Was Proto-Germanic a Succesful Language?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Judging by the amount of languages sprung from Proto-Germanic, one can argue that Proto-Germanic has been succesful. One of those descendants, namely English, has gradually gained the status of global lingua franca in the modern era and continues to grow as a language of global prestige.

Today, in the year 2019, the Germanic languages have more than 1.8 billion speakers (the largest contributors being English with more than 1.5 billion, German with 200+ million, Dutch-Afrikaans with 60+ million, Swedish-Danish-Norwegian with 23 million) out of the 7.6 billion people on earth, which means roughly 24% or roughly 1/4 of the world speaks ‘Germanic’.

If the current amount of speakers of descendants of Proto-Germanic can be considered any measure of success for Proto-Germanic, then one can argue, based on aforementioned figures, that Proto-Germanic was a succesful language. (I have, nevertheless, often argued that the worth of languages is not defined by their number of speakers, for it is about quality, such as identity and culture, rather than quantity, such as amount of speakers and wealth.)

However, the further development and growth of ‘Germanic’ remains unknown, because it depends almost solely on the fate of English as a global language. The future may be uncertain, but future prospects for English do not look that bleak. English is spoken on all continents and it is, at least at the present moment, continuing to grow.

If this trend continues unabatedly, the world will be decidedly English-speaking by the end of this century and this will set the tone for future linguistic developments. It is possible that English is replaced as the world language, but this will be a slow dragged-out process, because English has already enjoyed an advantageous head start and it will take time for any other major language, such as Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, to catch up to English.

Thanks to English, Germanic is the largest group within the Indo-European language family and this might be seen as a sign of the ultimate success of Proto-Germanic. The Indo-European language family is the largest language family in the world in terms of sheer amount of speakers, for a large part thanks to Germanic. The largest groups within the Indo-European family are Germanic (#1), Romance (2#) and Indo-Aryan (3#). Depending on the growth of French in Africa and Spanish in the Americas relative to the growth of English on the global scale, Romance may overtake Germanic as largest group within the Indo-European or Indogermanic language family.

What will become of the English language in the future when one judges by its Anglo-Frisian history? This is why it is particularly interesting to study Frisian, with which English shares common origins. English is descended from Anglo-Saxon, which is descended from Anglo-Frisian. Owing to migration, the speakers of Anglo-Frisian were split between mainland Europe and Britain. Much like the relationship between American English and British English, there was the ‘Ancient Frisian’ of the people in Britain and that of the European continent. The Insular Frisian developed into English, the Continental Frisian into Frisian. If ancient history of Anglo-Frisian tells anything, then English will split into American English, British English, Australian English, etc. and develop into a variety of English languages. If the emergence of multiple English languages can be said to prove the success of English, then the same can be said about Proto-Germanic, which has a whole variety of descendant languages.

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