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The story of “us” in the Germanic languages

By Rolf Weimar

There is a change that happened in some West Germanic languages that has obscured the relation between a whole set of words. I would like to explore that change and reveal a connection you might not know about.

All modern Germanic languages (English being one of them) are descended from a language spoken by the Germanic tribes in the Bronze Age. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. They were spread out across southern Sweden, Denmark and southern Norway. Over time they migrated south into central Europe. Some went east and their language changed over time eventually becoming Gothic.

Those that stayed in central Europe became Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch and Belgians. Some of the Germanic tribes left central Europe for the British isles and they were the ancestors of the English. Those that stayed in Scandanavia eventually became the Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Faroe islanders.

As the Germanic peoples spread out they took their Germanic language with them and it changes bit by bit over time. Linguistics groups the Germanic languages into three major branches: West Germanic of central Europe and the British isles, East Germanic of eastern Europe and North Germanic of northern Europe, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

People learn language on their mother’s knees and from their peers. They pick it up around them. They eventually settle on some kind of baseline which they use to communicate with others. They probably hear variations and just get used to range of expression of their language.

What this means is that people often don’t notice changes happening under their noses. People speak how they speak and generally everyone gets along just fine. Maybe someone will make a joke about how “people over there” speak or something like that and life goes on. Those little differences can grow over time and make what were once mutually intelligible (which means both sides can understand each other) forms of speech eventually utterly different and totally non understandable to people from other groups.

English is one of the more divergent Germanic languages thanks to being separated by a sea from the mainland (which makes migration more difficult and slows down the spread of new forms of speech) and due to the fact that after the Germanic tribes arrived in Britain they were then invaded again by Vikings who by then spoke a bit differently from the tribes who originally moved over to Britain and by the Normans who spoke a different language entirely. Some of the changes in English did happen in other Germanic languages and we can still find those connections today.

Think about the letters “t” and “p”. “t” is pronounced at the front of the mouth just behind the teeth. “p” is pronounced by putting your lips together opening them suddenly along with a breath of air. All sounds are made with the mouth. But there are some sounds that include another part of your body which allows you to change the sound slightly. The nose and its air pathways are connected to the mouth and the pathways can be opened or closed to change the sound.

Pronounce the word “think” and stop just before you get to “k”. Listen to the sound you make. That is a nasal sound. You create vibrations with your voice box and then push that sound through your nose forming the “n” sound we hear in “think”. There is another nasal sound in English which is the sound at the end of “thin”. It is slightly different to the “n” sound in “think”. The sound in “think” is the same as the “ng” in “sing”.

In the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) it is given the symbol “ŋ” and is called a velar nasal. Velar means the back part of the tongue is raised up against the soft palate also known as the velum. The “nasal” part of the name means that sound is passed through the nose.

The “n” in “thin” is not a velar nasal, but actually an alveolar nasal because it is produced in the alveolar ridge which is the part of the mouth just behind the teeth. As you can see, the “n” is not so much a distinct sound, but merely a way to indicate what word is being pronounced and people just know that “think” is pronounced with a velar nasal (the “ng” sound) and not the “plain n” sound. Pronouncing it as “thin” then a “k” sounds completely wrong.

Ok, now that we know about the different Germanic languages and how they developed, and we know about nasal sounds, we can look at the matter at hand.

Let’s look at the words “tooth” and the word “tand” (from Swedish). They both mean the same thing. But you will notice an “n” in the Swedish word but no “n” in the English word. How did the English lose the “n”? They lost them through a process called “nasalisation”. This is where a vowel is pronounced through the nose and mouth instead of just the mouth.

Modern English doesn’t have nasalisation so the easiest way to explain it is to imagine looking at a cake. You might say “mmmmm”. Put your finger under your nose and feel the gentle flow of air as you make that sound. Think back to the “n” in “think”. Notice how air goes through your nose. Now imagine pronouncing a vowel while pushing air through your nose like you do with “mmm” and “think”.

This is what happens with French “cinq”. You pronounce the vowel as you would any vowel, but you pass air through your nose which changes the sound. When you pass air through your nose while pronouncing a vowel, we say that you pronounce that vowel with nasalisation.

So, long ago, some group of Germanic speakers started nasalising the vowel before an “n”. So /uns/ become /ũːs/ (the slashes represent International Phonetic Alphabet notation, the tilde on the vowel represent nasalisation and the colon after the “u” represent a long vowel). The vowel got lengthened so that it took the same amount of time to say as the previous /un/ and it was nasalised.

Why was the vowel nasalised? Well, people often started speaking in a way that is easier for them. Think about the word “bottle”. If you live in USA, you probably actually say “boddle” without realising this. This is because “boddle” is a bit easier to say than “bottle”. So sounds change in a way that makes speech more fluent and words easier to say.

/uns/ has three sounds in it: /u/ (which is pronounced like a longer version of the “oo” in “good”, /n/ (which is pronounced like the “n” in “net”) and /s/ (which is pronounced like the “s” in “sit). Pronounce /uns/ slowly for yourself and notice how your tongue moves around your mouth as you pronounce it. It has to be in one position for /u/ then another for /n/ and then another for /s/.

Since we are already using our nose for /n/, why don’t we just combine the nose sound with the vowel and drop the “n” because it’s not needed anymore as we have found a way to include the /u/, a nasal sound and the /s/ in only two sounds instead of three. A massive saving of time and effort! Speakers are always looking for easier ways to pronounce things. Minimising effort is one of the many ways languages change over time. So our final sound is /ũːs/ (which is a nasal vowel plus “s”).

The final piece to the puzzle is that groups of speakers are separated and changes don’t spread to all speakers. So once /uns/ became /ũːs/ and people got used to it, they just decided to stop nasalising it altogether because that was even easier and since everyone understood what /us/ means it just stuck. The word just slowly changed from one form to the next to the next and no one really noticed or cared, they just went along with it. /us/ (without the nasalisation) is two steps removed from /uns/ (no nasalisation and no /n/) which means it is slowly drifting away from the original word.

If this word went through more changes it could eventually become completely unrecognisable. But as long as the speakers of the language were speaking amongst themselves they could all keep up to date with the changes and still understand each other. So over time the language would diverge from its cousins but each group could still understand their peers even if they couldn’t understand their cousins.

The subgroup of Germanic languages that applied this nasalisation are called the North Sea Germanic group (or Ingvaeonic). The North Sea Germanic group includes English, Scots, Frisian and Low German (also called Low Saxon). The oldest varities of those languages are Old English (which is also the ancestor of Scots), Old Frisian and Old Saxon.

In the original language of the Germanic tribes “tooth” was “tanþs” (with þ representing a “th” sound). The “th” became a “d” in the other Germanic languages but English retained it. So “tooth” and “tand” are actually descended from the same word and in linguistics we say those two words are cognate (from Latin “cognatus” which means “born together”).

We can look at words in English and compare them with words in German and you can see an “n” in German where there is no “n” in English

English “us”, German “uns”
English “tooth”, German “Zahn”
English “other”, German “ander”
English “goose”, German “Gans”
English “five”, German “fünf”
English “soft”, German “sanft”

Languages like to mix though and we can see words in languages outside of the North Sea Germanic group that have lost the “n” even though they weren’t part of this nasalisation process.

The Proto Germanic word for “south” was “sunþraz”. This became “sūþ” in Old English and “sundar” in Old High German. Middle Low German (descended from Old Saxon, a North Sea Germanic language) spoken by the Hanseative League was very influential at the time and their word for “south”, which was “sūden” eventually supplanted the Old High German form.

One of the ways to work out if a word has been borrowed is to look at the form of the word. If the word has an “n” where its cognates in the North Sea Germanic languages don’t have one, then it probably isn’t borrowed. If it lacks an “n” like its cognates in the North Sea Germanic languages, but other Germanic languages have an “n”, then it probably is a borrowing from a North Sea Germanic language.

All modern Germanic languages use a form of the word “south” without an “n” but you can still see the “n” in some place names like Zonderwijk in the Netherlands. Here “Zonder” is an older form of the word “Zuid” which means “south”.

Languages change over time. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. A change in one language might be borrowed into a related language and the two might remain quite similar. Other times a group of languages, like the North Sea Germanic languages might employ one change and run with it.

I love learning about things like this because it makes me feel more connected to my native language and I realise that English is not as far removed from its brethren as it first appears.

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