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The Germanic languages are according to Wikipedia subdivided into North Germanic languages and West Germanic languages (historically, there also existed East Germanic languages). The most important (by number of speakers) examples of these two branches are

  • North Germanic languages: Danish, Swedish, Norwegian (sometimes subdivided into Bokmål and Nynorsk), Icelandic
  • West Germanic languages: English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans (sometimes also considered as a dialect of Dutch)

Now for my question: As a native speaker of German, I (gut)feel that German is linguistically much closer to the listed North Germanic languages (except for Icelandic) than to English (but as far as I know Icelandic is also linguistically significantly away from the other North Germanic languages). If this were true, this would imply that this classification is somewhat dubious.

So: Why is in this classification German put together with English into the same branch (West Germanic languages) while the Scandinavian Germanic languages (that I feel are much closer to German) are put into a different branch?

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    Your gut feeling is presumably triggered by the fact that the continental Scandinavian languages have borrowed heavily from West Germanic (specifically High and Low German). – fdb Dec 19 '18 at 21:30
  • As a native speaker of German, I (gut)feel that German is linguistically much closer to the listed North Germanic languages (except for Icelandic) than to English - Were that the case, it would be expected for a person such as myself, who has studied German as a foreign language since the second grade until the first year of college, to have a much better chance of understanding Nordic than English, when, in reality, I started comprehending English in the fourth grade, two whole years before being taught in school, and, until this day, I can barely make any sense of most Nordic words. – Lucian Jan 15 at 18:01
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The simple answer is that these groupings are not based on present-day similarities, but on a genetic relationship, i.e. a common ancestor. In the case of the Germanic languages, this is Proto-Germanic (an unattested, reconstructed proto-language).

The subgroups of the Germanic languages are based on shared innovations, compared to the proto-language. Wikipedia lists a few of them.

One example would be the ending of the 2nd person singular past of strong verbs, such as to bear. Old Norse has bar-t where Old English has bǣr-e and Old Saxon and Old High German have bār-i.

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The classification in in terms of historical development, and not similarity of the contemporary languages. The traditional claim is that at the earliest stages (2000+ years ago) Germanic had split into three branches: West, North, East. Later, West Germanic further split (likewise North Germanic), and ultimately you developed the contemporary languages. Rather than compare English, German and Norwegian, one should compare Old English, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse, and Gothic. Modern English seem rather different compared to the rest of Germanic because it has changed a lot, but Old English is not so terribly different from Old Saxon.

  • Though, Proto-North-Germanic and Proto-West-Germanic were very similar –nearly identical. By the time of Old Norse the North Germanic branch had already become very different. – tobiornottobi Dec 20 '18 at 17:43
  • Some Old English dialects were actually called West Saxon. Many "differences" between Old English and Old (east) Saxon are due to the very different spelling, in my opinion. :) – tobiornottobi Dec 20 '18 at 17:44
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I completely agree with fdb. There are estimations that about half of the Scandinavian words were borrowed from Middle Low German in one way or another. For example bli(v) from nds. bliven, betala from betalen.
What is more, English has diverged much from the continental West Germanic languages because of the French loan words.

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