At first sight, your question seems justified. There is one fundamental aspect of German and most Germanic languages that is almost entirely missing in English, namely the case system (German has 4 cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive). This, in combination with the three genders in German is traditionally the aspect of the German language that causes English-speaking learners most difficulty. It is this aspect also that makes German appear more alien to an English speaker than, for instance, French. It is virtually impossible to construct a correct German sentence without a grasp of this system which is so unfamiliar to us. Nevertheless, the majority of the grammatical structures of the English language are far closer to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family than to the Romance branch.
What you must not forget is that all the languages of the Indo-European family share common roots, and that the fundamental grammatical structures of the languages are generally similar, no matter whether we are dealing with French, German, Russian, English or any of the other fifty or so major languages which are classed as Indo-European. It is therefore not surprising to find similarities between French and English.
Many of the differences between the grammar of modern German and that of modern English can be traced to the loss of the case system, where German retains the ability to establish complex relationships between parts of a sentence without the need for prepositions and additional verbs or subordinate clauses. (Dutch, incidentally, also lost its case system, but remains firmly a Germanic language.)
I don't intend conducting a tour around the three languages, but some fundamental grammatical points at which English appears more firmly related to the Germanic languages than to the Romance languages that occur to me would be:
- the retention and formation of strong and weak verbs
- the use of modal verbs
- comparison of adjectives and adverbs
- irregular formation of plurals by "umlauting" (foot - feet)
On the other hand, the classification of languages in general and, in our case, the sub-families of the Indo-European family, also takes aspects other than grammar and syntax into account, in particular vocabulary. Here, of course, English has taken a huge amount directly from French since the early Middle Ages (1066, to be precise). It has been suggested that English is a hybrid language where the core grammatical structures and most basic vocabulary are Germanic, but where the bulk of longer words (some have suggested five letters or more) and some aspects of grammar and syntax are French.
Phil W. 31 December, 2004
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)