Category Archives: Old Germanic Linguistics

Waiting for the Barbarians

On the divide between history and historical linguistics concerning the Migration Age with the Scandinavian origin of the Goths as case study.

Sometimes neighbouring academic disciplines do not speak in the same idiom. Nowhere is this more clear than in the controversial subject of the “transformation of the Roman world”, a line of inquiry into the dynamics of the transition periode between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages favoured by leading historians such as Walter Goffart, Ian Wood and Peter Heather. It’s argument is summarized by Robert Anderson, director of the British Museum:

The period of transition between the world of late antiquity and the Middle Ages has […] traditonally been seen as one of chaos and obscurity, the “Dark Ages”. Yet modern scholarship is increasingly revealing how profoundly dynamic and influential were the cultural and intellectual shifts which mark the period. Far from initiating an age of barbarism, the successor states saw themselves as part of a Roman continuum, and readily exploited the institutions and intellectual traditions of late antiquity, adapting and reinventing them to suit their own changing circumstances and cultural traditions. (Anderson 1997; 8 )

Revisionism of this pivotal periode in Western History was not new. Since the end of the second world war scholars became mighty uncomfortable discussing the period in terms of “Germanic expansion”, the nazi discourse of “Germanic fraternity” freshly in mind. The “transformation of the Roman world” movement could be seen as an exponent of this postwar “uncomfort” and has become increasingly influential in “correcting” popular views of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. A challenge to modern revisionism came from Bryan Ward-Perkins in 2005. Whereas the revisionists may sometimes suggest an easy and peaceful integration of Germanic peoples into a continuing and evolving Roman world, Ward-Perkins takes fault with this line of interpretation and says he is “conviced that the coming of the Germanic peoples was very unpleasant for the Roman population, and that the long-term effects of the dissolution of the empire were dramatic” (Ward-Perkins 2005: 10). His book “The fall of the Roman empire and the end of civilization” is an impressive polemic for rehabilitation of those late antique sources that speak of catastrophe, massive invasion and crumbling city walls. This is in sharp contrast to historians who dispute that potent barbarians groups marched into the Roman empire (e.g. Noble 2006; xvi) and those that argue hardly any migrations at all had taken place (Bowersock 2000:187-97).

                How does this relate to scholars working in the field of Germanic studies, who used to draw information from a wide interdisciplinary spectrum of philology, historical linguistics and folklore? For one, the divide between the disciplines has widened. Han Nijdam (2001) characterizes the revisionism of historians and folklorists after the second world war in the following way:

“suddenly there were no relics of Germanic customs or ideas anymore, neither in the Middle Ages nor in the Early Modern Period, but everything was Christian from the moment missionaries build churches and monasteries. Literary sources were often written by them and for every costum or idea a fitting bible passage could be found.” (Nijdam 2001; 60)

This assertion holds even more true for the revisionism by contemporary scholars. Whereas scholars in Germanic studies assume that along with the survival of the Old Germanic languages also other cultural products survived that could be named Germanic, scholars who work in the “transformation of the Roman world” paradigm reject such an assertion[1]. For them Germanic identity arose anew in the margins of the limes (i.e. the Roman border) and was barely inherited from prehistoric times. For them Germanic identity arose from the cultural dialectic between Roman rural society and small groups of barbarian immigrants.

For every comparative Indo-European linguist the inadequacies of such a paradigm are evident. The parallels in literary motives, metre and even specific formulas between Celtic, Greek, Vedic, Slavic and Germanic cosmogenic writings are astonishing. They are hardly explicable by any other means than assuming heritage from a common prehistoric literary reservoir, a reservoir justly called Indo-European (e.g. see Puhvel Comparative Mythology 1989). The comparative linguist may draw the same conclusions for the non-christian / non-Roman parallels in Old Germanic literary monuments e.g. the vestiges of a Common-Germanic pantheon (such as in the case of the worship of Wodan and Thunar). Common heritage from a cultural tradition which, in analogy to our linguistic terminology, may be called Proto- or Common-Germanic, seems likely. Rejections of such a theoretical construct by Noble and Goffart (2006: 12) are unjustified for they ignore empirical data mined from the field of comparative mythology and comparative law arguing in favour of it.

But to indicate the divide between historians and comparative linguists in the area of migration history I’d like to discuss the case of the Gothic migration, which is basically the case of the Scandinavian origin myth. This myth is to be found in Jordanes[2]Getica, an abridgment of an earlier work, historia gothorum, by the Gothic historian Cassiodorus recounting the history of the Goths. Jordanes wrote it at the Byzantine court when the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy had fallen under renewed Byzantine attempts of reconquest. According to this myth, Scandinavia was the womb of peoples from which the Goths set out in three ships. From the Baltic they made their way to the Black Sea when they arrive in the scope of Roman historians. The veracity of this myth stands at the center of the problem.

The main historical polemic on this topic is between Herwig Wolfram and Walter Goffart. Herwig Wolfram is a student of Reinhard Wenskus on whose work on ethnogenesis he largely draws. Wolfram formulated a thesis later known as the Wenskus-Wolfram thesis that focusses on the leading role in ethnogenesis for so called “nuclei of tradtion” (Traditionskerne). These are ancient families whose connections to the past gave a common focus for the myriad ethnic groups within a multi-ethnic confederation. The multiethnic groups would associate and identify themselves with these ancient families and accept their tribal name (Wolfram 2006: 52-54). His argument is that although Gothic identity has been reinterpreted and adapted multiple times throughout Gothic history, Jordanes is basically right in recounting the Scandinavian origin myth. This is how the tribal name of the 2nd century Gutones in Tacitus’ Germania survived in the late antique Γότθοι of Procopius. Goffart rejects Wolfram’s arguments as reading truth in mere fiction and argues for a strict 6th century Byzantine creation ex nihilo. That this cannot be true is argued by Svennung (1967: 235) who deemed the ethnonyms cited by Jordanes to be authentic correspondances to Scandinavian tribal names.

In the field of comparative Indo-European linguistics a Scandinavian origin for the late antique Goths is widely accepted. Augustin Speyer (2007) states:

“[Das Ostgermanische ist] Ursprünglich im südlichen und südöstlichen Skandinavien beheimatet; die Inselnamen Gotland and Bornholm (< Borgundarholmr) weisen auf Bezeihung dieser Plätze zu ostgermanischen Stämmen hin.”

Jasanoff (2008) is more carefull in placing the original home of the Goths in Scandinavia, but the connection the Baltic Gutones is not in doubt. He states this view as follows:

“Like other East Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Burgundians, Gepids and Heruls, the Goths originally lived in the area of present-day Poland and eastern Germany; their own traditions place their earliest homes in southern Sweden.”

An interesting but very late source contiguous to this Scandinavian origin myth is known to most Old Germanicists but remains undiscussed by most historians (Wenskus on the other hand treats it in some detail). This is the Gutasaga, composed around 1220 but preserved in a fourteenth century manuscript, which recounts that a third of the people left Gotland in ships and traveled to the Baltic coasts, from whence they traveled through Eastern Europe to arive in the land of the Greeks.

Sīþan af þissum þrim aucaþis fulc ī Gutlandi sō mikit um langam tīma, at land elpfti þaim ai alla fyþa. Þā lutaþu þair bort af landi huert þriþia þiauþ, sō alt sculdu þair aiga oc miþ sīr bort hafa, sum þair ufan iorþar āttu.

From these three the people on Gotland multiplied throughout such a long time that the land could not feed them all. Then they drew lots so that a third of the people left the land, so that they would have and take with them everything which they possessed above the earth.

The Gutnish myth runs parallel to Jordanes account in some respects and deviates from it in others. Historical scepticism towards a continuity of an oral traditional preserving the migration of the Goths from Gotland is however justified.  From a linguistic perspective there is also some evidence to substantiate Jordanes’ claim of a Scandinavian origin. The following parallels between North-Germanic and Gothic have led some scholars to argue for Gotonordic prestage (Eckhardt Meinecke 1953: 83-84).

  1. PGmc. –i̯̯i̯-> Goth –ddj- and PGmc. –i̯̯i̯-> OIce. -ggj-

PGmc. –ṷṷ– > Goth –ggw– and PGmc. –ṷṷ– > OIc. -ggv-

  1. retainment of PGmc. *-z# as Gothic -s# and OIc. -r#
  2. retainment of the fourth inchoative class of weak verbs in PGmc. *-nanã
  3. lexical parallels
  4. Loss of the verbs preserved in WGmc. dōn, gān and stān.
  5. retainment of ending of the strong verbs in *-t, e.g. Goth and OIce. gaft against OHG gabi


However striking the parallels, they could also be explained in terms of retaining archaic features than in terms of common innovation. West-Germanic and North-Germanic share more features than an alleged Gothonordic. The inconclusiveness of the linguistic evidence does not give us an argument in favour of the Scandinavian origin myth of Jordanes. Nonetheless,  a linguistic continuity from the 2nd century tribal name Gutones to the fourth and fifth century Gothi and Γότθοι seems probable. Also to be mentioned is the archaism of the Gothic language itself. As a Germanic language attested in fourth century writings it predates the literary monuments of most other Old Germanic languages in atleast three and a half hundred years, so some archaism is to be expected. Most “transformation of the Roman world” historians on the other hand would have the fourth century Goths live in a highly Romanized ethnically diverse cultural realm and considering this historical background the lack of cultural loans from Latin and Greek is perplexing (not counting eclessiatical terminology). This might point to a strong Germanic core to Gothic identity (contra Goffart), an assumption strengthened by the fact that Gothic supplied the neigbouring Alans with quite some lexical material which eventually made it’s way into modern Ossetic, while the other way around the loans seem to be quite limited. Abaev (Moscow 1958) mentions, amongst others, these words:

CGmc. Ossetic Meaning
*aggwus (Goth.) > wyngæg narrow, oppressed, surpressed
*qairnus (Goth.) > koyroj mill
*lǣswaka > læsk pasturage against payment
*nakwina > lægoyn[3] hairless, bald, naked
*gahwi > qæw village, settlement
*rapaina > rævæjnæ long, thick hemp-rope
*wīsa > wis patch with mowed grass
*strab- > sævn width of clothes
*spīra- > fsīr ear of corn
*kurdra- > k’ord group, much, bundle[4]
*spelda- > syvældæg layer

The same assertion holds true for language contact with Slavic. While quite some Germanic words have entered Slavic through (presumably) the Gothic language, the other way around no such borrowing has been active. Consider for example these loans:

OCS PSL Gothic
duma *daumā < dōms
gotoviti *gataṷītēi < gatauiþs < gataujan
kupiti *kaupītēi < *kaupiþs < *kaupjan <  kaupōn
kusiti *kausītēi < kausjan
lěkъ *lēkъ < *lēka < lēkeis
lixva *leixva < leihwa < *leiχa-

An interesting article by Kortlandt (2001)  titled “The origin of the Goths” argues for a Central European urheimat for the ancestors of the Gothic speaking people. He convincingly argues that the Proto-Goths must have been situated more to the west than has often been assumed. The borrowing of the –āreis suffix from Latin –ārius pleads for this, along with the fact that Gothic borrowed the  Latin form of most Greek ecclesiastical terminology. Supposed loans from Celtic also point to a more western origin. Kortlandt does however hold open the assumption that the Gothic identity came from the Baltic Gutones via one of Wolfram’s Traditionskerne. Unfortunately, Kortlandt does not treat the aforementioned loans from Gothic into Alanic and Slavic, but they are easily explained from late fourth century contact when the Goths reached the mouth of the Danube. Especially the Alans remained bound to the Goths for most of the following century, fighting along them at Hadrianople (478), Rome (409) and at the epic battle at Châlons (451) where the romans and their Alanic-Gothic allies went into battle with the Huns of Attila.

This case shows how important an interdisciplary approach is to tackling migration history. One could ask therefore why historians do not make use of linguistic arguments. One reason is probably to be found in the technical nature of the linguistic discipline. Another concerns the scepticism of historians who work in a hermeneutic science in the positivistic approach of the comparative method of linguistics. As historical linguists we should help span the divide between old Germanic philology and medieval studies by making our arguments more accesible to the interested historian; Kortlandt’s article is a good example of this, focussing on cultural loans instead of purely linguistic argumentation.

A thing we could blame the historians for is ignoring the linguistic diversity of late antique and early medieval Europe, restricting themselves to Latinate sources. One need but to remember that Latin was not the only written language in the early medieval west. From the period of 400 – 900 AD we find literary monuments written in Celtic, Germanic and Slavic vernaculars. Considering only a small percentage of the population that lived outside the Romance speaking territory knew Latin, we have to assume that the generational transfer of culture in the Early Middle Ages was mainly done in the vernacular. When one considers the fact that early medieval vernacular sources often deviated immensely from the genres of rigid and devote Latinity, the comparative Indo-Europeanist could only sigh and shake one’s head at how many. Historians should better heed the word of Jordanes himself to “follow the writings of their ancestors and cull from their broad meadows a few flowers to weave a chaplet for those who care to know these things”.


Jay, H. Jasanoff, “Gothic”, in: the ancient languages of Europe, Roger D. Woodward ed. (Cambridge 2008) 189-214.

Augustin Speyer, Germanische Sprachen; ein vergleichender Überblick (Göttingen 2007).

Eckhard Meineke et Judith Schwerdt, Einführung in das Althochdeutsche (Paderborn 2000)

Thomas F.X. Noble, “Introduction; Romans, barbarians and the transformation of the Roman empire”, in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 1-28.

Herwig Wolfram, “Gothic history as historical ethnography” in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 43-69.

Walter Goffart, “Doest the distant past impinge on the invasion age Germans” in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 1-28.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, The fall of Rome and the end of civilization (Oxford 2005).

J. Svennung, Jordanes und Scandia; kritisch-exegetische studien (Uppsala 1967).

“Gutasaga”, in: Altschwedisches Lesebuch, Adolf Noreen ed., (Upsala 1892-94) 37-39.

F. H.H. Kortlandt, “The origin of the Goths”, in: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 55 (Amsterdam 2001) pp. 21-25.

Robert Anderson, “Foreword”, in: The transformation of the Roman World, Leslie Webster et Michelle Brown eds., (London 1997).

Han Nijdam, “Twee aardewerken schaaltjes. Collectief geheugen, (dis)continuïteit in de Friese cultuur, met het fenomeen ‘magie’ als case study”, in: Speculum Frisicum; stúdzjes oanbean oan Philippus H. Breuker, Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. e.a. eds., (Leeuwarden 2001) 59-78.

Vasily Abaev, Istoriko-jatymologičeskij osetinskogo jazyka (Moscow 1968).

[1] My former professor in Utrecht, Mayke de Jong, confessed that she’d rather speak of “Sub-Roman” traditions than of “Germanic” traditions.

[2] [2] Jordanes names is interpretated as *Iƀurnanþs by Grimm who draws for this interpretation on the spelling <iornandes> in some existing manuscripts. He argues that sixteenth century editions always read <iornandes> and may reflect additional old manuscripts that are lost. It is interesting to note that his father is called Alanoviamuth, in which the first element undoubtedly refers to the ethnonym Alani. Maybe the name should be read as *Alano-Weihamōþs “der Kampfmutige der Alanen”. Alanic descent for Jordanes is also suggested by the name of his grandfather, who was named kandag, which could go back to Old-Ossetic *kæn-dag “he who wears sack-cloth”.

[3] Regular dissimmilation of *n…n > l…n as seen in lamaz “Islamic prayer” (< Pers. namāz)

[4] Glossed by Abaev as “группа, множество, стая” in Russian

Illegal clusters in Latin and proto-Romance and what they have to do with an Old High German problem

In my last blogpost I talked about sound laws which cross language boundaries and more specifically the early medieval language boundary between the Germanic and the Romance speech communities. In that respect I want to adduce another case which in my opinion may constitute another example of bilingual communities perpetuating a regular sound change from the one language as a sporadic sound change in the other.  In this specific instance I want to talk about a sound change which has proven to be remarkably persistent, namely the Latin soundlaw which turns /-tl-/ > /-kl-/. This soundlaw is best illustrated by the Latin reflex of the PIE instrumental suffix*-tlo/-tleh2 which has the unmarked Latin form /-culu-/ and /-cula-/.


PIE *peh3tlom > pre-Latin *pōklom >Latin pōculum

PIE *eǵhtlom > pre-Latin *veheklom >Latin vehiculum


Remarkably this soundlaw was also active in proto-Romance and turned the new */-tl-/ clusters, caused by early Romance syncope, into */-kl-./


Vulgar Latin VETULA /wɛtula/ >  *vɛtla > *vɛkla

 > *vɛkja > Italian /vɛk:ja/ <vecchia>.

                > Old French vjɛλə > French /vjɛjə/ <vieille>

 The pre-stage *vetla probably never was a phonetic reality because /-tl-/ constituted an illegal cluster in proto-Romance which was automatically substituted by /-kl-/. It is interesting to note that /tl/ is still an illegal cluster in present French when it appears initially, as evidenced by a 1998 study of Hallé. In a phonetic experiment speakers of French were asked to transcribe four nonwords containing the initial cluster /tl/ and four nonwords containing the medial cluster /dl/. More than 80 % of the participants transcribed the cluster /tl/ as /kl/, for example in the case of the first nonword.


/tlabdo/ : <klabdo>

Word medially the cluster /tl/ in modern French gained a secondary schwa as is the case with the word <atlas> /atəlas/. In that case it uses a different strategy to render the illegal cluster /tl/ pronouncable than its proto-Romance predecessor.


The tlo-suffix was also productive in the Germanic languages, where it participated in some complicated internal sandhi developments (which I will try to elucidate in my MA-thesis). One of the outcomes of PIE *-tlo is proto-Germanic *-þla. An interesting problem concerning this þla-suffix is the alternation /þl/ to / χl/ which seems to be responsable for OHG mahal in constrast to Gothic maþls. Also OHG bihal, which is thought to derive from *bīþl < *bhiHtlo, shows the same alternation. What happened here? Most Oldgermanicists regard it as an isolated soundlaw in west-Germanic, which has no clear parallel inside the continuum of Germanic languages. This, however, is not a very satisfactory explanation, because only Old High German and Langobardic, which may be regarded as an archaic dialect inside the Old High German continuum, appear to show the variant with /χ/ followed by an anaptyxic vowel /a/ consistently.


If one considers the proximity of the Old High German dialect continuum to the Romance continuum, especially pre-Italian Romance, an interesting possibility comes to mind. A Romance intermediate stage, with the substitution of /tl/ to /kl/, in the development of Old High German mahal from Germanic *maþlaz may yield a solution which accounts for the phonological intracies. Let’s assume, for my hypothesis’ sake, that the word reached early medieval Italy as Germanic *maþl(s). Seventh-century Langobardic /þ/ is consistently substited for /d/ by pre-Italian Romance speakers, as is seen in Italian:


Italian guadagnare < Langobardic *waiðanjan


Therefore I do not think that Germanic *maþl(s) entered pre-Italian Romance via Langobardic. Loans from Gothic into pre-Italian Romance, on the other hand,  substitute /þ/ word medially for Romance /t/.


North-Italian grinta < Gothic *grimmiþa


I’d like to hypothesize that Ostrogothic maþls entered pre-Italian Romance in the very early sixth century and because Gothic /þ/ was word medially perceived as /t/ the Romance speakers would have approximated the Gothic pronunciation of the word as *matl(s). This however was an illegal cluster in  Romance and was perceived as *makl. The word, audibly Germanic in origin, was picked up by the Langobardic invaders of Italy in the late sixth century. Here the anaptyxis kicks in and gives *makal. The thing that happens next is of course the Old High German sound shift which turns medial /k/ into /χ:/, spelled as single <h>or double <hh>, and that would yield the desired outcome /maχal/ <mahal>, which is found in the Langobardic laws.



Gothic /maþls/ > (Italian Romance */matl/ ) > Italian Romance*/makl/ > pre-Langobardic */makal/ > Langobardic /maχal/ <mahal>


This scenario is to my mind more plausible than to postulate an isolated Germanic soundlaw with no phonetic parallels within the Germanic dialect continuum. The form /maχal/ subsequently spread across the Old High German continuum and reached Saxony in the ninth century. Old Saxon mahal is to my mind a loan<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> from Old High German which isn’t very surprising if one considers the fact that the Franks institutionalized the mahal as a tool of government.



Wilhelm Bruckner, Charakteristik der germanischen Elemente im Italienischen (Basel 1898).


Benedicte Nielsen, “On Latin instrument-nouns in */-lo/”, in: Indo-European word formation; proceedings of the Conference held at the Universisty of Copenhagen, October 20th -22 nd 2000, eds. James Clackson and Birgit Anette Olsen (Copenhagen 2004) 189-213.


Pierre A. Hallé e.a., “Processing of Illegal Consonant Clusters; a Case of Perceptual Assimilation?”, Journal of Experimental Psychology; human perception and performance vol 24, no 2 (1998) 592-608.


Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen, Romance Languages; a historical introduction (Cambridge 2010).

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>


<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> The native Old Saxon term is fortunately also attested as madal.


Crossing the language border

a connection between Old English and Old French?

Every student of Germanic philology and historical linguistics will be familiar with the fenomenon of breaking. This means I don’t have to go in too much detail. To make it short; a select group of Old Germanic languages has the tendency to diphtongize short front vowels to falling diphtongs under influence of following consonant clusters or non-front vowels in the next syllable. The languages in question who show this phenomenon are Old Norse, Old English and Old Frisian. Although all these language may do this as a meance of distance assimilation, the conditions which are needed for breaking to take effect differ among the languages.  The kind of breaking which concerns us here is found in Old English and concerns the breaking of Pre-OE */æ/ > /ea/ under the influence of an immediately following consonant cluster consisting of a liquid and another consonant. Because the resulting diphtongs partook in the Pre-OE phenomenon of i-umlaut we know that OE breaking must predate i-umlaut alltogether. Another thing that is quite clear is that the degree in which the Old English dialects underwent breaking differs significantly. In the case of breaking of */æ/ when followed by a liquid and another consonant the difference mainly comes down to an opposition between the Anglian dialects and the Saxon dialects, the latter one joined by the Kentish dialect. The northern dialects show retraction of Pre-OE */ælC/ > /alC/ in contrast to the West-Saxon development Pre-OE */ælC/ > /ealC/.

Pgmc *haldanan > Proto-West-Germanic *haldan > Pre-OE *hældan > Anglian haldan

Pgmc *haldanan > Proto-West-Germanic *haldan > Pre-OE *hældan > West-Saxon healdan

On the whole, the southern dialects of Old English seem to like breaking better than their northern relatives[1] and West-Saxon and Kentish exhibit the most instances of breaking. Phonetically we may assume that the breaking of the vowel first yielded a diphtong /æa/ and subsequently stressed the contrast by turning it into /ɛa/, orthograpically represented by <ea>. This becomes relevant when we consider a similar phenomenon in old French.

What’s the deal with Old French, you might ask. Well, Old French is amongst the Romance languages quite the odd man out, which is probably due to the heavy influence of second language acquisition by Germanic speakers. This influence was the largest on the lexicon but also greatly affected the morphoponology and syntax of the pre-French Romance language. This is not very surprising if one takes the high degree of diglossia and bilinguality in the Gaulish realm into account.[2] This created a situation in which isoglosses and linguistic tendencies easily moved between the languages spoken by the specific bilingual and diglossal community. For example, the Old High German diphtongization of /ō/ > /uo/ probably originated in the continuum of Romance dialects who all diphtongated Vulgar Latin /ɔ/ to /uo/ or /ue/. Subsequently  this diphtongization wave reached the Germanic speaking realm via Pre-French.

The Old French phenomenon I’d like to discuss with you concerns the Vulgar Latin vowel */ɛ/ which is the reflex of Classical Latin /ě/, this in contrast to Vulgar Latin */e/ which continues Classical latin /ĭ/ and /ē/. In Old French Vulgar Latin /ɛ/ is one of the vowels that are seemingly affected by the vocalization of the Romance velar /l/. The effects of this velar /l/ are visible in the orthography of modern French, because it has remained notoriously conservative.

Vulgar Latin ALBA “white, dawn” > Pre-French /albə/ > Old French (XII century) /awbə/ > Modern French /obə/ <aube>

Vulgar Latin SOLIDARE “solder” > Old French /solder/ > Early Modern French (XVI century) /suder/ <souder>

If one takes Pre-French syncope into account, we can see the development to consist of Pre-French */alC/ > Old French /awC/ and pre-French */olC/ to early modern French /owC/. However, one of the the purported effects of velar /l/ on a preceding vowel which stand out amongst the other effects concerns Vulgar latin */ɛ/. What seems to have happened is that somehow the velar /l/ in combination with the preceding */ɛ/ yielded an Old French triphtong /ɛaw/ or /eaw/ with a dialectal variant in /jaw/ as evidenced by the Modern French spelling <eau> and the Old French spelling <iau>. Modern French has some words continuing the triphtong <iau> which are mainly from Picardian origin, fabiau < *faběllus and depiauter < piau < *pellis. But the usual Old French triphtong is <eau>:

Vulgar Latin BELLITATE > modern French beauté

Vulgar Latin BELLUS > modern French beau

Frankish *helma > Vulgar latin HELMU[3] > modern French heaume

The question which should be asked, if this development is to be equated with the other effects of velar /l/ on vowels, is why only the development of Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ is so aberrant. Why was it the only one to yield a triphtong? If it was indeed, as insinuated by Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen (2010) and explicitly stated by Gaston Zink (1986), a bridging vowel between the front element and the back element of a former diphtong, why did pre-French /iwC/ and /ewC/ not triphtongize to /ɛaw/ or /jaw/? Following Edouard Bourciez, I deem it more likely that /ɛlC/ first broke to /ɛalC/ and only after the breaking the liquid vocalized to /w/. So the development of the example given above could be imagined as follows:

Vulgar Latin BELLITATE > [Late Vulgar Latin] /bɛltate/ > */bɛltat/ > [OldFrench] /bɛlte/ > */bɛalte/ >  /bɛawte/ > [modern French] /bote/ <beauté>

Empirical proof for this the /ɛalC/ stage in exactly the form hypothesized is attested in the Bisclavret by Marie de France.

beals chevaliers e bons esteit                       a handsome and good knight he was                       

e noblement se cunteneit                            and he conducted himself in a noble way

The attestation of the precise form <ealC> continuing Vulgar Latin */ɛlC/ strengthens my hypothesis. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to embark on a quest for further nice orthographic representations of this pre-stage, but the example of /beals/ cited above makes it clear that the analysis of the phenomenon by Gaston Zink has become highly tenuous for it doesn’t seem to represent the empirical data.

We can conclude from the text fragment cited above that the development of */ɛlC/ to eventually the triphtong <ɛaw> takes place fairly late. Some other early Old French texts from the late eleventh and early twelfth century still spell <el>, as evidenced by the “chancun de Guillelme”. In in its title it still spells /Guillelme/ instead of later Old French /Guillaume/ (the glide in the diphtong merged with the palatality of /ʎ/ spelled <l> ). In the case of the development of BELLITATE to beauté, we also find a nice example of <el> spelling in this poem:

Il at perdu sun noble barné                             he has lost his noble knighthood

De dulce france la flur e la belté                    the flower and the beauty of sweet Francia

Gaston Zink explains the occurence of the Old French form belté as indicative of the fact that only stressed Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ yielded a diphtong and considers Modern French beauté as a derivate from the adjective beau. However, the protagonist of the poem itself is called guillelme, a perfect continuation of the Germanic name *wilhelm. When we assume that the Germanic word retained its original stress on the first syllable we have another instance of atonal */ɛlC/ which eventually triphtongizes to / ɛawC/. The proper name also shows that the vocalization of velar /l/ probably wasn’t the first step in the triphtongization of */ɛ/, otherwise we would expect to find guilleume in a text from this period.

What strikes me is the fact that these phenomena in Old French and Old English seem to have developed in a parallel fashion, both showing a breaking of a low front vowel to /ɛa/ before a following cluster consisting of an /l/ and another consonant. I think it may be possible that these phenomena aren’t only typologically related but that the one phenomenon might have caused the other due to language contact. It should be remarked that the fact that only Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ breaks in front of a liquid and another consonant neatly lines up with the fact that the Saxon dialects of Old English only consistently break Pre-OE */æ/[4] to /ea/ under the same condition. The difference between /æ/ and /ɛ/ on the vowel triangle is minimal and the allomorphy in the different realms of Anglosaxon morphology may have driven bilingual Anglo-Normans to transfer the Anglosaxon sound change to Old French.  In that the regard, the date at which this development took place in Old French seems suspicious to me, immediately following the onset of Anglo-Norman relations. The English channel,which nowadays separates the Anglophone nation from the Francophone nation, constituted in the early Middle Ages a vital maritime bridge between the two speech communities, for they were ruled by the same elite.

This, however, brings us in the realm of historical sociolinguistics and in that respect the hypothesis seems moribund. The Anglo-Norman ruling elite almost certainly favoured the use of Old French and it isn’t very likely that they acquired such a good command of Anglosaxon to allow synchronig sound changes to jump the language border. Finally, the similarity of the phenomena between Old English and Old French is rarely (to my knowledge) noted and is indicative of the necessity for the historical linguist to look beyond the linguistic borders of one’s own specialization. The fact that for most Old Germanicists the publications in French, Spanish and Italian aren’t readily accesible without an academic translation doesn’t improve the situation. And unfortunately, most Indo-Europeanists, who do tend to read a lot of modern languages, aren’t that interested in Romance linguistics, because not much information concerning the Indo-European proto-language can be mined from its historical development. I want to end this article with the contention that the development of the triphtong /ɛau/ in Old French is preceded by a stage of breaking and we therefore may very well speak of Old French breaking, independent of the fact what caused it.  


Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen, Romance languages; a historical introduction (Cambridge, 2010).

A. J. Greimas, Dictionnaire de l’ancien français; jusqu’au milieu du XIVe siècle (Larousse, 1989).

Gaston Zink, phonétique historique du français (Paris, 1986).

Kr. Nyrop, Grammaire historique de la langue française, tome deuxième (Copenhagen, 1960).

E. Einhorn, Old French ; a concise handbook (Cambridge, 1974).

R. Girvan, Angelsaksisch handboek, Oudgermaanse handboeken IV (Haarlem 1931).

Bourciez, Edouard, précis historique de phonetique française,  nouvelle collection a l’usage

des classes III (Lille 1921).

Augustin Speyer, Germanische Sprachen ; ein vergleichender Überblick (Göttingen 2007).

Joseph Wright and Elizabeth M. Wright, Old English Grammar, the sudent’s series of historical and comparative grammars (Oxford 1914).

A. Campbell, Old English Grammar (Oxford, 1959).

Gerhard Rolfs, Vom Vulgärlatein zum Altfranzösischen; Einführung in das studium der altfranzösischen Sprache (Tübingen 1968).

[1] The usual caveat concerning Old English dialectology is in place here, pointing at the fact that OE dialectology is mainly dependent on codological and palaeographical clues to the provenance of specific manuscripts and therefore many assumptions on the phonological representation of graphemes are clouded by different copyists and manuscript traditions.

[2] Although many Oldgermanicists and even Indo-Europeanists tend to shun the Romance languages, the developments in these languages are vital to understanding the linguistic tendencies which were common in the linguistic area of western Europe during the early middle ages. The early middle ages are linguistically characterized by a high degree of diglossia concerning Latin and the vernacular and a high degree of multilinguality concerning the different vernaculars spoken in the different areas of western Europe. Especially in the later days of the migration age, when many nations roamed the former provinces of the Roman empire, not only variants of Germanic, but also of Slavic, Avar and Alan could be heard in the encampments of the barbarian armies.

[3] The fact that Romance probably first latinized the Germanic word for “helmet” before accepting it into their lexicon is evidenced by Old Spanish yelmo.

[4] I am aware of the fact that West-Saxon and Kentish also seem to break /e/ > /eo/ before /lh/, but this breaking isn’t consistently attested in our sources and the conditions for this breaking would scarcely be noted by speakers of Old French because the fricative h /x/ wasnt part of their phonology. Also, if some attempt by Old French speakers was made to break their native /e/ to /eo/ this would be clouded by the subsequent vocalization of the /l/ >/w/ because the two back elements would certainly have coalesced.

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.

West Frisian and a Proto-Anglo-Frisian word for “sick”

Sporen van de Friezen en het Fries in Noord-Holland, 12-13 november 2010