LINGUIST List 31.1696

Wed May 20 2020

Review: Historical Linguistics: Mailhammer, Vennemann (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 15-Mar-2020
From: Bev Thurber <>
Subject: The Carthaginian North: Semitic influence on early Germanic
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Robert Mailhammer
AUTHOR: Theo Vennemann
TITLE: The Carthaginian North: Semitic influence on early Germanic
SUBTITLE: A linguistic and cultural study
SERIES TITLE: NOWELE Supplement Series 32
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Bev Thurber


Some features of the Germanic languages can be explained as results of contact between Pre-Germanic and Punic. That such contact occurred is the hypothesis that underlies this book. The authors stress that it is speculative while noting that “speculation has a clear place in the scientific method” (xii). The features it helps explain are distributed throughout Germanic language and culture: in vocabulary and grammar, in religion, and, perhaps most importantly, in the runic writing system. The book consists of a preface, nine chapters, a list of references, and an index. In this review, I follow the authors’ convention of using + to denote reconstructed forms.

Chapter One summarizes the problems within Germanic that postulating contact with Punic helps resolve. Nothing presented in this chapter has, in the authors’ view, a satisfactory explanation in the literature. These problems fall into four areas: the Germanic lexicon, the morphology of strong verbs, the development of Germanic’s strict word order, and the origin of the runic writing system. Each of these topics receives a full chapter later in the book.

Chapter Two, “Theoretical foundations,” summarizes past research on how languages change when they come into contact with other languages according to the model proposed by Frans van Coetsem (2000), which is based on the idea of dominance. The authors identify patterns of influence based on various contact situations and common results, such as how borrowing (both lexical and grammatical) reflects the type of dominance of one linguistic group. The role of bilingualism is highlighted.

Chapter Three, “Contact, location and initial contact,” describes the historical background necessary for contact between Punic and Pre-Germanic. For the authors’ hypothesis to hold, Carthaginians must have settled in the area around northern Germany, Jutland, and southern Sweden at the right time in the development of Germanic, that is, in the mid-first millennium BCE. The historical evidence that makes this assumption plausible is summarized. The authors go on to describe how Punic and Pre-Germanic could have come into contact. They propose two main phases: a gradual shift to Punic dominance followed by a period of koinézation in which Germanic emerged as the dominant language.

Chapter Four, “Punic elements in the Proto-Germanic lexicon,” proposes etymologies for ten Germanic words that lack convincing Indo-European etymologies. Naturally, these are all based on Punic sources. The ten Germanic roots are: +fulka- “division of an army,” +flukka- “flock, company, troop,” +plōg-, “plough,” +pleha-/+plega- “to cultivate,” +sibjō- “sib, extended family, clan, kinfolk,” +aþal-/+aþil-/+aþul- “nobility, noble” and +ōþil-/+ōþal- “inherited landed property,” +erþō “earth,” +skellingaz/+skillingas “shilling,” +paning/+panning/+panding “penny,” and +smītan “smite” and +smiþaz “smith.” These etymologies are followed by a discussion of two Phonician loanwords in Germanic, +ebura- “male pig” and +krabba- “crab, shrimp” and an explanation of how the genders of +sunnōn “sun” (feminine) and +mēnōn “moon” (masculine) and the term norþ- “north, north wind” may express a Punic influence. Although these words are not numerous, they are important conceptually, and the authors believe that the types are more important than the number. In particular, the appearance of loanwords for nobility is stressed as this makes a strong case for the dominance of the source language.

Chapter Five, “Punic influence in the Germanic verb system: The strong verbs,” takes on four features of the Germanic strong verbs without complete explanations: The functional ablaut system, the uniformity of present stems, and the smaller number of available categories for tense and mood. Another possible effect of this situation was the loss of reduplication in favor of ablaut as a way of forming the past tense. All of these bring Proto-Germanic closer to Punic in ways that match the patterns of change due to contact described in Chapter Three. They highlight the possible role of bilingual speakers in Punicizing Pre-Germanic as they attempted to optimize their language use by economizing. Once established, these innovations in the verbal system spread because the proposed contact situation made everything Punic attractive to Proto-Germanic speakers.

Chapter Six, “Explaining the Germanic split word order,” is, at only six pages, by far the shortest of the main chapters. Its argument is that “bilingual speakers of Pre-Germanic capitalized on the possibilities within their inherited syntax and aligned it more with the Punic word order” (137). Because Proto-Indo-European lacked a firmly fixed word order, speakers were free to innovate, and the verb moved forward. The authors cite parallels in Siberian languages and Quechua. At the end of the chapter, they slip in the development of prepositions as a parallel. They attribute both the forward movement of the verb and the appearance of prepositions to the influence of Punic’s consistently head-initial structure.

Chapter Seven, “The origin of the oldest Germanic writing system,” explains an alternative hypothesis for the origin of the runic writing system. The runic alphabet (futhark) is clearly related to the Etruscan, Greek, and Latin alphabets, which all derive from the Phoenician alphabet. Rather than arguing for one of them as the source, as is commonly done, the authors propose that the futhark derives directly from the Phoenician alphabet, eliminating the middle step. This supposition helps explain the runes’ names, forms, and order in the futhark, as well as orthographic conventions and the context of the earliest inscriptions. Much of its space is devoted to accounting for the shapes of the runes and why their order in the futhark differs from that of the Greek and Latin alphabets.

Chapter Eight, “Extralinguistic evidence” returns to the underlying assumption presented in Chapter Three, that Carthaginians lived in Northern Europe, by summarizing the historical and archaeological evidence for this hypothesis. It begins with an overview of what is known of Carthage, then segues into a discussion of Himilico’s voyage, mentioned by Pliny, to northern Europe in the sixth century BCE. The next important topic is religion, particularly the Germanic god Balder, who, the authors argue, is a refiguration of the Phoenician god Ba’l. Then, there is a discussion of archaeological evidence for a Punic presence in the North Sea area, including coins. The authors note that “there is no direct material evidence for Punic settlements” in the Germanic homeland (233), but do not let that lack stop them from considering their hypothesis plausible. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of three genetic studies that do not rule out the authors’ hypothesis.

Chapter Nine concludes the book. It reiterates the authors’ goal of explaining the unexplained parts of Proto-Germanic and why postulating Punic influence can help. The Punic hypothesis is able to explain the dominant role of ablaut in strong verb morphology and the structure of the writing system when other hypotheses have been unable to. The authors point to the latter as possibly “the strongest argument, because it is half-linguistic, half-extralinguistic, and… specifically points to Punic” (240). The chapter ends with a call for engagement with these new ideas “irrespective of what this engagement means for the correctness of our theory” (241).


The book brings up many interesting points and possible explanations for unexplained features of Germanic. The main linguistic argument is made in Chapters Four through Six. The proposed etymologies in Chapter Four fill in some gaps by providing etymologies for words without satisfactory ones. The discussion of money surrounding +skellingaz/+skillingaz “shilling” and +paning/+panning/+panding “penny” is particularly interesting and includes some nice color pictures. Chapter Five highlights some features of the strong verb system that are specific to Germanic but can be explained by contact with Punic, which the authors consider “more plausible than an internal account” (128). The brief account of word order given in Chapter Six provides a compact starting point for future research in the form of “the only explanation that has not already been shown untenable” (138): that Proto-Germanic configured its sentence structure to better reflect that of Punic, as suggested in Vennemann (2003).

Chapter Seven, on the runic writing system, is the most cogent of the book. The authors’ answers to most of the eight questions raised in the introduction can be summarized by the concise answer they give to two: “Because that was the Phoenician custom throughout Phoenician history...and this practice was simply adopted into the Germanic writing system” (155). After addressing these questions, the chapter digs more deeply into the history of the rune row and runic orthography. This helps explain some of the peculiarities of the futhark and opens up many possibilities for further research. This chapter steps outside the linguistic realm, and Chapter Eight continues in that direction with an evaluation of literary evidence for trade between Carthage and the north and observations of some religious parallels. The religious evidence returns to linguistics with an explanation of how the names Phol and Balder are connected to Ba’l and each other phonologically.

The big question is whether the underlying hypothesis is correct. Was there contact between Punic and Pre- or Proto-Germanic? The authors are agnostic on this front; they have made a linguistic argument and provided enough extralinguistic evidence to show that contact need not be ruled out. This is a place where historians and archaeologists can come together with linguists to create a complete picture of the situation. If there was contact of the type postulated in the book, as the authors note, “this represents a major watershed in the history and the historical investigation of Germanic” (240-241). If not, the ideas presented cannot be correct, but may still stimulate progress. In any case, the book is a fascinating one that is sure to stir up some lively discussions.


Coetsem, F. van. 2000. A General and Unified Theory of the Transmission Process in Language Contact. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Vennemann, T. 2003. Syntax und Sprachkontakt: Mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der indogermanischen Sprachen des Nordwestens. In Alfred Bammesberger and Theo Vennemann (eds.), Languages in Prehistoric Europe, 333-364. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.


Bev Thurber is an independent scholar whose interest include historical linguistics and the history of ice skating.

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