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The Easiest and the Hardest Germanic Languages

English is the most spoken Germanic language in the world, so you already know a Germanic language. Learning a new language from the same family as one’s native language is often easier —but not always, as we shall see.

Germanic languages range from the widely spoken ones, like English, German, and Dutch, to the extinct ones, such as Old Norse, Gothic, and Vandalic.

Below, you’ll find lists of the easiest and hardest Germanic languages. To make these lists more useful, we have limited our selection to the more widely spoken languages, but we have also included Old Norse because, although it is extinct, it is the ancestor to most Scandinavian languages.

Some rarer Germanic languages, such as Frisian and Faroese have not been included in these lists.

The easiest Germanic languages

#1 Easiest Germanic language: Norwegian

There are a few things that 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.

Learning Norwegian is also a good entry point to the Scandinavian languages because Norwegian is similar to Swedish, in addition, Norwegian is similar to Danish although Danish pronunciation is more difficult.

If you are interested in learning Norwegian online, check out this Norwegian course.

#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 many linguistic similarities between Dutch and English make Dutch one of the easiest Germanic languages for English speakers to learn.

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 one of the official languages 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.

Afrikaans is not only one of the easiest Germanic languages, but it is also one of the easiest languages overall for English speakers to learn.

The hardest Germanic languages

#1 Hardest Germanic language: Old Norse

Like Latin, Old Norse is a dead language that is no longer spoken. These languages, however, are still studied by people who want to read ancient texts and gain insights into linguistics.

Old Norse is the language of the Vikings. Initially, it was written using a runic alphabet; only later, during the conversion to Christianity, the Latin alphabet replaced the runic alphabet.

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

Things that make Old Norse difficult for English speakers to learn are grammatical genders and grammatical cases. There are three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), as well as four grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive).

While Old Norse has the same grammatical genders and cases as German, it is more difficult 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 of 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 that make Icelandic difficult to learn are the same as those that make Old Norse difficult.

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

In terms of vocabulary, unlike many languages that 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 recognize in the language.

A comparison of Icelandic and Norwegian shows indeed that Icelandic has preserved many of the complicated grammatical features of Old Norse which have disappeared from Norwegian. This explains why Icelandic is one of the most complicated Germanic languages, while Norwegian is one of the easiest.

Not only is Icelandic one of the hardest Germanic languages, but it is also one of the hardest languages overall for English speakers to learn.

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

#3 Hardest Germanic language: German

German is the second most spoken Germanic language, with over 100 million native speakers.

(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 to choose the correct article: “der” (masculine), “die” (feminine), and “das” (neuter).

But the complexity does not stop there. The form of the article changes according to the grammatical case. For example, the masculine definite article “der” only has that form in the nominative case. Otherwise, it becomes “den” (accusative case), “dem” (dative case), and “des” (genitive case).

Changes based on grammatical cases have mostly disappeared from English. As a result, English speakers are not used to them. One trace of grammatical cases in English is 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.

If you want to learn German online, check out this German course.

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. For English speakers, the hardest Germanic languages to learn are those that have preserved complex grammatical structures that have disappeared from the English language.