Theotisca Lingua and the Frankish connection to Gothic

In the course of the eighth century, three hundred years after the fall of Rome in 410 AD, the Frankish king Charlemaigne considered his people to be the rightful heirs to the late antique Roman Empire. At the end of the eighth century Frankish hegemony prevailed over most of western Europe. The Carolingians had extended the borders of Christendom to the edges of the known world; from the dark forests of the land of the Saxons to the vast plains of Pannonia, from the scorched slopes of Iberia to the once so proud Rome itself. To govern this West-European empire an extensive written administration was vital and the only institution which could provide such a written administration was the Latin church. Therefore Charlemaigne followed the example of his father Pippin in enlarging the prestige and the power of the Church and its hierarchy and at the same time pressed for a better latinity so as to maintain the ideological connection to the knowledge of antiquity. The multi-ethnic state that the Carolingians created and was legitimated by the papal see also needed an ideological foundation which would appeal to the Franks themselves.

In that regard the question wasn’t an easy one, for Frankish culture was ideologically torn in two. In the mainly written culture, which was primarily aimed at the church and the Gallo-Roman elites of southern Gaul, the continuity with the christian Roman Empire of late antiquity was stressed, whilst in the mainly oral culture the ties to the Germanic speaking neighbours were deemed important as well. Although oral and litterate do not stand in an absolute dialectic to eachother, to my mind we can safely assume that the greater part of Frankish society was more concerned by the secular values of farmlife and warfare than the elevated morals of the church. As historians ofcourse we find nowadays more vestiges of the ideological discourse which had a place inside the framework of Christian-Latin litteracy than vestiges which were aimed at the more secular realms of Frankish society. Nevertheless we still find glimpses of what constituted the more secular minded ideology of Frankish identity. This discourse was centered around the age of migrations and its heroes to whom the Franks felt a deep connection. It was propably because of this connection that Charlemaigne brought an equestrian statue of Theoderic the Great from norterhn Italy to the land of the Franks and it may very well be that the Old High German Hildebrandslied was also preserved because of this connection.

But also in the latin writings of Carolingian scholars we find traces of this Frankish antiquarian interest in the autochtonous and non-Roman elements in their culture. In a eighth century manuscript, which in modern scholarship acquired the name the Alkuiner handschrift, we have some Gothic glosses together with an Anglo-Saxon and Gothic futhark list preserved. We also know that the Frankish king Louis the German, a grandson of Charlemaigne, had a profound interest in Gothic history. This may very well be because of the Gothic texts they found in the north Italian archives. These texts were written in a language which the Germanic speaking Franks recognized as a language similar to their own. This similarity propably enforced the Frankish feeling of kinship to the Goths of late antiquity. A glimpse of how this sentiment was felt we find in a work written by Walafrid Strabo (the crosse-eyed) that was written around 842 AD. My translation[1] of this chapter from Walafrid’s book called “De exordiis et incrementis quarandum in observationiubus rerum ecclesiarum” I’d like to share with you because it provides an interesting view on early medieval “etymological science” and a very valuable insight to how the Franks looked upon their own language.

Dicam tamen etiam secundum nostram barbariem, quae est Theotisca, quo nomine eadem domus Dei appelletur, ridiculo futurus Latinis, si qui forte haec legerint, qui velim simiarum informes natos inter augustorum liberos computare. Scimus tamen et Salomoni, qui in multis typum gessit Domini salvatoris, inter  pavones simias fuisse delatas; et Dominus, qui pascit columbas, dat escampullis corvorum invocantibus eum. Legant ergo nostri et sicut religione, sic quoque rationabili locutione nos in multis veram imitari Grecorum et Romanorum intellegant philosophiam.

Nonetheless I’d like to relate to you with what word that same house of God is called in our barbarian language, the Germanic vernacular. I know very well that in doing so I will make myself ridiculous to all those who are versed in Latin if they read some of these things, because I want to relate the deformities of monkeys to those who are born amongst the children of emperors. After all we know that amongst the peacocks which were brought to Salomon, who in many things revealed the image of our lord saviour, there were also monkeys; and the lord that herds the doves feeds the young birds that appeal to him. Therefore may our own people read and understand that concerning our religion and our learned writings we imitate the true knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans in many things. 

Multae res sunt apud singulas gentes, quarum nomina ante cognitionem ipsarum rerum apud alias incognita sunt; sicque fit saepissime, ut rerum   intellectus alii ab aliis addiscentes nomina quoque et appellationes earum vel integre vel corrupte cum nova intellegentia in suam proprietatem trahant. Ut ab Hebreis   Greci, Latini et barbari amen, alleluia et osanna mutuati sunt, a Grecis Latini et omnes, qui libris Latinorum et lingua utuntur, ecclesiam, baptismum, chrisma et omnium paene radices dictorum acceperunt;

There are may things amongst some nations, for which the names arent known to other nations before they learned these things. And thats why it happens quite often that some nations in order to understand those things adopt from other nations the words and the pronunciation of these words with a new meaning, whether this meaning is correct or incorrect. That is why the Greeks, Romans and barbarians borrowed the words amen, alleluia and hosanna from the Hebrews and why the Romans and all who make use of Latin writings and the Latin language have received the words ecclesiam, baptismum, chrisma and the roots of almost all words from the Greeks.

a Latinis autem Theotisci multa et in communi locutione, ut scamel, fenestra, lectar, in rebus autem divino servitio adiacentibus paene omnia; item a Grecis sequentes Latinos, ut chelih a calice, phater a patre, moter a matre, genez a genetio, quae Grece dicuntur cylixf, pater, meter et genetion, cum in quibusdam horum non solum Latini, ut genitor et genitrix, sed etiam Theotisci proprias habeant voces, ut atto et amma, todo et toda. Ab ipsis autem Grecis kyrica a kyrios et papo a papa, quod cuiusdam paternitatis nomen   est et clericorum congruit dignitati, et heroro ab eo, quod est heres, et mano et manoth a mene et alia multa accepimus. 

From the Romans we, speakers of the Germanic vernacular, received many words which are used in every day situations such as scamel, fenestra and lectar, but when it concerns things which have to do with the divine service almost all the words are borrowed from Latin. We also borrowed from the Greeks via the Latin words like chelich from calix, phater from pater, moter from mater, genēz from genetio, which are called in Greek cylix, pater, meter and genetion. Nonetheless in some cases not only the Romans have their own words, like in the case of genitor and genitrix, but also the Germanic speaking nations have their own words, such as atto and amma, todo and toda. Also borrowed from Greek are words such as kyrica from kyrios and papo from papa, which is the word for a specific kind of paternity which fits the dignity of the clergy. Also we received heroro from heros and mano and manoth from mene and many things more.

Sicut itaque domus Dei basilica, id est regia, a rege, sic etiam kyrica, id est dominica, a Domino nuncupatur, quia Domino dominantium et regi regum in illa servitur. Si autem quaeritur, qua occasione ad nos vestigia haec Grecitatis advenerint, dicendum et barbaros in Romana republica militasse et multos praedicatorum Grecae et Latinae locutionis peritos inter has bestias cum erroribus pugnaturos venisse et eis pro causis multa nostros, quae prius non noverant, utilia didicisse,

Likewise is the house of god called basilica, which means royal, from the Greek word for king, and kyrica, which means lordly, from the greek word for lord, because in these building the Lord of lords and the King of kings is worshipped. If one asks howthese vestiges of Greek culture made their way to use I will have to point at the fact that barbarians used to serve in the Roman state and many preachers who were skilled in Greek and in Latin came to fight the errors amongst these beasts. That is why the people of our nation learned many useful things which they didnt know before.

praecipueque a Gothis, qui et Getae, cum eo tempore, quo ad fidem Christi, licet non recto itinere, perducti sunt, in Grecorum provinciis commorantes nostrum, id est Theotiscum, sermonem habuerint et, ut historiae testantur, postmodum studiosi illius gentis divinos libros in suae locutionis proprietatem   transtulerint, quorum adhuc monimenta apud nonnullos habentur; et fidelium fratrum relationer didicimus apud quasdam Scytharum gentes, maxime Thomitanos, eadem locutione divina hactenus celebrari officia. 

We especially learned much from the Goths, who are also called Getae, because in that time they were led to the faith of Christ, albeit not via the right way. They used whilst they dwelt in the Greek provinces our language, namely the Germanic vernacular and very soon, as we can read in the history books the scholars of this people translated the divine books in their own language, of which we still have quite some documents. I heard from some reliable monks that amongst some Scythian nations, especially amongst the Thomitanos, they still celebrate the divine
rites in the Gothic language.

Hae autem permixtiones et translationes verborum in omnibus linguis tammultiplices sunt, ut propria singularum iam non sint paenet plura, quam cum aliis communiau vel ab aliis translata.

However, these mixtures and translations of words are so many in all the languages that the own vocabulary of certain languages isnt as big as the words that they have in common with other languages or the words that they translated from other languages.

Finally I’d like to point out some interesting things in this text. First consider the ideological schizofrenia of our learned Walafrid Strabo; although the Franks and the Goths are barbarians and are likened to monkeys and beasts, he doesnt make an effort of conceiling his admiration for the Gothic bible translation and the Gothic culture. Also it is fascinating that Walafrid recognizes some clear cognates between Greek, Latin and Frankish. Walafrid’s observation that there are also Frankish words which are only to be found in Frankish is especially interesting, although he finds them less important than the words which were build on “Greek” roots. A last thing which is worth pointing out is the fact that Walafrid Strabo during the reign of Louis the Pious considers the barbaries lingua, i.e. Frankish, as the language of the Frankish empire, therewith still ignoring the rustica lingua romana as a vernacular used by the Franks. Although texts like the 9th c.  “sequence of Eulalia” attest to the existence of a highly developped Early Old French vernacular, it is clearly not his language.

Peter Alexander Kerkhof,

MA student
Comparative Indo-European linguistics

MPhil student
Medieval studies

Source of the text:

Walafridus Strabo, “De exordiis et incrementis rer. eccl.”, eds. Alfredus Boretius et Victor Krause,  in: Monumenta Germaniae historica, Capitularia Regum Francorum II, (Hannover 1897) 841-8142.



[1] My translation at some points departs from the Latin texts where Walafrid’s latinity doesn’t permit a smooth translation to English. Where I deemed it necessary I split sentences in two and chose my own words. You will also find additions in my translation where I thought that such additions would benefit the understanding of the text. I am aware that my translation doesnt follow Allice L. Harting-Correa’s translation in her edition of the “libellus de exordiis et incrementis quarandum in observationibus rerum ecclesiarum” but I hope that makes the translation more valuable because it
presents an alternate view on the latin.

2 responses to “Theotisca Lingua and the Frankish connection to Gothic

  1. P.A. Kerkhof

    Dear Olivier,

    thank you for pointing out the typos! Concerning the word Greek word ἥρως, ἥρωος I´d like to point out that quite early on it made its way into Latin as hēros, herōis and that is probably how Walafrid came to know the word. It isnt very surprising that Walafrid is aware of the Greek origin of this word, for this is explicitly stated and discussed in patristic writings, e.g. by Augustine of Hippo and Tertullian. The chapter I translated from his book indicates that he knows some Greek as well, so he may also be acquainted with the original Greek word. He must have been aware of the meaning “demigod” and “hero”, either from Greek or from Vergil, who uses the Latin word as such (the works of Vergil belonged to the standard curriculum of clerical education).

    However, it is more probable that the folk etymological connection between the words, as it was felt by contemporaries, worked the other way around, from Frankish onto the Latin and eventually the Greek. This seems probable if one considers the fact that Carolingian writers didnt use the Latin word heros with the (archaic) meaning of “hero” or “demigod”, but, under influence of Frankish herro and heroro, used it to denote a lord or baron. Consider this ninth century use of the word in the traditio sancti Emmerammi: “oportet vestram advertere pietatem tam iudicem quam et ceterorum undique confluentium heroum”. Here heros simply means “lord” or “nobleman”. If Carolingian authors also had connotations to Latin/Greek heros and Frankish hero/heroro (those two words evidently meant the same to a Carolingian mind) that had to do with the archaic meaning, I’d like to find some instances of the Latin word used with the “archaic” meaning, somewhere in an original Carolingian text (not a copy of a classical text).

    I’d say, following Niermeyer in his monumental mediae latinitatis lexicon minus, that Carolingian authors revived an archaic Latin word, originally borrowed from Greek, because it so closely ressembled a native word and subsequently gave Latin heros the meaning of their native heroro (kind of ironic if one considers the fact that heroro and herro were calques from Merovingian Latin senior). Because of the casual way in which we find the word heros used as denoting “lord” it is probable that this meaning was already current for a while. I think it is this folk etymological connection which drives Walafrid to cite heros in this text and not so much the “archaic” meaning of the word, however well he may be acquainted with this meaning; either from Latin or from his fledgling knowledge of Greek, which he so proudly shows off in his book. 🙂

    On a side note, the phenomenon of rhotacism in Latin, which was understood by the Latin grammarians and therefore also known to Carolingian scholars, may also have driven Walafrid to connect the words etymologically. Thinking that heros when followed by another vowel would yield heroro. 🙂

  2. It is heartening to learn that Walafrid showed so much interest in Gothic and the history of words.

    Yet if he would not have belittled his own Frankish tongue so much –and I think he exaggerated deliberately and out of modesty– perhaps he would have seen that many of the words he names as loans were in fact ancestral, and cognates as you say. His citing of herero as a loan from (non-cognate) heros is very interesting, for if that was a mistake common in his age and circles, it would surely have given the lords a boost in prestige. Although I suppose lords were already by definition heroes in the Germanic mind of old. Indeed, were they not lords by the favour of God (and the gods before that)?

    By the way, in your translation you wrote “atto and ammo, toda and toda”. Did you not mean to write “atto and amma, todo and toda” as they are in the original text? They appear to have proper Frankish endings there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *