two.

As someone who has never learned other languages, it might be an easy mistake to think that vocabulary is all there is to a language. However, that would be wrong. There's far far more going on structurally in a language than simple word choice.

Delving into the murky waters of linguistics a bit more, we find that Germanic languages actually share a lot of pronunciation and structural features that are not found in Romance languages. Taking it further, West Germanic languages share features not found in North Germanic languages, and Anglo-Frisian languages share features not found in the other West Germanic languages. Based on all that, its fairly easy to classify English as Germanic, further as West Germanic, and further still as Anglo-Frisian.

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This context is really asking for the following Afrikaans sentence, which means exactly what you think it means: My hand is in warm water. Afrikaans is sort of a simplified Dutch with a little African influence and a different spelling system influenced by English. –  Hans Adler Jul 29 '14 at 1:43

It's a genetic thing, not a historic one.

Future civilizations analyzing languages in the European area would make the exact same conclusions without access to our current knowledge.

English is clearly derived from the Proto-Germanic language and it's quite obvious as it shares a LOT of similarities with other germanic languages and just about none with French.

Notice how "Ceci est" shares no similarities with either german or english.

EN: This is a dog.

DE: Das ist ein hund.

FR: Ceci est un chien.

Notice how both German and English use almost the same words, none of which look like the French words.

EN: Good Day.

DE: Guten Tag.

FR: Bonjour.

Notice the order of verb and reflexive pronoun (if that's how it's called)?

EN: I bought myself a pair of socks.

DE: Ich kaufte mir ein Paar Socken

FR: Je me suis acheté une paire de chaussettes.

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These are all random, superficial similarities and disparities in modern languages. They show absolutely nothing about genetic relations between languages. Your first example might easily lead you to conclude that French and German are more closely related, for example: est and ist look much closer than is and ist to a passing eye (although of course all three of them are exact equivalents). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 10 '14 at 12:17
@JanusBahsJacquet, if you find enough random superficial similarities and disparities it certainly starts to suggest something about genetic relations between languages. –  Samuel Edwin Ward Jun 10 '14 at 14:00
I'm not sure "genetic" is a good choice of words here. The rest of the answer is good, but that word seems to be implying it has more to do with the people speaking the language than it does with any inherent properties of the language itself. –  T.E.D. Jun 10 '14 at 19:57
@T.E.D. Genetic is an established term when comparing languages. If two languages can be derived from a common ancestor, they are said to be genetically related, just like with humans. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 10 '14 at 20:26
@Morg. One could give similar examples in favor of the opposite conclusion. Like your third one, concerning word order. EN: I think that I am strong. FR: Je pense que je sues fort. GE: Ich denke dass ich stark bin. Here English agrees with French, but not with German. –  Joël Jun 11 '14 at 20:12

"It's a historical thing" and "it's a genetic thing" mean the same thing, which is that it doesn't matter how French-like a language looks if its lineage traces back to Proto-Germanic. The way it happened was that people were in Britain speaking Old English, a clearly Germanic language, and then the Normans invaded and Old English was influenced by the French of the ruling class to become Middle English. When you hang out with someone who speaks another language, you're more likely to borrow their words than you are to borrow their grammar. So a side effect of English's Germanic lineage is that its grammar is more Germanic than Romance. For instance, this is why you can end a sentence in a preposition in English even though you can't in (most dialects of) French or Latin.

Of course, if you look back further, Germanic and Romance languages are themselves related as Indo-European languages, so you have to keep that in mind when looking for examples of how Romance-like English is.

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Your answer (as well as Morg's answer) misses the point. You say as if it was obvious that English is a Germanic language influenced by the French of the ruling class during the middle age, but that's exactly what you are asked to justify. Why not say that English is the French of the ruling class influenced by the germanic language of the peasant during the middle age? Of course, there are reasons not to say so, and they are well summarized by Janus, but it is only after you have given these reasons that you're logically allowed to say that the lineage of English is Germanic. –  Joël Jun 11 '14 at 19:23

The English spoken in Alfred the Great's England was heavily influenced by the Norse marauders from Norway and Denmark. The English spoken then was Teutonic in origin but evolved into a modified version which dispensed with the elaborate case system of Teutonic languages. The disgusting 4-letter words we use today have clear Germanic origins as do any of the English words beginning with the letters 'KN....' which are Danish in origin. e.g., knife, knock, knight, knob, etc.

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Knock is not Scandinavian in origin, it is an inherited word. Your answer does not really address why English is considered a Germanic language, either—the Scandinavian borrowings are quite irrelevant to that—except to state once that it is, which is a bit circular. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 10 '14 at 6:53
I recommend Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue for a well-researched, readable, account of the history of English for the lay person. –  WS2 Jun 10 '14 at 7:06
You're telling us that Danish and Norwegian languages are not Teutonic (Germanic) languages?...that Germanic words were 'borrowed' from Scandinavian raiders in a very civilized manner? One look at the front page of a Danish or Norwegian newspaper shows how similar these languages are to German. –  user3847 Jun 10 '14 at 17:37
@user3847 I am tellnig you no such thing. I am saying that words that are Danish (or Scandinavian) in origin are just as much loan words in English as words that are French in origin. The only difference is that they were borrowed from another Germanic language. They don’t say anything about whether English itself is a Germanic language, though, any more than the French loan words say anything about English being a Romance language. Whether or not the words were borrowed in a civilised manner is, of course, quite irrelevant to the point. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 10 '14 at 20:21
"knife" is quite interesting as it has a French close relative, "canif" = penknife, of Frankish origin. Obviously, that doesn't make French a Germanic language. –  jlliagre Jun 11 '14 at 22:55

The most common English words, including those for "everyday" things, mostly come from German.

It's true the many, perhaps a plurality or majority of words for more advanced concepts come from Romance languages.

But with words weighted for "frequency of use," as opposed to raw numbers, English is more Germanic than Romance.

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"Frequency of use" is also "raw numbers", not opposed. Take a set of speech samples, tally each word by etymology. The raw number is the frequency of use. Take a dictionary, tally by etymology. The raw number tells something different. –  hippietrail Jun 15 '14 at 1:04

The classifications of languages is not a precise map, but a map which gives you a first look, an idea of certain elements of a language. You've got to put the limits somewhere. The classification of languages is like a piece of wood that has not been carved yet. Through study of the languages that interest you, you can find more precisely the exact amount of influence there is. So... English? A Romance language? If you want. It is just like saying French is a Germanic language. Both are true to a certain extent. Sometimes the English language has even taken more latin influences than French and French more germanic influences, but the countrary is true too. And English has more Scandinavian influences, and Scandinavian languages are considered north germanic languages.

The everlasting discussion about English being a Romance language or French a germanic language is simply impossible to solve, because both languages and cultures of those countries are very similar and have evolved through the Roman, Germanic, and Scandinavian invasions. In both cases the germanic settlement has been the birth of the nation. The Saxons for the English and the Franks for the French. Saxon is a word of Latin origin. This is how the Romans called the region in Germany where they arrived because of the Rocks there... In modern italian, "rock" ("rocher" in french) is still said "Sasso". Frank on the other hand is a word of germanic origin meaning what it still means in modern English and French: "Frank"... That is to say "honest".

You guys, either English or French, only need to accept you are at a crossroad of culture and language.

Wether grammatically speaking or in vocabulary or in pronunciation, both English and French had to evolve through this melting of germanic and Latin influences. I'm not even evoking the moments when, both languages being still under evolution, influenced each other (The War with the Normands, the Hundred Year war, etc...)

Classifying English in the Romance category or French in the germanic category would make of English the most germanic language of the Latin group and of French the most latin language of the germanic category.

In either case it is not stupid, but as I said earlier: you've got to draw a limit at one point. It is not easy.

At least, with english, we get to have a relatively "fair" position considering that learning either Norwegian, Italian, Spanish or Swedish will remain fairly easy if I may put it that way (not that learning a language is ever easy but you know what I mean). The French find themselves classified with Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, knowing that English is the language with the most similar words to French and that the pronunciation of French is totally central germanic (German is easy to pronounce for a French), as well as certain words and grammatical elements... And they find themselves in the same category as Romanian which is a totally alien language for them to learn (much more alien than German! At least as alien as Swedish and Norwegian if not more.

So... Let's look on the bright side! lol

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The OP’s post contains numerous grammatical errors. It also contains misinformation about how languages are classified. For example, English’s significant romance vocabulary isn’t enough of a reason to classify it as Romance. English still has grammatical features in common with other Germanic languages, including cognates to some closed class words such as pronouns and some determiners. Also, the transition from Old English (unmistakably Germanic) to Middle English to Early Modern & Modern English has written documentation. –  James Grossmann Dec 29 '14 at 1:36

Thank you for your answer. I would allow myself to add that one could say exactly the same about the transition from Old Frankish to French, and it doesn't impede that french still is a Romance language. The Latin importance in both languages is undeniable. English has grammatical features with other Germanic languages, so has French, and sometimes even where English took the Latin roots instead. Does that make of English a more Latin language than French? I don't think so. There is no misinformations about how languages are classified. I am only talking about the first map that people are usually given when they start being interested in languages. If you study linguistics, you'll see you'll also be given another map derived from the exact same classification of languages, but more precise, on which English and French appear in the same colours as influenced by both Latin and Germanic elements. Italian, Spanish and Portuguese appear in the same colours as more purely Latin and Swedish, Norwegian and Danish appear also in the same colour as more purely north germanic, for western europe. The same is true for other languages in other parts of the world.
Even with its heavy Latin influence, the English language scandinavian influences may justify its presence in the germanic group anyway.

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