A recent question here, Earliest recognition that Romance languages are related asks for when in history it was first noted that individual Romance languages were recognized as ... similar/related/coming from Latin/etc.

As has been answered there, it has always been obvious to anyone who knew two varieties. Between classical and vulgar latin, between medieval Latin and local patois, between the two most dissimilar, French and Romanian, there is just too much that is shared (even if for a full passage they are mutually unintelligible when spoken) not to be aware that something is the same.

But that is not the case for a comparison between Romance and Germanic. By years of scholarship, we know now that Romance and Germanic are two branches of Indo-European, including quite a few other far-flung (and not so far-flung) branches.

But the question here is when did that realization strike between Romance and Germanic? I expect that it was before Grimm made his sound-change laws in the early 1800's

Did the Roman scholars recognize any similarities of Latin with the varieties of language spoken by the Germanic tribes they encountered? Did medieval monks, from all over Europe notice anything between Old High German and Northern French? When did people realize the connection?

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    As soon as it was known that Germanic was Indo-European, there would have been systematic analysis of Germanic vs Italic, in the forms of Old Norse and Gothic vs Latin, at least. Earlier than PIE (pre-Jones), it's a different question. – jlawler Dec 16 '16 at 16:48
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    @jlawler, "Earlier than PIE" ≠ "pre-Jones": no one thought in terms of PIE until after some decades after Jones, while van Boxhorn had recognized IE as a family over a century before. – TKR Dec 16 '16 at 18:13
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Jephetic language theory was the antecedent to Indo-European theory. It was the product of the late Medieval standardisation and grammaticalisation of speech which allowed for the future systematic analysis of language. Jephetic language theory has its basis in Noachian genealogy from Genesis. Like TKR said, the first to exclude Semitic from Jephetic was Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn, before then there was an assumption that there was a first order genetic relationship between the two super-groups. The language group van Boxhorn called "Scynthan" is an early formulation of Indo-European.

Similarities between German and Latin were known to Gottfried Leibniz. Proper historical linguistics only comes with the advent of the comparative method. The impression has been there since the first modern grammars so it only took a few years for someone to apply scientific inductive methods.

  • Excellent, thanks. Do you happen to know to what extent Leibniz recognized the similarities? A few family relation terms and numbers maybe? – Mitch Dec 18 '16 at 0:58
  • I'll try but it may take a while. Bear with me. – slipperyiron Dec 18 '16 at 14:25

The question should probably be restated as something like "When did people begin to believe that Romance and Germanic languages were related with some scholarly basis for that belief?"

The qualification is necessary because in the pre-modern West, the reigning idea about language diversity was that all languages were ultimately descended from Hebrew through the Tower of Babel story. So educated people would have believed that e.g. German and French were related (as were German and Chinese), but they would have believed it for the wrong reason.

Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn is generally credited these days as being the first scholar to make a cogent case for what later became known as the Indo-European family of languages, including the relationship of the Germanic and Romance branches.

This is not to say that no one before him may have noticed similarities in basic lexicon between the branches (e.g. kinship terms) and theorized about the reasons for them, and maybe someone here can give a reference to such earlier theorizing, but van Boxhorn appears to have been the first to do so in a systematic way.

  • Origines Gallicae: In quo veteris et nobilissimae Gallorum gentis origines, antiquitates, mores, lingua et alia eruuntur et illustrantur, which may be relevant (I haven't read it yet), is downloadable from prdl.org/author_view.php?a_id=4226. – user6726 Dec 16 '16 at 18:50
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    The Babel story does not say that all languages descend from Hebrew. – fdb Dec 17 '16 at 18:09
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    @fdb, it's true that the original language is not identified in Genesis, but it was often understood as having been Hebrew. – TKR Dec 17 '16 at 18:58

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