Is the German Language Older Than English?

When I was re-reading Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals in preparation of writing a review of it, I stumbled across the following passage:

Germans are an old people—their language is centuries older than English, French, Spanish, or Italian

This is a rather confused statement. All the languages mentioned are Indo-European, meaning they are all descendants of the same language, which we call Proto-Indo-European. We believe that this language was spoken around 3500 BC, most likely by a group of steppe nomads living in the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea. From there it spread across much of Europe and Asia and branched out into various subdivisions.

The one we are primarily concerned with here is the Germanic languages, which can further be subdivided into North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic. The East Germanic languages are extinct and the North Germanic branch comprises the languages today spoken in the Nordic countries (with the exception of Finnish, which is not Indo-European). Both German and English are West Germanic languages.

This means that before the Germanic invasion of Britain by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (from the 5th to the 7th century AD), depending on how you want to look at it, either German and English did not exist yet, or they were the same language. After the invasion, geographic isolation led to the language of those West-Germans who had stayed on the continent diverging from the language of those who had made a new home in Britain.

It might seem natural to identify West-Germanic dialects as “German” and to think of Old English as a new languages which emerged in the Early Middle Ages. After all, the Germanic people are “Germans”. But this would be to fall prey to accidents of English terminology. The modern national or ethno-linguistic group of Germans happens to be named after the Germanic people in the English language, but this is merely an arbitrary convention. In German, the German people are called deutsch (meaning “of the people”), in French they are called allemand (after the Alemanni, a confederation of Germanic tribes), in Finnish saksa (after the Saxons), and in Polish niemiecki (meaning “silent” since they couldn’t speak Slavic languages). In reality, the English are just as Germanic as the Germans, as are the Dutch, the Swedes, the Norwegians, etc.

Ultimately, all Indo-European languages are equally old. At what point they branched off into distinct languages is more of a question of definition than of historical fact. Take the Romance languages that Sowell mentions. French, Spanish, and Italian are all descendants of Latin, more specifically of Vulgar Latin, i.e. the non-standard Latin spoken by the common people in the Roman Republic and Empire. Vulgar Latin is generally held to have developed into the various Romance languages during the 6th to 9th century, meaning slightly later than when English and German emerged as separate languages.

But this is really a matter of more or less arbitrary classification. If we stretch things a little bit, we might plausibly claim that French, Spanish, and Italian are really just dialects of Latin, and thus much older than German. Or me might take a very early date for the emergence of the Romance languages, let’s say 500, and a late date for the emergence of German, let’s say 750, and once again German is younger.

We should be very careful with making statements about whether a language or a people is older than another. All languages that are commonly spoken today have predecessor that date back to pre-historic times and human languages exist on a continuum. At what point a different dialect becomes a separate language is more a matter of convention than fact.

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