The Germanic Sub-group

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This is the third part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

The Germanic Sub-group

English belongs with the Germanic group of the Indo-European languages. More specially, it is west Germanic, and even more specifically, it is usually regarded as a development of an older common Anglo-Frisian language by virtue of certain features of English and Frisian shared by other Germanic languages.

In addition to English and Frisian, the west Germanic languages are High German, Dutch, Flemish (the language of North Belgium, essentially the same language as Dutch) and the low German Patois spoken by humble people in the low-lying parts of Northern Germany.  Yiddish (Judeo German) and Africaans (South African Dutch, spoken by persons of Dutch descent in South Africa) are also west Germanic in origin.  The first is a development of a medieval High German dialect, with a good many elements from Hebrew and Slavic.  Other Germanic languages less closely related to English include the North Germanic (Scandinavian) Group, comprising Norwegian, Icelandic, Swedish and Danish, and, along with other East Germanic languages spoken in former times of which we possess no records, the East Germanic Gothic.

English shares with all other Germanic languages the results of a pre-historic consonant shift, sometimes referred to as ‘Grimm’s Law’, which accounts for the fact that English words containing the affected consonants do not resemble related words in non-Germanic languages as closely as, for instance, ‘meal’ (‘ground grain’) resembles Latin ‘molere’, ‘sami’ resembles Sanskrit ‘sama’ and ‘moon’ resembles Greek ‘mene’.  But the relationship of ‘father’ to Latin ‘Pater’, ‘eat’ to Latin ‘edere’, ‘corn’ to Latin ‘granum’, ‘three’ to Latin ‘tres’ and ‘hund (red)’ to Latin ‘cent’ is none the less real despite the different consonants of English words.

Other Germanic characteristics retained in the English we speak are:

  1. A reduction of the numerous tense and aspect forms of Indo-European verbs (preserved and added to Latin) to two tense forms, a present and a past, for example, fall / fell;
  2. The formulation of  a new type of past by means of a dental suffix, as in ‘love / loved’ and ‘step / stepped’;
  3. A stress shift resulting in Germanic root stress, that is, initial stress except in verbs beginning with prefixes, with modern English ‘withst’and’ and b’ind’ in contrast to the earlier Indo-European stress system in which any syllable, even in inflexional ending might be stressed.

There are a good many words common to the Germanic languages that have no known cognates in the other members of the Indo-European group and are not, as far as we know, loan words from any non-Indo-European language.  Examples include ‘sea’, ‘rain’, ‘drink’ and ‘broad’ (to give only their English forms.


‘Ablaut’ which literally means ‘off sound’ was a term used by Grimm to indicate the system by which the primitive community speaking the Teutonic language enriched their vocabulary threefold by dint of spacing the vowel sounds in their words.  The term used by Grimm indicates a certain offing or distancing of vowel sounds by which simple words have been provided with a ready change of form which promptly qualifies them to express a difference in significance.  The English vocabulary contains in it many relics of this method of variation in vowel sounds.  We have the word ‘bind’, different only in its vowel form the two nouns ‘band’ and ‘bond’.  Similarly, we can see ablaut variations in the vowels of the verb ‘shear’, the noun ‘share’, a second noun ‘shire’ and the adjective ‘sheer’.  This shows how, with well-defined vowel variations, the same consonantal frame-work may be made to perform a variety of services.

It is in the conjugation of verbs that ablaut has found its permanent place and peculiar sphere.  It has come to stay there.  In strong verbs, vowel gradations have become the chief means of expressing the distinctions of time.  Thus the previous habit of denoting the past by re-duplication is entirely suppressed in these verbs.  The best examples of vowel gradation in English are to be found in the verbs in old English, particularly in those in which the chief distinctions of time are indicated by the vowel series [I, A, U] as in ‘sing’, ‘sang’, ‘sung’ and ‘drink’, ‘drank’ and ‘drunk’.

Though this ancient system of vowel gradation has become obsolete in Modern English, traces of it are to be met with in plenty.  With a little restoration of the vowels many existing words can be brought back to their respective series.  Thus if the verb ‘run’ is restored to the original form ‘rin’, then the ablaut series will be completed as ‘rin’, ‘ran’, ‘run’, just as in ‘sing’, ‘sang’, ‘sung’.  In the same way, it is possible to reconstruct many old verbs which have had their conjugational forms modernized.  For instance, if we can trace the verb ‘swell’ to its primitive forms, we discover the ablaut series for that verb to be ‘swil’, ‘swal’, ‘swul’.  Many verbs, however, still retain their ablaut series in tact. ‘Swim’, ‘swam’, ‘swum’ belonging to the vocalic series [I, a u] may be pointed out as an example of this.  Though the working of analogy has upset the vowel gradations in many verbs by making the vowel of the preterite (the form of the past tense) be modelled on that of the participle, children who are just beginning to speak accidentally restore such verbs to their original forms.  For instance, it is no uncommon for a child to use the form ‘dag’ for the preterite of ‘dig’ and the form ‘stang’ for the preterite of ‘sting’.  In both cases, the modern form of the preterite are based on the vowel in the participle (‘dug’, ‘stung’) and it is interesting to note that the verb ‘dig’ was a weak verb as late as the 17th century.

The strong verbs in the language in which the ablaut variations are clearly seen are gradually dropping out of use.  They are characterized by the internal vowel change affecting the preterite and participle and by the participle ending in ‘n’.  In many cases, the participle ending has fallen away as in ‘bound’ derived from ‘bounden’.  On the whole, the strong verbs now present a broken and decayed order of words, the dilapidated remains of an ancient system.  It is only by formalting together the scattered uses of various times and various regions that we are able to present this unique order of words in any continuous form.  The system shows a remarkable tenacity (sticking stiffly; retaining or holding fast) of life.  For over a thousand years, there has been a slow, continual tendency in the language to make the strong verbs merge themselves into the rank of the weak verbs which easily out-number them.  Even in the Saxon period, when the strong verbs presented a stronger and more uniform front, the disintegration had already begun.  While the ablaut scheme retained its hold on the national mind, it converted any material which came convenient, as when from Latin ‘scribere’ was formed ‘scrife’,’scraf’, ‘scrifen’ (strive, strove, striven).  This is the oldest verb we know to have been added to the ranks of English strong verbs within historic times.  The total number of the verbs of this kind is very small.  One such preterite is ‘pled’ of Romanesque (of the style of architecture current in Europe from about 1050 – 1200) ‘plead’, now called Americanism, but actually used by Spencer in his Farie Queene.

By general consent, the conjugation of the strong verbs is considered a striking phenomenon.  The venerable sire of Teutonic philology, viz., Jacob Grimm, regards the strong preterites as constituting one of the chief beauties of the Teutonic family of languages.

Umlaut (Mutation)

The study of the history of any language will convince us that language never remains static and uniform.  It is in a state of growth and development all the time.  Though the changes in the language are imperceptible till afterward and are often apparently capricious (caprice : a sudden and foolish change of mind, a whim – fickle mindedness), analysis of the historical changes will show that each language follows certain patterns of development which are quite clear in retrospect and that definite causes can be assigned to most sound changes.  One type of historical change which we come across in our study of language is known as ‘assimilation’, which may be defined as the process by which one sound becomes changed into a second sound under the influence of a third sound.  When we consider the inherent nature of the assimilative process, we find that assimilation may consist in the modification of a preceding sound through the influence of a following one or it may consist in the reverse process.  In our study of the history of English, we come across certain vowel changes in old English commonly known as ‘umlaut’ or ‘mutation’.  This indicates one kind of assimilation in which a preceding vowel changes its quality because of the influence of the vowel which follows it.

In old English, there are two kinds of umlaut or mutation.  The first is known as front mutation or ‘I’ or ‘j’ mutation.  It affects back vowels and is caused by a following ‘I’ or ‘j’ which causes the fronting of the back vowel.  The second kind of mutation is known as back umlaut or u-mutation and it affects front vowels.  It is mainly caused by ‘u’ or ‘o’ and is also caused in some dialects by ‘a’.  Hence, it is also known as ‘o / a’ mutation.  As a result of u-mutation, a vowel glide ‘u’ is developed and this combines with the preceding front vowel to form a diphthong while ‘I’ or ‘j’ mutation is a change common to all the dialects of old English.  U-mutation takes place in different dialects, in varying degrees of frequency.

Pure Vowels – 12

Front (4)              Back (5)

‘i’            beat       ‘u’           pool

‘I’            bit           ‘u’           pull

‘e’           bet         ‘j’            caught

‘x’           bx           ‘j’            cot

‘a’           cart

Central (3)

‘d’           bird

‘d’           Final                       pleasure

Non-final             submit

‘^’           cup


Unlike u-mutation, ‘I’ or ‘j’ mutation is less liable to be upset by analogy.  In west Saxon, particularly, we notice that the diphthongized forms caused by back mutation are often given up in favour of simple vowels which may be present in some inflexional forms.

To take ‘I’ or ‘j’ mutation first, we find that, according to this, all original back vowels when followed in the next syllable of a word by ‘I’ or ‘j’ are fronted to the corresponding front vowels.  The operation of this can be seen in the formation of plurals.   A number of nouns in early old English formed their plurals by the addition of the inflexion ‘iz’.  The word ‘too’ (a tooth) may be taken by way of illustration.  The earliest plural was ‘tooiz’ which, as a result of mutation became ‘teo’;  hence, the modern plural ‘teeth’.  Similarly, ‘mus’ made the plural ‘musiz’, which ultimately became ‘mys’ giving the present day ‘mice’.  In the same way we can explain the mutated plurals ‘feet’, ‘geese’, ‘men’, etc.  At one time, this class of plural was much larger than it is now, many nouns having dropped their mutated plurals in the middle English period and conformed to the growing tendency to add an ‘s’ to the singular.  Such a one is ‘boc’ (book).  Its old English plural was ‘bec’, which by all rules of linguistic development should have given a modern ‘bech’ or ‘beech’, but no such form exists.

Evidently, the process of ‘I’ or ‘j’ mutation had taken place before the period of the earliest old English documents.  It may, therefore, be taken as having begun at least a century earlier, that is, in the 6th century.  As this change has affected the loan words borrowed by the English after their settling down in England, it must have been carried out during the period following upon their occupation of the country.  In addition to the fronting of back vowels, we find another change taking place as a result of ‘I’ or ‘j’ mutation.  This is the raising of O.E. (a e) by isolative change from an earlier (a) to the mid vowel (e).

We find the operation of front mutation in the old English vowels [o: a: , a, u: , u] all of which become changed into the corresponding front vowels.  For example, the old English o :, whatever its origin, when followed by ‘I’ or ‘j’ first becomes changed into the mid front rounded vowel written (oe ).  In west Saxon, it was unrounded to (e) before King Alfred’s time, but some traces of the old (oe) spelling are seen in his works.  Thus from the old Saxon ‘sokian’ we have ‘secan’ (to seek).  From O.E. ‘feda’ we have the verb ‘fodjan’ which becomes ‘fedan’, by i-mutation.  Similarly, primitive old English ‘cwoni’ becomes ‘cwen’ (queen).  Primitive O.E. a: becomes fronted to ae, as in ‘daljan’ whch becomes daelan (deal), ‘takjan’ which becomes ‘taccan’ (teach).  In the preterite singular of ‘takjan’ we have ‘tahte’ which is changed in modern English to ‘taught’.  In place of this back vowel ‘a’ in ‘taught’ the present form ‘teach’ has the front vowel ‘I’ because of front mutation in old English.  The old English vowels (a) and (ae) are changed into (ae) and (e) respectively by i-mutation as in the following examples:

Primitive O.E.            ‘habb-jan’ becomes ‘haebban’

Haljan becomes haelan (to heal) hal – whole

Primitive O.E. ‘slagin’ becomes ‘slaegen’

‘saettjan’ becomes ‘setlan’

‘slaegin’ becomes ‘slean’

Front mutation results in the changing of primitive O.E. (u) to (y).  Thus ‘full-jan’ becomes ‘flyllan’ (to fill).  The front vowel (i) in the modern ‘fill’ is the result of the original fronting of the O.E. (u) by i-mutation.  O.E. ‘putli’ also becomes changed by front mutation to ‘pytt’ (pit).  The fronting of O.E. (u) to (y:) is illustrated by old English ‘mys’ from earlier ‘musi’.

In addition to vowels, the diphthongs were also affected by i-mutation which took place during the O.E. period.  The diphthongs (eo) and (io) were changed into (ie) as illustrated by ‘hieran’ derived from ‘hear-jan’, and ‘ciese’ from ‘ciosio’.  The short diphthongs (ea) and (io) also become fronted to (ie) owing to the influence of a following ‘I’ or ‘j’.  Thus ‘feall-jan’ becomes ‘fiellan’ (to cause to fall) and ‘hiordi’ becomes ‘hierde’ (shepard).

While front mutation is more characteristic of west Sanxon than of any other dialect of old Enlish all the O.E. dialects are more or less subject to changes involved in back mutation or u-mutation. This consists in the diphthonizing of (i) (e) to (io), (eo) when followed by (u) or (o) in the next syllable.  In the Mercian dialect (ae) is also diphthongized when (u) or (o) follows in the next syllable.  What actually happens in back-mutation is that the (u) or (o) first lip modifies the preceding consonant which, in turn, produces a lip or rounded glide between itself and the preceding front vowel.  Thus ‘witum’ becomes ‘witwum’ and then ‘wiwtwum’ and ‘wiutum’ and finally ‘wiotum’ and later ‘weotum’.  Thus we find that by back formation primitive O.E. ‘witum’ becomes changed into ‘wiotum’ and later it becomes ‘weotum’.  In west Saxon, this mutation takes place only when

(i)  the word begins with ‘w’ or any other consonant followed by ‘w’.  In such cases, back mutation occurs, whatever the consonant that intervenes between the (i) or (e) and the following (u) or (o);

(ii) back mutation takes place also in cases where the intervening consonant is (l), ® or a lip consonant (p, m, f).

If in some inflexional forms of a word there is the (u) sound causing back-mutation while it is absent in other forms, West Saxon usually gives up the inflexional forms with (u) on the analogy of the other forms.  Thus the inflected forms with back mutation are dispensed with, and in their place, the diphthongized forms are used.  In the noun ‘scip’ though the nominative and accusative plural ‘scipu’ as well as the dative plural ‘scipum’ contain an (u) sound causing back mutation, West Saxon gives up the diphthongized form in favour of the nominative singular ‘scip’ which is undiphthongized.  As a result of this tendency, back mutation is far less common in West Saxon than in other dialects.  The (ie) and the (eu) formed by mutation become changed into (io) and (eo) and are both levelled under (eo) in West Saxon.  The only word which in (ae) undergoes back mutation in West Saxon is ‘alu’ (ale).  The u-mutation of ‘ae’ (a) to (eo) is a typical feature of Mercian.  Examples of back mutation in West Saxon are:

‘efur’ (wild boar) becomes ‘eofor’

‘herut’ (hart) becomes ‘heorot’

‘cwicu’ (living) ecomes ‘cweocu’

All the non-West Saxon dialects show a tendency to diphthongize (i) and (e) when followed by a back vowel, especially (u), to an extent unknown in the literary dialect of West Saxon which is preserved in writing.  This diphthongizing is most frequent in Kentish and Anglian, though in Anglian the second element of the diphthong is often lost by the change known as smoothing.  While other dialects preserve the diphthongized forms of words, West Saxon gives them up in favour of inflectional forms where back mutation is absent.  Thus it eliminates the form ‘geofu’ (gift) in favour of ‘giefu’ formed on the analogy of ‘giefe’.

Besides the two kinds of umlaut, namely, front mutation and back mutation, old English had another type of mutation known as palatal mutation.  The name was suggested by Bulbring to denote the loss of the second element of the diphthong (ea) in Anglian before the consonant groups (ht), (hs) and (hp) when followed by a front vowel or when final.  A very similar process takes place later in the West Saxon affecting the diphthongs (eo) and (io).  Thus ‘cneoht’ which is to be expected from earlier ‘cneht’ is changed to ‘cnioht’ or ‘cnieht’ because the (eo) is fronted and the first element raised to (i).  This is an important change since the modern form of the word (knight) can only be derived from the ‘cniht’ type in O.E.

Umlaut or mutation is very important in our study of the history of language.  Without a knowledge of ‘I’ or ‘j’ umlaut we can never understand the reason for our having the irregular or mutated plurals in modern English.