Green, D. H. (1998) Language and History in the Early Germanic World,
Cambridge University Press, xv+444 pp.
Marc Pierce, University of Michigan
The volume under consideration here examines the encounter of the early
Germanic tribes with non-Germanic peoples (mainly the Romans and the
Celts) and with Christianity, drawing on insights from linguistics,
archaeology, and history to do so. It is based on a series of lectures
given by the author to undergraduates at Cambridge University, and is
intended not "to advance the frontiers of knowledge," but rather to
"provide students with a broad survey which they could not map out for
themselves" (ix). This is not to imply, however, that this is a book for
beginners (or for the more advanced but faint-hearted). On the contrary,
a considerable background in historical Germanic linguistics is necessary.
However, the book is eminently readable, and has been justifiably praised
in a number of reviews (e.g., Getty 2000, Hugus 2000, Kyes 1998, Robinson
2000, and Salmons forthcoming).
The book opens with a brief introductory chapter ('General introduction'),
in which G discusses what linguistics (more accurately, philology),
archaeology, and history can contribute to each other. The book proper
consists of three large sections, each of which contains seven thematic
chapters and a brief introduction. The sections are as follows:
I: The Germanic World ('Religion', 'Law', 'Kinship', 'Warfare', 'People
and army', 'Lordship', and 'Kingship')
II: Contact with the non-Germanic world ('Contact with the Celts', 'The
migration of the Goths', 'Germanic loanwords in Latin', 'Latin loanwords
in Germanic', 'Trade and warfare with the Romans', 'Names of days of the
week', 'The vocabulary of writing')
III: Contact with Christianity ('Problems of Christianisation', 'The
influence of provincial Roman Christianity', 'The influence of Gothic',
'The influence of the Merovingian Franks', 'The influence of the
Anglo-Saxons', 'Contrasts in Christian vocabulary', 'The vocabulary of
ethics and fate'). The book concludes with two separate bibliographies,
one of works written in English (added to this paperback edition for the
convenience of students), as well as a more comprehensive one. There is
an index of words, listed by language, but unfortunately no general
Part I progresses smoothly from etymology to etymology. Each chapter
focuses on a handful of etymologies, adding historical and archaeological
evidence when available. The following example, drawn from G's discussion
of the early Germanic terms for 'place of worship' (23-28), illustrates
G's method. Old High German harug is used as a gloss for a number of
Latin terms, with meanings ranging from 'altar' to 'holy grove', e.g.,
ara, delebrum, lucus, and nemus. Its Old English cognate hearg has an
even broader range of meanings, e.g., 'wood', 'holy grove', 'idol',
'sanctuary', while Old Norse hoergr (oe= umlauted o) means 'heap of
stones', 'place of worship', and 'mountain'. G furthermore carefully
reviews the onomastic evidence (place names consisting of or including the
names of pagan gods are richly attested throughout the Germanic language
area, including Scandinavian place names like Gudhjem, Gudme, and Gudum
[from an earlier Gudhem], Godesberg [from an earlier Wudinisberg] in
Germany, and so on). To this linguistic evidence, G adds historical
evidence; for example, Tacitus alludes to the sacred woods and groves of
Germania (Tacitus 7, 39, and 40). Finally, G cites archaeological
evidence, noting that there were (apparently) no buildings built for
sacred purposes, but that fenced-off sacrificial sites have been found in
Part II takes a slightly different tack. While the general methodology
remains the same, G here focuses on contact with non-Germanic peoples.
In this part, G concentrates largely on loan words and onomastic evidence.
For instance, in his discussion of Germanic-Celtic contact, G first
examines two possible loan words from Germanic into Celtic (words for
'trousers' and 'horse'), before turning to the converse, loan words from
Celtic into Germanic. Here G discusses a number of cases, for concepts
ranging from 'ruler' to 'iron'. An example of the onomastic evidence
cited by G is the place name Bohemia, from Boii, a Celtic tribe that once
inhabited that region. This further turns up as the name of a region in
Germany, namely Bavaria (Latin Baibari, Baioarii, Old High German
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on 'Names of days of the week'
(236-253). Here G does an excellent job of describing the tension between
pre-Christian and Christian names for the days of the week. Thus, for
example, in Slavic, the Christian names triumphed; words for 'Saturday'
and 'Sunday' were introduced, and then, to avoid any possible pagan taint,
the remaining days of the week were numbered. In Germanic, of course,
this wholesale elimination of pre-Christian terms did not take place (note
also that Roman gods were replaced by Germanic gods). G rightly points
out, however, that pre-Christian implications were sometimes obscured when
words were borrowed; thus, it is unlikely that speakers of Old English who
were unfamiliar with Latin perceived the Latin original Saturni dies in
This chapter, as well as the following one, 'The vocabulary of writing'
(254-270), leads neatly into Part III, which deals with the contact of the
Germanic tribes with Christianity. In this section, G focuses mainly on
Old High German for practical reasons, since a thorough discussion of this
issue with regards all the early Germanic languages would be unwieldy.
He also points out that this focus is not overly narrow, thanks to the
broad range of external influences on Old High German, as well as the
influence of Old High German itself on the other early Germanic languages.
This particular area is, of course, fraught with
difficulties. As G points out, a number of tensions exist
in this area, most prominently perhaps the conflict between
the need to wean new converts from their earlier religious
practices and the need to retain new converts, presumably
eased by minimizing changes. Thus, for example, do you
follow the Roman practice of generally permitting pre-
Christian practices to continue, or do you take the more
proactive stance of Boniface and cut down the Frisians'
sacred tree (and, incidentally, get beheaded for doing so)?
There are also a number of linguistic difficulties,
including the need for new terminology.
The chapters involving the various sources of Christian influence are
particularly well-done; there are four in all, discussing the influence of
Roman Christianity, the Goths, the Merovingian Franks, and the
Anglo-Saxons, respectively. Thus, in the chapter on Gothic, G discusses a
number of possible and definite loan words from Gothic into Old High
German, beginning with Old High German phaffo 'priest' (now replaced in
Modern German by Priester; its descendant, Pfaffe, is pejorative),
ultimately derived from Greek papas (Latin papa), as well as Bavarian
dialect words for days of the week. In these chapters, G is careful in
making his claims. Thus, while he rejects the idea of a Gothic mission,
he admits possible Gothic influence on Old High German. This general idea
crops up again in the chapter on the influence of the Merovingian Franks,
where G dismisses the idea that an Irish mission took place, but suggests
that there was indirect Irish influence.
There are bound to be quibbles with a work of this magnitude, and this
book is no exception. G draws his linguistic data mostly from Gothic, Old
High German, and Old English; Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old Low Franconian
receive much less attention. This limited view is somewhat unfortunate,
particularly in the case of Old Saxon, as the Old Saxon Heliand exhibits a
number of fascinating pre- Christian elements in the Christ story (c.f.
Murphy 1989, 1991, Cathey 1995). Along these lines, there is some trouble
with the words listed under "Old Low Franconian" in the index, as none of
these words are actually attested in the (admittedly limited) Old Low
Franconian corpus (Kyes 1998).
G also sometimes adheres too closely to older scholarship for my liking.
A case in point is his discussion of the Germanic word for 'rune'. The
traditional etymology for this word, attested as Gothic ruuna [uu= long u]
'mystery, secret, counsel', Old Norse ruun 'secret, magic sign, rune', Old
Saxon/Old High German ruuna 'confidential talk, advice', relies on the
(presumably) magical nature of the runes to make the connection (thus
Grimm 1821, Lehmann 1986, and Kluge/Seebold 1995, among others). Fell
(1991), however, argues that the traditional etymology needs to be
rethought, pointing out that the adjectives most commonly used to modify
the Old English form geryne are halig 'holy' and gaestlic 'spiritual'.
Fell furthermore argues that "the various forms of geryne are not used for
pagan belief... [but for] the 'mystery' of Easter, of baptism, of the
sacrament, of the Trinity, the Incarnation....The geryne are those of God
or the Savior" (Fell 1991: 206). This leads Fell to the conclusion that
Old English ruun can only be translated as 'mystery' in the theological
sense-- a usage found in some (older) English Bible translations, e.g.,
"Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of
the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4: 1, King James Version). G
unfortunately does not discuss this claim, suggesting only that "a
general, non-technical usage needs to be distinguished from a specialized
runic function" (255).
I also wonder about the possible audience for this book. As indicated
above, this is certainly not a book for the beginner. G assumes
considerable background knowledge on the part of the reader, often using
terms and concepts that may be unfamiliar to the beginner without
explaining them (e.g., e2, stem classes, and so on). Quotations are
normally paraphrased, not glossed, regardless of the source language, thus
requiring at least a working knowledge of Latin and the early Germanic
These are relatively minor complaints, however. This book is a major
contribution to the field, and, while I would be somewhat hesitant to use
it as a primary textbook, it would be extremely useful as supplementary
reading in a number of graduate level courses in Germanic linguistics,
history, and culture.
Cathey, James E. 1995. Give us this day our daily rad.
Journal of English and Germanic Philology 94: 157-175.
Fell, Christine E. 1991. Runes and semantics. In: Old English runes and
their continental background. Edited by Alfred Bammesberger.
Heidelberg: Carl Winter. Pp. 195- 229.
Getty, Michael. 2000. Review of Green 1998. Anthropological Linguistics
Grimm, Wilhelm. 1821. Ueber deutsche Runen. Goettingen: In der
Hugus, Frank. 2000. Review of Green 1998. Speculum 75: 470-472.
Kluge, Friedrich. 1995. Etymologisches Wvrterbuch der deutschen Sprache.
23d edition. Revised by Elmar Seebold. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Kyes, Robert L. 1998. Review of Green 1998. Michigan Germanic Studies
Lehmann, Winfred P. 1986. A Gothic etymological dictionary. Leiden:
Murphy, G. Ronald, S.J. 1989. The Saxon Savior. The Germanic
transformation of the gospel in the ninth- century Heliand. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
_____. 1991. Magic in the Heliand. Monatshefte 93: 386- 397.
Robinson, Orrin W. 2000. Review of Green 1998. Journal of English and
Germanic Philology 99: 412-414.
Salmons, Joseph C. forthcoming. Review of Green 1998. To appear in
Tacitus. 1999. Germania. Translated with introduction and commentary by
J. B. Rives. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Marc Pierce is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic Linguistics at the
University of Michigan, where he is writing a dissertation on syllable
structure and Sievers' Law in Gothic and Old Norse. His major research
interests are historical linguistics, phonology, and early Germanic
culture, religion, and literature.