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Frankish (also called Old Frankish or Old Franconian) is a West Germanic language spoken from the 4th to 7th centuries by the Franks, a confederation of tribes that lived in the southern Netherlands, Belgium and west central Germany. It is the ancestor of Old Dutch and in some theories the western varieties of Central German too, including by extension varieties such as Brabantian, Flemish, Limburgish, Ripuarian (Kölsch) and Luxembourgish. Frankish is perhaps better known for being the language of the Frankish people who invaded Gaul and formed the early Frankish kingdom, the predecessor of modern France. Although a descendant of Frankish is not spoken in those areas today, a large amount of Frankish loanwords has entered the French language and other Romance languages through it.
Frankish itself is almost entirely unattested. The Bergakker inscription is a short and only partially understood phrase written in runes, and dates to the 5th century. A later attestation is found within the Salic law. On Wiktionary, Frankish is treated as a reconstructed language for all practical purposes, and terms in Frankish are therefore placed in the Reconstruction: namespace, like reconstructed terms in other languages like Vulgar Latin or Proto-Indo-European.
Reconstructing and writing Frankish words
As it was almost unattested, most information about Frankish has to be inferred through later Old Dutch and Old Central German texts, as well as through its West Germanic sister languages Old English, Old Frisian and especially Old Saxon and Old Upper German. Reconstructions of Proto-Germanic words, which are more complete and mature, can also help. Essentially, we know where the language originated (Proto-Germanic) and we know where it ended up (Old Dutch, Old Central German), so we can attempt to judge at what stage of evolution between the two the language was located. Loanwords in (Old) French can also help a great deal.
The following shared West Germanic changes are known:
- ē > ā
- Final -z is lost. It's uncertain whether it was also lost in single-syllable words; the Salic Law phrase shows that it was, but modern Limburgish and Central German dialects retain it.
- z > r
- w:West Germanic gemination: all consonants except -r- are geminated (doubled) before -j-.
- [ð] > [d]
- hw, kw, gw > h, k, g except word-initially
- The 2nd person singular ending of the strong verb past tense changes from -t to -ī, using the past plural stem.
- a-mutation, changing u to o under some circumstances. Apparently, this also changed the diphthong eu to eo.
- Long final non-high vowels are shortened: -ā is shortened to -a, -ō to -o (as in the Salic law), later -u, -ǭ is shortened to -a. However, -ōz becomes -a, not -o/u.
- -ô > ō, -ê > ā
- Unstressed diphthongs become monophthongs:
- ai > ē (a-stem dative singular, adjective masculine nominative plural)
- au > ō (some u-stem endings)
- ōi > ō > o > u (ō-stem dative singular)
- ōu > au > ō (in *ahtōu)
- Loss of short -i, -u after heavy syllables. It's uncertain whether this already happened in Frankish, considering that for -u from earlier -ō to be lost, it must have undergone the earlier -o > -u change, which the Salic law shows it didn't yet. Perhaps -o was also lost, regardless, or perhaps -u and -o were in free variation (as later texts show).
There are also some changes that are known not to have happened yet:
- No High German consonant shift. This was probably already in progress in Upper German by the time of the Franks, but it hadn't spread north far enough yet.
- No umlaut. Old French borrowings such as garir (< *warjan) show this. However, it's likely that some form of allophonic mutation already occurred, so umlauted /a/, /u/ were probably [æ], [ʉ].
- ai, au rather than ei, ou or ē, ō. The oldest High German texts still preserve these, and Old French hamel < *haim confirms it.
- ē₂ and ō had (probably) not yet diphthongized. The 8th century w:Abrogans shows later uo written as oa, and the w:Wessobrunn prayer has ō. The Isidor text writes ea for later ia, ie.
- eo > io had not yet occurred as the oldest High German texts (Isidor, Abrogans) still have eo.
- Word-initial h- was retained everywhere, as in the earlier High German texts.
This leads to the following representation for Frankish:
- Obstruents: p t k kw b d g f th h hw s
- Sonorants: l r m n j w
- Short vowels: a e i o u
- Long vowels: ā ē ī ō ū
- Diphthongs: ai, au, eo, iu
The status of Sievers' law, which caused alternation between -j- and -ij- in Proto-Germanic, is a little uncertain. But there are some clues. Firstly, it's important to realise that the West Germanic gemination caused light syllables to become heavy before -j-. This would have disrupted the distribution of the alternants. However, there is evidence to suggest that the distribution was "fixed" by changing -j- to -ij- in words where the gemination had occurred:
- Word-final -jaz and -ją appear in West Germanic as -ī. That is, a long vowel, which is retained in all circumstances rather than lost after heavy syllables as short -i was.
- In Old Norse, medial syllabic -ij- was lost but nonsyllabic -j- was retained. The Old English and (later) Old High German show this same change, but -j- is retained only after -r-. This is easiest to explain if we assume that it was syllabic -ij- in all other cases.
- In Old High German, suffixal -(i)j- is commonly spelled -e- (e.g. willeo), suggesting that it was pronounced as a syllable.
So it's likely that the alternation was still conditioned by syllable weight, albeit the "new" weight that was caused by the gemination. This means that the alternant was -ij- except after -r-, where it remained as -j-.