English: Relationship to Danish

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by srk, Nov 29, 2012.

  1. srk Senior Member

    South Bend, Indiana
    English - US
    I first heard Danish as an American soldier stationed in Germany, on leave, and traveling north by train. When the train left Hamburg Altona, I was surprised to hear many people speaking English. It didn't take long to realize that, although it sounded like English, it was not. It was Danish.

    Since then, and not only because of that experience, I became convinced that Danish is, in a sense, an intermediate language between German and English -- that English developed more from Danish than directly from German. I am not enough of a linguist nor historian to know whether or not this is nonsense. I can certainly cite examples of phrases in Danish that sound amazingly like their equivalents in English, and very little like German. There is also the idea that German has three grammatical Genders that permeate the language, Danish has two, and English (arguably) has one.

    When I was comfortable in this idea, I bought a book on learning Danish, and was stunned to find how the definite article was handled when there was no descriptive adjective to worry about -- that "the" was essentially hung on the end of the noun. Danish was suddenly an agglutinative language like Hungarian, which is nowhere on the journey from German to English.

    My question is, can anyone shed light on this idea for me? How did this feature become a fixture in Danish that did not arrive from German and was not communicated to English. Is it just one of those things that has no explanation other than "that's the way it is", or is there something to know about how these three languages developed that explains what I see as a deviation from a path. Perhaps there are all kinds of similarly stunning grammatical differences between Danish and the other two, and I'm just not aware of them.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2012
  2. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Hi there, srk.

    I have a feeling this might be moved into the Etymology & History of Languages section but maybe not since your question was about the definite article in Danish.
    First things first, we have to clear up the myth that English is derived from German. It's a common mistake for people to think that and I believe that has roots in the fact that the name of the language from which all of these languages derive is called (Proto-)Germanic. This language is not "German" as we know it today, but a much much older language that was spoken by the Germanic people from about 500BC well into the AD region. Germanic then split as these people migrated westward and northward (I'll ignore the eastern branch for this discussion) and then we have West Germanic and North Germanic. West Germanic then split even further as these people migrated and split and over time the languages changed. The same happened for North Germanic languages.

    English, Dutch, German (and some others) all belong to the West Germanic branch of languages and Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian (etc.) all belong to the North Germanic branch. So, naturally, they're closely related and we can see similarities for a bunch of features across all member groups. After the first West Germanic speakers sailed over to England and that language became what we know today as Old English, they lived there for a couple of hundred years before the Vikings sailed over and brought their North Germanic language to our shores. They stayed and had a great influence on the development of English and many features we can attribute to the Vikings' presence in England. This, does not imply that English came from any form of Danish, but rather that Danish had an impact on English (just like how Anglo-French completely transformed English via borrowing words - well over 60% of our vocabulary is from (Anglo-)French).

    The first attested language that we know that North Germanic became is Old Norse, and it is in Old Norse that this system of putting definite articles onto the end of nouns first arises. Then, when Old Norse split into East/West Norse, all the daughter languages have elements of this feature. By the time this innovation started, the people who spoke the languages which then became German and English were already completely separated from this group, so that's why German and English doesn't have this feature (because it developed out of a North Germanic language, not a West Germanic one).

    Does that help?

    It might be worth having a look at this image to get a better idea. If you imagine as you move from top to bottom, that represents time passed, then when you hit "Northern", that's when that feature evolved. That's why English and German don't have this feature and also explains a little bit about how these languages came about.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2012
  3. srk Senior Member

    South Bend, Indiana
    English - US
    It helps on first reading, and I'm sure it will help much more after I've digested it. Thanks.

    I'm sorry to have started my thread in the wrong place.
  4. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    I added in a link to a picture which basically should make it quite clear how to visualise the relationship between them all. :D
  5. timtfj

    timtfj Senior Member

    Northwest England
    UK English
    My guess (just a guess) is that what's now thought of as a definite article added to the end was once simply part of a system of definite and indefinite inflexions. It would then make sense for people to decide at some point that there was no need for a definite artlcle before a word which already had a definite ending.

    It occurred to me recently that German might also have remnants of such a system. You see it in the adjective endings, at least in the nominative case:

    • indefinite: ein kleines Haus (a small house)
    • definite: das kleine Haus (the small house)
    The treatment of the adjective seems to me to be exactly the same as in Danish and Norwegian: for the indefinite form, a gender ending is added (klein, kleine, kleines), but for the definite form, an -e is used instead.

    If anyone can shed light on this aspect I'd be interested. :)
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2012
  6. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Good thought process!

    There is an article which still exists in Icelandic called hinn, which was present in Old Norse. Given the flexibility with which words could move around, it was often that the noun would come first and the article would follow. This is hypothesised to have occurred with such frequency that it underwent a process that linguists call grammaticalisation, which is when objects are reanalysed and generally bind together or change in form somehow. This happened in all sorts of places in Icelandic, creating new fricatives at the end of certain declensions because inversion happened so frequently (the ð in þú sérð actually came about by this same process sérþú -> sérð).

    So, it went like this: hest hinn -> hest-inn -> hest-en and then it was eventually reanalysed that this is a basic element of how you make a noun definite and generalised across all nouns. The neuter counterpart to hinn was hitt and this is were -et comes from: hus hitt -> hus-itt -> hus-et.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2012
  7. myšlenka Senior Member

    The difference between a weak (indefinite) declension and a strong (definite) declension of adjectives doesn't have anything to do with the Scandinavian definite noun endings. Strong and weak adjectival declension is something all Germanic languages have in common (except for English and perhaps Afrikaans) so it is a feature that is older than the Scandinavian definite noun endings. The two features developed independently.
  8. srk Senior Member

    South Bend, Indiana
    English - US
    The volume of your response and how quickly it came says that you’ve told this story often. What’s surprising is that you’re able to tell it again without sounding impatient at my ignorance.

    This is just to let you know that I’m glad for the information. I have to look at it a lot harder before I can respond in a way that lets you know I really appreciate what you’ve told me.

    timtfj’s comparison between adjectives preceded by definite and indefinite articles in German and Danish definite and indefinite endings lit a light for me that I’d like to keep lit somehow in spite of myšlenka’s cold water. That’s just one of many things I’ll think about before responding again. Alxmrphi’s procedural formula for getting from hinn to -en and hitt to -et will stick with me.

    I suppose I’m blind to the endings that Dan2 points out partly because I think they have counterparts in all of (the few) languages I’m familiar with, whereas a definite ending does not, and partly because people always miss the obvious in their native language.

    Thank you all. (I didn’t miss the relationship tree even though it was added to Alxmrphi’s first post.)
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2012
  9. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA

    Danish, nor any of the Scandinavian languages are agglutinative - they are syntactic language. English is also a syntactic language, but not to the extent the other Germanic languages are. The evidence lies in words like "someone", "summertime" and "into". A trait in syntactic languages is that they can make compounds, but not string together sentences into single words.

    A feature in Scandinavian (especially in dialects) is that one syllable words in Neuter often does not take an ending (in indefinite). English has a similar feature in such words as sheep, salmon, deer etc., and although this is often regarded as a grammatical anomaly, it can just as well be regarded as a grammatical "gender". However, it is important to remember that the word "gender" does not mean "sex" (physical gender); it simply means "different". With that in mind - if we can disregard the notion that grammatical gender needs to be the old Latin M, F and N - it can be said that English actually has a two gender system.
  10. Wilma_Sweden

    Wilma_Sweden Senior Member

    Lund, Sweden
    Swedish (Scania)
    Don't worry! I'm conferring with the EHL mods if they feel non-Scandinavian speakers may have something to add, in which case they'll probably move it. If not, it can stay here.
  11. myšlenka Senior Member

    It's a side-point in this thread but claiming that English has a two gender system sounds a little far-fetched to me. The English irregular plurals should be considered grammatical anomalies or accidents of history because they are unproductive. I would even go so far as to claim that English doesn't even have one grammatical gender because you need at least two genders (or noun classes if you prefer) for the grammatical category to exist in a speaker's mind.
  12. vestfoldlilja Senior Member

    I read an interesting article yesterday (http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/iriks/-Engelsk-er-et-skandinavisk-sprak-7055551.html, in Norwegian) about a theory that English derives directly from the Scandinavian languages and not their west-Germanic counterpart. It’s a theory by linguistics Jan Terje Faarlund (University in Oslo) and Joseph Emmonds (a guest professor from Palacky University).

    Points made in the article:

    Norwegians (Scandinavians) learn English quite easily. It goes beyond similar looking words. Mistakes common for other foreign learners are avoided because the grammar is very similar because the structure base in the Scandinavian languages and English is alike.

    The two professors say they can prove that English in reality is derived from the Scandinavian language and as such belong to the north-Germanic language group. This goes against the status quo that states that English derives from old-English (Anglo-Saxon). Old English is the Language spoken in Britain. It’s a west-Germanic language that was bought from North Germany and South Jylland. The professors believe that modern English directly derives from the Scandinavian languages spoken by the Danes and Norwegians that settled and stayed there for many years before the French speaking Normans came in 1066.

    Old English and modern English are two very different languages. The professors believe old English died out while Scandinavian, strongly influenced by old English, survived. The relationship between the British and the Scandinavians overall where hostile, but the descendants from the Vikings got control over much land in the west and north, and Nordic chieftains ruled for haft a century. The Nordic speaking population did not change their own tongue and continued to speak their own languages.

    In the time period before the Normans arrived, the living conditions where bad and the two people groups (British and Nordic) melted together. This also meant that their languages changed and middle-English came to be. This new language had a great many Scandinavian words; like took, knife, cut and steak. It’s interesting to note that the most common thing when languages merge does not happen here. It’s more common to take in use loan words – words and phrases for new things. This is not the case here. It is common, every day words that derives from the Scandinavian languages. Like: anger, awe, bag, band, big, birth, both, bull, cake, call, cast, cosy, cross, die, dirt, dream, egg, fellow, flat, gain. Scientists believe that old English had their own words for most of these.

    It is also common for a language to keep its own grammar when connecting with another language. This did not happen. In England old Germanic words and morphemes where put aside while their Scandinavian counterparts were taken into use, and live on in Modern English. The two professors also believe that the way sentences is build derives from Scandinavian and not West-Germanic. It is not common to borrow syntax and structure. The syntax and structure of English has little in common with Old-English. One example of this: object after verb: I have just read the book. West-Germanic languages (including old English) will put the verb at the end the sentence.
  13. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    I saw that article make the news yesterday, and was thinking about mentioning it as an anecdotal point.
    In reality though, it's the biggest pile of nonsense I've ever seen. They offer nothing academic and at best and make outlandish claims while there is a whole host of evidence that goes against them. This happens now and then and more often than not it's just to get into the news cycle for the day. The languages did merge in some respects (i.e. English borrowing the plural pronouns) and the third person is said to have its roots in the -as passive construction from North Germanic, but we just see too much linguistic diversity that has so many differences that exist in the major kingdoms in Old English to take something that has passed through Norse to be the root language of English.

    The diversity of English from Kent to Northumbria would not have occurred if it wasn't a process of slowly-diverging local dialects on the continent that had a few hundred years to change. If you have a group of North Germanic speakers that land in a place and then spread out, there would be a lot more uniformity in structure than the evidence shows us. Old English has a LOT of things that you see in Dutch and German that aren't typical of North Germanic. It just doesn't add up, at all. I am still half-convinced it's an article in jest. I saw about a dozen linguists post links to articles on different sites that talked about the story with commons such as, "Oh, right." / "Well, glad they cleared that up." / "Well whaddaya know?" Nobody is taking it seriously from what I can see.
  14. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Hi Myslenka,

    It is a little far-fetched, and I am not proposing we go ahead and introduce grammatical genders in English! I do however find it interesting that there is a group of nouns that take a different, although corresponding pattern in plural. Perhaps it all boils down to how we look at grammatical gender, and perhaps I better avoid the word "gender" (although the word actually means "sort" or "class"), and consider noun classes (as you say) instead. Traditionally, English has been regarded as having no grammatical gender, since it has no M/F/N or C/N distinction, but if we look at other languages, a noun class can be much more than that.
  15. myšlenka Senior Member

    Hi NorwegianNYC,
    yes I agree. The Indo-European M/F/N distinction is unfit for describing noun classes cross-linguistically. Whatever the basis for noun class distinction may be, the key point is productivity. I suspect that speakers of English would add an -s when asked to give the plural of new lexical items because that's the productive way of forming plurals in English.
    I can easily come up with a bunch of verbs (in my dialect) where a long -i- in the stem changes to -ei- in the past tense (skrive, bli, drive, skrike, snike, svi, gni, bite, hive, slite, rive....) but I wouldn't suggest that this class should be considered regular, in spite of corresponding patterns.
  16. srk Senior Member

    South Bend, Indiana
    English - US
    Alxmrphi and Dan2:

    I think you’ve pretty much set me straight. However, Dan2, talking about Proto Germanic as a “hypothesized earlier language”, together with the article from Aftenposten summarized by vestfoldlilja, worry me. But I’m too old to make a success out of getting off my butt and making an exploration of these ideas myself. I’m going to have to trust you two. (Don’t let me down.) I hope that the hypothetical nature of Proto Germanic is that no one knows what it looked like, not whether or not such a language existed at all.


    I didn’t quite think of current-day German as an immutable seed language spreading north and west and being modified by people who were initially speechless. I imagined it, instead, to be the least altered from some starting point, and I gather from you that I was wrong about that as well. The geography helped my myth along. I also hear you when you say that you consider that the recent assertions about English coming directly from Scandinavian languages are so much snake oil.


    “This does not imply that English came from any form of Danish, but rather that Danish had an impact on English (just like how Anglo-French completely transformed English via borrowing words - well over 60% of our vocabulary is from (Anglo-French).”:

    If “had impact” is the better descriptor than “came from”, the result is nonetheless dramatic in terms of structure as well as vocabulary. I have the idea that the influence of French on English, while extensive, is mainly at the high-blown end of the vocabulary — that when we’re in real trouble, we holler “help”, not “assistance”. (Of course, that’s someone else’s smart remark. I just don’t have an attribution.) I still have the idea that the influence of Nordic languages is more fundamental.

    Thinking about your description of how “hesten” and “huset” developed leads me to wonder if the reason these forms did not contribute to the impact of Nordic languages on English, was because they were hard to hear and make sense of if you were listening in a language that already had separated definite articles preceding their nouns. The forms were a surprise to me precisely because I hadn’t really heard them in all the listening that preceded my seeing them in writing.


    I was already aware of the lack of verb conjugation as a remarkable feature of Danish grammar. However, when I started the thread, I was ready to call this evidence of its closeness to English, as there is much less difference between English verb forms marking person than there is in German. I didn’t make this argument, because I would have had to explain the residual differences in English, particularly in the verb “to be”, and I certainly don’t know how to do that. At times, I’ve thought that this feature of Danish is so startling that the explanation must be that at some point it was legislated, as new orthographies are.

    You said that “English is in some ways closer to German (and even more so to Dutch) and in some ways closer to the Scandinavian languages”. Because you gave me no other examples of how the former is true, I took your illustration of lack of gender marking in the predicate adjective in German as an intended example. I can’t see that as evidence, because there isn’t any gender marking of adjectives in English. You can clear that up just by saying that I’m putting words in your mouth, but I would have liked to have examples.


    After all, I can’t see your example of adjective declension in German as a remnant of a more extensive system. It seems to me to be rather an effort to touch up a deficient system — to identify noun gender where the indefinite article is of no help, rather than dropping an ending where none is needed. In fact, this was the mnemonic given to me for coming to terms with descriptive adjectives when I was taught German. If this misses the point, please say so.

    I’ll take myšlenka’s word that this feature developed independently from that of definite noun endings.


    “The English irregular plurals should be considered grammatical anomalies or accidents of history because they are unproductive.” I puzzled over the word “unproductive” in your sentence, wondering whether it was a term that had special meaning in linguistics rather than an ordinary use of the word. I decided on the latter — that you are saying that it is not a useful or helpful exercise to consider irregular plurals as forming an additional gender. Is that right or wrong?

    At least, I look at the terms “masculine, feminine”, and “neuter” as grammatical labels in this way. I think it is undeniable that the terms began based on an idea of “which sex” or “the lack of either”, but that it is unproductive to think of them as other than mere labels in sorting out and correctly handling the entirety of nouns. (If there was ever an unhelpful term for labeling grammatical gender, I think it has to be the word “common” for the common gender in Danish. In what sense are the common nouns common?)


    It is difficult for me to follow a lot of what you say. (I’m not trying to be rude. I just need some clarification.) I don’t know whether you are saying Scandinavian languages are or are not agglutinative. It sounds at first that you are saying they are not — that they are “syntactical” instead — but agglutination, where it occurs, is certainly part of syntax.

    I don’t have any illusions about Danish being agglutinative to the extent that Hungarian is. It was a beginning impression when I started to learn and was based on the earliest instruction in the text I was using. It was not an impression that was supported as I read further. It may have been pointless of me to talk about it in that way at all in this thread. I could just as well have said that this feature of Danish was surprising to me and left it at that.

    I don’t understand what you’re saying about “sheep, salmon” and “deer”. These do not form their plural by adding “s”, but I don’t know what this has to do with noun gender. I see gender as a sorting mechanism for deciding how nouns and their modifiers are to be handled grammatically, most importantly with respect to case. Are you saying that, because “the plural” can be thought of as separate gender because of its distinctive handling with regard to case — that nouns not using final “s” in the plural should belong to still another gender? If you want to regard “salmon” and “horse” as having different grammatical gender because of how they form their plural, what about nouns that are uncountable like “jewelry”? You’d have to add many more genders to German if your criterion is the way in which plurals are formed.


    Thanks for the link to the article and your summary. When I read them, I thought I was going to be a hero after all for starting this thread. (I know you will have read Alxmrphi’s opinion.)


    Thanks for protecting me as long as you could.


    I know you aren’t particularly looking for a response from me. I can tell when the dope who started the thread (that would be me) has been elbowed aside so that the experts can take sides and talk to one another. (I really have no problem with that.)

    In my initial post, I meant to let you know that I am at least smart enough to realize that Danish is closely related to other Nordic languages. I just never got around to turning that corner. I know that Danes and Norwegians understand one another with no difficulty. Moreover, years ago, I would try samples of the little Danish I knew on Swedes I worked with, would be understood, and would mostly understand their responses. Because Danish is the only Scandinavian language I have any real experience with, it is the language I had to talk about.
  17. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Wow, what a post! I'll try and be as concise as I can be to the points you directed my way.

    Exactly! We know it existed but we don't have any physical evidence of what it looked like. There are very solid principles of linguistic reconstruction, tweaked and formed by a lot of other anecdotal evidence that has led to a pretty academically-sound (but not beyond complete questionability) understanding of what it actually looked like. Don't let the word 'hypothesised' make it seem as if it's a wishy-washy concept. We just have to call it that because it comes from linguistic reasoning rather than real evidence.

    I'd say you're completely on the ball with that remark. :)

    It'd be great if we could know the answers as to why things happen in historical language development. All we know for certain is that observable changes take place, and we can theorise what the motivations were for such changes but sometimes things just happen and it seems pretty random. Definiteness marking is certainly a very salient feature and I don't think the impact was that great to warrant such a switch-over. The structural adaptions like in the pronominal system are a sign that these languages were deeply interconnected, and that has led some people to hypothesise that English creolised in this environment (many people don't think the interaction went that deep, though). While the case is stable that "Viking Scandinavian" changed English as we know it today, and not that it replaced it - there will always be elements that English didn't take from it - and this could just be one of them.
  18. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    To answer your question, briefly, Srk: No, Danish does not really sound anything like English -- it may have certain features that make it sound similar to English, especially to a person not familiar with Scandinavian languages. It is a Germanic language, so there definitely are some similarities, but not that many. The answer to your second question would be: no, Danish is not an intermediate language between German and English. The rest was really thoroughly explained by all the contributors.

    Danish is also not an agglutinative language, only the definite forms of nouns are created this way. Germanic languages do not really come from German, but rather are related to German.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  19. francisgranada Senior Member

    The Scandinavian Germanic languages do not belong to the agglutinative languages, of course. Whether they are rather "synthetic" or not is an other crirerion, I think. E.g. the Spanish future "iré" is expressed in English analytically "I shall go", i.e. not by a verbal ending like in Spanish. Thus, the agglutinave languages can also be more or less or synthetic or analytic, even if they tend to be more synthetic comparing with the modern Indo-European languages.

    The definiteness expressed by an article attached to the end of the noun/adjevtive is neither a criterion from this point of view. See e.g. the Romanian and Bulgarian: they both are non-agglutanative languages, neverthless they use definite articles attached to the end. On the other hand, the Hungarian is an (almost) "pure" agglutinative language, and the definite article precedes the noun/adjective exactly like in English.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  20. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Scandinavian languages (except Icelandic) perhaps, are more analytic than synthetic. They are not agglutinative, but they form the definite form of nouns in an agglutinative way. In this respect Baltic or even Slavic languages may be more agglutinative, or rather use more agglutinative techniques. I don't consider Finnish a Scandinavian language in this respect -- this is the way I was taught, although I know now they sometimes call it also Scandinavian, but not Nordic. Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language and it is agglutinative. Even Icelandic may be more analytic than synthetic, I think, but less than the other Nordic languages.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  21. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA

    I think this thread and you posts are great! Keep it up!

    No, neither the Scandinavian languages nor any other Germanic language are agglutinative. They are however different shades of syntactic, with English in the lower (analytic) end of the spectrum and German more fusional/inflective.

    There is of course an agglutinating tendency in Danish (as oppose to an isolating tendency), but only in terms of morphemes into single words, not into longer sentence-like constructs.

    When I say that one may argue that words like “sheep”, “salmon”, “dear” etc. belong to a different gender than s-plural nouns in English, the rationale is that the term gender does not mean sex, it simply means category. In the romance languages, wherefrom Germanic has taken its M/F/N categorization, it tends to be a more regular correlation between physical gender and grammatical gender. Consider Spanish “el gato” and “la gata”, meaning male cat and female cat respectively.

    In the Germanic languages, the gender assignments are much more arbitrary and originally not based on physical gender at all. Germanic nouns fall into categories based on criteria now lost, not physical demarcations of “what is male” and “what is female”. A good example is Danish. In that language, the former ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ genders merged. This would not have happened if there was a correlation between physical and grammatical gender – the way it is in e.g. Spanish and Italian.

    Also, in many languages around the world, grammatical genders are based on very different criteria then sex. Words like “sheep”, “salmon”, “dear” etc. can therefore be said to constitute a separate noun category, not based on an affiliation with one of the traditional gender labels, but because they are the group that does not take an ending in plural. What really is a grammatical gender but a group of words with a different set of endings? Uncountable nouns like “jewelry” will not fall into this category. It is possible to construct the term “jewelries”, where as “sheeps” does not exist.

    Finally - I am not advocating a paradigm shift here. Weather English is a gender-less language is - to me - a matter of definition.
  22. Kevin Beach

    Kevin Beach Senior Member

    I understand the logic of suggesting that nouns with unmodified plurals belong to a different gender, but I think it's stretching it. Were they in a gender of their own in OE or ME? If not, then why try to place them in a different gender in an era when grammatical gender has vanished in English?

    Every word has its own etymology. Just because there is a handful of words (and that's all there is, really) that don't modify in the plural doesn't mean that they are eiusdem generis. Is there really any evidence that they are anything more than anomalies?

    And if you want to put them in their own gender, will you make a third gender for the plurals formed by modifications other than -s : children, oxen?
  23. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Hi Kevin,

    Good question! I do not advocate the introduction of artificial grammatical categories, and no - they were not of the same grammatical gender in days of yore. However, consider this: In e.g. Semitic and Romance languages, there is a correlation between grammatical gender and physical gender, hence the M/F (and occasionally N) distinction. In the Germanic languages, there is little or no such correlation. It is actually pretty arbitrary! What is then really the difference between German having the grammatical genders M/F/N and English having (for the sake of the example) Category 1 (plural in -s), Category 2 (plural in -en) and Category 3 (no plural ending)?
  24. francisgranada Senior Member

    I have the feeling that the original question is not about the genders ....
  25. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Germanic and Italic languages share the same 3-gender system. There is absolutely no doubt. In some modern Germanic languages the morphological distinctions have decayed to a point where continued gender semantics has become meaningless (e.g. English and Danish but not, e.g., German and Icelandic). But that are developments in those modern language and has absolutely nothing to do with an alleged incompatibility in principle between the Germanic and Latin gender systems.
    Absolutely, and we should leave it at that.
  26. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I am afraid, this is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact. The duality of weak and strong declension systems of adjectives is common Germanic (not German) and predated the loss of gender marker in (strong) German nouns. You find it in all branches of Germanic, in Old High German, in Old English, in Old Norse and in Gothic.
  27. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    English - AmE
    Let's be clear on something: Present Day English has no grammatical gender. There have already been threads on whether it does or should, and support has never been provided for either case. The only place English makes any distinctions in noun categorization is in the pronoun system, and there it is based only on semantic animacy and gender/sex of the referent, and only in the third person singular.

    That's a handful of words; this can hardly be considered a system of any type. And this is the difference: English 'gender' happens only on the word level; grammatical gender happens on the phrase level: words are of one grammatical gender or another based on how they affect the words around them, not based on their own inherent properties.

  28. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    I agree - sorry....
  29. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    It would be interesting, if you did. Then we can analyse those examples.:)
  30. olaszinho Senior Member

    Central Italian
    As far as I know, Icelandic is a highly inflected language. It retains three genders, has four cases (like in ancient Germanic) both adjectives and nouns are declined and verbs are conjugated, unlike the other Scandinavian languages, except Faroese to some extent. German also retains four cases but noun declension is essentially made by changing the articles.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  31. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Still nothing like Baltic or Slavic languages, or Georgian, perhaps. ;)
  32. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    If you look at the true analytic languages, such as Vietnamese and Indonesian, I think you will find that the North-Germanic languages are all well entrenched in the synthetic group. Some of them, such as Icelandic, and to a lesser extent Scandinavian, have fusional/inflecting traits, and even English is best defined as a synthetic language.
  33. srk Senior Member

    South Bend, Indiana
    English - US

    About citing examples where Danish sounds closer to English than German.

    Kan vi gå nu?
    Can we go now?
    Können wir jetzt gehen?

    Skal vi gå ud nu?
    Shall we go out now?
    Sollen wir jetzt ausgehen?

    Vil De sige det igen?
    Will you say it again?
    Können Sie es wiederholen?

    Hvor kommer De fra?
    Where do you come from?
    Woraus stammen Sie?

    Hvad dato er det idag?
    What date is it today?
    Was ist Heute das Datum?

    Vi alle så det allrede.
    We all saw it already.
    Wir alle haben es schon gesehen.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  34. francisgranada Senior Member

    I'd like to say that we are now speaking about more critearia at once ... I think it's obvious that the inflecting and the agglutinative languages tend to be more synthetic than languages that a priori miss whatever case ending and verbal ending (conjugation). The possibilty of creating compound words that "replace whole sentences" is even another feature that has nothing to do with the agglutinative charecter of a language, as well as the grammatical gender "as is". It doesn't mean that there's no eventual correlation between these features, but this is another question to be discussed in an other thread (I think so).

    As to the Danish, I personally have the impression that it's at least as "German-like" as "English-like" ... Of course, there are many common features, but this is not so surprising as all the Germanic languages come from the same presupposed Proto-Germanic, and, if we take in consideration the well-known historical Danish influence on English.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  35. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Middle English: Connen we n(o)u gon?
    Low German: Könnt wi nu gahn?

    Middle English: Shall we n(o)u outgon?
    Low German: Schall we nu utgahn?

    They are not the same sentences. Können Sie es wiederholen? means Can you repeat it?
    The cognates igen - again - entgegen are quite interesting. Again in the sense of once more is first attested in late Middle English (Chaucer) when the Viking era was already but distant memory. The Old & Middle English meaning was against. The forms again and agains(t) (originally an adverbial genitive of again) semantically separated only in Early Modern English. The usual Middle English word for once again was eft. As of the 13th century, the phrase eft aȝen or aȝen eft for once more is attested. The meaning again=once more probably originated from this phrase. The alternative Middle English meaning was back (e.g. bringen again = to bring back). This is an interesting parallel to the German adverb and proposition wi(e)der where the once spelling variant (wider) today exclusively means against and the other (wieder) means back.

    You should bear in mind that Modern German is not the native language of the area where the Angles and Saxons came from. The genetically closest languages are Frisian and Low German. Modern German originated from a mixture of High German dialects spoken several hundred km further South.

    Also note that I concentrated on Middle English, not Old English. The avoids having to discuss any possible later Old Norse influence. It is actually the biggest methodological flaw of this strange newspaper article that they jumped straight from Old English to Late Modern English, as if Middle English had never existed. -- And of course, that they use only High German and not Low German as a comparison.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2012
  36. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    That's contemporary German where the semantic distinction between perfect and simple is virtually nonexistent.
    Also possible (but the simple past in this sentence somewhat strange in modern German): "Wir alle sahen es schon/bereits".

    If you read Chaucer you'll wonder how the similarities to German increase, i. e. the past participle with "y" in the beginning - corresponding to German "ge".
  37. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA

    I agree with your entry, but I believe the combination eft agan (from ealier eft ongean) was common in the ME period, and that the hardening of the -g- is due to Norse influence. I also believe the gist of the article is that Norse interrupted the development this Insular Low German variant, and side-tracked it sufficiently to give it a distinct Scandinavian flavor. As a matter of fact, Vestfoldlilja (on the previous page) is slightly mistaken in that (qv.) "English derives directly from the Scandinavian languages and not their west-Germanic counterpart". Their point is that the development of OE as a pure West-Germanic was abruptly halted, and that the further development was a slight hybridization based on North-Germanic patterns instead. Yes, OE is the basis of Modern English, but ME is a development that would not have happened had the Norse impact not been as significant as it was. The article is slightly misconstrued (it is after all a newspaper article...). ME is not Norse with a West Germanic twist. It is a watered down OE with a strong Norse twist.
  38. Dan2

    Dan2 Senior Member

    US English
    I think it happened naturally.

    If your point is that Danish (and Scandinavian in general) has some strong similarities to English, sufficient for there to exist corresponding sentences that sound very similar, you have made the point well. But your inclusion of dissimilar-sounding German translations strongly suggests that what you're really trying to demonstrate is that English is closer to Danish than it is to German. But of course you haven't done that, because you've a) carefully selected sentences that are similar in Danish and English (rather than using a random sampling), and b) in some cases chosen a German translation that is dissimilar to the English and Danish while a more similar one exists (as others have pointed out).

    To illustrate the point that one can skew the data to support whatever hypothesis one prefers, consider the following English-German-Norwegian triples (I use Norwegian because I've never studied Danish, but I believe the "conclusion" would be identical if the Norwegian words, where different, were replaced with their Danish equivalents):
    make, machen, lage
    not, nicht, ikke
    auto, Auto, bil
    sea, See, hav
    flesh, Fleisch, kjøtt
    do-, tu-, gjør-
    speak-, sprech-, snakk-/tal-
    old, alt, gammel
    when, wenn/wann, når
    And many more...

    Finally, early on in this thread we refuted your original assumption that English and Danish "come from" German, so there's really no reason to talk about German at all. If the question is whether English is more of a West-Germanic language (the traditional assumption) or more of a Scandinavian language (as you are suggesting), we should be comparing English to a major West-Germanic language that has not undergone some of the changes that German has, namely Dutch. English is closer to Dutch than it is to German, so German is simply irrelevant to the discussion.

    This observation fits well with my remarks above. The fact that your father, who's never studied Scandinavian, recognizes an occasional phrase, shows that there are similarities between Danish and English; the fact that he has to sit thru 30 minutes of totally unintelligible dialog in order to encounter one of these phrases illustrates just how unusual a close phonetic correspondence between Danish and English sentences actually is!

    Furthermore, and this is crucial for this thread, I believe that this experience, on the part of an English-only speaker, of "Hey I understood that!" is more common in the case of Dutch dialog than of Scandinavian. To me, Dutch "sounds" more like English (even when not understood) than the Scandinavian languages do. (I admit that this a purely subjective remark and include it only because, if corroborated by others, it may have some relevance to the discussion.)
  39. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    I think the reason English is close to Scandinavian in some ways, is because of the dialect leveling that took place during the Dane law. From what I understand at the time there was still a moderate degree of mutual intelligibly between Old English Old Norse, close enough that some Old English loan words made back to Scandinavia. But I don’t believe we know the degree of leveling/mixing because at the time no one wrote the common speech, which would of course vary by region, only in the Old English or Old Norse standard.
  40. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Yes, substantial Old Norse influence on Old English during the Dane Law period is undisputed. Old English influence on Scandinavian languages is more difficult to establish. The strongest West Germanic influence on main land North Germanic (Danish, Swedish and Norwegian) happened during the Hanseatic League period (13th to 16th centuries) when Middle Low German served as lingua franca of trade in the North and Baltic Sea areas. Estimates of the size of the Middle Low German substrate in Danish range between 20% and 30% (estimates of 50% or more you sometimes read are certainly exaggerated). German (Low and High) influence continued after the demise of the Middle Low German standard language in the 16th century for different reasons. One reason is the dominance of the Lutheran church in Scandinavia and another is that until 1864 when Schleswig-Holstein became Prussian, Denmark had a sizable in influential German (at the time already diglossic, High German in writing and Low German or Frisian in colloquial oral communication) minority. Even the city of Altona on the North bank of the Elbe river, mentioned by srk in the OP and now a part of Hamburg was Danish until 1864.
  41. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    I can see how trying to untangle the origin of a loanword would prove difficult when the candidates are Old English, Frisian or Low German. Especially given a words could have come from one source and when been reinforced later by another. What about Frankish/Old Low Franconian, did it have any influence on Scandinavian languages?
  42. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Yes, I should have mentioned that too. There was certainly Old Low Franconian influence during the Viking era already. Heddeby, the most important trading post with the Frankish empire, situated at the Dennewerk, the then border between Denmark and the Frankish ruled Saxony and with its 5000 inhabitants one of the three or four biggest Viking "cities" was polyglot, Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old Frankish.

    There was also Franconian influence through Middle Dutch at the same time when Middle Low German influence was at its peak.
  43. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Of course none of the Indo-European languages is totally analytic, compared to Vietnamese or modern Mandarin. They are still on the analytic side, as compared to more synthetic languages such as Baltic and Slavic languages.

    I don't really think Modern English is defined as a synthetic language unless perhaps someone classified all Indo-European languages as synthetic and put them into one category, by just looking at the historical grammar.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2012
  44. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    This question doesn't really matter for the current topic.
  45. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    This may be just some slight similarity in the written form. Are you referring to speech or written language? Language is first of all speech -- this is how it came into being, so if you listen to all of those phrases, there is very little similarity between English and Danish or Danish and German, not to mention English and German. They use totally different sounds and intonation patterns.
  46. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    There is a famous passage in Sagas of the kings of Norway where the author 'laments' how "Viljam Bastard" corrupted the English tongue and made it impossible for people to understand each other. Although Snorri most certainly exaggerates the pre-Norman mutual intelligibility (he lived 150 years later), it seems reasonable that a hybrid of broken Norse and broken OE would have been the jargon of interaction. However, the impact OE had on Norse, is marginal at best, for two reasons: (1) It was very much a one way migration, and the Norsemen settled in England; and (2) given the impact Norse had on OE, it seems unlikely that OE influenced the occasional returning Norsemen a great deal.

    On the other hand, the impact of Middle Low German on Scandinavian (especially the Danish and Norwegian variants) is hard to overlook. It has been estimated that 30-40% of the Danish/Norwegian vocabulary is German (mostly LG) and Dutch. This is an astonishing number, and by far ranks the number of Norman words in English. It is hard to estimate exactly how many words came in to the language(-s), and at what time (some may have arrived much later). However, the Scandinavian influence on LG/Dutch was marginal for the same reason as the Norse/OE interaction - it was a one way affair.
  47. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    I have to, respectfully, disagree.
    Regarding those phrases, how would my father with no non-English knowledge be taken aback that it sounds so similar to English? That's evidence, right there, that in those kinds of short sentences with shared cognates, there is similarity. Obviously that's not saying overall - we're only talking about a tiny portion of lexical items in restricted contexts, but still, the case holds that there is similarity.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2012
  48. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Yes, that's what I said. I said that the meaning again=once more is probably a shortening of this phrase.
    Yes, spellings with <ga> (significant of course only after <ȝ> and <g> separated graphically) rather than <ȝe> or (later) <ye> where originally Northern dialectal which entered the Southern standard only in the 15th century. This is a clear sign of Norse influence.
    That is a strange way of looking at it as most of the known OE corpus already incorporated Old Norse influence (9th - 11th century). At the time of the transition of Old to Middle English in the 12th century, it had already all happened. Influence on English at that time was from the continent, mainly from French. The fact the the most characteristic phonological shift, the loss of full vowels in final unstressed syllables, happened synchronously in English, Dutch, Low and High German (11th-12th centuries) is also noteworthy.

    PS: There might be a misconception in some people's minds of continued strong Old Norse influence on Middle English because the London dialect came increasingly under the influence of Northern dialects, mainly through internal migration. And Northern dialect, naturally, experienced stronger Old Norse influence than Southern and East Midlands-dialects. What appears like Scandinavian influence on Middle-English was in effect purely internal migrations and shifts in influence of dialects within England. Direct link with Scandinavia ended with conquest of York, the political and cultural capital of the Danelaw in the campaign of 1069.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2012
  49. NorwegianNYC

    NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Hi Berndf,

    To clarify: In this post I am referring to the article Vestfoldlilja mentioned. The authors (of the research paper, not the newspaper article) are not advocating that English is a North Germanic language per se, but that due to the heavy Norse influence, English rather developed along the lines of North Germanic than West Germanic in the transition from OE to ME. It is also mentioned that English is not pronounced akin to Scandinavian (which I personally consider a dialect continuum rather than separate languages), which again goes to your point that Norse did little to impact the phonological shift. The study aims to prove that Modern English is more akin to Scandinavian than its fellow West-Germanic tongues because of the impact of Norse in the transitional phase between OE and ME.
  50. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Ok, I see. The newspaper article claimed that "Old English died out" (in boldface). That is a much stronger statement.
    Still sounds strange because many of the syntactic changes were due to loss of case-inflections and happened in the later part of the ME period and not during the OE-ME transition. I rather see parallel development for similar reasons rather than change caused by influence, though I admit to that, to some extend, increased influence of Northern dialects indirectly means increased Norse influence.

    That is a highly non-standard use of the terms OE and ME as the Norse influence differentiates early and late OE and Northern and West-Midlands from Southern and East-Midlands dialects of (late) OE. The transition phase from OE to ME started after (direct) Norse influence had ended.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2012

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