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Review of  Language and History in the Early Germanic World

Reviewer: Thórhallur Eythórsson
Book Title: Language and History in the Early Germanic World
Book Author: D. H. Green
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 12.1578

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Green, D. H. (1998) Language and History in the Early
Germanic World. Cambridge University Press, paperback, ISBN
0-521-79423-4, xv+444pp.

Reviewed by Thorhallur Eythorsson, Department of
Linguistics, University of Manchester

This book deals with the earliest encounters of the Germanic
tribes of Northern Europe with classical antiquity and with
early Christianity, as reflected in the Germanic vocabulary.
It derives from lectures given to Cambridge undergraduate
students over many years. The main goal is to shed light on
fundamental aspects of Germanic culture and to show how they
were affected by contact with speakers of other languages
(mainly Latin, but also Greek, Celtic, etc.). The linguistic
evidence brought together ranges in date from c. 300 BC to
AD 900, and in geographical scope from Iceland and Ireland
to the Crimea, and the Eastern Baltic to Visigothic Spain,
although the main concentration is on Western Europe. The
linguistic material comes from all the Germanic languages
with the exception of Frisian, whose written tradition is
too late for the chosen timespan. There is also relatively
little emphasis on Old Norse-Icelandic (12th-14th
centuries). Non-English words are usually glossed, but the
author assumes a broad familiarity with the languages under
discussion, as well as the traditional dialectal division
into East Germanic (Gothic), North Germanic (Old Norse-
Icelandic) and West Germanic (Old High German, Old Saxon and
Old English). The author is evidently best acquainted with
Old High German (OHG) of all the old Germanic languages, and
often gives Common Germanic forms in their OHG guise for
practical reasons (rather than in a reconstructed Proto-
Germanic form). Throughout, the Latin words *Germania* and
*Germani* are used of the Germanic linguistic area and the
speakers of Germanic languages to avoid confusion with
modern Germany and Germans.

The book is divided into three parts, each consisting
of seven chapters: I. The Germanic world (pp. 11-140), II.
Contact with the non-Germanic world (pp. 143-270), and III.
Contact with Christianity (pp. 273-391). The book begins
with a General introduction (pp. 1-8), and at the back are
Guide to further reading in English (pp. 392-397),
Bibliography (pp. 398-424) and Index of words (pp. 425-444),
containing lexical items from the individual Germanic
languages, as well as from Greek and Latin. This paperback
edition is intended primarily for students who may not have
enough German to cope with the large number of works written
in this language, given in the main bibliography, so that
the separate list of English contributions seems
appropriate. As the author states, however, knowledge of
German is essential in this field, and ''will open the doors
to a treasure-house of scholarship not available in
English'' (p. 392). In fact, it is difficult to imagine how
anyone lacking a reasonably good grasp of both old and
modern Germanic languages could profit from this book at
all. One marvels at the sophistication of the Cambridge
undergraduates who were originally exposed to the lectures
on which the book is based.

Part I: The Germanic World (chapters 1-7).

Ch. 1 (Religion) treats the religious vocabulary of the
Germani, in particular words for the divine powers the
Germanic tribes worshipped, the pagan place of worship and
the priest in charge of the ritual performed there. The main
source of this evidence is (somewhat unusually for this
book) the Old Norse-Icelandic tradition.

Ch. 2 (Law) explores the Germanic terms for law and legal
institutions, especially the legal assembly *thing*,
originally meaning 'time', then 'time when the assembly was
held', and finally 'place where the assembly was held'. The
author remarks that the word still occurs in Danish and
Norwegian (p. 37) but fails to mention that it has been used
in Iceland since AD 930, when *althingi* 'parliament' was
established there. Among interesting legal concepts is the
term for legal freedom, *fri:hals*, literally 'free neck',
implying that a free man in the old Germania was the 'master
of his own neck'.

In order to appreciate the discussion in ch. 3 (Kinship) it
is crucial to understand that kindreds constituted the basic
unity of Germanic society, providing legal support and
protection, in particular by means of blood-vengeance and
the prosecution of feud. (Unfortunately, there is no
discussion of the Old Icelandic family sagas, the most
extensive source of evidence on this topic.) The terms which
had their home in the strict sense of blood-relationship
include the words for 'kinsman' and 'kindred' (the latter
being derived from a word meaning 'self', 'own').

Warfare, the topic of ch. 4, was central to life in
Germania, so that the unmarked status of an adult male was
that of a warrior. This chapter reviews the pragmatic
aspects of Germanic warfare, focusing on terms for battle
equipment and methods of combat, as well as the vocabulary
relating to the religious dimensions to fighting. There is
an interesting excursus on personal names containing
elements connected with warfare.

Ch. 5. (People and army) concentrates on three Germanic
words for 'people', each one of which also had a military
function (OHG *heri* 'army at large', *folk* 'constituent
formation of the army', and *liuti* '(male) adults, those
whose coming of age equipped them for service in the army').
These three words must be seen in their interplay which
testifies to complex military, political and legal changes
in the Germania.

Ch. 6. (Lordship) explores three terms for the 'lord' in
Germanic, with their chronological sequence and the
historical changes which underlie it.

The other force threatening the kindred was the kingship,
the subject of ch. 7. The focus is on the usage of the three
Germanic terms for king (Goth. *�iudans*, OHG *truhtin*,
*kunig*) and their chronological sequence. In addition, an
important term from the sphere of overlordship is
considered: the state (OGH *rihhi*), literally 'power,
authority', but also 'the geographical area in which such
authority is exercised'. The word is derived from an
adjective meaning 'powerful, exercising authority', borrowed
at an early stage from Celtic.

Part II: Contact with the non-Germanic world (chapters 8-

Ch. 8 (Contact with the Celts) deals first with the
relatively few loanwords from Germanic to Celtic (and
Latin). The best known is the word for 'breeches', trousers
not being a traditional garment among the Celts and Romans.
Much more important are the loanwords from Celtic to
Germanic, e.g. 'iron', 'wire', 'breastplate', and the word
reflected in English *oath*, originally meaning 'walk,
going', with the implicit idea of ceremonially going to an

The Goths were the first East Germanic tribe to move to the
Black Sea from the Baltic. Their presence is attested at the
mouth of the Danube about 200 BC. The migration of the Goths
is the topic of ch. 9, with a discussion of confirmatory
evidence from both linguistics and archeology.

Ch. 10 (Germanic loanwords in Latin) covers two periods,
before and after AD 400. The reason for this division is
that before 400 the unity of the Roman Empire would have
enabled a loanword to spread throughout the Latin-speaking
world, but after 400 the collapse of imperial unity
resulting from the barbarian invasions made that impossible
so that as a consequence linguistic contacts remained more
isolated at separate points.

Latin loanwords in Germanic, treated in ch. 11, are much
more numerous than the Germanic ones in Latin. The loanwords
in Gothic mainly concern military service, trade, and the
word for 'wine'. The evidence of Old High German and Old
English covers a far wider range of cultural categories.

Ch. 12 (Trade and warfare with the Romans) considers, first,
what the Romans and the Germani has to offer each other
commercially, and secondly, the reciprocity underlying the
encounter between the Romans and the Germani in warfare. To
the presence of Germanic loanwords from these fields in
Latin there corresponds a greater number of Latin words in

Ch. 13 treats the Germanic names of days of the week. The
Germanic tribes reckoned the passing of time by nights,
basing themselves on the state of the moon. By contrast the
Romans reckoned by days and it was largely from them that
the Germani adopted this method, as well as the idea of a
seven-day week and some of the names for days of the week.
This adoption is a manifestation of early legal, military
and above all trading contacts with the Romans.

Ch. 14 (The vocabulary of writing) discusses the sources
(all of Mediterranean origin) of the introduction of writing
to Germania: runes, Rome and Christianity. Runes were a
typically Germanic mode of writing (the word means 'secret,
secret knowledge, magic'), derived from a northern Italic
script. The earliest runic inscriptions date from the second
century AD, and runes were used in Scandinavia until the
11th century and even longer. The post-runic vocabulary can
be divided into two separate parts: preceding and following
the coming of Christianity to Northern Europe. A special
Gothic script was devised by Bishop Wulfila, who translated
the Greek bible into Gothic in the late 4th century, but the
Roman script was employed elsewhere in Germania.

Part III: Contact with Christianity (chapters 16-21)

Ch. 15 (Problems of Christianisation) addresses the question
how far the early Church was ready to make use of various
languages in translating the bible and in the liturgy, as
speakers of these languages each time faced the problem of
devising a vocabulary for the new message. Latin was
dominant in the West, but Greek was never a centralising
factor in the same sense in the East (hence the early
translation from Greek into Gothic, as well as Slavonic,
Armenian and Georgian).

The linguistic aspect of ch. 16 (The influence of provincial
Roman Christianity) is confined to four Christian loanwords
which probably entered Germania from Gaul: 'church',
'bishop', 'sacrifice' and 'almsgiving' (interestingly, one
of the earliest Christian terms to find its way into

As stated in ch. 17 (The influence of Gothic), Bishop
Wulfila's translation of the Greek bible into Gothic
provided the linguistic basis for the spread of Christianity
to other East Germanic tribes. Furthermore, there is
evidence for Gothic linguistic influence on Old High German
(Bavarian). The situation is puzzling, however, in that
there is no historical evidence for a Gothic mission in
Southern Germany.

Ch. 18 (The influence of the Merovingian Franks) deals with
the Irish mission in Francia and in Southern Germany, where
effects on the vocabulary have been proposed, and a Frankish
mission east of the Rhine. While direct evidence for Irish
influence is negligible, the Irish may have supplied the
spiritual impetus for the mission.

Ch. 19 (The influence of the Anglo-Saxons) states that the
Anglo-Saxon mission on the continent (late 7th-early 9th
centuries) was probably inspired by the Irish model.
Arguably, any possible transmission of Irish loanwords to
continental West Germanic may just as well be due to Anglo-
Saxon mediation as to the Irish themselves.

Ch. 20 (Contrasts in Christian vocabulary) focuses on the
contrast between the north and the south of the continental
Germania. Old English terms could gain acceptance in Old
Saxon and Franconian, but much less easily in Upper (South)
German, while many Christian terms originally at home in the
south only later spread northwards, largely defeating their
northern rivals.

Ch. 21 (The vocabulary of ethics and fate) sheds light on
the double linguistic task in the conversion of the Germania
which consisted, first, in showing that its own terms for
moral qualities expressed obligations towards the new god,
and secondly, in devising vernacular equivalents for
qualities often unknown to Germani as moral imperatives
(e.g. humility, forgiveness).

In a sense, this book is in line with works such as
Jackson's (1953) penetrating study of the linguistic aspects
of Celtic culture in Britain (whose title it emulates), and
Benveniste's (1973) monumental exposition of the vocabulary
of Indo-European culture and society in general. As the book
is derived from lectures given to university students,
however, it makes no claim to ''advance the frontiers of
knowledge'' (p. ix), but seeks instead to present a broad
survey of its subject matter, which is currently often
neglected. It contains the kind of ''background material''
in etymology and culture history every student of Germanic
linguistics ''ought to know''. Nevertheless, the book
displays a certain degree of originality in the arrangement
of the linguistic material, correlating it with historical
findings to illustrate the encounter of the early Germanic
tribes with Rome and Christianity. In my view, the
particular importance of this work is to illustrate that
there is a lot more to historical linguistics than
establishing that ''A became B'' at a given point in the
history of a particular language. Although a precise
linguistic analysis of the vocabulary is the prerequisite
for an appreciation of its cultural significance, lexical
items are not really very interesting unless they are
considered in their social context. The author succeeds in
presenting a coherent picture of the often diffuse
information buried in journals, grammar books and
etymological dictionaries, whose significance only becomes
clear when studied in a wider perspective. He demonstrates
that historical linguistics and philology must take
historical evidence into account in order to make sense of
their findings. In turn, he also shows how semantics and
loanword studies can provide important clues for historians
and archeologists of the relevant periods. The
sociolinguistic picture which emerges testifies to the
complex external forces which have shaped the Germanic
languages in the course of their history.

The facts presented are accurate, as far as I can tell,
with minor exceptions (e.g. in the discussion of the
vocabulary of writing, ch. 14). In my opinion, the only real
drawback of this book is its insufficient consideration of
the North Germanic linguistic evidence, in particular that
of the runic inscriptions of Scandinavia (cf. Nielsen 2000,
Sawyer 2000) and the Old Norse-Icelandic literature. This is
partly excusable, however, given the chosen timespan (300 BC
to AD 900). The focus is almost exclusively on etymology and
word history, with little attention to phonological or
morphological details. This should make the book more
accessible to non-specialist readers, but the danger is that
they will be bewildered by the amount of linguistic
knowledge taken for granted. As stated above, the author
presupposes broad familiarity with the old Germanic
languages and literary traditions, and with the Classical
(Greek and Latin) tradition. In order to fully appreciate
the discussion I suspect that the reader must have a
schooling in Germanic historical grammar and the outlines of
Germanic dialect geography (for the latter, see Nielsen
1989, 2000). The book is suited for advanced students in
historical Germanic linguistics and philology, for whom
it is bound to be an indispensable reference tool.
For specialist and non-specialist readers alike this book
provides a state-of-the-art overview of the external history
of Old Germanic.

Benveniste, Emile. 1973. Indo-European Language and Society
(English translation by Elizabeth Palmer). London: Faber and
Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. 1953. Language and History in
Early Britain. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh.
Nielsen, Hans Frede. 1989. The Germanic Languages. Origins
and Early Dialectal Interrelations. Tuscaloosa: University
of Alabama Press.
Nielsen, Hans Frede. 2000. The Early Runic Language of
Scandinavia. Studies in Germanic Dialect Geography.
Heidelberg: C. Winter.
Sawyer, Birgit. 2000. The Viking-Age Rune-Stones. Custom and
Commemoration in Early Medieval Scandinavia. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Thorhallur Eythorsson is Research Fellow in Linguistics at
the University of Manchester. His main research areas
include historical linguistics, diachronic generative
syntax, Gothic, Icelandic, and runic inscriptions.