Languages of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family are usually classified on the basis of similarities in grammar, vocabulary, and phonology into three categories. These are:
- West Germanic, including German, Netherlandic, and English.
- North Germanic, including Danish, Swedish, Norwegian; and Icelandic.
- East Germanic. These languages are now extinct, although fragments of Gothic remain, chiefly from fragments of a 4th century translation of the Bible. Poland is the center of the region in which East Germanic languages were spoken.
The West German languages developed in areas around the North Sea and land settled by their peoples (i.e., England). They consist of six languages used today. These are Afrikaans, English, Frisian, German, Netherlandic, and Yiddish.
Frisian Language is the language most closely related to English. It is spoken in the Frisian Islands and northern Holland and northwestern Germany. Afrikaans is a derivative of Netherlandic that is spoken in South Africa. The influence of the native Bantu languages on it can be noticed. Netherlandic is the language spoken in most of Holland, northern Belgium, and a portion of France along the North Sea. Although Yiddish is a Germanic language, it has incorporated elements of the Hebrew-Aramaic, Romance, and Slavic languages.
German is the national language of Austria and Germany, as well as one of Switzerland's official languages. The term, High German, refers to the German originally spoken in the southern highlands of Germany. It is the language of Germany today. The term, Low German, refers to the dialects spoken in the lowlands along the northern coast. These languages are Dutch, Flemish, English, and Frisian. It is believed that High German and Low Germanic languages separated around the sixth century.
The North Germanic languages are the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic), which the Vikings carried as far west as Greenland and as far east as Russia during the early Middle Ages. When the Christian Church came to the region during the 11th and 12th centuries, it brought Latin letters to replace the runic alphabet. Later, High German influenced the Scandinavian languages as a result of Martin Luther's translation of the Bible.
The first modern Scandinavian language to emerge was Danish. At the other extreme, Icelandic has been the Scandinavian language that has most resisted the adoption of foreign words and largely preserved the Old Scandinavian grammar. Swedish is spoken in Sweden and is also one of Finland's official languages. Norway has Dano-Norwegian and Nynorsk (New Norwegian) for its official languages. In the Faeroe Islands north of Great Britain, Faeroese is spoken. It is a language that is intermediate between West Norwegian and Icelandic.
English ranks second after Chinese today in the number of persons who claim that it is the language that they use most often. (It is also the world's most widely used second language.) Modern German (High German) is believed to rank sixth in use throughout the world after Chinese, English, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, and Russian. German is also widely used as a second language.