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The history of “-y” in English

When I first learned that English was a Germanic language, I didn’t really know what that meant. English and German seemed nothing alike to me. I wanted to know what it meant to be a Germanic language. English’s history is quite colourful with many of characters and lots of plot developments.

The reason Modern English is so different to Modern German is because languages change over time. People learn a language from those around them. If people can move around they bring their language with them and their speech patterns can affect the speech patterns of people elsewhere. English and German share a common ancestor, but since there is a sea between England and Germany any changes that happened in English or German over time were much less likely to affect the other.

The earliest Germanic peoples were those who had migrated to Scandanavia a few thousand years ago. They then migrated south into central Europe. Over time many Germanic tribes sprung up. Some of these tribes, namely the Angles, Saxons and the Jutes migrated across the English Channel to Britain. Some of the Saxons remained in continental Europe. There are three states in Germany named after them: Saxony, Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

As these tribes started settling in southern Britain in the 400s their languages started mixing together. This is the start of the Old English period (also known as Anglo-Saxon). This period lasted until the invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror in 1066. Old English was much more similar to even some of the modern Germanic languages than Modern English is.

It was a highly inflected language with 4 cases and had grammatical gender with 3 genders. After the invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror French was imposed and it took another two or three centuries for English to start being used in the halls of power again. English though demoted, lived on amongst the people of England after the invasion.

Eventually conflict with France caused the people of England to use English more and more until French was no longer the main language used by those in power.

During this time English adopted many words from French and that is part of the reason German looks so different to English speakers. A lot of the concepts English speakers discuss are conveyed using words from French, whereas German would probably use a word descended from the ancestral language of the Germanic tribes.

But all is not lost! English is still a fundamentally Germanic language, even if it looks different. Modern English doesn’t have the same grammatical complexity in terms of cases or grammatical gender, but it still uses similar syntax and much of the core vocabulary (words used every day) is descended from the language of the Germanic tribes.

We can find links to the other Germanic languages everywhere if you know where to look.

Over time the way people spoke German changed. When sounds change in a systematic way, linguists call this a sound shift. The word “give” is a good example.

Here it is in a few Germanic languages
English: give
Dutch: geven
Swedish: ger (which comes from the older form “giva”)
German: geben

You can see that the vowels might be a bit different, but they are all written with a “g” at the beginning, and have a “v” after the vowel. All of them do this, except for German.

Linguists call the sound shift that caused this the “High German consonant shift”

If you see a “b”, then you might see a “v” in the English word. Here is another example

English: love
German: Liebe

What does this have to do with “-y”?

Well, you need to understand the concept of sound shift to understand how English ended up with this little letter at the end of so many words. Old English did not experience some of the sound shifts that affected other Germanic languages. “th” becoming “d” is a very common sound shift that happened in the other Germanic languages that didn’t happen in English probably because the English channel made it more difficult for people to get to England so the new speech pattern would not have been heard as much and as much wasn’t copied so “th” remained “th” in English. Same with the “w” sound becoming a “v” sound in the other Germanic languages

But English did change the “g” sound. In Old English, “g” was pronounced like Modern English “y”. Old English “tō dæġe” sounds relatively close to Modern English “today” because the “g” sound was already a “y” sound.

When “ig” appeared at the end of words in Old English, it sounded like Modern English “ee”. Look at Modern German sonnig and just pronounce the “g” as a “y” and that is probably close to what the Old English would have been.

Here is the word in some of the other Germanic languages

English: sunny
Dutch: zonnig
German: sonnig

In Modern English we can put “y” at the end of almost anything and get an adjective, such as fishy, smelly, thirsty, cloudy. This “y” ending is descended from the “ig” ending in Old English.

There is another ending in Modern English that went through a simple reduction. “-ly” in Modern English is also descended from an Old English ending. In this case it is descended from “-līċe,” which comes from Old English word meaning body. In the form “lich” it still survives as a type of undead being.

Over time people dropped the “ċe” part (which is pronounced like Modern English “ch” with the “e” letter at the end representing an “uh” sound) and just said “-ly” instead of “-līċe”. This ending is still very common in Modern English and it is directly related to the “-lich” in German, “-lijk” in Dutch and “-lig” in Swedish.

Here is the word “daily” and its cognates (words descended from a common source) in the other Germanic languages

English: daily
Dutch: dagelijks
German: täglich
Swedish: daglig

This is just one of the many connections English has to its Germanic cousins. So English might not look like the other Germanic languages, but it is just a Germanic language wearing a jacket from a Romance language. It is still fundamentally a Germanic language and still has a lot in common with them.

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