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Review of  The Oxford Gothic Grammar

Reviewer: Jean-François R. Mondon
Book Title: The Oxford Gothic Grammar
Book Author: D. Gary Miller
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Gothic
Issue Number: 31.319

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D. Gary Miller’s “The Oxford Gothic Grammar” is an impressive volume which fills a void in Gothic studies. Not limiting itself to just morphological paradigms, the 692-page beautifully published opus dives headfirst into encompassing every aspect of Gothic studies, far exceeding the traditional grammars (e.g. Krause 1968, Braune and Ebbinghaus 1981). To get a sense of its breadth, a brief synopsis of each of the book’s eleven chapters follows.

The first chapter, “The Goths and Gothic” (p. 1-20) begins with brief extra-linguistic information on the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, pinpointing primarily their geographic location and movements. This is followed by a detailed description of the nearly dozen manuscripts and graffiti, including the Crimean Gothic attestations from the 16th century. Miller spends ample time on the important questions of whether Wulfila’s text reflects one translator or multiple ones, and which version of the Greek or Latin Bible the translator(s) worked from. With respect to the former, Miller makes the keen observation that variations in morphology and syntax are more significant in answering the question than is lexical variation, which can be stylistic or influenced by the source language. The indicators are striking in that they are often localized to only sections of the Gothic corpus, being wholly excluded from others. As an example from the syntax, separation of “du” (to) from an infinitive as in “du akran bairan” (to bear fruit) is limited to the Epistles in the Biblical corpus as well as a single attestation in Skeireins. Morphologically, “fadrein” (parents) is a defective masculine plural though it exhibits unique neuter plural forms, such as “fadreina” and “fadreinam”, only in the Epistles (p. 530). Such variation and localization in structures across the Gothic collection leads Miller to conclude that the “corpus exhibits a range of constructions from fully idiomatic and carefully nuanced to marginally acceptable, to ungrammatical constructions that are not likely to belong to one individual’s grammar, and point to a team of translators” (p. 18). As for which “Vorlage” the translators employed, Miller concludes it was an early Byzantine version most likely coupled with a pre-Vulgate Latin version to better aid in coping with difficult passages in the Greek (p 20).

Chapter two, “Alphabet and phonology?” (p. 21-57) delves into the morass of the origins of some of the more opaque Gothic letters. Miller comes to the conclusion that it is reasonably possible that Wulfila was familiar with runes and “adapted an older runic script to a Greek sequence of symbols…making additional use of Latin models” (p. 25). On the phonological side, Miller outlines the synchronic state of affairs, with digressions into various sound laws which resulted in the synchronic phonological system. He seems to have selected those laws which have either had some currency in debates between various synchronic theories or whose diachronic details are muddled and whose clarity has been the holy grail of countless writers, or both. As an example of the former, Miller discusses Thurneysen’s Law (TL) which has been a vital part of recent studies (Suzuki 2018, Bernharðsson 2001). TL mandates that a continuant is voiced when immediately preceded by an unstressed vowel which itself is preceded by a voiceless consonant (e.g. the <b> in “fastubni” (fasting) where main stress is on the “a”) as well as the reverse as in “waldufni” (power) with voiceless “f” after unstressed “du” (cf. Collinge 1985: 184)). Miller succinctly summarizes the proposals, not coming down one way or the other, but does point out concerns and problematic forms, such as “diupiþa” (profundity) (p. 32). Two laws littered with exceptions which Miller strives to clarify are Breaking (p. 36-9) in which stressed /i/ and /u/ were lowered to [ε] and [ɔ] before r, h, and hw (e.g. “haúrn” (horn) and “saíhwan” (to see)) respectively, and the Verschärfung (p. 53-7) in which intervocalic /j/ and /w/ were geminated when the preceding vowel was short and accented yielding orthographic <ddj> and <ggw> respectively (e.g. “twaddje” (two) from *twajj-an and “triggws” (faithful, trustworthy) from *treww-u-). The former law is difficult for two reasons: it is replete with exceptions which seemingly fail to have undergone the rule (e.g. “nih” (and not)) and it has become opaque due to borrowings of the broken vowels in environments where breaking should never have occurred (e.g. Paítrus (Peter)). Miller concludes that Breaking occurred in Pre-Gothic and remained as a synchronic rule which became increasingly opaque via borrowings (e.g. Paítrus) and words analogically kept in their pre-breaking form (e.g. “nih” under influence from “ni” (not)). As for Verschärfung, a myriad of proposals in which one size fits all have been proposed, including perhaps most famously a few laryngeal-based approaches (e.g. *kauh2- yielding *hawwan ‘hew’). In sifting through the data and theories, Miller concludes that Verschärfung was never a unified process but that the geminates stemmed from a variety of sources. In terms of the phonetic process which underpins this change, Miller follows Petersen (2002) in treating the geminate glide as ambisyllabic which led to the phonetic constriction of the first member of the geminate.

Chapters Three and Four, “The nominal system” (p. 58-101) and “Case functions” (p. 102-175), as the titles belie, focus on the nominal phrase. The discussion in chapter three is primarily geared towards the synchronic system and is not a presentation of the development of the system from the Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Germanic predecessor. This is reasonable since Krause (1968) does precisely that. The discussion is thorough and precise yet clear throughout. To give a sense of the level of detail, Miller lists the seven verbs cited by Ferraresi (2005) which take accusative and dative objects (e.g. ‘ana-biudan’ to give), expands the list, offers textual instances for each, and dissects several of these examples indicating where manuscripts differ or where slavish Greek calques are possible. The same is done for every combination of argument structure, e.g. verbs taking two accusative objects or an accusative and a genitive.

Verbs are the focus of Chapter Five (p. 176-231) and prepositions and prefixes the focus of Chapter Six (p. 232-279). The latter chapter nicely illustrates Miller’s competence in descriptive and theoretical matters alike. On the one hand he provides an exhaustive discussion of every Gothic preposition, both of the nuances of their semantics and the cases they control. On the other hand, he readily adopts a theoretically informed approach to preposition incorporation as the left adjunction of the P head to V (p. 270-1).

Chapter Seven, “Compounding” (p. 280-322), and Chapter Eight, “Nominal derivation” (p. 323-78), are the most rife with Germanic comparisons. In outlining the various types of compounds extant in the Gothic corpus, for instance, Miller time and again compares the presence or absence of comparable structures in the other Germanic languages. The Germanic comparisons make for interesting conclusions, particularly the question of any type of Gothic-Nordic stage or a North-East Germanic Sprachbund. He is skeptical of such groupings due to the paucity, for instance, of *-inga-/ *-unga- in Gothic ⎯ a productive suffix elsewhere in Germanic ⎯ which was present in the earliest attestations of Germanic as recorded in Greek and Roman sources. “Certainly the productivity can be claimed to be a post-Gothic development, but the total absence of the feminine alternant is difficult to explain if there was a special North-East Germanic Sprachbund” (p. 378).

Chapter Nine, “Verbal and sentential syntax” (p. 379-468), is a very welcome chapter which has categorically been missing from previous grammars of Gothic. Miller seemingly touches on every topic, from determining the binding domain of reflexive pronouns (p. 382-92) to isolating the conditions for the accusative and infinitive (AI) construction. With respect to the former an interesting fact is that anaphors in Gothic could occur in a prepositional phrase (PP) and not refer to a closer binder, but rather to the subject of the clause; that is, something equivalent to “he appointed twelve to be with himself.” With respect to AI, the Gothic structure differed markedly from its instantiation in both Latin and Greek in that only an active verb could take the construction (p. 429).

Chapter Ten (p. 469-96) presents a few excerpts from various Gothic texts with detailed morphological and syntactic notes. Chapter 11, “Linearization and typology” (p. 497-521), extends the syntax chapter by pinpointing what can be determined about the constituent order of Gothic. It concludes by comparing Gothic to the rest of Germanic.

The book contains an expansive lexical appendix (p. 523-65) of about one hundred or so words referenced in the grammar. Textual examples and etymological connections both within Germanic and outside of Germanic are presented. The book concludes with a list of references (p. 567-641), index of Gothic words (p. 643-83), index of names and places (p. 684-86), and an index of subjects (p. 687-92).


D. Gary Miller leaves no stone unturned in this extensive new tome. This book has countless strengths, but two in particular are most notable. Its exhaustive 77-page bibliography is a much-needed compilation of what appears to cover the entirety of Gothic studies since its inception with the publication of Grimm (1819). The quantity of the references contain not only the most up-to-date results from rather lively research areas such as Gothic syntax and lexical semantics, but each decade going back 150 years is richly represented. This impressive quantity of sources, however, is only matched by their quality. The citations are not just strictly philological nor do they just embody traditional historical linguistics, but they represent a breadth covering the gamut of linguistics, most especially various facets of theoretical syntax which has yielded quite interesting results since Eythórssons’s dissertation in 1995.

The other most notable property of this book is Miller’s discussion of the innumerable textual examples. Miller not only fills each section with a plethora of examples illustrating whichever point is under discussion, but he gives each excerpt nearly equal shrift in discussing them all. The result is that a person, with little to no background in Germanic studies, can still utilize the volume with much success.

There is little to nothing which does not recommend this book. An excellent binding job with no typos, this book has set the new standard for synchronic grammars of the ancient Indo-European languages. Germanicists, historical and theoretical linguists, and curious historians alike, will all profit from this book.


Bernharðsson, Haraldur. 2001. Verner’s Law in Gothic. Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University.

Braune, Wilhelm and Ernst Ebbinghaus. 1981. Gotische Grammatik. 19th ed. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Collinge, N.E. 1986. The Laws of Indo-European. John Benjamins: Philadelphia.

Eythórsson, Thórhallur. 1995. Verbal syntax in the early Germanic languages. Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University.

Ferraresi, Gisella. 2005. Word Order and Phrase Structure in Gothic. Leuven: Peeters.

Grimm, Jacob. 1819. Deutsche Grammatik: Erster Theil. Göttingen: Dieterich.

Krause, Wolfgang. 1968. Handbuch des Gotischen. 3rd ed. München: Beck.

Petersen, Hjalmar. 2002. “Verschärfung in Old Norse and Gothic,” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 117: 5-27.

Suzuki, Seiicht. 2018. “Aspirated fricatives in Gothic: Verner’s Law, Thurneysen’s Law, and final devoicing,” (ed. A. Ratkus) “Studies in Gothic.”
Jean-François Mondon is an Associate Professor of Foreign Languages at Minot State University. He is the author of a textbook on Classical Armenian, a few on Latin, and most recently on Middle Welsh. His research interests include Indo-European linguistics and theoretical morphology.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198813590
Pages: 736
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