The Easiest and the Hardest Germanic Languages

As you are reading this, you already know a Germanic language: English. In fact, English is the most spoken Germanic language in the world.

Learning a language is easier when that new language comes from the same linguistic family as our native language.

If you are considering learning another Germanic language, we have compiled lists of the hardest and easiest Germanic languages for English speakers to learn.

In creating these lists we have focused on major languages or languages which have had a major impact on other languages. As a result these lists do not include Germanic languages like Frisian or Faroese.

The hardest Germanic languages

#1 Hardest Germanic language: Old Norse

Like Latin, old Norse is a dead language which means that it is not spoken anymore. But these languages are still studied by people who want to read ancient texts and gain insights into linguistics.

Old Norse is the language which was spoken by the Vikings. Old Norse was initially written using a runic alphabet; later with the conversion to Christianity the runic alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet.

In the same way that the romance languages evolved from Latin, old Norse is the parent language to many Nordic languages, such as: Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish.

Things which make Old Norse difficult for English speakers to learn are grammatical genders and grammatical cases. There are 3 grammatical genders masculine, feminine and neuter, as well as 4 grammatical cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive.

While old Norse has the same grammatical genders and cases as German, it is a more difficult language to learn because there are fewer resources available and fewer people to practice speaking it with.

To learn more about Old Norse, see this comparison of Old Norse and Norwegian.

#2 Hardest Germanic language: Icelandic

Icelandic is a descendant from Old Norse. Unlike the other descendants (such as Norwegian and Danish), Icelandic has remained much closer to its parent language. This linguistic preservation can be explained by the geographic isolation of Iceland.

Because of the close similarity between Icelandic and Old Norse, many of the things which make out Icelandic difficult to learn are the same as those which make Old Norse difficult.

Icelandic has the same 3 grammatical gender as Old Norse (masculine feminine and neuter) and the same 4 grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive)

In terms of vocabulary, unlike many languages which have incorporated many English loanwords, the linguistic policy in Iceland is to create new words from Icelandic roots rather than incorporate foreign words into the language.

A consequence of this language purism policy is that English speakers will have fewer words that they will immediately recognise in the language.

To learn more about Icelandic, see this tutorial on writing emails and letters in Icelandic.

#3 Hardest Germanic language: German

German is the 2nd most spoken Germanic language with over 100 million native speakers of the language.

(The most spoken Germanic language is of course English, and there are some interesting similarities and differences between German and English)

There is no shortage of learning materials and people to practice the language with, but despite that, German remains one of the most difficult Germanic languages for English speakers to learn.

What makes German one of the most difficult Germanic languages are grammatical cases and gender.

Each noun in German has one of three possible grammatical genders ( masculine, feminine, and neuter).

While English has only one definite article (“the”), things are more complicated in German. The gender of a German noun has to be known in order to choose the correct article: ”der” (masculine), “die” (feminine), “das” (neuter).

But the complexity does not stop there. When the noun is used in a sentence the form of the article changes according to the grammatical case. For example the masculine definite article “der” only stays like that in the nominative case. Otherwise it becomes “den” (accusative case), “dem” (dative case), “des” (genitive case).

Changes based on grammatical cases have mostly disappeared from the English language so English speakers are not used to them. One trace of grammatical cases in English are the way pronouns change (who, whom, whose)

Another added difficulty of learning German is that the German language has undergone a consonant shift (called the high German consonant shift) Which has made many of its vocabulary words a little bit more different than those of other Germanic languages (like English).

This consonant shift is particularly visible when comparing German and Norwegian vocabulary.

The easiest Germanic languages

#1 Easiest Germanic language: Norwegian

There are few things which combine to make Norwegian one of the easiest Germanic languages for English speakers to learn.

The most significant of these is that Norwegian has mostly done away with the grammatical case system of its parent language, Old Norse .

The Norwegian alphabet is very similar to the English alphabet, it just has three additional letters (æ, ø, å) .

In terms of conjugating verbs, Norwegian is one of the easiest Germanic languages. The reason is that Norwegian verbs are not conjugated according to the subject. Norwegian there is no need for conjugation tables because the verb is spelled the same for each pronoun.

Learning Norwegian is relatively easy for English speakers, compared to other languages.

#2 Easiest Germanic language: Dutch

Dutch is the third most spoken Germanic language in the world with 24 million native speakers. It is the official language of the Netherlands, and it is also spoken in parts of Belgium.

The reason why Dutch is one of the easiest Germanic languages for English speakers to learn is that Dutch and English are relatively similar languages.

The grammatical case system has mostly disappeared from Dutch, which makes Dutch significantly easier to learn than German.

#3 Easiest Germanic language: Afrikaans

Afrikaans is the 5th most spoken Germanic language in the world with roughly 7 million native speakers. It is an official language of the country of South Africa.

Afrikaans is close to its parent language (Dutch) and like its parent language, it is one of the easiest Germanic languages for English speakers to learn.

When learning Afrikaans there is no need to memorize conjugation tables, because in Afrikaans, verbs stay the same regardless of the subject pronoun.

In Afrikaans, nouns don’t have grammatical gender. In this respect Afrikaans is easier than Dutch.

Conclusion

Although all Germanic languages originate from a common ancestor language (which is referred to as the proto-Germanic language), they have had thousands of years to evolve in slightly different directions.

As a result, some Germanic languages are much closer to English than others are. For English speakers, the hardest Germanic languages to learn are those which have preserved complex grammatical structures which have disappeared from the English language.

PS: you can use our free language tool, VocabChat to record your own vocabulary and phrase lists.