Ancient Germanic Languages Documented - A Preliminary Sketch

by Bertil Haggman

Group I

Gothic (Goths, Ostrogoths, Visigoths)

Through MS such as the Codex Argenteus (Uppsala University Library) Gothic is reasonably well documented. Also Crimean Gothic is represented with a list of words by diplomat Busbecq in the sixteenth century.

More information about Gothic

Burgundic (Burgundians)

Documented. Not only personal names. The Burgundians are mentioned in Pliny's Natural History 4.99. Possible origin the Danish island of Bornholm. Burgundian words can be found on the Charnay Brooch and in Lex Burgundionum. For a collection of Burgundic words see the list "Worter sonstiger ostgermanischer Sprachen".

Vandalic (Vandals)

Documented. Not only personal names. The Vandals are mentioned in Tacitus' Germania 43.6. Possible origin in Vendsyssel in northernmost of present Denmark. One source is Wrede's Sprache der Wandalen (1886). See also above mentioned list.

Langobardic (Langobards, Lombards)

Documented. Not only personal names. According to Langobard historian Paulus Diaconus the Langobards originated in Scandinavia. His source material seems to have indicated that the Langobards originally emigrated from the island of Scandinavia (Scadan, Scadanan). There are possibly around 400 langobardic words remaining in the Italian language (see for instance P.Scardigli, "All'origine dei langobardismi in italiano" in Festschrift Betz, Tubingen, 1977, pp. 335 – 354).

There is only one more extensive source on the Langobardic language existing (Wilhelm Bruckner, Die Sprache der Langobarden, Strassburg 1895, new edition Berlin 1969). A great number of the remaining "ruins" are legal terms. New finds documented after Bruckner have come to light (Beck, p. 195). Around 2,000 personal names have been documented. Word lists can be found in Jorgen Jarnut, Prosopographische und sozialgeschichtliche Studien zum Langobardenreich in Italien (568 – 774), Bonn 1972.

Possible words in Italian of Langobardic origin are for instance panca (bench) and guardare (look upon oneself). The origin is possibly from Germanic wartan. Compare modern German betreuen, warten. In all over 400 Langobardic loan-words have so far been identified in the Italian language (Christie, pp. 229 – 230) and its dialects. The Langobard heritage is strongest in Friuli. Many Italian surnames derive from Langobardic personal names: Catemari, Cataldo, Greppi, Prandi and Zilli.

It has been pointed out that it would be necessary to divide the sources in two groups the first covering the time between 568 and 774 and a second group from 775 to 962. It is important to differentiate between Langobardic and Frankish source material

The Origin of the Langobards

This section is intended to present a closer reading of the views of the classical authors on the name Scandinavia (in modern times a designation for Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland). Much of this analysis was presented by Professor J. Svennung in his well-known Scadinavia und Scandia – Lateinisch-Nordische Namenstudien (Uppsala 1963).

The modern name form Scandinavia (Skandinavien) is actually an incorrect reading from bad manuscripts of Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder. Correctly it should be Scadinavia.

The Roman geographer Mela in Chorographia (AD 43) used the corrupted form Codanovia, which in turn was influenced by Codanum earlier in the text. Far into the Middle Ages people on the continent thought that the Nordic countries were islands in the Ocean. The Pliny name form was used. The Fredegar used Scathanavia and Origio Gentis Langobardorum introduced Scadan. In the late Middle Ages Scandinavia was identified with Scania (Swedish Skane) which since 1658 is the name of Sweden's southernmost province. Before that it was Danish for around 600 years forming the easternmost part of that kingdom.

It should be noted that the name of Scandinavia cannot be found in Greek texts, only in Latin ones.

Linguists have reconstructed the proto-Germanic form as *Skathin-aujo or *Skadin-aujo, which would correspond to the classical Scadinavia of the Romans. The latter part of the word means 'island' or 'land on the water'. In modern languages it has become 'ö' (in Swedish), 'ey' (in Old English), 'ey' in Icelandic and finally 'Aue' (in German).

There is disagreement among scholars on the first element of the word (Scadin-). Common is the connection between a fish-name: 'shad in English) and 'skadd' (in Norwegian). This author is inclined to rely on the interpretation connecting Scadin- to skada (in Swedish) and Old Norse skadi which is equal to 'damage' in the concrete sense of 'danger'. In turn this danger is to be connected to the submarine sandbanks outside the small town of Skanor in Skane. They were extremely dangerous to ships and resulted in a large number of ship-wrecks.

To return to Pliny he did not only use the designation Scadinavia but also Scandiae to mean the islands in the Ocean. Later in the second century AD Ptolemy referred to four Skandiai islands in the Ocean of which the largest was Skandia, situated farthest to the east. It is not hard to imagine that Ptolemy meant the Danish islands and Skane being the largest situated to the east and to the north of the Danish islands.

In his book Getica Jordanes in 551 AD used the vulgar Latin form Scandza. The identity of Scadinavia and Scandia must be rather secure designating the largest island (that of the southernmost part of the Scandinavian peninsula). It can easily be presumed that early travellers had only sighted Scania not parts further north of the peninsula. The different names used must mean that the classical scientists had used different sources. When Jordanes mentioned tribes or peoples living on the Scandinavian peninsula he often named them differently.

Both the Danish islands and Scania have well deserved the designation 'dangerous'. The low sandy coast and the sandbanks always presented dangers to the sea-travellers. Here ought to be mentioned the most notorious and dangerous sandbank, 'Falsterbo rev' in the vicinity of the small towns of Skanor (mentioned above) and Falsterbo. The Falsterbo sandbank is off a small peninsula in the south-western part of Scania. It moves continually and changes the conditions. Seacurrents is making the shape of the sandbank unpredictable. In the beginning of the Christian era the area was even more dangerous. The whole peninsula was largely under water as the sea-level was then three to six feets higher than it now is. Due to sand-drift it presently has a height of around six feet.

The present name Scandinavia is most likely a confusion of Scandia and Scadinavia. The name of the town Skanor is probably derived from *skathn- and –or ('sand-shore'). The ending –or is common in the region. Compare for instance the city-name Helsingor (Elsinore as in the Castle Elsinore of Shakespeare's Hamlet on the Island of Zealand at the narrowest point of the Baltic Sea, the Sound (Oresund).

Of greatest interest here is the Langobardic scadan and we actually have a strong support for the relation to 'danger' and 'damage' in Origo Gentis Langobardorum itself: "Scadan, quod interpretatur 'excidia'" the last word meaning 'ruin', 'destruction'.

It is also important to note that there are a number of Scandinavian place-names that indicate harm, danger, and risk: Skadeland, Skadholmen, Skadgrund. On the Shetland Island there is the place-name Skadaflekk designating an area submerged at high tide.

Langobards – A Name of a People

The etymology and origin of the people name Langobards has not yet been fully determined. The people was first mentioned by Strabo and Velleius Paterculus.

The first part of the Langobard name belongs to langs (Gothic) and Germanic 'lang' (Protogermanic *langa-) =long. Paulus Diaconus refers to the special beards of male Langobards. Thus one of the possible etymologies is 'long beards'.

Etymologists have also sought to explain the second part of the name (bard) in relation to a battleaxe. Stonecarvings in Scania and in western Sweden depict a number of men armed with axes from the later Bronze Age (1000 – 500 BC). The battle axe was a common weapon of the vikings. So the relation of axes to Scandinavia is around 2000 years old. The Scanian Hunnestad monument shows a man armed with an axe (one hand battle axe). The variation of viking axes is large and they are archaelogically confirmed. These axes are asymmetric. A onehand battle axe had a handle around 25 inches long. Some of these axes were named "skaggyxa" (beard axe or barda). The most important part was the edge and the weapon smiths devoted most of the time to create broad edges. Thus the one hand battle axes could be as broad as the broad axes. The top part could be made into a hook. Thus the "beard axe" could be used to draw the enemy warrior closer if it was advantageous and if there was opportunity. Twohand axes were broader and the handles could be up to 50 inches.

When foreign rulers hired vikings as bodyguards they were often armed with battle axes as it symbolized the implacability and uncompromising attitude in battle of the Northmen.

Paulus Diaconus refers also to the Langobards as the Vin(n)ili (Gothic winnan) = fight, struggle.

Group II

Bastarnic (Bastarnians, 'the impure or mixed ones')

The Bastarnians are mentioned in Pliny's Natural History 4.100 and Tacitus' Germania 46.1. The tribe migrated to the Carpathians, a mountain range sometimes referred to as Alpes Bastarnicae in classical literature.

Sciric (Scirians, 'the pure ones').

The Scirians reached the Black Sea area around 230 BC.. The tribe is mentioned in Pliny's Natural History 97. There is a possible connection to the Olbia inscription in present day Ukraine.

Erulic (Eruls, Heruls, Eruli)

Documented. Only personal names. The Erulientioned in Jordanes' Getica 23. For a reading of an Eruli personal name see the article by Dr. Norbert Wagner in the journal Beitrage zur Namenforschung, Heidelberg : Universitatsverlag C. Winter pages 379 - 384 (2000).

Gepidic (Gepids, 'the tardy ones')

Documented. Only personal names and a few other words. For examples see above mentioned list.

Rugic (Rugians)

Documented. Only personal names and gravestones in Italy.

Group III (South Scandinavia and northern Germany)

Cimbric (Cimbrians)

Possible origin of this people is the region Himmerland in Jutland. Documented. Only personal names.

Jutic (Jutes, Iutae)

Documented. Only personal names (?). For more details on Jutic personal names see Herrscherchronologien der Antiken Welt: Namen, Daten, Dynastien, Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2004, around 400 pages. Possible origin Jutland. The Jutes settled in Kent, the Isle of Wight and southern Hampshire, the county opposite the island on the English mainland. The book mentioned here provides the names of the Burgundian, Gepidian, Rugian, Vandal, Visigothic, Langobardic (including the Dukes of Benevent), Ostrogothic, Jutic, and Anglian ancient rulers.

Anglic (Angles)

Documented. Only personal names (?). See Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, chapter 1.5 and in Tacitus' Germania 40.1. Possible origin is Angel in eastern Slesvig/Schleswig.

Group IV (southern Scandinavian peninsula and Gutland)

Note (Group IV)

Sweden has preserved on its own territory up to the present day the remembrance of the tribal name Gauts (classical Greek gautoi, Ptolemy's goutai). The ablaut alterations of the Germanic strong verb *geutan 'pour', *geut, *gaut, *gut include a form which is phonologically identical with Gaut-. The *au form is preserved only in place-names. It can hardly be denied that a relationship exists between Geatas, Gotaland, Vastergotland, Ostergotland and the ancient Goths, but to explain it is difficult.

It should be noted here that there is extensive ongoing research on the personal names in ancient East Germanic languages.

Note: Umlauts have been removed in this version of the preliminary sketch.

About the writer

Mr. Bertil Haggman is a Swedish attorney (ret.) and author.


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