The Germanic languages are spoken by more than 500.000.000 people. As a consequence of colonialisation and globalisation they constitute the geographically most widespread group of languages in the world spoken in Europe, in the Americas, in Africa (for instance South Africa with English and Afrikaans as official languages), Asia (e.g. India with English as official language) and Australia. English has the biggest number of native speakers after Chinese, Arabic and Hindi. It is the geographically most widespread language and the most important internationally used lingua franca. It is also the most widely learned second language in the world.
The Germanic languages form a top-level constituent of the Indo-European language family.
Around 500 BCE Proto-Germanic separated from Proto-Indo-European due to large changes in the phonological system and in morphology . Migrations lead to the fragmentation into roughly three groups: North Germanic, West Germanic and East Germanic. North Germanic tribes lived in Scandinavia, from where they colonized Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Major North Germanic languages are Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese. West Germanic tribes lived further southwards. Major West Germanic languages are: English, Frisian, Dutch and German. Eastern Germanic tribes were scattered throughout Europe in the Völkerwanderung period, conquered the Western Roman Empire and founded states throughout the Mediterranian area and the Black Sea. Major East Germanic languages are Gothic and presumably Burgundian, Rugian and Vandalic. The East Germanic languages are extinct since the 16th century. Only the Gothic language is attested in written form.
The first written attestations are Runic inscriptions in Scandinavia dating back to about 300 BCE.
Two major sound shifts affected the Germanic consonant system. In the First Sound Shift, also known as Grimm's Law, which occured in about 500 BCE, Indo-European stops were lenited into fricatives. The Second Sound Shift, also called High German Sound Shift concerned the High subbranch of the West Germanic languages, viz. it was a consonant shift that affected the southern varieties of the prensent-day German-speaking area. The Second Sound Shift occurred in about 500 CE.
Several Proto-Indo-European vowels underwent changes in Proto-Germanic: For example */a:/ turned into */o:/.
Proto-Indo-European lexical stress could occur on every syllable of the word. In Proto-Germanic the word accent has been fixed on the stem syllable of the word, usually the first syllable.
Morphophonemic characteristics of the Germanic languages are ablaut and umlaut. Ablaut is a morphophonemic vowel change, which has been inherited from Proto-Indo-European and plays a crucial role in verb morphology, is found in nearly all Germanic languages except in some modern languages like Afrikaans. Umlaut is also a morphophonemic vowel change, but younger in age. Presumably it emerged after East Germanic separated from North Germanic - this hypothesis is supported by the fact that East Germanic, i.e. Gothic does not have umlaut, whereas all other Germanic languages do.
A morphophonemic process, which results in the loss of inflectional endings, is the reduction of unstressed vowels. This process already started in the Proto-Germanic stage and persisted into the present reoding the inflectional system of languages like English and Afrikaans.
The extensive Proto-Indo-European nominal morphology (eight cases, three numbers, three genders) has been simplified in Proto-Germanic. Nouns are inflected for number (singular and plural, i.e. dual has been lost), case (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental and vocative), and gender (male, female, neuter). Nouns are sub-classified into various declension classes. In Bokmål, Danish, written Swedish, Frisian and Dutch the feminine gender has been lost.
Adjectives have two major inflectional paradigms: strong vs. weak inflection. The weak declension was used when the modified noun was preceded by another word which indicated case, number, and gender. The strong declension was used in other situations.
Analogous to the reduction of the nominal case system in the modern languages, the use of articles conveying information on case and gender is increasing.
The elaborate verbal system of Proto-Indo-European has been reduced in Proto-Germanic: Major tense and aspect distinctions have been abandoned resulting in a binary distinction between one present tense and one past tense. The present tense in a descendent of the Proto-Indo-European present tense. In the past tense there is a distinction between weak and strong verbs: weak verbs form the past tense stem by adding a dental suffix to the root, strong verbs use vowel alternation to form the past tense stem (which originates from the Proto-Indo-European perfect tense). The weak forms are mostly regular and productive, whereas the strong forms are irregular and seem to have lost productivity at a certain point.
In addition to the synthetic past tense an analytic perfect and pluperfect has been developed. In various Germanic languages the perfect obtains the function of a general past and replaces the synthetic past tense.
The order of constituents was rather free in Proto-Germanic. Due to the reduction or loss of nominal inflection this freedom has been reduced or lost in the modern Germanic languages. German, for example, has a relatively flexible word order, whereas the order of constituents in English is very strict.
The Proto-Germanic word stock consists mainly of elements of Proto-Indo-European origin, but there are also lexical elements, which have no cognates in other Indo-European languages.