How to learn languages – Gothic

Gothic? I mean, come on…

gothic

Gothic is important because it is the earliest attestation of a Germanic language – the family which includes German, Dutch (and Afrikaans), the Scandinavian and Insular Nordic languages, and of course English. It offers the best comparison, therefore, between Germanic of the time that Classical Latin became Late Latin (and thus of the ancestor of languages like German and English at the same time as the ancestor of languages like French and Spanish).

The parallel is, unfortunately, not exact. Gothic was an East Germanic language, and in fact has no surviving daughter languages; nevertheless, it would have been largely mutually intelligible with Anglo-Saxon, Old German dialects and Norse and therefore it shows many of their distinct Germanic features.

It is also useful because it is attested in a Bible translation (which makes understanding far easier). This dates from the fourth century and thus, as noted above, from the time of Constantine (when even written Latin began to display some of the features of Late rather than Classical Latin).

What was Gothic like?

Phonology

Gothic was, fundamentally, not unlike Vulgar Latin phonologically but with a lot more fricatives (/f/, /v/) rather than plosives (/p/, /b/, etc).

The biggest distinction was that Gothic displayed stress generally on the first syllable of the word; Classical Latin had moved this, typically to the penultimate. Thus, in terms of intonation, the two languages would have sounded significantly different. Another marked difference was that Gothic almost certainly maintained a glottal stop before words beginning with a vowel (partially a consequence of its stress system, perhaps), whereas Latin did not.

Otherwise, it had similar sets of consonants and vowels, and numerous diphthongs (although these differed in some ways). The consonants <b> and <d> had much softer sounds in certain contexts, almost like modern English <th>.

Consonants were devoiced at the end of a word (as is still the case in Modern German), but there was no sign yet of rhotacism (switching from /s/ to /r/, which occurred in all other Germanic languages – cf. English ‘lost’ versus ‘forlorn’).

Standard

Gothic had no ‘standard form’ as such, and most of its speakers were illiterate. However, written forms are taken from Wulfilas’ Bible translation of the fourth century (to some degree his writing therefore constitutes a ‘standard’ version in retrospect).

Vocabulary

Key numbers:

  • 1 a’ins, 2 twa’i, 3 þrija, 4 fidwor, 5 fimf, 6 sai’hs, 7 sibun, 8 ahta’u, 9 niun, 10 tai’hun;
  • 11 ainlif, 12 twalif, 16 sai’hstai’hun, 17 sibuntai’hun; 20 twa’i tigjus, 60 sai’hs tigjus;
  • 70 sibuntehund; 100 taihuntehund; 200 twa’i hunda, 1000 þusundi;
  • 456789 fidwor hunda sai’hsuhfimftai’hun þusundjos sibun hunda niunuhahta’uhund

Vocabulary was almost entirely Germanic in origin, but this meant not always Indo-European – some linguists suggest as much as a third of Germanic vocabulary is of different origin (it is thought that Germanic tribes were the fastest to move west from the Proto-Indo-European homeland).

Gothic contained the verb þulan ‘to tolerate’, which remains in (Ulster) Scots thole

Grammar

Gothic maintained three genders and the Indo-European declension system (where noun endings were different according to groupings determined by the final vowel), which was also retained to an extent even in Late Latin, but interestingly was probably already largely lost by this time in other Germanic languages (which retained merely a “strong” and a “weak” declension). It also therefore retained three genders and even three numbers (including dual; known in Ancient Greek but not even in early Latin).

Similarly to Latin in all ages, Gothic verbs “agreed” with their subject in person (I, you, he/she/it etc) and number, although there were no distinct 3rd person dual forms. Endings or changes to root vowel could mark one of two voices (active or middle, effectively now passive) or three moods (indicative; optative, effectively now subjunctive; or imperative). Infinitives, present participles or past passive forms could be turned into nouns. Where Gothic verbs were markedly different from Latin was that they could only be marked for two tenses, past and present (or “not past”) – a marked comparative simplification. Gothic verbs were either “strong” (forming their past by way of a vowel change: e.g. bindan ‘to bind’, band ‘bound’) or “weak” (forming their past essentially by adding -d or -t); this division is maintained in all Germanic languages to the modern day, although the number of strong verbs has declined considerably (from probably approaching 1000 in Gothic to under 200 in most Germanic languages and dialects today).

The Gothic verb sōkja ‘to seek’, in the present active indicative (1st, 2nd, 3rd person):

  • singular sōkja, sōkeis, sōkeiþ; dual sōkjōs, sōkjats; plural sōkjam, sōkeiþ, sōkjand

Adjectives “agreed” with nouns for case, gender and number. The subsequent division between “weak” and “strong” endings was not yet relevant.

As with Latin, Gothic made use of clitics to mark whether a question was being asked – Gothic -u was equivalent to Latin -ne. These were lost in all other Germanic languages.

There is some dispute over Gothic word order, which was relatively free but seemingly essentially still SOV.

Key personal pronouns in Gothic (1st, 2nd person, nominative/accusative/genitive/dative):

  • Singular: ik/mik/meina/mis; thu/thuk/theina/thus. 
  • Dual: wit/ugkis/igkara/ugkis; jut/igqis/igqara/igqis.
  • Plural: weis/uns/unsara/uns; jus/izwis/izwara/izwis.

3rd person also existed with singular and plural in all genders (but no dual).

Character

It is hard to assess the character of the language as almost all we have of it is a religious translation.

Although clearly Germanic (displaying many of the sound shifts which typify it), Gothic is remarkably conservative, probably more so than unattested contemporary Germanic languages to the north and west.

Atta unsar þu in himinam, weihnai namo þein, qimai þiudinassus þeins, wairþai wilja þeins, swe in himina jah ana airþai. Hlaif unsarana þana sinteinan gif uns himma daga, jah aflet uns þatei skulans sijaima, swaswe jah weis afletam þaim skulam unsaraim, jah ni briggais uns in fraistubnjai, ak lausei uns af þamma ubilin, unte þeina ist þiudangardi jah mahts, jah wulþus in aiwins.

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3 thoughts on “How to learn languages – Gothic

  1. […] took at the oldest script in any Germanic language, the 4th century Bible translation into Gothic, to see how Germanic had developed in the centuries after Christ; and notably we also looked at […]

  2. […] Germanic languages are split into North and West (East, represented notably by Gothic, has died […]

  3. […] The first major written text in Germanic is in fact in the now extinct East Germanic language of Gothic, contemporaneous with the Roman emperor […]

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