The Germanic Languages and the History of English

The Fjordman Report

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This post is an extension of my essay about the calendar at the website Atlas Shrugs. The seven-day week was probably a legacy of Judaism. The Genesis of the Hebrew Bible states that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, the Shabbat. In Jewish tradition Saturday is the Shabbat, and many languages later adopted variations of this term to denote this weekday. Dies Saturni, the Roman weekday, bore the name of the god Saturn and in some languages evolved into “Saturday.” In the Scandinavian languages, Saturday is called lördag/lørdag or “washday,” derived from the old word laugr which means “bath.”

However, the Jews had no names for the other days of the week, simply numbers. “Sunday” in many languages was the “day of the sun” while Monday was the “day of the moon.” In the western Mediterranean, as the concept of the week spread, others days were named after planets, which were again named after pre-Christian Roman gods. These planetary names are still apparent in Romance languages such as French. The Roman days of the week were translated into names of other deities by the Germanic peoples at some point during the Migration Period. John Lindow explains in his book Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, page 202:

“Dies Martis, the day following ‘Moon-day,’ bore the name of Mars, god of war and battle. The Germanic peoples equated him with *Tiwaz, who was to become Týr in Scandinavia and Tiw in England, whence Tuesday. Thus, although about all Týr does in the extant mythology is lose his hand to the wolf Fenrir (and provide the gods with a laugh when he does so), we can surmise that he derives from a warrior god of considerable importance. Dies Mercurii bore the name of Mercury, who was associated with travel and commerce (whence our words ‘mercantile’ and ‘merchandise’). Mercury carried forward a number of the traits of the Greek Hermes, who was known for his cunning, taste for theft, invention of the lyre, and accompanying of the dead to Hades. This set of characteristics fits Odin strikingly….Odin therefore got the day of Mercury, Old English Wodnesdæg, our Wednesday….Dies Veneris bore the name of Venus, goddess of love. The deity the Germanic peoples chose to render her name was at that time *Frija, and that gives us Friday. *Frija was the predecessor of Frigg, however, not of Freyja.”

In Norse mythology, Frigg was the wife of Odin, the mother of Balder and the promoter of marriage. Freyja or Freya was the goddess of love and fertility. Thursday was named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder whose hammer Mjølner or Mjolnir (“the crusher”) was a popular symbol even into the Christian period. Variations of “Thor” remain in use in many personal names, female as well as male, in Scandinavian languages. Here is the entry about him in the Encyclopædia Britannica:

Mjölnir“Thor is…Odin’s son, but his name derives from the Germanic term for ‘thunder.’ Like Indra and other Indo-European thunder-gods, he is essentially the champion of the gods, being constantly involved in struggles with the giants. His main weapon is a short-handled hammer, Mjölnir, with which he smashes the skull of his antagonists. One of his best-known adventures describes his pulling the cosmic serpent Jörmungand (Jörmungandr), which surrounds the world, out of the ocean. As he fails to kill the monster then, he will have to face it again in a combat to the finish in which they both die, in the Ragnarök. Thor is the god of the common man. As place-names in eastern Scandinavia and in England indicate, peasants worshiped him because he brought the rains that ensured good crops. Warriors trusted him, and he seems to have been popular with them everywhere….On account of his association with thunder, the Germanic god þunraz (Thor) was equated with Jupiter by the Romans; hence, the name of the day, Thursday (German Donnerstag), for Jovis dies (Italian giovedi). Thor traveled in a chariot drawn by goats, and later evidence suggested that thunder was thought of as the sound of his chariot.”

Chariots were introduced during the second millennium BC by speakers of Indo-European languages and constituted an important element in the religion of the early Vedas in India. Tuesday was named after the god Týr. In the early Christian period, from which we have the first extensive written accounts of the Norse religion, he was not a prominent deity, but there are indications that he was a much more important Germanic god in earlier times.

The name Týr or Tyr in Old Norse became Tiw or Tiu in Old English, which was again derived from the earlier Tiwaz (Old English Tiw). This name is related to the ancient Greek god Zeus and suggests that Tyr was originally a sky-god. * Dyeus (the sign * indicates that the word is hypothetical and not directly attested), the reconstructed chief deity of the Proto-Indo-European religion, survives as Zeus, the deity in the Olympic pantheon which has the most evident Indo-European name, as well as in the Latin word for deity, deus, Sanskrit deva and Lithuanian dievas (god).. The name Tyr is believed to come from this Proto-Indo-European word as well, via Proto-Germanic Tiwaz and Teiwaz. As John Lindow states, page 203:

Týr“Týr has lost most of the glory implied by the etymology of his name, which derives from the same Indo-European root as the names of Zeus and Jupiter and of our word ‘deity’ (compare Latin deus); his predecessor may once have been a far greater warrior than Týr seems to be in the extant mythology. We surmise that the original Odin is seen in his fickle and cunning aspects, not in his role as lord of hosts and ruler of the pantheon. Similarly, we surmise that the predecessor of Thor might possibly once have been the head of the pantheon….Some of the variations of the names in the various Germanic languages are also of interest. German Dienstag and Dutch dinsdag, ‘Tuesday,’ are based on an adjective thingsus, ‘protector of the thing or assembly,’ used to describe the war god, and this suggests that the predecessor of Týr had a connection with lawful assembly that is hardly to be seen in the god as we know him. German Mittwoch, ‘Wednesday,’ may suggest an aversion to Odin, but Dutch woensdag and Scandinavian onsdag still retain Odin’s name.”
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According to the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, Thor was the son of Odin or Woden, the chief god of the Norse pantheon. The Poetic Edda is a collection of poetry from earlier, unnamed sources compiled in the early thirteenth century, among them the poem Håvamål or Hávamál (“Sayings of the high one”) associated with Odin. The Prose Edda was written by the Icelandic historian and politician Snorri Sturluson (1178—1241), who was also the author of the Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings. Sturluson was twice elected lawspeaker at the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, which was founded in 930 AD east of what would later become Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík.

The Althing, which is generally acknowledged to be the world’s oldest still-functioning parliament, had nothing to do with the Greek concept of “democracy.” It was an outgrowth of pre-Christian northern Germanic culture, brought to Iceland by predominantly Norwegian settlers during the Viking Age. Northern Germanic societies had regional assemblies called ting or thing already in the Early Middle Ages. Some of the modern parliaments in these countries, the Althing on Iceland, the Folketing in Denmark and the Storting in Norway, have retained this historical legacy in their names to the present day.

How the Germanic language known as Old English came into existence in the first place is a strange story. The English writer J. R. R. Tolkien (1892—1973), world-famous for his fictional book The Lord of the Rings, was a philologist by profession and a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. He was fascinated with the languages of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles, especially Welsh, but also with Finnish, a non-Indo-European language radically different from the other tongues he was familiar with, and with the Kalevala, the national epos of Finland. Above all, he was preoccupied with Nordic mythology and the period of British history in between the downfall of Roman rule in the province of Britannia in the fifth century AD and the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. During this Migration Period, Germanic tribes moved into Britain from the east and brought their language with them.

Harald and HalfdanThe epic poem Beowulf, to which Tolkien devoted considerable time, describes this culture in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. Elements of The Lord of the Rings are clearly inspired by this Anglo-Saxon culture and its northern Germanic roots. The names of characters such as Gandalf the wizard may be derived from Scandinavian examples, for instance the Saga of Halfdan the Black, who married Ragnhild, daughter of Harald Goldbeard, and fought against King Gandalf. Together they produced a son, Harald, who succeeded Halfdan as ruler around 860 AD and later earned the nickname Harald Fairhair. According to the Heimskringla, following a rejected marriage proposal he took a vow not to cut his hair until he was sole king of the entire country. He is traditionally regarded as Norway’s first national king. His successor Erik Bloodaxe later killed his brothers to get rid of all potential rivals.

There is a myth that the people who built Stonehenge were Celts, but this is not the case. Proto-Indo-European probably existed as a living language between 4000 and 3000 BC because it contains words related to wheeled vehicles, which were invented at this time. The IE expansion began, most likely from the Black Sea region of Southeastern Europe, after this. The PIE language soon started breaking up and was definitively dead by 2500 BC, at which point the beginnings of the various IE branches slowly began to emerge. The IE expansion had not yet reached far western, southern or northern Europe at this point.

StonehengeWe do not know what kind of languages the peoples of Stone Age Europe spoke since only Basque, unique among all the pre-existing languages, survived the Indo-European expansion. Nevertheless, we can be virtually certain that the groups who built Stonehenge in England did not speak an Indo-European language. Celtic-speakers appeared in the British Isles only after this giant monument had been completed. The period which we call the Iron Age began in the centuries before and especially after 1000 BC, and there are indications that the Celts enjoyed an advantage by their early adoption of iron weapons. Nicholas Ostler explains in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, page 288-289:

“The spread of Celtic across Europe, phenomenal as it was, happened before recorded history. The forces that drove it are a matter for speculation and intuition, rather than for observation and inference. But if we take the culture at its own evaluation, Gaulish owed its success, or rather the success of the lineages that spoke it, to their distinctive equipment, notably wheeled vehicles drawn by horses, and to the magnificent products of their smiths, especially ironwork for warriors’ swords, helmets and ring-mail armour. A linguistic note confirms this. The words for ‘iron’ in Greek (sideron), Latin (ferrum) and Celtic (isarno) have separate origins, but the Germanic word (e.g. Gothic eisarn, Old English isern, iren) appears to have been borrowed from Celtic. This is unsurprising, since the Celts were evidently the middlemen for the transmission of ironworking to the north of Europe. (Tacitus even mentions (Germania, xliii) that the Cotini, a Gaulish tribe, paid tribute to the German Quadi in iron ore. He adds typically, ‘quo magis pudeat — the more shame to them’: they should have been able to use the iron to turn the tables.)”

Celts spread across much of the European continent, except the far north, far east and far south, during the first millennium BC. As a consequence, Celtic place-names abound from Portugal to Poland. There are also Slavic place-names further west than the current limits of Slavic speech, especially in Germany and Austria. The name of the province of Galicia in northern Spain is definitely a Celtic one while the province of Galicia in southern Poland and the western Ukraine may be so. The Celtic root of Gal-, indicating “Land of the Gaels or Gauls,” occurs in Portugal (possibly), Galicia in Spain, Gallia (Gaul), Pays des Galles (Wales) and even in distant Galatia in Asia Minor. The west Celtic neighbors of the Anglo-Saxons called themselves Cymry or “compatriots,” but were dubbed Welsh or “foreigners” by the Germanic-speaking newcomers to Britain in the Early Middle Ages.

The Insular Celtic languages in Britain and Ireland of the first centuries BC later evolved into Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Welsh developed a rich literary tradition during the Middle Ages and is still a living language whereas Cornish became extinct by the end of the eighteenth century. Breton originated in Britain and was carried from there to Brittany from the fifth to seventh centuries AD, where it may have encountered surviving speakers of Gaulish Celtic. Irish yielded two languages derived from Irish — Scots Gaelic and Manx — that were imported to their historical positions in the Early Middle Ages. From a linguistic standpoint, the most important of the Celtic languages are Old and Middle Irish due to their large textual output. J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams in The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, page 15-16:

Celtic design“In the first centuries BC Celtic languages could be found from Ireland in the west across Britain and France, south into Spain, and east into central Europe. Celtic tribes raided the Balkans, sacked Delphi in 279 BC, and some settled in Anatolia in the same century to become the Galatians. The expansion of the Roman Empire north and westwards and the later movement of the Germanic tribes southwards saw the widespread retraction of Celtic languages on the Continent. The Celtic languages are traditionally divided into two main groups — Continental and Insular Celtic. The Continental Celtic languages are the earliest attested. Names are found in Greek and Roman records while inscriptions in Celtic languages are found in France, northern Italy, and Spain. The Continental evidence is usually divided into Gaulish, attested in inscriptions in both southern and central France, Lepontic, which is known from northern Italy in the vicinity of Lake Maggiore, and Ibero-Celtic or Hispano-Celtic in the north-western two-thirds of the Iberian peninsula.”

In the case of some Indo-European groups like the Romance language or Indic, we have written records of the sub-group parent or a language which is very close to it (Latin and Sanskrit respectively). However, in other cases, for instance the Germanic languages, we do not have a recorded sub-group parent. As with the Slavic or Slavonic languages, the oldest extensive written text we know of in Germanic is a Christian text, the Gothic translation of the New Testament by the missionary Wulfila/Ulfilas from the fourth century AD. However, the Germanic languages started splitting apart centuries prior to this and differ from each other more than do the Romance or Slavic languages. The proposed Proto-Germanic language was probably spoken at some point during the first millennium BC, although the exact date is not known. Eastern Germanic is attested by a single language, Gothic, the language of the Visigoths who settled in the Balkans. Mallory and Adams, page 22:

“The northern group of Germanic languages is the earliest attested because of runic inscriptions that date from c. AD 300 onwards. These present an image of Germanic so archaic that they reflect not only the state of proto-Northern Germanic but are close to the forms suggested for the ancestral language of the entire Germanic group. But the runic evidence is meagre and the major evidence for Northern Germanic is to be found in Old Norse. This comprises a vast literature, primarily centred on or composed in Iceland. The extent of Old Norse literature ensures that it is also regarded as an essential comparative component of the Germanic group. By c. 1000, Old Norse was dividing into regional east and west dialects and these later provided the modern Scandinavian languages. Out of the west dialect came Icelandic, Faeroese, and Norwegian and out of East Norse came Swedish and Danish. The main West Germanic languages were German, Frankish, Saxon, Dutch, Frisian, and English.”

The closest relative of English is Frisian, followed by Dutch. During and after the break-up of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes overran many of the former Roman provinces, yet curiously enough, in almost no instance did they manage to establish a lasting foothold for their language in these conquered territories. We know there were Germanic-speakers in the Iberian Peninsula and the Italian Peninsula as well as in parts of Eastern Europe during the Viking Age, but in all of these cases, the newcomers were eventually linguistically assimilated. During the Early Middle Ages, Ireland was the first country in northern Europe to adopt Christianity. Missionaries from Ireland and Britain to Continental Europe sometimes used the local languages in their work. Julia Smith explains in Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000, page 37:

St. Boniface“Yet the churches and monasteries founded on the Continent by Boniface and his compatriots lay in the lands of rulers who legislated in Latin, unlike the Anglo-Saxon kings. It had been self-evident that fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-century kings of the Goths, Burgundians, Franks, and Lombards should legislate and govern in Latin, not only because they often relied on the assistance of late Roman legal experts but also because they were deliberately insisting upon their role as successors of the Roman emperors. Moreover, their Germanic followers were all, more or less rapidly, abandoning their traditional language in favour of the lingua romana. To issue laws and charters in Latin was to do so in the language of most, if not all, of their subjects, and, if kings themselves did not fully understand, interpreters were always to hand. So the Carolingian dynasty of kings who seized the Frankish throne in 751, though themselves speakers of the Frankish dialect of Germanic, asserted their legitimacy by continuing to legislate in Latin.”

The country we now know as France was called the Gaul when Julius Caesar and the Romans conquered the then Celtic-speaking population in the mid-first century BC. After the Empire disintegrated, the so-called Vulgar Latin evolved into what became the Romance languages of French, Italian etc. The medieval Germanic conquerors left no linguistic legacy except for the name of the country itself, the land of the Franks. The same could easily have happened in England.

Romania on the Black Sea coast was under Roman rule for a shorter period of time than England, yet Romanians speak a Romance language to this day. Only in Britain did the language of the Germanic newcomers eventually become the dominant language of the land, despite pockets of Celtic speech. How that happened is still not fully understood. Yes, I know that a Germanic language was established on Iceland during this time period, but Iceland in the middle of the North Atlantic was totally or near-totally uninhabited at this point. England was the only previously inhabited region where a Germanic language triumphed after the Germanic invasions of the Early Middle Ages. The English language should never have existed, but it does. Eventually, it spread far beyond the foggy and chilly islands where it was born and went on to conquer the world. A thousand years ago, few would have guessed that it was destined to become the first truly global lingua franca in human history, but that is what happened.

3 thoughts on “The Germanic Languages and the History of English

  1. A thousand years ago, few would have guessed that it was destined to become the first truly global lingua franca in human history, but that is what happened.

    It almost gives substance to the belief that God looks on the English as somehow special… 😀

    One thing I find fascinating is that much of what we take, today, as uniquely breto-celtic cultural artefacts may well have been brought to the isles by those indo-europeans. Variations of bagpipes are played everywhere celtic speakers settled (in Brittany a few years ago I saw some local pipes being played and they were fascinatingly different to the “classic” model) and the two things traditionally associated with the scots – the tartan kilt and bright red hair – are found all over the world. I remember watching a program about mummified bodies high on the Himalayan plateau that were buried wearing bright tartans, and had that vivid red hair. The program itself was speculating that they might have been euro-celtic explorers or traders, but I’m staring to wonder if they might have been an earlier group now. Possibly the ancestors of the celtic speakers. Then there’s those pesky Pakistani bagpipes that are claimed to pre-date British involvement in the indian subcontinent…

    Makes one wonder whether the pipes and tartan are some sort of cultural artefact that survived all those millennia. Just don’t let the scots know, if it’s true. It’d only cement their belief that God was a scotsman.

  2. Re Celts in the himalayas : Of course they were there.

    The Chinese record them as Yuezhi (white men with blue eyes and red hair, who fought from chariots), the language is known as Tocahrian (essentially Celtic) – texts still exist, and Tarim mummies have been found complete with long red hair and tartans. The Yuezhi/Tocharians were expelled from the Tarim Basin by the Xiong-nu (Huns), after which they circle the Himalayas via Bactria and Afghanistan. Their descendants, better known as the Kushans, then ruled the old Greek kingdoms of Baktria (Afghanistan) and the Indo-Greek kingdom (Pakistan) for some centuries.

    Its a fascinating history, hard to imagine what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan were among the more enlightened centres of in the world two millenia ago.

  3. There is a theory that the Germanic roots of English in Britain extend back well before the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Here is an article by Nick Griffin (of the BNP) that discusses this, among other topics. Actually, his main reference is The Origins of the British by Stephen Oppenheimer. Part of Oppenheimer’s argument is to note the lack of Celtic place names in England. Generally, when people speaking a different language take over a territory, many place names from the original language remain.

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