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Gothic Online

Series Introduction

Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum

Gothic is the language of the earliest literary documents of the Germanic peoples as a whole. The only linguistic remnants of Germanic peoples which antedate Gothic remains are some of the Runic inscriptions, with which the Gothic language shares not a few characteristics because of its general linguistic conservatism. The language itself belongs to what is termed the East Germanic branch of languages, and is in fact the sole documented survivor of the branch. Other languages presumed to have belonged to this group, such as Vandalic, have left no written records. The primary source of linguistic data for the Gothic language is what remains of a translation of the Bible made sometime in the 4th century AD. Aside from a few other remains, however, this period furnishes the only remains of the Gothic language. Gothic may have survived near the Black Sea, though in altered form, until at least the 16th century as a nonliterary language now termed Crimean Gothic.

Note: this set of lessons is for systems/browsers with Unicode® support and fonts spanning the Unicode 3 character set relevant to (Romanized) Gothic. Lessons rendered in alternate character sets are available via links (Romanized and Unicode 2) in the left margin, and at the bottom of this page.
1. Location of the Goths

Precise location of the Gothic homeland is difficult for two principal reasons:

  1. the Goths left no clear written or archaeological records which may be used to pinpoint their location;
  2. they seem not to have remained in one region for any lengthy period of time, being driven to migration by stimuli both internal and external.

From later sources, the general consensus is that the earliest known location of the Goths was somewhere in the reaches of northern or northeastern Europe. This may have included parts of Scandinavia, as well as the northern reaches of modern Poland. The Goths appear to have subsequently migrated to the regions bordering the Black Sea to the north, and to the east of the Danube river, which formed the border of the Roman empire.

From this region, the Goths ventured out in the mid-3rd century AD on a series of raids which marked the beginning of a centuries' long struggle between the Gothic peoples and the Roman empire. The Goths crossed the Danube into Roman territory in 376 AD.

At no point in their mention in the history books do the Goths seem to have been a completely unified people. In the period of their earliest raids, they seem to have been broken into several factions. By the time they became an overarching threat to the empire, they seem to have coalesced into two main groups, eventually termed the Visigoths and Ostrogoths.

Though the term Visigoth may have originated in an embellished rendering of an earlier appellation, Vesi, it soon came to connote 'west'; its counterpart Ostrogoth seems always to have connoted 'east', both terms agreeing with the relative locations of the tribes. The latter tribe eventually fought alongside the Huns as they ravaged Europe. The former eventually pushed its way through Italy and seized Rome itself. Their subsequent migrations and settlements have left linguistic remnants in regional names throughout Europe.

2. Position of Gothic in the Germanic Family
2.1 Characteristic Features of Gothic

The Gothic language has several characteristics which distinguish it from other languages of the Germanic family. The most salient of these are discussed in the following two sections.

2.1.1 Phonological Characteristics

The Proto-Germanic vowel *e1, probably pronounced [ǣ], became Gothic ē, though other Germanic languages have ā or ō. Compare the following forms:

Gothic Sound
Change
  Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
*e1 > ē   qēmun   kāmun   cwōmon   kvāmu   'they came'
    mēna   māno   mōna   māne   'moon'

Though Gothic follows Greek orthographic practice in using a doubled-g to write the sound of Modern English ng in sing, i.e. gg = [ŋg], there are some instances of a true double consonant gg [gg]. These are always found before -w- and are reflexes of a general sound development in Gothic called Verschaerfung, or Sharpening. According to this rule, Proto-Germanic *ww became Gothic ggw; a similar development changed Proto-Germanic *jj to Gothic ddj. This sharpening is a feature Gothic shares with Old Norse. Compare the examples in the following table:

Gothic Sound
Change
  Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
*ww > ggw   triggws   triuwi   trīewe   tryggr   'true, faithful'
    glaggwus   glau   glēaw   gluggr   'accurate; wise'
                     
*jj > ggj   twaddjē   zwei(i)o   twēg(e)a   tveggja   'of two'
    -waddjus           veggr   'wall'

Gothic alone does not show the effects of rhotacism which other Germanic languages display. Through this change, Proto-Germanic *z became r in most of the Germanic daughter languages (this *z sometimes appears as s in Gothic). The terminology derives from the Greek name for the equivalent of the letter r, i.e. rho. Consider the following examples:

Gothic Sound
Change
  Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
*z > z   láisjan   lēren   lǣran       'teach'
    huzd   hort   hord   hodd   'hoard'
    wēsun   wārun   wǣron   váru   'they were'

Gothic displays the change of initial Proto-Germanic *fl- to þl-, which does not occur in other Germanic languages. But this seems only to have occured in the environment of -h, -hs, or *-kw. Consider the table below:

Gothic Sound
Change
  Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
*fl- > þl-   þliuhan   fliohan   flēon   flýja   'flee'
    *þlahsjan       flīeman   flæma   'frighten, drive, chase'
                     
*fl- > fl-   flōdus   flōt   flōd   flōð   'flood'
    flōkan   fluohhōn   flōcan   flōkinn (ptcple.)   'bewail, strike, curse, distress'

Gothic did not undergo the i-umlaut and u-umlaut found in several other Germanic languages. Through this change, an i or j contained in one syllable would serve to front the vowel of the immediately preceding syllable, leaving its roundness unaffected; analogously an u or w in a given syllable would serve to round the vowel in the immediately preceding syllable, leaving frontness or backness unaffected. Consider the following examples:

PGmc   Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
*gastiz   gasts   gast   giest   gestr   'stranger, guest'
*nasjan   nasjan   nerren   nerian       'save'
*handus   handus   hant   hond   hǫnd   'hand'
2.1.2 Morphological Characteristics

Gothic has retained the original nominative singular masculine ending of a-stem nouns, PGmc *-az, more or less intact as final -s:

PGmc   Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
*dagaz   dags   tac   dæg   dagr   'day'
*gastiz   gasts   gast   giest   gestr   'stranger, guest'

Gothic likewise retains the Proto-Indo-European accusative plural ending *-ns, which elsewhere in Germanic loses the nasal, and sometimes the sibilant as well:

PGmc   Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
*dagans   dagans   taga   dagas   daga   'days' (acc. pl.)

Gothic is unique among the Germanic languages in retaining a functioning morphological passive. Compare Gothic baírada 'is borne' to Greek phéretai and Sanskrit bhárate. This passive conjugation is only found in the present tense. The only remnants of such forms in other Germanic languages are possibly Runic haite, Old Norse heiti, Old English hātte 'I am called'.

Gothic is also unique in preserving a full class of reduplicating verbs, the seventh class of strong verbs. Strong verbs across the Germanic languages generally use vocalic alternation to signal a change in tense, but Gothic possesses in addition a fairly large number of verbs that reduplicate the root syllable to mark the past tense. Thus the 3rd person singular preterite indicative of háitan 'call (by name)' is haíháit. Compare Greek dé-dōka and Latin de-dī 'I have given'. Remnants of such a system survive in other Germanic languages, but the instances are few and far between: Old English hēt '(he) called' < he-ht, reduplicated preterite of hātan 'name'. Generally such verbs have shifted to a different strong verb class in the other Germanic languages, e.g. Old High German 3rd singular preterite hiaz from eizan 'be called'.

Gothic displays the ending -t in the second person singular preterite indicative of strong verbs. This feature is also found in Old Norse, but generally lost elsewhere in Germanic. In preterite-present verbs, however, the form survives across the Germanic languages. Compare the following examples of cognate strong verbs and cognate preterite-present verbs:

Verb Type   Gothic   Old High
German
  Old
English
  Old
Norse
  Meaning
                     
Strong   namt   nāmi   nōme   namt   'thou didst take'
                     
Preterite-Pres.   þarft   darft   þearft   þarft   'thou needest'

Gothic is the only language of the Germanic family to employ a polysyllabic dental suffix in forming the preterite of weak verbs. For example, where Old English has neredon 'we saved', Gothic has nasidēdum 'we saved'. While there is a single dental in the Old English suffix, Gothic shows the sequence -dēd- in plural forms.

2.2 Gothic and the Germanic Family Tree

The Germanic family tree is traditionally divided into three branches: North, West, and East Germanic. Of North Germanic, Old Norse is the primary exemplar; of West Germanic, Old English and Old High German are exemplars; of East Germanic, Gothic is the sole remnant. The three branches are not, however, as distinct as the terminology might first suggest. Gothic shares separate features with various languages in each of the other two branches.

Gothic shows several features in common with North Germanic (some of which have been discussed above), including the following:

  1. sharpening of *ww and *jj;
  2. the sound change *ngw > ng;
  3. a number of verbs of the -nan class;
  4. a 2nd person singular preterite ending -t;
  5. the lack of short forms, i.e. non-infixed forms, for 'stand' and 'go';
  6. the lack of a gerund.

Gothic and Old Norse also share a feminine participle formation in -īn, rather than the -jō formation found in West Germanic. For these reasons, and others, some scholars have argued that Gothic and Old Norse early formed a single branch of Germanic, which subsequently divided. This has the added benefit of geographical support. In particular, ancient sources describing the earliest locations of the Goths place them in the vicinity of Scandinavia. Such a location at an early date would surely have led to a period of common development.

There are, however, counterarguments to the close association of Gothic and North Germanic. Among these counterarguments is the fact that sharpening is the only clear common innovation within Gothic and Old Norse. All of the other commonalities can potentially be explained as facets of Proto-Germanic which all the Germanic languages would have shared, but which subsequently only Gothic and Old Norse retained. All other Germanic languages simply lost those features. What is more, the form of sharpening in the two languages differs: NGmc *jj > Gothic ddj, but Old Norse ggj. And it is not altogether clear that North Germanic had no short forms for the verbs 'stand' and 'go'. The earliest texts of Old Swedish do in fact show short forms stā 'stand' and 'go'.

To add to the mystery of how East Germanic is related to the other branches of the family, there is the fact that Gothic shares some common features with Old High German, in the West Germanic branch, to the exclusion of Old Norse. These include:

  1. third person pronoun, masculine nominative singular stem in i-, rather than h-: Gothic is and Old High German er as against Old Norse hinn, Old English , Old Saxon ;
  2. third person singular present indicative form of 'to be' with final -t: Gothic ist and Old High German ist as against Old Norse er, Old English is, Old Saxon is, ist.

Such features suggest the possibility of close interaction between Goths and Germans of the southeastern regions. If these features can be dated to an early period, as some scholars argue, then this casts some doubts on a protracted period of common development between Gothic and Old Norse, and even on the grouping of the West Germanic dialects itself.

3. The Gothic Corpus

The corpus of the Gothic language consists chiefly of large portions of a translation of the New Testament Gospels and Epistles; the only surviving remnants of the Old Testament are chapters 5-7 of Nehemiah. This translation is generally ascribed to the bishop Wulfila in the middle of the 4th century AD, though there is no direct evidence that the translation that survives is actually in his words; the major manuscripts themselves all date from the late 5th to middle 6th century. What remain are references to the fact that Wulfila did in fact translate the Bible in its entirety, save for the Book of Kings. There are, however, no other references to a biblical translator among the Goths, so that the association of the surviving text with Wulfila is not likely to be far off the mark.

The Gothic biblical translation is apparently based on the Antiochene-Byzantine recension of Lucian the Martyr (c. 312), which was a Greek text dominant in the diocese of Constantinople. This exact version of the biblical writings does not survive, though some scholars have attempted to delimit the places in which it differs from the Greek manuscripts on which the modern received text is based. There are also apparent traces of influence from Latin translations of the Bible from the pre-Vulgate era.

Of the codices that contain the Gothic translation of the Bible, the Codex Argenteus, or Silver Codex, is by far the most impressive. The name comes from the binding, which is made of silver. Within this are contained 187 leaves out of a presumed original 336. The pages are purple parchment, though now a faded red, with letters of silver and gold. The beginnings of gospels, the first lines of sections and the Lord's Prayer, and the gospel symbols at the bottom of the pages are all in gold letters; the rest is written in silver. The codex was discovered in the abbey at Werden in the 16th century. It was subsequently taken to Prague; when the city fell to the Swedes in 1648, the codex was taken to Stockholm. After being transferred to Holland and then purchased again by the Swedish chancellor de la Gardie, it now resides in the library of the University of Uppsala. Another leaf was discovered in 1970 in the cathedral of Speyer on the Rhine.

The Codex Gissensis was found in Egypt in 1907. This consisted of four pages containing verses from Luke 23-24 in Latin and Gothic. It was subsequently ruined by water damage.

The Codex Carolinus is a palimpsest consisting of 4 leaves and containing verses from the Epistle to the Romans in both Latin and Gothic. It was found in the abbey of Weissenburg, though it originally belonged to the monastery at Bobbio in Liguria. It now resides in the Wolfenbuettel library.

The Codices Ambrosiani are likewise palimpsests. There are five of these codices, labelled A-E. Codex A contains 102 leaves, of which 6 are blank and another illegible. This contains various segments of the Epistles, as well as one page of a calendar. Codex B contains 78 leaves, which have the complete text of II Corinthians as well as parts of other Epistles. Codex C has two leaves, containing Matthew 25-27. Codex D contains 3 leaves, showing part of the book of Nehemiah.

The last of the Codices Ambrosiani, Codex E, contains eight leaves. In these survive a document, given the title Skeireins aíwaggēljons þaírh Iōhannēn 'Explanation of the Gospel according to John' by the editor Massmann in 1834, generally referred to simply as the Skeireins. The author of this commentary is not known; though possibly written by Wulfila, there is no evidence of this.

In addition there are very sparse remnants of other documents: a fragment of a calendar of martyrs, marginal notes in a Veronese manuscript, a Latin title deed from Ravenna written c. 551, and another Latin deed from Arezzo which has subsequently been lost. There are also examples of the letters of the Gothic alphabet written with their associated names. In addition, there are transcriptions of numerals in a Salzburg-Vienna manuscript of the 9th-10th centuries. A few phrases remain elsewhere in an almost phonetic Latin transcription.

One letter by the diplomat Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq is believed to contain the most recent traces of the Gothic language. It describes his encounter, sometime between 1555 and 1562, with two envoys from the Crimea who spoke a language presumed to be Gothic, or a closely related language. This letter was subsequently printed in Paris in 1589. The identification is not however air-tight, as the letter has only about 100 Gothic words, most of them grammatically isolated, and suffers from many problems of orthography and transmission.

Gothic Lessons

Note: there are great disparities in capability among personal computers in contemporary use. Unfortunately, support for Unicode® and/or the repertoire of fonts installed on your personal computer cannot be detected by a web server! Accordingly, we have prepared multiple versions of each lesson; this set of lessons is for systems/browsers with Unicode support and fonts spanning the Unicode 3 character set relevant to (Romanized) Gothic. (You may switch to other versions via links below.) Lessons:

  1. Luke 2:1-14
  2. Luke 2:41-52
  3. John 6:1-14
  4. Luke 4:1-13
  5. Matt 6:1-15
  6. Mark 4:1-12
  7. Mark 9:2-13
  8. Skeireins IVc16-IVd23
  9. Mark 16:1-12
  10. 1 Corinthians 13:1-12
Options:

Related Language Courses at UT

Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; sometimes courses are offered in ancient languages, though more often at the graduate level. Germanic language courses, except for English, are taught in the Department of Germanic Studies (link opens in a new browser window). Other online language courses for college credit are offered through the University Extension (new window).

East Germanic Resources Elsewhere

Our Web Links page includes pointers to East Germanic resources elsewhere.