Episode 21: Early Germanic Words

We look at the first inscription found in a Germanic language and the vocabulary of the early Germanic tribes. The impact of Grimm’s Law on the early Germanic language is examined.


18 thoughts on “Episode 21: Early Germanic Words

  1. Hi, I discovered your podcast recently and I’m binge-listening to it. It’s amazingly interesting and well-made!!
    I found this episode to be one of the more interesting ones, and I have two questions. First, why do we assume that the Germanic tribes spoke pretty much the same Germanic language? Couldn’t there have been mutually unintelligible Germanic languages and one language won out over time and evolved into the modern languages? And second, I was intrigued about the pre-IE people in Scandinavia. Do you have references so I can read more about it? Again thanks a lot for your amazing podcast

    • Hi Habib,

      I think the answer to your first question is really semantic. By definition, the ‘Germanic’ tribes were those who spoke Germanic languages. So technically speaking, all of the Germanic tribes spoke a Germanic language. Of course, there were other people who spoke non-Germanic languages as well. Some of those people spoke Celtic languages, and some probably spoke languages that have long-since disappeared. Since the Germanic languages have a lot of non-PIE words in their core vocabulary, one or more of those non-Germanic tribes likely mixed with the Germanic-speaking tribes very early on. Unfortunately, very little is known about them. In his book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,” John McWhorter suggests that this unknown tribe spoke a Semitic language and were descendants of the Phoenicians. Of course, there is no proof at this time.

      For additional research about the Pre-PIE people of northern Europe, I would recommend any resource that discusses the Corded Ware people. One of my primary sources was the Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe by Barry Cunliffe.

  2. Regarding the possible mix of early Scandinavians with non Indo European speakers: I wonder whether geneticists will be able to identify it using the latest ancestral DNA research techniques.

    • I am not aware of any recent DNA studies that have looked at this issue, but it is definitely a fascinating topic that deserves more research. If I come across any studies related to this issue, I will provide an update in the podcast.

  3. I know DNA is not your field of expertise, but I recently discovered that 1% of my DNA is Finnish and 12% Scandinavian. It makes me curious about the original inhabitants of Finland might be that elusive non-IndoEuropean people.

  4. Late to this podcast, but enjoying it very much.

    Wondering if the non-Indo European “native” people of Scandinavia with whom the Germanic tribes may have merged might have been / been related to the Sami of modern Scandinavia.

    Also, if I’m remembering correctly, you say the Germanic tribes moved from their homeland around modern Ukraine to Scandinavia, where the Germanic languages developed. How did they get there? Did they have the technology to cross the Baltic Sea? Or did they go the long way round, through modern Finland? And why did they go there, rather than staying in northern Europe, where, I assume, the winters weren’t so harsh?

    • The short answer is that modern scholars don’t really know anything for certain about the people who contributed much of the non-Indo-European component of the Proto-Germanic language. I don’t know if linguists have explored a link to the Sami. In a later episode of the podcast (Episode 114), I briefly discuss the theory that has been proposed by John McWhorter in his book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.” He argues that these unknown people spoke a Semitic language given certain similarities between that portion of the Proto-Germanic vocabulary and the early Semitic languages. He suggests that the early Indo-Europeans encountered a tribal group descended from Phoenician traders who migrated into northern Europe from the Mediterranean.

      With regard to specific migrations of Indo-European tribes, the answer is much the same as above. Modern scholars don’t really know the routes that were taken by the early Indo-Europeans. In the podcast, I suggest some routes based on some common theories, but no one really knows for sure at this point. Modern DNA studies may shed some additional light on this issue over the next few years.

  5. In this episode you indicate that many of the core Germanic words are not Indo-European. Why, then, is Germanic considered an Indo-European group of languages rather than a language that borrowed from Indo-European?

    • Because proto-Germanica got its grammar system and phonology from proto-Indo-European; borrowing some vocabulary from proto-Uralic or otherwise does not fundamentally change the the ultimate root of Germanic languages.

  6. Wow, that was a major curveball you threw in there with the revelation of the partially non-Indo-European origins of Proto-Germanic! I wonder if the sound shifts that occurred for no apparent reason (P > F, K > H etc) were also a product of the mixing of PIE and the unknown foreign language in Scandinavian?

    • Good question. I don’t think there is any way to know for sure. Linguists can only identify the changes that occurred between PIE and Proto-Germanic. Without more knowledge of the other unknown language, I don’t think they can link the sound changes to the other language.

      • Indeed, there’s no way to know without access to a time machine (I live in hope). I suppose “educated assumptions” could be made based on more recent historical sound shifts that we know more about, but it would still just be speculation.

      • Two things that are consistent about the sound shifts:

        1. The changes kept getting easier to pronounce.

        2. The changes kept getting quieter to pronounce.

        So possibly the modifications were due to speech laziness…

        Or the changes could be due to a fighting culture that modified sounds that could easily be overheard by the enemy.

  7. I found your podcast late, and am working my way through the episodes. Maybe I will catch you up before you finish?

    I am fascinated by the vocabulary that arrived in the Germanic languages from non-Indo-European sources. Where can I read more about this?

    • Thanks! John McWhorter has a chapter that touches on this topic in his book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.” Otherwise, it’s a topic that is addressed in a lot of my resources, but rarely in any detail since the development occurred before the period of Old English. I’m not aware of any extensive studies concerning the issue (though there probably are some). For a more detailed discussion, you may need to find a book or other resource that focuses on the Proto-Germanic language.

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