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Is English Really A Germanic Language?

September 27, 2016

Ever since grade school, we've all heard that English is a Germanic language. However, this often confuses most people because of how much English differs from German. For example, if you were to place a page of French and a page of German in front of an English native speaker who had never learned a foreign language, chances are they'd be able to recognize more of the words on the French page than on the German page. This leads many people to wonder if English is actually a Romance language.

In the field of linguistics, languages are categorized by their genetic relationship, meaning they have a common ancestor. This common ancestor gives all languages in the family common features, which distinguish them from other groups of languages. This genetic relationship is most commonly seen between the grammar and syntax of the languages. The current vocabulary of the language is not taken into account in this categorization process. In the case of English, it developed from Proto-Germanic, alongside German, Dutch, Yiddish, and a few other languages.

The main reason English seems closer to Romance languages than it does other Germanic languages is because its vocabulary has been highly influenced by Romance languages over the years. In 2016, English vocabulary is 26% Germanic, 29% French, 29% Latin, 6% from Greek and the remaining 10% from other languages and proper names. All together, French and Latin (both Romance languages) account for 58% of the vocabulary used in today's English.

So, how did so much Romance vocabulary enter the English language? After the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought much of the French language into England, replaced the historic Old English vocabulary. One of the easiest places to see the mixing of French and English is in the names of animals and the names of food coming from those animals. For example, "cow" comes from the Old English "cū" while "beef" comes from the French "boeuf."

Latin entered the English vocabulary in a similar way, via contact with the Roman Empire (via Germany), Catholic missionaries, the Renaissance Period, and during the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries.

So, when it comes down to it, English is a Germanic language, however it has been heavily influenced by the Romance languages over the years. Some even adhere to the Middle English Creole Hypothesis wherein English underwent a simplification between Old English and Middle English. Regardless of how it happened, English is certainly a fascinating language which has been adaptive and influenced by the world around it, allowing it to still be used to this day.

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