When most people hear the term “Germanic languages” they automatically think that it means modern German, spoken in a number of different dialects in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and many other parts of the world where there are sizeable German-speaking communities. In fact, there are many languages in what is actually a broad language family, some of which are now old German languages or even extinct, especially that branch of the family called “East Germanic.”
The distribution of Germanic languages
Like other language families, the present distribution of Germanic languages is an expression of the way people in the past moved from somewhere else, spread out, multiplied then became separated from each other. The longer groups who originally had common ancestors were physically separated the more their language evolved and changed. All those who speak one or more of the many Germanic languages today originate from a population of people who arrived in what is now Europe from somewhere in central Asia. Basically, this population spread throughout Europe, some heading North towards what is now Scandinavia, some heading West towards what is now Britain, Holland and Germany, some staying in the Eastern part of Europe around the Black Sea or headed South towards present-day Italy, Spain and the Baltic area.
Western Germanic languages
The present day Western Germanic languages include English, Dutch, Frisian, German and Yiddish. Although each of these languages has evolved over time there are no known extinct Germanic languages in this branch of the family. In fact, three of the western Germanic language group have become some of the most widely spoken languages in the world (in the case of English) or spoken by very large numbers of people (German itself). Although the languages are quite closely related they are mutually unintelligible. That means that if a German speaker, a Dutch speaker and an English speaker all tried to communicate with each other, it would be a very frustrating experience unless one or more of the understood the others’ languages. In practice, most Dutch speakers and many German speakers also understand English to an increasingly level. Many Dutch speakers also understand German, but not the other way around!
English is by far the most widely spoken of all the Germanic languages with nearly 500 million native speakers and many millions more who use it as a second or third language. After Chinese (Mandarin) and Spanish English has more native speakers than any other. Interestingly, Yiddish, an old Germanic language, while not an extinct Germanic language was almost entirely wiped out in the Second World War. It was a language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Central Europe, half of whom were killed in the Nazi gas chambers in the Second World War.
Northern Germanic languages
The northern Germanic language group also does not contain any known extinct Germanic languages. The main languages in this branch of the family include Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese. None of these language groups have particularly large numbers of speakers. Faroese, a language spoken by people on the Faroe Islands has the least numbers of speakers, while Swedish has the most. Interestingly, in the other Scandinavian country, Finland, the inhabitants speak Finnish, a language more in common with Turkish than any of the Germanic languages, despite the fact that culturally and economically the Finns now share much with their neighbours.
East Germanic languages – those that became extinct
The only language that there is any real record of belonging to this group is the language of the Goths, i.e. Gothic, or more precisely Visigothic (there was another Gothic language known as Ostrogothic). Gothic is an extinct Germanic language. It died out for one reason or another as the Goths as a people moved into southern Europe. Presumably, the Gothic language disappeared because the Goths intermarried with people of the lands they invaded and no longer spoke the language of their ancestors. This is something which is happening today when migrants move to another country where their original language is not spoken. As a population, they often gradually lose their ability to speak in their own native tongue.
There were presumed to be other Eastern Germanic languages as well, principally the languages of the Vandals, known as Vandalic, and then there was Burgundian, Rugian and Gepidic. The main reason why nothing much is known about these extinct Germanic languages is that there is only physical evidence of the existence of Gothic in the form of manuscripts dating back hundreds of years in the language. Like many very old manuscripts and written records, the main reason why they were written was to spread the teachings of the Bible. It seems that at least some of the Bible was translated into Gothic in the 4th or 5th centuries A.D.
There are three main branches of the Germanic language group, itself a smaller subset of the huge Indo-European language family. Of these three branches, only one has now disappeared. The Eastern Germanic languages, of which only Gothic is known about in some detail, have become entirely extinct.
Of the other two groups, the Western Germanic languages are some of the most spoken of any language group around the world, with hundreds of millions of speakers. The Northern Germanic language group, by contrast, although not containing any extinct languages is spoken by only small numbers of people today.