"A Lost Germanic Sister": The Gothic Language

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY ERIC TUAN (“Languages of the World”)

Although it has not been spoken as a living language in over a millenium, the Gothic language is a vital part of the linguistic heritage of modern-day Germanic speakers. Among historical linguists, Gothic holds a special status as providing the oldest written records of any Germanic language, making it of particular use for the reconstruction of Proto-Germanic; furthermore, Gothic is the only attested member of the East Germanic sub-branch of the Germanic language family, of which there are currently no surviving members.[1] Both of these characteristics ensure that Gothic, while no longer a spoken language, remains “the foundation of Germanic linguistics.”[2]

Who spoke Gothic, and where did they come from? Current research places the homeland of the Gothic people in the region of the lower Vistula, near the Baltic coast in what is now eastern Germany.[3] As they migrated southeast into what is now southwestern Russia, conquering other East Germanic peoples along the way, the Goths came to occupy a vast swathe of territory; by the end of the third century, Gothic lands extended from the mouth of the Danube in the West to the Crimea in the East.[4] After being substantially weakened by a Hun invasion during the late fourth century, the Gothic people (and their language) were dealt a fatal blow by Roman forces during the sixth century.[5] There is tantalizing evidence that Gothic survived in some form into the sixteenth century, based on the reports of a Flemish diplomat; however, the veracity of the speech he reported, as well as the accuracy of the report itself, are still in question.[6]

Nearly all modern knowledge about Gothic stems from a fourth-century Gothic translation of the Bible; what remains is primarily of the New Testament. The translation is attributed to the Gothic bishop Wulfila, perhaps one of the main proponents of the Arian doctrine, who proselytized the East Germanic peoples with “missionary zeal and industry.”[7] What remains of the translation survives to varying degrees in a number of codices, most notably the so-called Codex Argenteus. Named for its silver ink on purple (now faded to red) parchment, the codex retains over half of its 336 original leaves, which contain the four Gospels of the New Testament.[8]

As the only member of the now-extinct East Germanic sub-branch of the Germanic family, Gothic shares a variety of distinctive phonological and morphological features not found in any surviving Germanic language. Perhaps the most unusual feature of Gothic is the complete absence of umlaut as a morphological process. Umlaut refers to the process by which a back vowel (e.g., [a]) is fronted when followed by a suffix with a front vowel (e.g., [i]); since the proto-Germanic plural suffix contained a front vowel, this process led to the eventual development of such English irregular plurals as mouse/mice and man/men.[9] Strikingly, this process is completely absent in Gothic; while the English and German terms for ‘feet’ both derive their plural by umlaut (foot/feet and Fuss/Füße respectively), the Gothic term lacks any vowel shift (fotus/fotjus).[10] Similarly, Gothic lacks the rhotaicism, or “r-coloring,” that is prevalent in other Germanic languages; while /z/ in proto-Germanic became “r” in all surviving Germanic languages, it remained /z/ or /s/ in Gothic. This distinctive phonological feature appears in words such as “were” (Gothic wesūn, compare Old High German wārun and Old Norse váru) and “learn” (Gothic láisjan, compare Old High German lēren and Old English laeran).[11]

The linguistic conservatism apparent in the phonological lack of rhotaicism is also present in other areas.[12] Gothic, for example, retained dual number from Proto-Germanic, while all modern Germanic languages maintain only singular and plural number.[13] Similarly, Gothic was the only descendant of Proto-Germanic to retain a morphological passive; that is, the passive voice is inflected directly on the verb stem.[14] In all other Germanic languages, the passive is constructed with the help of an auxiliary verb; compare the Gothic nasjada (‘is saved’) with the English He is saved and the Modern German Er wird gerettet.[15] Notably, this form of inflectional passive was only permitted in the present tense, which Shay interprets as an indication of the decline of the inflectional passive in favor of a construction with auxiliary verb.[16] One of the only remnants of this inflectional passive in modern Germanic languages is perhaps the German verb heißen, ‘to be called’, with its corresponding counterparts in Old Norse (heiti) and Old English (hatte).[17]

Another of the most distinctive morphological features of Gothic is the use of reduplication to form the past tense of one class of strong verbs, in addition to the more common process of ablaut. Ablaut refers to the use of vowel alternation to form the past tense of the so-called strong verbs, a feature inherited from Proto-Indo-European and familiar to all speakers of modern Germanic languages (see the English sing-sang-sung or the Modern German gehen-ging-gegangen). Indeed, six of the seven classes of strong verbs in Gothic use ablaut to form their past tense forms.[18] Reduplication, however, involves repeating part of the verb stem itself to mark tense. The classical example of reduplication comes from the Austronesian language family, which is spoken across the Pacific from Madagascar to Hawai’i. In Tagalog, for example, the future tense is formed by repeating the first syllable of the verb stem; Pereltsvaig provides the example of sulat (‘write’) and susulat (‘will write’).[19] As a morphological process in Gothic, reduplication is inherited from Proto-Indo-European, although the majority of strong verbs had switched from reduplication to ablaut by the time Gothic broke off from Proto-Germanic.[20]

For this reason, only the so-called “seventh class” of strong verbs in Gothic uses reduplication rather than ablaut to produce the preterite past tense form.[21] The reduplicating syllable typically consists of the vowel , prefaced by one or more consonants depending on the verb stem; for example, the preterite form of the verb ‘to tempt’, fráisan, is faífráis.[22] Similarly, a verb that we have already encountered, háitan (‘to be called’), takes a preterite form of haíháit.[23] Interestingly, one subset of “seventh class” verbs makes use of both reduplication and ablaut in combination, with the verb ‘let’, lētan, taking the unusual preterite form of laílōt.[24]

These differences from modern Germanic languages emphasize Gothic’s distinctive place on the Germanic family tree as the only surviving member of the East Germanic sub-branch. As the “lost Germanic sister,” Gothic serves as a cornerstone of Germanic linguistics,[25] and provides unique insights into the evolution of other Germanic languages, including English. Rather than simply being another dead tongue, Gothic can provide new insight into our own linguistic heritage.

Works Cited

Bennett, William H. An Introduction to the Gothic Language. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1980. Print.

Campbell, Lyle. Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. Cumberland: MIT Press, 2004. Print (through Google Books)

Helfenstein, James. A comparative grammar of the Teutonic languages, being at the same time a historical grammar of the English language. London: Macmillan and Co., 1870. Print (through Google Books)

Jasanoff, Jay H. “From Reduplication to Ablaut: The Class VII Strong Verbs of Northwest Germanic.” Historische Sprachforschung 120 (2007), 241-284. Web (from author’s website)

Krause, Todd B. and Jonathan Slocum. Gothic Online: Series Introduction. Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. 11 August 2011. Web. 6 December 2011.

Lehmann, Winifred P. A Grammar of Proto-Germanic. Ed. Jonathan Slocum. Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. 19 April 2007. Web. 6 December 2011.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. Languages of the World: An Introduction. Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print (through Coursework)

Rauch, Irmengard. The Gothic Language: Grammar, Genetic Provenance and Typology, Readings. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. Print.

Shay, Scott. The History of English: A Linguistic Introduction. San Francisco: Wardja Press, 2008. Print (through Google Books)


1. Bennett, 1; Pereltsvaig, Chapter 2; Krause and Slocum, Introduction; Rauch, 10.
2. Bennett, 1.
3. Bennett, 14.
4. Rauch, 1.
5. Bennett, 19.
6. Bennett, 27; Rauch, 12.
7. Quote from Bennett, 22-23; Rauch, 2-3.
8. Bennett, 30-31.
9. Campbell, 239; Shay, 52.
10. Helfenstein, 2; Krause and Slocum, 2.1.2
11. Shay, 51.
12. Bennett, 18.
13. Bennett, 17; Lehrmann, 3.2.1.
14. Shay, 53; Lehmann, 5.5; Krause and Slocum, 2.1.2.
15. Shay, 53.
16. Ibid.
17. Krause and Slocum, 2.1.2.
18. Bennett, 17; Krause and Slocum, 2.1.2.
19. Pereltsvaig, Chapter 8.
20. Jasanoff, 241-244, esp. 243.
21. Bennett, 25; Jasanoff, 241-244.
22. Bennett, 25.
23. Shay, 52; Krause and Slocum, 2.1.2.
24. Bennett, 25.
25. Bennett, 1.

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