Gothic language

Gothic language

Infobox Language
region=Oium, Dacia, Italy, Gallia Narbonensis, Hispania.
extinct=mostly extinct by the 8th century, remnants may have lingered into the 17th century
fam3=East Germanic
script=Gothic alphabet

Gothic is an extinct Germanic language that was spoken by the Goths. It is known primarily from Codex Argenteus, a 6th century copy of a 4th century Bible translation, and is the only East Germanic language with a sizable corpus. All others, including Burgundian and Vandalic, are known, if at all, only from proper names that survived in historical accounts.

As a Germanic language, Gothic is a part of the Indo-European language family. It is the Germanic language with the earliest attestation but has no modern descendants. The oldest documents in Gothic date back to the 4th century. The language was in decline by the mid-6th century, due in part to the military defeat of the Goths at the hands of the Franks, the elimination of the Goths in Italy, and geographic isolation. The language survived in the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) as late as the 8th century, and Frankish author Walafrid Strabo wrote that it was still spoken in the lower Danube area and in isolated mountain regions in Crimea in the early 9th century (see Crimean Gothic). Gothic-seeming terms found in later (post-9th century) manuscripts may not belong to the same language.

The existence of such early attested corpora makes it a language of considerable interest in comparative linguistics.

"Words in Gothic written in this article are transliterated into the Roman alphabet using the system described on the Gothic alphabet page."

History and evidence

There are only a few surviving documents in Gothic, not enough to completely reconstruct the language.
* The largest body of surviving documentation consists of codices written and commissioned by the Arian bishop Ulfilas (also known as "Wulfila", 311-382), who was the leader of a community of Visigothic Christians in the Roman province of Moesia (modern Bulgaria/Romania). He commissioned a translation of the Greek Bible into the Gothic language, of which roughly three-quarters of the New Testament and some fragments of the Old Testament have survived. :*Codex Argenteus (and the Speyer fragment): 188 leaves.::The best preserved Gothic manuscript, the "Codex Argenteus", dates from the 6th century and was preserved and transmitted by northern Ostrogoths in modern Italy. It contains a large part of the four Gospels. Since it is a translation from Greek, the language of the "Codex Argenteus" is replete with borrowed Greek words and Greek usages. The syntax in particular is often copied directly from the Greek.:*Codex Ambrosianus (Milan) (and the Codex Taurinensis): Five parts, totaling 193 leaves.::The "Codex Ambrosianus" contains scattered passages from the New Testament (including parts of the Gospels and the Epistles), of the Old Testament (Nehemiah), and some commentaries known as "Skeireins". It is therefore likely that the text had been somewhat modified by copyists.:*Codex Rehdigerianus from [ Uppsala universitetsbibliotek] :*Codex Gissensis (Gießen): 1 leaf, fragments of Luke 23-24. It was found in Egypt in 1907, but destroyed by water damage in 1945.:*Codex Carolinus: (Wolfenbüttel): 4 leaves, fragments of Romans 11-15.:*Codex Vaticanus Latinus 5750: 3 leaves, pages 57/58, 59/60 and 61/62 of the Skeireins.
* A scattering of old documents: alphabets, calendars, glosses found in a number of manuscripts and a few runic inscriptions (between 3 and 13) that are known to be or suspected to be Gothic. Some scholars believe that these inscriptions are not at all Gothic (see Braune/Ebbinghaus "Gotische Grammatik" Tübingen 1981)
* A small dictionary of more than eighty words, and a song without translation, compiled by the Fleming Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Habsburg ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul from 1555 to 1562, who was curious to find out about the language and by arrangement met two speakers of Crimean Gothic and listed the terms in his compilation "Turkish Letters". These terms are from nearly a millennium later and are therefore not representative of the language of Ulfilas. See Crimean Gothic.

There have been unsubstantiated reports of the discovery of other parts of Ulfilas' bible. Heinrich May in 1968 claimed to have found in England 12 leaves of a palimpsest containing parts of the Gospel of Matthew. The claim was never substantiated.

Only fragments of the Gothic translation of the Bible have been preserved. The translation was apparently done in the Balkans region by people in close contact with Greek Christian culture. It appears that the Gothic Bible was used by the Visigoths in Iberia until circa 700 AD, and perhaps for a time in Italy, the Balkans and what is now Ukraine. In exterminating Arianism, many texts in Gothic were probably expunged and overwritten as palimpsests, or collected and burned. Apart from Biblical texts, the only substantial Gothic document which still exists, and the only lengthy text known to have been composed originally in the Gothic language, is the "Skeireins", a few pages of commentary on the Gospel of John.

There are very few references to the Gothic language in secondary sources after about 800. In "De incrementis ecclesiae Christianae" (840/2), Walafrid Strabo, who lived in Swabia, speaks of a group of monks travelling from Scythia (Dobrudja), probably near Odessa, who spoke a "lingua Theotisca" (Germanic language), probably Gothic, and used such a liturgy. [Discussion between W. Haubrichs and S. Barnish in D. H. Green (2007), "Linguistic and Literary Traces of the Ostrogoths", "The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective", Sam J. Barnish and Federico Marazzi, edd., part of "Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology", Volume 7, Giorgio Ausenda, series ed. (Oxford: Boydell Press, ISBN 978 1 84383 074 0.), p. 409 and n1.] He also refers to the use of Ulfilas' bible in a region probably around Lake Constance. In the former case, the language spoken by the monks was probably an incipient Crimean Gothic.

In evaluating medieval texts that mention the Goths, it must be noted that many writers used the word "Goths" to mean any Germanic people in eastern Europe (such as the Varangians), many of whom certainly did not use the Gothic language as known from the Gothic Bible. Some writers even referred to Slavic-speaking people as Goths.

The relationship between the language of the Crimean Goths and Ulfilas' Gothic is less clear. The few fragments of their language from the 16th century show significant differences from the language of the Gothic Bible, although some of the glosses, such as "ada" for "egg", imply a common heritage, and Gothic "mena" ("moon"), compared to Crimean Gothic "mine", clearly indicates that Crimean Gothic was East Germanic.

Generally, the Gothic language refers to the language of Ulfilas, but the attestations themselves are largely from the 6th century - long after Ulfilas had died. The above list is not exhaustive, and a more extensive list is available on the website of the [ Wulfila Project] .


Ulfilas' Gothic, as well as that of the "Skeireins" and various other manuscripts, was written using an alphabet that was most likely invented by Ulfilas himself for his translation. Some scholars (e.g. Braune) claim that it was derived from the Greek alphabet only, while others maintain that there are some Gothic letters of Runic or Latin origin.

This Gothic alphabet has nothing to do with Blackletter (also called "Gothic script"), which was used to write the Roman alphabet from the 12th to 14th centuries and evolved into the Fraktur writing later used to write German.


It is possible to determine more or less exactly how the Gothic of Ulfilas was pronounced, primarily through comparative phonetic reconstruction. Furthermore, because Ulfilas tried to follow the original Greek text as much as possible in his translation, we know that he used the same writing conventions as those of contemporary Greek. Since the Greek of that period is well documented, it is possible to reconstruct much of Gothic pronunciation from translated texts. In addition, the way in which non-Greek names are transcribed in the Greek Bible and in Ulfilas' Bible is very informative.


Descriptive adjectives in Gothic (as well as superlatives ending in "-ist" and "-ost") and the past participle may take either declension. Some pronouns only take the weak declension; for example: "sama" (English "same"), adjectives like "unUnicode|ƕeila" ("constantly", from the root "Unicode|ƕeila", "time"; compare to the English "while"), comparative adjectives, and present participles. Others, such as "áins" ("some"), take only the strong declension.

The table below displays the declension of the Gothic adjective "blind" (English: "blind") with a weak noun ("guma" - "man") and a strong one ("dags" - "day"):

This table is, of course, not exhaustive. (There are secondary inflexions, particularly for the strong neuter singular and irregular nouns among other contexts, which are not described here.) An exhaustive table of only the "types" of endings Gothic took is presented below.

* strong declension :
** roots ending in "-a", "-ja", "-wa" (masculine and neuter): equivalent to the Greek and Latin second declension in "‑us" / "‑i" and ‑ος / ‑ου;
** roots ending in "-o", "-jo" and "-wo" (feminine): equivalent to the Greek and Latin first declension in "‑a" / "‑æ" and ‑α / ‑ας (‑η / ‑ης);
** roots ending in "-i" (masculine and feminine): equivalent to the Greek and Latin third declension in "‑is" (acc. "‑im") and ‑ις / ‑εως;
** roots ending in "-u" (all three genders) : equivalent to the Latin fourth declension in "‑us" / "‑us" and the Greek third declension in ‑υς / ‑εως;
* weak declension (all roots ending in "-n"), equivalent to the Greek and Latin third declension in "‑o" / "‑onis" and ‑ων / ‑ονος or ‑ην / ‑ενος:
** roots ending in "-an", "-jan", "-wan" (masculine);
** roots ending in "-on" and "-ein" (feminine);
** roots ending in "-n" (neuter): equivalent to the Greek and Latin third declension in "‑men" / "‑minis" and ‑μα / ‑ματος;
* minor declensions : roots ending in "-r", en "-nd" and vestigial endings in other consonants, equivalent to other third declensions in Greek and Latin.

Gothic adjectives follow noun declensions closely - they take same types of inflexion.


Gothic inherited the full set of Indo-European pronouns: personal pronouns (including reflexive pronouns for each of the three grammatical persons), possessive pronouns, both simple and compound demonstratives, relative pronouns, interrogatives and indefinite pronouns. Each follows a particular pattern of inflexion (partially mirroring the noun declension), much like other Indo-European languages. One particularly noteworthy characteristic is the preservation of the dual number, referring to two people or things while the plural was only used for quantities greater than two. Thus, "the two of us" and "we" for numbers greater than two were expressed as "wit" and "weis" respectively. While proto-Indo-European used the dual for all grammatical categories that took a number (as did classical Greek and Sanskrit), Gothic is unusual among Indo-European languages in only preserving it for pronouns.

The simple demonstrative pronoun "sa" (neuter: "þata", feminine: "so", from the Indo-European root "*so", "*seh2", "*tod"; cognate to the Greek article ὁ, ἡ, τό and the Latin "istud") can be used as an article, allowing constructions of the type "definite article + weak adjective + noun".

The interrogative pronouns begin with "ƕ-", which derives from the proto-Indo-European consonant "*kw" that was present at the beginning of all interrogratives in proto-Indo-European. This is cognate with the "wh-" at the beginning of many English interrogatives which, as in Gothic, are pronounced with [ʍ] in some dialects. This same etymology is present in the interrogatives of many other Indo-European languages" "w-" [v] in German, "v-" in Swedish, the Latin "qu-" (which persists in modern Romance languages), the Greek τ or π, and the Sanskrit "k-" as well as many others.


The bulk of Gothic verbs follow the type of Indo-European conjugation called "thematic" because they insert a vowel derived from the reconstructed proto-Indo-European phonemes "*e" or "*o" between roots and inflexional suffixes. This pattern is also present in Greek and Latin:
*Latin - "leg-i-mus" ("we read"): root "leg-" + thematic vowel "-i-" (from "*e") + suffix "-mus".
*Greek - λυ-ό-μεν ("we untie"): root λυ- + thematic vowel -ο- + suffix -μεν.
*Gothic - "nim-a-m" ("we take"): root "nim-" + thematic vowel "-a-" (from "*o") + suffix "-m".

The other conjugation, called "athematic", where suffixes are added directly to roots, exists only in unproductive vestigial forms in Gothic, just as it does in Greek and Latin. The most important such instance is the verb "to be", which is athematic in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and many other Indo-European languages.

Gothic verbs are, like nouns and adjectives, divided into strong verbs and weak verbs. Weak verbs are characterised by preterites formed by appending the suffixes "-da" or "-ta", parallel to past participles formed with "-þ" / "-t". Strong verbs form preterites by alternating vowels in their root forms or by doubling the first consonant in the root, but without adding a suffix in either case. This parallels the Greek and Sanskit perfect tenses. This dichotomy is still present in modern Germanic languages:
* weak verbs ("to have") :
** Gothic: "haban", preterite "habáida", past participle "habáiþs" ;
** English: "(to) have", preterite "had", past participle "had" ;
** German: "haben", preterite "hatte", past participle "(ge)habt" ;
** Icelandic: "hafa", preterite "hafði", past participle "haft" ;
** Dutch: "hebben", preterite "had", past participle "(ge)had" ;
** Swedish: "ha(va)", preterite "hade", supine "haft" ;

* strong verbs ("to give") :
** Gothic: infinitive "giban", preterite "gaf" ;
** English: infinitive "(to) give", preterite "gave" ;
** German: infinitive "geben", preterite "gab" ;
** Icelandic: infinitive "gefa", preterite "gaf".
** Dutch: infinitive "geven", preterite "gaf" ;
** Swedish: infinitive "giva", preterite "gav" ;

Verbal inflexions in Gothic have two grammatical voices: the active and the medial; three numbers: singular, dual (except in the third person), and plural; two tenses: present and preterite (derived from a former perfect tense); three grammatical moods: indicative, subjunctive (from an old optative form) and imperative; as well as three kinds of nominal forms: a present infinitive, a present participle, and a past passive. Not all tenses and persons are represented in all moods and voices - some conjugations use auxiliary forms.

Finally, there are forms called "preterite-present" - old Indo-European perfect tenses that were reinterpreted as present tense. The Gothic word "wáit", from the proto-Indo-European "*woid-h2e" ("to see" in the perfect tense), corresponds exactly to its Sanskrit cognate "véda" and in Greek to ϝοἶδα. Both etymologically should mean "I saw" (in the perfective sense) but mean "I know" (in the preterite-present meaning). Latin follows the same rule with "nōuī" ("I knew" and "I know"). The preterite-present verbs include "áigan" ("to possess") and "kunnan" ("to know") among others.

Gothic compared to other Germanic languages

For the most part, Gothic is significantly closer to Proto-Germanic than any other Germanic language, excepting of that of the (very scantily attested) early Norse runic inscriptions. This has made it invaluable in the reconstruction of Proto-Germanic. In fact, Gothic tends to serve as the primary foundation for reconstructing Proto-Germanic. The reconstructed Proto-Germanic conflicts with Gothic only when there is a clearly identifiable evidence from other branches that the Gothic form is a secondary development.

Gothic fails to display a number of innovations shared by all later-attested Germanic languages. Most conspicuously, Gothic shows no sign of morphological umlaut. Gothic "fotus", pl. "fotjus", can be contrasted with English "foot" : "feet", German "Fuß" : "Füße", Danish "fod" : "fødder", Swedish "fot" : "fötter". These forms contain the characteristic change /o:/ > /ø:/ (> Eng. /i:/, Germ. /y:/) due to i-umlaut; the Gothic form shows no such change.

Proto-Germanic *"z" remains in Gothic as "z" or is devoiced to "s". In North and West Germanic, *"z" > "r". E.g. Gothic "drus" (fall), Old English "dryre".

Gothic retains a morphological passive voice inherited from Indo-European, but unattested in all other Germanic languages, except for the single fossilised form preserved in, for example, Old English "hātte" "is/am called".

Gothic possesses a number of verbs which form their preterite tense by reduplication, another archaic feature inherited from Indo-European. While traces of this category survived elsewhere in Germanic, the phenomenon is largely obscured in these other languages by later sound changes and analogy. In the following examples the infinitive is compared to the 3rd person singular preterite indicative:

"to sow"Gothic "saian" : "saiso".Old Norse "sá" : "seri" < Proto-Germanic *"sezō".

"to play"Gothic "laikan" : "lailaik".Old English "lācan" : "leolc", "lēc".

Gothic and Old Norse

Jordanes, writing in the 6th century, ascribes to the Goths a Scandinavian origin, and there are indeed some linguistic similarities between Gothic and Old Norse, which set them apart from the West Germanic languages. The hypothesis that Gothic and Old Norse share a common ancestor language distinct from West Germanic is known as the Gotho-Nordic hypothesis.

Significant points of agreement between North and East Germanic include:

1) The evolution of the Proto-Germanic *"-jj-" and *"-ww-" into Gothic "ddj" (from Pre-Gothic "ggj"?) and "ggw", and Old Norse "ggj" and "ggv" ("Holtzmann's Law"), in contrast to West Germanic where they remained as semivowels. For instance, the genitive of the numeral "two" appears in Old High German as "zweio", but in Gothic as "twaddje" and Old Norse "tveggja". Compare Modern English "true", German "treu", with Gothic "triggws", Old Norse "tryggr". However, it has been suggested that this is in fact two separate and unrelated changes. [J. B. Voyles, Early Germanic Grammar (1992), pp25-6] .

2) The existence of numerous inchoative verbs ending in -"na", such as Gothic "ga-waknan", Old Norse "vakna".

3) 2nd person singular preterite indicative with the ending -"t" and the same root vowel as the 1st and 3rd persons singular. E.g. Gothic "namt" (you received), Old Norse "namt", versus Old High German "nāmi", Old English "nāme", "nōme". In West Germanic, the 2nd person preterite indicative ending -"t" is restricted to preterite-present verbs.

4) Absence of gemination before "j", or (in the case of old Norse) only "g" geminated before "j". E.g. Proto-Germanic *"kunjam" > Gothic "kuni" (kin), Old Norse "kyn"; but Old English "cynn", Old High German "kunni".

5) The dative absolute formed using the preposition "at" with a participle: Gothic "at urrinnandin sunnin", Old Norse "at upprennandi sólu" (at sunrise, when the sun rose); Gothic "at Iesu ufdaupidamma" (when Jesus had been baptised), Old Norse "at liðnum vetri/vintri" (when the winter had passed).

However, point 1 is disputed (see the article on Holtzmann's Law), and points 2 and 4 are shared retentions and therefore not sufficient evidence for a subgroup. Furthermore, other isoglosses have led scholars to propose an early split between East and Northwest Germanic. It must in any case be borne in mind that that features shared by any two branches of Germanic do not require the postulation of a proto-language excluding the third, as the early Germanic languages were all part of a dialect continuum in the early stages of their development and contact between the three branches of Germanic was extensive.

Without necessarily accepting either Gotho-Nordic or Northwest Germanic unity, Gothic is also important for the understanding of the evolution of Proto-Germanic into Old Norse through Proto-Norse. For instance, the origin of the final -"n" in Old Norse "nafn" (name) is shown by Gothic "namo", genitive plural "namne". Sometimes Gothic casts light on word-forms found on the oldest runestones, e.g. "gudija" (see gothi) found on the runestone of Nordhuglo in Norway, for which a Gothic cognate "gudja" (priest) is attested.

Old Gutnish ("Gutniska") shows a number of similarities with Gothic which are not shared by other Old Norse dialects: a complete lack of a-umlaut in short high vowels (e.g. "fulk", as in Old Swedish which also often lacked a-umlaut, vs Old Icelandic "folk"), lowering of "u" to "o" before "r" (e.g. "bort"), the use of "lamb" with the sense "sheep", the appearance in both of an early Germanic loanword from Latin "lucerna" (Gothic "lukarn", Old Gutnish "lukarr"), and, arguably, the preservation of the Proto-Germanic diphthongs *"ai" and *"au" (but see above). It is debated to what extent these similarities are due to coincidence or ancestral connection. Elias Wessén went as far as to classify Old Gutnish as a Gothic dialect. But such a proposal should be understood in strictly historical terms; that is to say, it properly refers to the precursor of Old Gutnish contemporary with the Gothic texts. By the time Old Gutnish came to be recorded in manuscripts, it possessed most of the characteristics which distinguish Old Norse from Wulfilan Gothic (in terms of vocabulary, morphology, phonology and syntax), as can be seen in this text sample from the Gutasaga about a migration to southern Europe (Manuscript from the 14th century written in Old Gutnish):

:"siþan af þissum þrim aucaþis fulc j gutlandi som mikit um langan tima at land elptj þaim ai alla fyþa þa lutaþu þair bort af landi huert þriþia þiauþ so at alt sculdu þair aiga oc miþ sir bort hafa som þair vfan iorþar attu... so fierri foru þair at þair quamu til griclanz... oc enn byggia oc enn hafa þair sumt af waru mali"

:over a long time, the people descended from these three multiplied so much that the land couldn't support them all. Then they draw lots, and every third person was picked to leave, and they could keep everything they owned and take it with them, except for their land. ... They went so far that they came to the land of the Greeks... they settled there, and live there still, and still have something of our language.




* F. Mossé, "Manuel de la langue gotique", Aubier Éditions Montaigne, 1942
* W. Braune and E. Ebbinghaus, "Gotische Grammatik", 17th edition 1966, Tübingen
** 20th edition, 2004. ISBN 3-484-10852-5 (hbk), ISBN 3-484-10850-9 (pbk)
* Wilhelm Streitberg, "Die gotische Bibel ", 4th edition, 1965, Heidelberg
* Joseph Wright, [ Grammar of the Gothic language] , 2nd edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1966
** 2nd edition, 1981 reprint by Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-811185-1
* W. Krause, "Handbuch des Gotischen", 3rd edition, 1968, Munich.

ee also

*List of Germanic languages
*Germanic Languages - Comparison of Selected Terms for a chart comparing Gothic words to those of other Germanic languages
*Old Gutnish
*Grimm's law
*Verner's law

External links

* [ Gotisch im WWW] Portal for information on Gothic (in German)
* [ English-Gothic Dictionary] (Also contains neologisms and reconstructed words)
* [ "Gothic dictionary with etymologies" by Andras Rajki]
* [ Gothic lessons]
* [ Germanic Lexicon Project] - early (Public Domain) editions of several of the references.
* Texts:
** [ The Gothic Bible in Latin alphabet]
** [ The Gothic Bible in Ulfilan script (Unicode text) from Wikisource]
** [ The Gothic Bible in Runic alphabet (Unicode text) from Wikisource]
** [ Titus] has Streitberg's "Gotische Bibel" and Crimean Gothic material after Busbecq.
** [ Wulfila Project]
** [ Skeireins Projet]
** " [ Bagme Bloma] ", a Gothic poem by J.R.R. Tolkien
* [ Gothic for Travellers] : Good conversation starters are death, torture, eating and drinking.
* [ Gothic Online] from the University of Texas at Austin

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