Episode 31: Saxons, Franks and Other West Germans

During the period of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, the West Germanic tribes of northern Europe continued to fight for power against the Romans and against each other. This period saw the emergence of the High German dialects, the creation of the Frankish Empire, and the decline of the continental Saxons.  We explore the linguistic consequences of these events. We then examine many of the Frankish words which passed into French, and then into English.


32 thoughts on “Episode 31: Saxons, Franks and Other West Germans

      • The one about “surrender” and “abandon” being from the French, that you said you wouldn’t make–but of course did.
        That sort of slam became popular when France didn’t follow the US into Iraq back in 2003, when “French fries” became “freedom fries,” and when the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” became popular. That role had been assigned to the Italians until, I believe, the popularity of “The Godfather” movies catapulted the Italians into the bad-ass category. I find it interesting that this trope is so pervasive that even a thoughtful and knowledgeable person such as you will drop it into an otherwise brilliant podcast.

        • Got it. In the episode, I stated that I could make a cheap joke about the fact that ‘surrender’ came from French, but I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t really consider that a joke — just an allusion to a well-known meme in the US. As I am sure you aware, relations between France and the US were often strained in the post-WWII period, and this became a common refrain by many in the US. It has been the source of many jokes and snide remarks through the years. It wasn’t my intention to ‘pile on,’ just to acknowledge a connection that many listeners would likely make as I discussed the origin of that word. And for the record, I was not a fan of the younger Bush.

          • “Here’s where I could make some cheap joke about the fact that the words ‘abandon’ and ‘surrender’ both come from French, but I’m not going to do that”.
            I ain’t gonna lie, I was very disappointed to hear this, and actually somewhat shocked that it found it’s way into this podcast, as J-P writes above.

        • France is fourth in the world for per-capita cheese consumption. The French military held out for only six weeks before surrendering to Germany in 1940. Qui se sent morveux, se mouche.

        • I associate the phrase “cheese eating surrender monkeys” with something Homer says on the Simpsons. Since the whole point of Homer as a character is for people in the U.S. to mock and satirize our own culture and shortcomings, I’d say consider the source on that one! As for the stereotype itself: I associate it with an American disdain for the Vichy regime–all nonsense about freedom fires aside. Like every derogatory stereotype, it vastly over simplifies something of great human complexity and is, of course, offensive. It’s pretty easy to be smug about not capitulating to the Nazis when you’re a literal ocean away.

          • While you might expect the line to have come from Homer, it was actually Groundskeeper Willie who says it. Obviously it’s a sentiment that comes ultimately from the (American) writers of The Simpsons, but Willie was an odd choice of character to say the line. Willie’s a proud Scot, and Scotland and France were bound by friendship (and mutual distrust of England) for centuries with the “Auld Alliance”. Although the UK attempted to abrogate the Alliance upon the signing of its own Entente Cordiale with France in 1906, the French government refused, so it may technically still be in force today (if so, it would be the second oldest international alliance in history, after the Treaty of Windsor between England and Portugal).

  1. Through 79 episodes, I can scarcely think of a “cheap joke” you’ve ever made and I can recall no overt political references of any kind.

  2. I live in Thuringia/Thüringen. Everything you said about the Franks and Saxons is sad, but true. In 531, the thuringian kingdom (Thüringer Königreich) got occupied by them and our language, or dialect, got extinct. So today, we speak a kind of saxon dialect that belongs to the Thuringian-Upper Saxon dialect group, which is very annoying to us. People from other parts of Germany always ask me, if I’m from Saxony, although there are many (to insiders obvious) differences. Interestingly, our dialect is sometimes closer to English, than to High-German, as we tend so soften or “lose” consonants and shorten words. We say something that sounds like dis instead of das, is instead of ist, or some kind of a, (ä) instead of ein. For example “Dis is ä Haus” or more likely “Dis issä Haus” instead of “Das ist ein Haus”. Looks like “This is a house”, doesn’t it? There are other words, like “(an)datschen”, meaning “to touch” and many more.

  3. Hi,

    the French word “guerre” actually came from the Latin “bellum gerrere” ‘to wage war’. So it was actually the Latin verb “gerrere” that became the French noun “guerre”.



    • Hi HP,

      Interesting. It is my understanding that the word “gerrere” in the phrase “bellum gerrere” means “to wage.” So it is distinct from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *werz which is typically cited as the root of “guerre.” All of my sources (including the Oxford English Dictionary) cite the root as *werz. Do you have a source linking “gerrere” to “war”?

      • “Bellum gerere,” or conventionally “bellum gero,” means “to wage ware” and “I wage war,” respectively; “bellum” means “war,” and “gero” means “I wage.” Thus, despite the similar look between “gero” and “guerre,” they share no etymology. So, most linguists agree with the etymology offered by Kevin.

        “Bellum” persists today most obviously in words like “bellicose” or “antebellum,” but it also provides the etymology for “duel;” Latin had a sound-shift where “du-” followed by a vowel became “b” followed by the same vowel (like, “duis” to “bis,” and “duonos” to “bonus”).

  4. Hi Kevin!

    As someone who studies the Franks, specifically the Merovingians, can you cite your source for the “Merovech = Son of the Sea”. Some of what you said regarding the source of the Quinotaur in Fredegar B-IV is iffy. Primarily that it is stated that Merovech descended from a Neptunian beast which had the appearance of a “five horned bull?” (or perhaps this was a scribal error for minotaur). Also, the parentage of Merovech is stated as uncertain, rather he could have been from the line of the Neptunian beast – OR – Chlodio.

    As to the meaning of the Merovech (Merowig or Marowig) would have come from most likely OLF *maro from *(fir)māren and *wig, which combined in the dithematic would mean “oft spoken of/famed warrior”.

    Given what we know of the expansionism of the personenverbandstaat of the Franks while in federation to W.Rome, and how they were used (and benefitted from) in campaigns, gives a source for the name of the quasi-mythic progenitor of the Merovingians.

    Now, again, this is all educated guesswork, but I have never heard of the “son of the sea” reference other than a couple of references to piratical activity, which was very common along the Low Lands.

    • Hi Erik,

      Thanks for the question. Unfortunately, it has been a couple of years since I prepared this particular episode, so I don’t have a good record for each etymological reference. Here is a link to the Cambridge Medieval History which makes the same reference to “Merovech” meaning “son of the sea.”

      Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 1

      I definitely agree that the ultimate etymology is far from settled – but of course that is the case with many words. Thanks for the alternate meanings.

      • Eek! That is some out-date source lol. I agree that the jury is not 100% settled on the matter, however if we were playing a game of probabilities here, the modern experts (there are only a few) tend to edge strongly towards “(fir)māren +*wig”. I know AC Murray is a big fan of a theory that it was a 6th century folk etymology/back formation for “mare+vacca”… but his is part of a much bigger academic mission that is tenuous.

        For your readers here is a good blog by Olivier Van Renswoude, a very respected linguist specializing in the Dutch dialects (but being a wiz from PIE on to all modern PIE-derived languages). He discusses Marovech in the comments (if need be, Google translate works well for his stuff):


        PS – I am very much enjoying your series! It makes driving in the traffic a treat lol

  5. Fascinating episode. Another example of the W/G pairing is wile and guile. Wile is usually used in the plural now, or as the adjectival derivative (often of coyotes, of course) but they basically mean the same thing. To add to the confusion, the COD suggests wile may have come into English from Old Norse.

    • Hi Nyki. The ‘W/G’ distinction between Norman French and the central French of Paris pops up several times in future episodes of the podcast. I don’t think I ever used the “wile” and “guile” example, but I definitely have it in my notes. I discussed that issue in more detail in “Episode 99: The Second French Invasion.” That episode continued to explore the distinction between the two forms of French.

  6. Love your pod casts. I’m just catching up now being stuck in the house.

    You said Merovech meant son of the sea and mer meant see. Is there any connection with the -ovech, which I assume means ‘son of’ and the Russian -ovich ending that means the same?

    • I feel almost certain that they are related. Unfortunately, I don’t have any sources to confirm that. Thanks for the possible connection.

  7. Can I make a comment about shire/county usage? Shire still exists as the suffix of most county names outside the south east, eastern and northern counties, although not used that much now with Somerset(shire) and Devon(shire). However, it is regularly used as a description of those counties which are primarily rural (‘shire counties’).

    The shire reeve (=sheriff) was the King’s agent (reeves for the shire, but gradually became more focussed on legal administration. In England this has become a ceremonial role but in Scotland is a judge who has responsibility for overseeing the local courts.

  8. Love the series. Thank you. A small point: buoy may be pronounced boo-ee in American English but it’s boy in English English.

  9. I was pleased to finally discover why one of the minor Arthurian knights in Mallory is called Sir Garnish! I had found his name particularly amusing in a pythonesque way, and liked to imagine his heraldic crest to be a sprig of parsley.

  10. I recently saw a billboard in upstate New York that was in Spanish and it began with ’GUAU!’ Which is meant to be the Spanish spelling of the English word ‘wow’

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