The Germanic languages today are conventionally divided into three linguistic groups: East Germanic, North Germanic, and West Germanic. This division had begun by the 4th cent. A.D. The East Germanic group, to which such dead languages as Burgundian, Gothic, and Vandalic belong, is now extinct. However, the oldest surviving literary text of any Germanic language is in Gothic (see Gothic language).
The North Germanic languages, also called Scandinavian languages or Norse, include Danish, Faeroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish. They are spoken by about 20 million people, chiefly in Denmark, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. These modern North Germanic languages are all descendants of Old Norse (see Norse) and have several distinctive grammatical features in common. One is the adding of the definite article to the noun as a suffix. Thus "the book" in English is expressed in Swedish as boken, "book-the" ( bok meaning "book" and -en meaning "the"). Also distinctive is a method of forming the passive voice by adding -s to the end of the verb or, in the case of the present tense, by changing the active ending -r to -s ( -st in Icelandic). This is illustrated by the Swedish jag kaller, "I call"; jag kallas, "I am called"; jag kallade, "I called"; jag kallades, "I was called."
The West Germanic languages are English, Frisian, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, and Yiddish. They are spoken as a primary language by about 450 million people throughout the world. Among the dead West Germanic languages are Old Franconian, Old High German, and Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) from which Dutch, German, and English respectively developed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.