Episode 26: Imperial Crisis and the Goths

Rome is racked by ‘Imperial Crisis’ while strong Germanic tribes gather along the Rhine and Danube. The Alamanni, Franks, Vandals and Goths rise to power and provide us with many words in modern English. The Goths translate the Bible into their Germanic language.  We then compare the Gothic language to Old English.


Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

39 thoughts on “Episode 26: Imperial Crisis and the Goths

  1. Was this the episode with the “you”s? I’m not sure but I think so.

    I was surprised to hear you say third person for you/yous/ya’ll/you all. I was always taught that you was second person and he/him/her/they was third person.

    • Hi Kris,

      Yes, this was the episode in which I mistakenly referred to ‘you’ as a third person pronoun. It was a misstatement on my part, and I have plans to correct it. I am re-recording some of the old episodes, but I haven’t gotten to this one yet.

      • Hello Kevin,

        I’m currently starting from the top and working my way through this so I may be 5 years behind. Where does the word ‘thou’ fit into this context? I recall my teacher saying that ‘you’ is for a collective and ‘thou’ being for a singular. Is this correct at all?


        • Yes, “thou” was originally the singular form and “you” was strictly the plural form. All of that is covered in the Old and Middle English episodes of the podcast. The Old English period begins around Episode 27. If you want to jump ahead, you should check out ‘Episode 54: Pronoun Pros and Cons.’

  2. “yinz” should also be in that list!

    Love these maps, by the way. They add so much by illustrating the broad movements you’re discussing.

  3. Thank you Kevin!
    your podcast is fascinating and enriching and i’m learning so much. i keep coming back to it and repeat episodes to understand the vast array of topics covered here.
    i’m grateful for having discovered your podcast, especially as i was very baffled by the English language, and you helped me understand it much better.

  4. What about the old swedish word Allmoge, rarely used today, but with, I guess, the same meaning. Do the words have any connection to each other, or did they just appear at two different places at the same time?

    • Hi Anna,

      I don’t have a Swedish etymology dictionary, so I can’t really answer that question. If the word means “German” or “Germanic” in Swedish, then I would strongly suspect that it comes from the name of the Alemanni tribe.

        • Got it. In that case, I suspect that the Swedish word comes from the same Germanic construction that was used for the name of the Alemanni. As I noted in the episode, the name of the German tribe also meant “all men.” So if there is a common root, it is probably within Proto-Germanic.

          • Forgive my awkward translation (my Swedish is not the best), but according to the Svenska Akademiens ordbok you are correct:

            name of farmers and stateless people; Swedish peasantry
            Etymology: Of Old Swedish almoghe, almughe, or almogher (“all people”); composition of Old Swedish al- (“whole, full, all”) and moghe, mogher (“people, congregation”, more at “bunch, heap”). Generally, from the outset, an entire group or “bunch” of people. Later there was a slurry of significance, where it was mainly used for all the men of the kingdom who had property rights. As some people began to divorce themselves from the great mass of the population in Sweden, the word (especially in the construction of the commonwealth) came to denote the parts of the people that did not break out from the whole. These were thus the lower classes, the taxable social classes as opposed to the more privileged classes. The original meaning of “nation,” and “the people” were gradually forced away. By the end of the Middle Ages, a distinction was made between the power of the cities and the power of the country. Compositions: Allmogans, Allmogräkt, Allmogekultur, Allmogemøbel, Allmogelöjd, Allmoge, Allmogestil, Allmogestuga

  5. As somebody who’s interested in languages and history, and who also identifies as a goth (in the modern-day sense), it tickled me pink to hear you discuss goth at the end of the episode! Thank you — I really enjoy your podcast.

  6. Hi Kevin! Though I’m a huge language nut and have always been interested in etymology and European history, it was actually this quick video with animation from Ted ED that recently got me interested in the Goths. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STOJftffOqs It’s been so great hearing more details on them, which is often left out. It sounds like Ted either used you as a source, or used the same one(s) you did!

    • The short answer is that historical linguists have studied cognates within the various Germanic languages, as well as surviving documents in the various Germanic languages, and they have determined that the Proto-Germanic language did not have a ‘v’ sound. The proto language had a ‘w’ sound which later evolved into a ‘v’ sound within German and several other languages. (This also happened within late Latin, thereby converting “wino” into “vino.” English has “wine” as an early borrowing from the original Latin root and “vine” as a later borrowing from the French version of the word.) I’m not a linguist, so I can’t really explain the research process in detail. In cases like this, I am simply reporting what the professionals have concluded through years of research.

        • Though it’s not a mystery; in either the case of Old High or Old Low German, the “w” sound began to shift toward the “v” sound but would not have fully occurred until Middle High and Middle Low German.

  7. Hi Kevin,

    First of all: thanks for this great and accessible work. It is real pleasure to listen to.

    I have the following remark. In this episode 26, and a previous one too, you mention the absence of the dual pronoun in old English (starting at around 44:30). This seem to be an error. P.S. Baker’s “Introduction to Old English” (3rd edition) mentions on p. 45 the dual pronouns in OE: wit (we two) and git (you two) and their respective declensions. He also gives an OE riddle making use of this pronoun: “Gif wit unc gedeaelath, me bith death witod” (sorry for the absence of OE text-coding).

    I have not listened to all episodes (yet), so my apologies if the dual pronoun is treated somewhere else.

    Kind regards,
    Willem-Jan de Wit

    • Yes, it was a misstatement to say that there was no dual pronoun form. Another listener made the same observation in the comments to Episode 22. As I noted in my reply there, the dual form is attested in early Old English documents, but it had apparently disappeared by around the 10th century before most of the surviving Old English documents were composed. So most surviving Old English documents don’t have that dual form. But ultimately, you are correct, there was once a dual pronoun. I briefly discuss that dual form in Episode 54: Pronouns Pros and Cons.

  8. In the discussion of the w/v, I began to wonder whether the w in modern German is dento-labial like the v in English or is bilabial as you would expect a w to migrate to. This reminds of the Japanese f. It is unvoiced bilabial unlike the English f which is dento-labial. My Japanese friend (whose English is excellent) tells me that when speaking English he pronounces the name Fukuoka with the English f, while speaking Japanese he use his own. That sound comes at the end of the hiragana series ha, he, he, ho, fu in which the vowel becomes more frontal and the lips closer together finally ending in that fricative.

    I just discovered the series a month ago and have been enjoying immensely.

    • I don’t speak German, but my understanding is that the original Germanic ‘w’ sound evolved into a dento-labial ‘v’ sound within German. I know that I mentioned that at some point in a later episode, but I don’t remember which one.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast.

  9. Thanks for the great podcast.

    You mentioned that the Goths had the word “Atta” for father. I realized that some Swiss German dialects have “Ätti” (I use German letters) as a still used, but somewhat outdated word.


  10. Hi Kevin,
    I love your series so far. I’ve been wondering (I apologise if you answer in a later episode) as you’ve talked about the origins of word Germania how it came to be called Deutschland by Germans themselves?

  11. Thanks so much for “lighting a candle” so we can better see the distant past. There is so much misinformation and propaganda in this Information Age. Your podcast shines in explaining the connections between peoples and migrations. An English science writer wrote a series titled “Connections” which related histories of concepts and inventions. Your series reminds me of his work. Thanks for reminding us we are all from somewhere else!

    • Thanks! You’re referring to James Burke’s excellent series called ‘Connections’ – as well as his later series ‘The Day the Universe Changed.’ I loved both of those series as a kid, and I suppose they influenced the podcast as well.

  12. Re episode 26
    ‘A la main left’ or ‘a la main right’ is fractured French for to the left and right hand – and I suspect has nothing to do with Germany!
    According to your analysis
    ‘Do-see-do’ might be more closely associated with an extinct pigeon than ‘back to back’

  13. Does the fact that the word for learn in German today is also with a z sound and very similer to the gothic word mean that the these tribes also migrated early like the gothes ?

    • I don’t know enough about German phonology to give you a proper answer, but I doubt there is any direct connection between that sound in Modern German and the presence of that sound in Gothic. Gothic was an ‘East Germanic’ language, and German is a ‘West Germanic’ language (like English). German experienced a series of consonant shifts in the Middle Ages which helped to distinguish it from other Germanic languages, so that sound probably evolved separately within German.

  14. Loving this podcast. Felt a bit guilty about getting it all for free so I purchased the History Of The Alphabet and Beowulf on iTunes.
    Just one tiny point: I never thought of Joy Division as a Goth band. I come from Leeds in the north of England and we never thought of Joy Division as a Goth band. It was bands like Sisters Of Mercy, Salvation, The Mission. I know some people will disagree, but I say it because there was no supernatural or camp quality to Joy Division.

    • You are right, Joy Division are usually not seen as a Goth band. They were a bit too early,being active mostly before Gothic Rock really became a genre of its own. However, they do play a very important part in the formation of the genre and its sound, so they are at least regarded as “Proto Goth” in the sense that their music and maybe attitude informed the music heavily.

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