English’s Germanic Origins:  Historical Overview and the Contribution of Anglo-Saxon

 

Historical Reasons for the Suppression and Latinization of the Germanic Languages

 

            Many are accustomed to depicting the English language as a “mongrel tongue.”  Originating and classed as a Germanic language, English was transformed throughout by Norman French, as the story goes, and then by the Latin and Greek influences of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  Many have noted, furthermore, that English displays an unusual propensity to borrow words from other languages, even today.  Undoubtedly English is a language sired by multiple linguistic parents, and it has indeed been thoroughly transformed by Norman French and Europe’s classical languages.  It’s also true that the majority of English’s wordstock—as glimpsed in any modern dictionary—derives from Greco-Latin sources, either directly from Greek and Latin or via the Romance languages (which evolved out of the street Latin spoken during the Roman Empire).  However, overemphasis on this fact tends to obscure two oft-neglected truths. 

            For one thing, most of the other Germanic languages have also been profoundly altered by infusions from Latin, Greek, and the Latin-derived Romance languages (chiefly French).  With the exception of Icelandic (which still closely resembles the Old Norse language uttered in Viking times), other modern Germanic tongues have consumed heaping portions of Latin-based vocabulary, for much the same historical reasons as English.  Although the German-speaking lands of central and eastern Europe, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia never experienced a significant and durable conquest by a French-speaking nobility (like the Norman Conquest in England, though many German lands, as discussed below, did pass under the rule of French and Latin speakers for substantial periods), they nonetheless were drawn into the orbit of European Christian, and then Renaissance and Enlightenment culture, all of which drew linguistic inspiration from Latin and Greek.  Furthermore, they were all heavily influenced by French chivalric, courtly, and literary culture at various eras from early medieval times.  France was the trendsetter in the social graces from fashion, to cuisine, to manners, to trans-national diplomacy for centuries, and noble families throughout Europe raised their children to be fluent in Parisian French. 

Indeed, the phenomenon of any Germanic tongue as a “prestige language” is relatively recent, emerging within the past 3 centuries.  Prior to this, stretching back to the Middle Ages and even to the fall of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tongues were not only disrespected internationally, but in general openly disdained and actively suppressed by ruling nobles and aristocrats in their own countries.  This was the case not only in England from 1066 until well into the 1400s (during the reign of King Henry V, who restored and emphasized English as an ethnic counterweight to the hated French during the Hundred Years’ War), but on the European Continent—in what are now Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands—as well.  Many commentators have overestimated the historical uniqueness of the classic linguistic dichotomy in medieval England in the wake of the Norman Conquest—the Germanic English for the poor masses, the Latinate French for the rulers—in noting, for example, that the vast majority of official documents were rendered in Latin, and even great works of “English” literature (such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and other classics of Arthurian legend) were, for two centuries after 1066, written almost exclusively in French.  English was the rough, unrefined tongue of the peasantry held in contempt by the cultured, educated elite who preferred French.  While this linguistic tension was indeed present in post-Norman Conquest England, it was not unique to England alone; a similar dynamic was evident in Germany and the Netherlands. 

The German- and Dutch-speaking lands, chronically fragmented and fractious, were under the control of princes and nobles who themselves used Latin for administrative purposes and French for communication within the court and in both internal and foreign affairs, while openly disdaining the Germanic dialects uttered by the masses.  (Indeed, in this respect, England was unique in comparison to the Low Countries and Germany, since at least from the time of the Venerable Bede in the 7th century until roughly the early 12th century, England did have an intelligentsia that spoke and wrote in the native Anglo-Saxon—albeit an intelligentsia that also frequently opted for Latin and French for official and ecclesiastical purposes—while the Germanic languages and cultures on the Continent were very thoroughly suppressed from the Fall of Rome until the 17th century.)

Moreover much of Germany, during such periods as the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Period, was itself under direct political control of French nobles.  A substantial portion of what is now Germany had even been directly absorbed within the Roman Empire prior to its collapse in 476 A.D.  Despite the oft-cited Teutoberg Forest fiasco of the Roman general Varus in 9 A.D. (after which, it should be noted, the German leader Arminius was swiftly defeated and lost power following the dispatch of 8 Roman legions across the Rhine, who placed their own proxies in power and re-occupied the Gaul frontier), much of what is now Germany, even beyond the Rhine river, fell under Roman control, especially during the period of Emperor Vespasian.  The Romans were constantly thwarted by their failure to establish adequate fields for agriculture amidst the German forests and the difficulty of transporting troops to the northerly climes, but they established enough of a presence in the German lands that thousands of Germans became Roman citizens and absorbed at least a rudiment of Roman language and culture.  [The Romans were also famous, of course, for co-opting the fierce German soldiers into their armies and navies—a much less costly solution than fighting the tribal warriors directly—which ironically made the “Roman” army a chiefly German force by the 5th century A.D.  Some of these veterans of course returned home following their service to the Emperor, naturally bringing much of the Latin language with them.  Basic Latin-derived German words such as “kaufen” (to buy—carried to England by the Anglo-Saxons as the word “cheap”), Mauer (“wall”), Pferd (“horse”), sauber (“clean”), Ziegel (“tile”), kurz (“short”), Kopf (“head”), sicher (“safe, secure”), Katze (“cat”), Pfeiler (“pillar”), and Wein (“wine”) stem from this early German-Roman contact.]

The 16th-century Hapsburg emperor Charles V, who was born in Flanders—now Flemish-speaking Belgium—and whose family was originally of German stock, exemplified the European bluebloods’ proclivity for the Latinate culture in his own social and linguistic affiliations.  His native tongue was French and the heart of his kingdom was in Spain (the conquistadors who spread the Spanish tongue to the Western Hemisphere mostly operated during his reign), and he spoke representatively of the disparaging attitude held by the nobility for the Germanic masses with his famous remark:  “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”  Even Frederick the Great, considered one of Prussia’s most accomplished rulers and a precursor to later proponents of a unified Germany, seems to have been less than enthusiastic about the German language itself, as shown by his own wry twist on Charles V’s original quip:  “I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountant, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God and German to my horse.” 

Thus not only English, but also Dutch and German—almost any Germanic dialect in fact, outside of Scandinavia—were almost nonexistent as “official languages” throughout Europe.  It did not matter that the ruling families in these lands were themselves of ethnic German stock; they identified with the cultural dominance that then attached itself to Latin and the Romance languages.  The Normans, after all, were another collection of German rulers—of predominantly Norwegian extraction, in this case—who had adopted the Latin-derived Old French language of northern Gaul as their own, a language they carried on their Viking longships (staffed by mostly Germanic-speaking Flemish soldiers) to England with Duke William in 1066.  The Normans themselves had merely followed in the footsteps of earlier German tribal groups—the Franks, Burgundians, Ostrogoths, Suevi and many others—who had established political control within the former Roman Empire yet adopted the Gallo-Roman administration, culture, and language for their own rule. 

A similar pattern was therefore evident throughout Europe—outside of Scandinavia—in the centuries following Rome’s collapse:  German tribes established political and military control, but largely appropriated Roman practices in administration while adopting Latin-based linguistic and cultural norms.  The Vandals and Visigoths in Spain, and the Lombards in Italy, were other German groups who largely followed the same trend.  This pattern in post-Roman imperial Europe constitutes one of many examples of how an intact, culturally powerful region has frequently absorbed a militarily superior adversary.  China succeeded in this for many centuries against aggressive nomadic tribes on its northern border, such as the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries and, most remarkably, the Manchus from the 1600s until 1911, who were not only Sinicized but also became (in terms of territorial expansion under Qian Long and economic growth under him and his successors) probably the most important of China’s many dynasties outside of the founding rulers themselves.  The Abbasid, Ayubbid, and Mameluke Muslim dynasties in the Middle East also succeeded in similarly absorbing the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, as well as the exceptionally aggressive and powerful Il-Khanate Mongols who, following their decisive defeat by the Egyptian Mamelukes in Syria in 1260, permanently lost both the political and cultural initiative, becoming assimilated into the surrounding cultures within 3 or 4 generations.  

Thus most Germanic (as well as Slavic and Celtic) languages in Europe absorbed a French “sub-stratum” in their lexicons, a sort of common language that remains intact today, though most have not done so to the same degree as English.  In Dutch nonetheless, you’ll hear people refer to the rivier (river) or wish each other “veel plezier” (have fun!—lit. “much pleasure”), a legacy of the French political and cultural impact in Europe.  Likewise, in German you’ll hear children relate tales about weekends with their Onkel (uncle) and Tante (aunt), political parties vying for Kontrolle of the Regierung (government), negotiations over the rent to be paid for a flat on the fifth Etage (floor, story) of an apartment complex, or see a Reklame (a commercial) on TV for a new shampoo.  Dutch, English, German—all bear witness to the power of French and Latin as cultural and political forces since the 5th century A.D.  Yet at their cores, all 3 of these languages remain fundamentally Germanic.

 

The Resurgence of Anglo-Saxon and the Germanic Core of the English Language

 

            This leads to the second oft-underemphasized point:  In the daily speech of modern English, well over 90% of the words uttered in any given day will be of Germanic origin, derived especially from Anglo-Saxon—the Continental German precursor of English carried to the British Isles by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and other Germanic invaders in the 5th century A.D.  The basic grammar, syntax, and pronunciation of English further evince the language’s Germanic heritage, but the spoken lexicon of English in everyday conversation bears strongest witness to its enduring Germanic base.  In fact, while formalized, official, and technical written English will tend to rely more heavily on Latin-based vocabulary than, say, German and Dutch (which do have more of a “native prestige” stratum of sophisticated vocabulary derived from Germanic roots), all three languages closely resemble each other in the common form spoken on the street, uttered in shops, or recorded in popular songs or folktales.  There are some Latin-based (usually via French) words that pop up with extreme regularity in English speech:  just, really, fine, try, cup, stop, use, farm, poor, remember, visit, problem, roll, round, cause, case, pay, to name a few.  Nevertheless, this is also true of most other Germanic tongues: as noted in part above, German kaufen (to buy), Körper (body), Kopf (head), kurz (short, shortly), sicher (certain, safe, secure), kämpfen (to fight), passieren (to occur), rollen (to roll), Problem, Fehler (mistake), Tisch (table), to name some examples.  Moreover, in English, German, and Dutch alike, the vast majority of the words we utter everyday stem from originally Germanic sources.  In essence, therefore, English and the other Germanic languages closely resemble each other:  They possess a Germanic core, evident especially in the spoken idiom, yet employ increasing degrees of Latin- and Greek-based vocabulary (directly or via Romance language borrowings) as the written language becomes more formal and technical.

            The resurgence of Anglo-Saxon as the official language of England—in place of French—ironically resulted in large part from political conflicts centered in France itself, rather than in Britain.  In one of history’s lesser-known but immensely important military campaigns, the clever French king Philip Augustus—in the midst of bitter conflicts with the Plantagenet family, who ruled not only England but both Anjou and Normandy in France—launched a series of blitzkrieg-style rapid assaults (their medieval equivalents at least) against Angevin and Norman fortresses in 1205 and 1206.  After surprising and crushing the resistance of the feudal defenders at these strongholds, Philip annexed these lands to the French kingdom.  Though Normandy and Anjou shared cultural and linguistic similarities with what was then France, they had become independent political entities with their own administrations, and separate histories and traditions.  Were it not for Philip’s rapid advance, they would likely have remained independent (perhaps akin to Belgium and Luxembourg today).  Even more importantly, they would have remained within the realm of the rulers of England, as political and cultural power centers—thereby reinforcing the French linguistic and cultural predominance over the island nation.  Philip, however, effectively severed the rulers of England from France, and Normandy—only shortly before one of the most dynamic and militarily powerful political regions in Europe—had itself suffered conquest at the hands of a foreign enemy.  

England still looked to France culturally, but as the political nexus with northern France diminished, so too did the cultural one.  The English aristocracy came to identify with their new island home and adopt the Germanic peasant tongue which they had hitherto despised, allowing Anglo-Saxon to reemerge for official purposes.  It was adopted for pleading by Parliament in the 14th century, and in the 1400s, King Henry V—one of the most important figures in British linguistic history—officially forbade the use of French and aggressively promoted English for official purposes, focused as he was in furious clashes against the French for control of the lands bordering the English channel (the former Norman and Angevin lands, no less).  Henry V was, therefore, the first ruler outside of Scandinavia to impart such official status to a Germanic tongue.  Thus, a modified Anglo-Saxon, the language that became known as English, had re-emerged.  

            A key aspect about English, therefore, is that the language is Germanic in its basic nature and structure.  Its grammar, syntax, and core vocabulary are all German at root.  Some assume that English is somehow “less Germanic” than Dutch or High German (spoken in Germany or Austria) not only because of vocabulary, but perhaps even more so on account of its pronunciation, which lacks those distinctive gutturals so conspicuous in English’s cousins.  However, as far as the pronunciation is concerned, this discrepancy does not stem from the Norman Conquest; rather, it was a product of interaction between Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse-speaking Vikings since the 8th century, who both spoke Germanic tongues and leveled out many phonetic and even grammatical distinctions to better grasp each other’s speech.  (Indeed, much of the same “leveling” and simplification of grammar has occurred in the Scandinavian tongues, and to an even greater extent than in English—Swedish and Danish for example, like East Asian languages, all have a single form for a verb no matter what the gender and person of the subject.)  In all of its elemental structures, English is a German tongue, still distinctively demonstrating its origins in the forests of northern Germany nearly two millennia ago. 

            In practical terms, of course, this fact is extremely valuable if you’re aiming to learn another Germanic language.  However, it’s also quite helpful for you as you explore the contours that reveal the underlying logic of English itself—which is, in turn, a practical aid for discerning similar patterns in foreign tongues.  The section briefly discusses this essential Germanic source stream of the English tongue. 

 

The Anglo-Saxon Language:  A Brief History

 

            In the 1920s, “Ma” Ferguson, then governor of Texas, was inveighing against a law mandating Spanish education in the state schools.  To buttress her argument, Ferguson held aloft a copy of the King James Bible, uttering with determination:  “If English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us.”  The unintentional humor of this apparently quite earnest statement on Ferguson’s part has been a source of derisive laughter for quite a while now; it’s often cited (fair or not) by many, including some Americans, of the supposed provinciality of American culture in many enclaves.  Yet Ferguson’s hilariously inaccurate statement helps us to place the origins of the English language in perspective.  English, of course, was not spoken by Jesus or by anyone else mentioned in the Bible.  That book’s events take place in the Middle East, and its chief languages—either of the personages therein and of the writers who depicted them—were Hebrew, Aramaic (a related Semitic tongue), Greek, and Latin.  (Translated into English and hundreds of other languages by the 17th century, of course.)  English was a world away from this realm.  More than just a world away, in fact; at the time of the events depicted in the New Testament, English did not yet exist. 

            What we today refer to as English, during the 1st century A.D. in which most events of the New Testament occur, was at the time a nascent dialect of the common “West Germanic” language spoken in the forests of northern Europe, inhabited by Germanic tribes.  The Germans had managed to maintain themselves relatively free of Roman hegemony.*  While client states were established and many German tribes (such as the Visigoths) were eventually drawn within Roman trading networks and effectively Romanized, the Germans overall maintained a separate culture and customs from the Roman colossus fronting the Mediterranean and much of the known world.  The Germans at that time occupied erratically populated settlements across the northern Continental plain east to the Carpathians and south to the Danube.  In ancient annals and in accordance with archaeological data, the Germans were initially resident in southern Sweden (from which most tribes emerged) and the Baltic sea coast, but many tribes—the Goths in particular—voyaged eastward and established colonies further east.  (Visigoths were the “western” Goths, while the Ostrogoths were their more easterly cousins.)  This geographical span would have major consequences for the Roman Empire, for—under pressure of climatological shifts and Hunnish invasions in the 5th century A.D.— the Teutonic tribes became a major human wave pushing on the empire’s borders.  This was the period of the Volkerwanderung, one of the most important population movements in recorded history. 

            By the 5th century A.D., Rome, having additionally been beset by internecine warfare and economic decline, instituted major changes throughout its domains.  The emperor Honorius, pressured by the wily Visigothic king Alaric, withdrew his legions from the province of Roman Britain—the province conquered by the emperor Claudius in the 5th century.  The Romano-Britons then resident in Britain were chiefly Celtic in language and culture, yet they had been battling the incursions of Saxon sea pirates for at least a hundred years.  The Saxons were tribes from what is now northern Germany and, like the Vikings in later centuries, were adroit seafarers who raided and then settled available lands en masse.  Their advances had been checked by the impenetrable defenses of the Roman legions and the Romano-Briton land defenses, but upon Honorius’s directive, the defensive cordon around Britain was withdrawn.  The Britons were immediately beset by devastating invasions of Picts and Scots from Scotland, and without Roman protection, some of the British rulers seem to have decided upon inviting Germanic mercenaries as heavies.  The Saxons, having now gained a foothold in Britain, sent for their compatriot tribes, and soon a full-scale invasion and settlement of the British Isles was underway.

            The Saxons were joined by numerous other Germanic tribes—Jutes, Angles, Franks, and Frisians, all of them hailing from what is now northern Germany, the Netherlands, and southern Denmark.  Some studies have even pointed to settlers from Sweden, but the specific origin is less important than the common culture and language which the various German tribes brought:  They were all speakers of various dialects of the Low German branch of the Germanic languages, so designated because these dialects were used by the tribes inhabiting the low-lying regions of Germany fronting on the North Sea.  Modern Low German languages (like Dutch, Frisian, and of course English) are differentiated from High German dialects (those that arose in the mountains of southern Germany—in particular, modern German) by the so-called Second Germanic Sound Shift undergone by the latter.  This was a regular phonetic alteration in which, for example, the “d” of English “dough” or Dutch “deeg” became the “T” of High German “Teig,” or the “t” of English “tame” and Dutch “tam” became the “z” (pronounced “ts”) of High German “zahm.”  In any case, all of the Low German dialects were closely related to each other and to the High German spoken by then in the Alpine regions to the south, and by the 600s, the various migrating German tribes had settled (and in some cases, transplanted themselves) en masse.  Although there is evidence for cooperation between the resident Celtic and invading German tribes (particularly in Wessex, which would later be the seat of Alfred the Great’s kingdom, the foundation stone for a unified England), the speech and culture of the Low Germans seems to have become predominant by this point. 

            One of the German tribes that had migrated to the Isles, the Angles (from what is now Angeln, in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, near Denmark) spoke a Low German dialect called “Angle-ish.”  The Saxons, Jutes, and other Germanic tribes with whom the Angles had merged, gradually began to refer to their own dialects with the “Angle-ish” description.  “Angle-ish” was later altered to “English,” and thus the term for the language—a name derived from the Angle German tribe of the north German forests—came to be recognizable by Alfred’s time. 

            This incipient version of English, the language of “Beowulf” prior to the Scandinavian invasions and the Norman Conquest, has come to be referred to as “Old English” (OE).  For purposes of clarity here, “Old English” is distinguished from “Anglo-Saxon,” here used to refer to the main predecessor dialect of OE transported to the British Isles from the migrating Germanic tribes.  Thus, Anglo-Saxon is used to designate one of several closely related German dialects spoken in the north German forests prior to the 5th century A.D. and the Saxon migrations, a distinction which is of use in tracing the extraordinary changes the language would experience over the next 7 centuries. 

            It should be noted here than even Anglo-Saxon itself, prior to the migration of the Saxons and Angles to Britain (and before their conversion to Christianity), was not a “purely German” dialect.  It had already absorbed hundreds of words from Latin, owing to the Germans’ trade contacts with the powerful Mediterranean Empire, the partial Roman conquest (after Vespasian’s time) of German lands beyond the Rhine, and the Romans’ cultural and engineering mastery, which was imparted to the Germans.  The primeval German dialect in the northern forests, “West Germanic,” which was spoken prior to contact with the Roman Empire (and thus possessive of an almost entirely German vocabulary, outside of perhaps a few words absorbed from contact with neighboring tribes), can be inferred from careful studies of later documents and sound changes.  However, for purposes of this discussion, it is most convenient to begin with the “Anglo-Saxon” dialect as the primordial Germanic wellspring of English, noting the small cohort of Latin words which had infiltrated from the tribes’ Roman contacts.

            Anglo-Saxon is by far the predominant source of the grammar, syntax, and basic vocabulary that comprise the English language.  The first words you learn as a child, the simple vocabulary with all the emotional connotations so basic to common speech, the language of street poets and singers—this vocabulary derives predominantly from Anglo-Saxon.  This cohort is too large for me to summarize here, but it can be easily glimpsed in the English words of the far left column here.  Anglo-Saxon is the overwhelming source of the basic “function words” that stitch English together—the pronouns, prepositions, articles, and conjunctions that provide mortar for the bricks of the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.  Most of the common nouns and verbs are also of English derivation—elementary objects, body parts, basic actions, close family members [although, curiously, not extended members (aunt, uncle, cousin, and so on) for both English and German—which are of French derivation], and the like.  The same goes for everyday verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.  The majority of the 500 most commonly used words in the language stem from Anglo-Saxon, and they comprise the bulk of what you utter on any given day.  In popular songs, at least 80% and usually 90% of the vocabulary is of Anglo-Saxon heritage.  In the first stanza and chorus of the Beatles’ “A Little Help from my Friends” for example, only “tune” and “try” are not of Anglo-Saxon pedigree (they’re from French, and hence Latin derivation).  In the chorus of the Guess Who’s “Share the Land,” the word “take” is from Old Norse—everything else is Anglo-Saxon.  

            In addition to the vast store of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary based on roots which English shares with its Germanic cousins, English also contains a “uniquely Anglo-Saxon” wordstock:  a substantial cohort of common words which have no equivalent (or are present only archaically or in just one member of the group) in other Germanic tongues.  Some examples: 

 

Ache, ail, bird, glove, smooth, hive, key, pull, like (as a verb), hide (as a verb), tape, film, put, smooth, choke, tie, hunt, moan, down, wear, dark, bright, filth, eerie, shabby, ask, slide, weep, beat, short, body, squeeze, keep, seep, narrow, soothe, spot, game, dot, tall, bad, bug, care, soon, child, tip, breathe, buy, wipe, dim, guilt, also, limp, clutch, grope, but, about, tray, foam, film, share, kind, beach, waist, sleeve.

 

            Notice that most of these are monosyllabic words of everyday discourse, many of them basic connectors for position, time, relational, and quantity expressions (also, soon, down, share, but, about) or descriptive adjectives (narrow, bad, short, dark, bright) or essential nouns (bird, glove, key, spot, game, dot, dim) or verbs (pull, put, beat, ask, hunt, moan, weep, squeeze, keep, seep).  They’re fundamental to the language, and while most of them do have roots which were present in the ancestors of other Germanic tongues (e.g. Old High German, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Gothic, Frankish), in their modern forms they are present only in English.  Some other words (like “lid” or “hoop”) are present to only a limited extent in other Germanic tongues (e.g. German “Augenlid,” “eyelid”).    Indeed, in many cases other Germanic tongues—like modern High German—use a Latin-based word in place of the Anglo-Saxon-based term utilized in English.  This further helps to demonstrate the folly of the common assumption that English is somehow “less Germanic” than its cousins on the Continent.

            It should also be noted here than many words of Anglo-Saxon derivation have modern English descendants which, while possession cognates in the other Teutonic tongues, nonetheless signify something starkly different.  As an example, the English word “walk” is descended from the same root as the word “walken” in both Dutch and High German, as well as Swedish “valka” and Dutch “valke.”  However, these words don’t mean anything like “walk” in their respective tongues; rather, they all apply to the process of felting and filling out hats (or other garments), which often involves a process of rolling and turning.  The Anglo-Saxon root wealcan also had this sense but seems to have drifted somewhat in meaning when the German tribes settled in Britain, to more generally suggest rolling or turning.  Since walking involves rolling and turning the hips and femurs in the process of maintaining one’s gait, modern “walk” came to have a far more general meaning in English than in other German languages. 

            Similarly, the word bläck (cognate to English “black”) in Swedish and Danish means “ink.”  Most ink is black, of course, so the meanings are related even if other German tongues use a different word.  (The German word for black, schwarz, or Dutch zwart are both cognate to English swarthy, which does possess a similar meaning but is far less commonly used.)  The English word wed is cognate to Dutch wedden, German wetten, Danish vædde, Swedish vad, and even to French gager (which is of Germanic, not Latin origin, deriving from a Frankish word, and the source of English wager).  All of these words in the other languages refer to betting, gambling, or wagering, not to getting married and celebrating nuptials (though marriage can very much seem like a gamble these days).  “Clean” is akin to the German and Dutch klein which means small (or dainty, which is perhaps the source of the modern meaning for “clean”).  Shirt is akin to German “Schürze” which means “apron,” while “throw” resembles German “drehen,” which means “to turn, move in a rotating motion.”  The Dutch word “roef” is cognate to English, yet roef means a cabin, not the roof of a home. 

            The same is true for a large cohort of other words all of Anglo-Saxon origin yet with cognates in other Germanic languages that mean something different:

 

quick, food, empty, worry, tug, road, frame, smother, hood, wrong, fair, smoke, shallow, small, read, numb, nimble, leap, write, stirrup, stark, stroke, play, craft, kill, great, silly, leap, with, hire, dust, bone, yield, dapper, dull, throat, much, twist, shape, deer, gate, slim, spoon, leaf, team, teem, sad, crowd, belong

 

Although over half of the total English vocabulary is comprised of words with Greek and Latin roots (either directly or, more commonly, via French or one of the other Romance tongues), the daily speech of English-speakers is by and large German (especially Anglo-Saxon) in its wordstock, just as is the case for modern High German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Frisian.  English is a Germanic language at its core, and this must be understood if you are to more efficiently master another European tongue as your foreign language.

 

-- Wes Ulm

 

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