Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
This is episode 20, The Early Germanic Tribes.
In this episode, I’m going to look at the emergence of the first Germanic tribes in
So, we’ll be looking at the peoples and the languages which gave birth to English.
That means that from this point forward in the podcast, we’ll be establishing a continuum
from the original Germanic language spoken by those Northern European tribes, to the
Germanic dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, to Middle English, and then ultimately, Modern
So, this is really the prelude to Old English, and that means that it’s the last chapter
in our look at the development of Pre-English.
Of course, we’ll continue to look at outside influences like Latin and French and Old Norse,
but from this point on, we’ll be looking at those languages as outside influences on
this continuum from the original Germanic language to Modern English.
But before I begin, let me remind you that the website for the podcast is historyofenglishpodcast.com,
and my email address is kevin at historyofenglishpodcast.com.
And also, I wanted to remind you that I do have a Twitter account, which is at English
Hist Pod, that’s H-I-S-T P-O-D.
And also, I’m still working on that alphabet series.
I have everything recorded, I just need to edit it now and figure out how I’m going to
make it available.
So, I’ll keep you updated on that, and hopefully that’ll be available very shortly.
Now, in this episode, I want to examine where the Germanic tribes came from, and how they
came to occupy Central Europe east of the Rhine.
Now, back in episode 11, I looked at the emergence of the Ussatavo culture near the Black Sea,
which many linguists believe to be the link between the original Indo-Europeans and the
So let me begin by reviewing the key points from that episode.
Sometime around 3500 BC, the Ussatavo culture emerged in the northwestern corner of the
Black Sea around the mouth of the Dniester River.
This appears to have been a hybrid culture, which combined the cultures of the Indo-European
steppe herders to the immediate north with the people of the fixed agricultural settlements
around the Balkans to the south.
It’s generally believed that the people who inhabited this region spoke an Indo-European
And a few centuries later, after this culture emerged, some of the people who inhabited
this region began to migrate northwestward along the Dniester River, and that took them
along the northern side of the Carpathian Mountains into northern Europe.
These Ussatavo people encountered other peoples in northern Europe, which are known as the
Corded Ware people, based upon a type of pottery they produced which had cord-like designs
around the outside.
And I also noted back in that episode that the early Germanic languages were on the ground
and being spoken in and around Scandinavia by around 500 BC.
But that obviously leaves a pretty big gap in both time and knowledge between the first
migration of Ussatavo people around 3300 BC and the emergence of the Germanic-speaking
tribes around 500 BC.
So what about that gap?
What do we know about the links between the original Indo-Europeans and the first Germanic
Well, the answer is we don’t know very much with any certainty.
But there are a few reasonable conclusions that we can draw from that period.
First, since the original Germanic language was an Indo-European language, we know that
the original Germanic tribes in Scandinavia were connected to the Indo-Europeans of the
Black Sea region, at least linguistically.
This is the same assumption we can make about the first Greeks and the first Latin-speaking
tribes and the first Celts.
They all spoke Indo-European languages.
So there has to be some type of connection back to the original Indo-Europeans.
And the connection appears to be those Corded Ware people of northern Europe, at least in
the case of the Germanic tribes.
Now, there is archaeological evidence from northern Europe during this period between
the Ussatavo culture and the emergence of the Germanic tribes.
But there are no inscriptions, so we don’t know very much about the languages in this
region during this period.
So instead of linguistic evidence like inscriptions, scholars have to look for cultural links between
So let’s take a closer look at the Corded Ware people.
The first thing I should note about the Corded Ware people is that they occupied a very large
portion of northern and central Europe during the later period of the original Indo-Europeans.
And to put some actual dates on the culture, they appear to have spread across northern
Europe from around 3200 BC to around 2300 BC.
And as you may recall from earlier episodes, the period of the original Indo-Europeans
is estimated to be between 4500 BC and 2500 BC.
So during the later half of the Indo-European era, the Corded Ware culture was in place
in northern Europe.
And just to emphasize the point, that means that the Corded Ware people were in place
before the emergence of the original Germanic language and before the original Celtic and
Baltic and Slavic languages.
So these people lived in northern Europe around the same time the original Indo-Europeans
were starting to expand outward from the Black Sea region.
And to get a better idea of the region where these people lived, check out the map which
Lewis Henwood was kind enough to prepare for episode 11.
Just go to historyofenglishpodcast.com and click the link for episode 11.
So these people lived in northern Europe at a time when the Indo-Europeans were starting
to expand into that region.
But we don’t really know anything about the language of the Corded Ware people.
But we do know that the culture began to take on many characteristics associated with the
Indo-Europeans to the south.
And that’s a major signal that the Indo-Europeans were expanding into this region and affecting
the culture of the region.
Now archaeologists have determined that the Corded Ware people were mobile and they were
pastoral since relatively few fixed settlements have been found in the Corded Ware region.
Their mobile nature is also suggested by the wide territory which they covered.
There’s also evidence that they had domesticated horses and were using ox-drawn wagons at this
very early stage.
And since horses were domesticated in the steppe region to the southeast during the
Indo-European period, that’s a strong sign that the Indo-Europeans were expanding into
northern Europe and were bringing those domesticated horses with them.
And since wheeled vehicles were also in common use on the steppes by this point, the presence
of ox-drawn wagons in northern Europe is another sign of Indo-European expansion into the region
to the north.
Also, bronze objects began to appear in the Corded Ware region during this period.
And bronze technology and bronze objects, they can actually be traced from the Balkans
and the Carpathian Basin around the Black Sea through the steppe region and into this
area of northern Europe.
So this is further evidence of the spread of Indo-European peoples and culture into
So all of this suggests that this Corded Ware culture was comprised of either Indo-European
people who had migrated into northern Europe, or it was a blended culture consisting of
Indo-European people who had become assimilated with the native people in that region.
And this second option is probably the most likely because there are some clear differences
between this Corded Ware culture and the Indo-European culture.
For example, the Indo-Europeans tended to use a particular type of burial called Kurgan
burials and those types of burials are not generally found in the Corded Ware region.
So that suggests more of a blend of cultures.
As I said, there’s no clear evidence of the language of the Corded Ware people, but we
do know that Indo-European languages eventually emerged throughout this region a few centuries
And to the west, the Germanic languages emerged.
And to the south, the Celtic languages appeared.
And to the east, the Baltic and Slavic languages came about.
So again, this is a sign that the early Indo-European language spread into this Corded Ware region
during this transitional period.
And it may very well be the case that the later Indo-European languages which emerged
in this region were not the product of a single Indo-European tribe or dialect.
It could be the case that there were waves of Indo-Europeans entering this region, with
each new wave bringing its own Indo-European dialect.
Historical linguists note that when two different languages meet in the same region, there’s
usually a period of bilingualism in which the two languages exist side by side.
But sometimes, over a period of several generations, one of the languages loses its status and
prominence, and new generations only learn to speak the more dominant language.
And that’s very likely what happened here.
The Indo-European dialects may have emerged as the dominant languages because the chiefs
who spoke those dialects had larger herds of cattle and sheep, and they may have had
more horses than could have been raised by the native people of northern Europe.
And it’s also possible that there was more linguistic variation during this time.
In other words, local languages and dialects may have been common, but there might not
have been a common language spoken throughout the entire region.
And in that environment, a single dominant language like the Indo-European language could
have emerged as a common lingua franca spoken throughout the entire region.
So future generations would have tended to speak that language to the exclusion of the
local dialects and languages.
Again, these are just some of the theories to explain how Indo-European dialects replaced
the native languages in these regions.
And while the specific process is still up for debate, there’s no doubt what the ultimate
During the first millennium BC, the original or proto-versions of the modern languages
of northern Europe began to emerge.
And this included the Germanic languages, the Celtic languages, and the Balto-Slavic
But this fact also produces a dilemma for historical linguists.
Remember that the Germanic and Celtic languages are considered Kentum languages, whereas the
Balto-Slavic languages of eastern Europe are considered Sodom languages.
So did all of these languages evolve together as part of a common dialect, which later fractured
into separate dialects?
Or did all of these languages evolve separately from each other in different places at different
Again, the answer depends on who you ask.
In the mid-1800s, some early linguists attempted to put together the first family tree of Indo-European
One of those linguists was August Schlesier.
And Schlesier noticed similarities between the Germanic languages and the Baltic and
For example, all of those languages had similar case endings in certain situations.
In his early Indo-European family tree, Schlesier created a basic Slavo-Germanic branch in which
the Germanic languages of northern Europe and the Baltic and Slavic languages of eastern
Europe were all part of the same language family.
He then indicated a later separation of the Germanic languages from the Baltic and Slavic
So, in essence, he thought the Germanic languages and the Balto-Slavic languages had emerged
from a common dialect spoken in northern Europe.
But there was an obvious problem with Schlesier’s model.
By this point, linguists had also started to make that distinction between the Kentum
and Sodom languages.
Supposedly, this distinction represented a very early split in the Indo-European languages
between a western Kentum group and an eastern Sodom group.
And the Germanic languages were part of that western Kentum group.
And the Balto-Slavic languages were part of that eastern Sodom group.
So this suggested that the Balto-Slavic languages developed separately from the Germanic languages.
And it also suggests that the similarities between the two language groups were the result
of long-term borrowing.
Not all of these languages were spoken in close proximity, so that would explain some
of the similarities.
Now we should also keep in mind the wave theory I mentioned earlier.
And that might also account for some of the fundamental similarities and differences between
For example, there might have been an initial Indo-European dialect brought by early settlers.
And in certain places, there may have been later settlers who brought a related but different
Indo-European dialect with them.
So these theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
And this is still the subject of ongoing debate among some modern linguists.
But at the end of the day, the proper classification of the Germanic languages isn’t really all
that important to our story of the history of English.
While the linguistic evidence is unclear and somewhat contradictory, we can say that an
early proto-Germanic dialect had emerged in Scandinavia and northern Germany early in
the first millennium BC.
So let’s turn our attention to those early Germanic speakers.
During this very early period, the Germanic tribes were confined to a relatively small
portion of northern Europe, from Scandinavia down into modern-day Denmark.
Even though there were no inscriptions or writings from this period to confirm that
the people who lived there were early Germanic-speaking tribes, there are other clues which lead to
For example, this is the only area in the region where there are no pre-Germanic place
And that suggests that Germanic-speaking people were in this region very early on.
But again, it’s difficult to put any actual dates on the arrival of these tribes into
And regardless of the date of their arrival, it does appear that early Germanic dialects
were being spoken in this region by about 1000 BC, and perhaps even earlier than that.
Now south of this region were the Celtic tribes.
And remember that early on, the Celts dominated much of central Europe.
But sometime later, around 1000 BC, some of the Germanic tribes began to move southward
into Celtic territory.
And within a few centuries, the dividing line between Celts and the Germans had moved all
the way westward to the Rhine.
And these Germanic tribes continued their migration and displacement of the Celts further
south, down into modern Germany.
And these migrating tribes soon became distinct from the tribes which remained up in Scandinavia.
And we now have an early split between the North Germanic tribes and the Western Germanic
The northern tribes would eventually produce a dialect called Old Norse, which was the
language of the Vikings, and it ultimately produced modern Scandinavian languages like
Swedish and Norwegian and Danish and Icelandic.
And those Western Germanic tribes ultimately produced the Western Germanic dialects, including
English, German, and Dutch.
Meanwhile, around this same time, a separate eastward expansion of Germanic tribes out
of Scandinavia occurred, and that occurred between around 600 BC and 300 BC.
And this movement was from Scandinavia to the opposite Baltic coast, down into the area
of modern-day Poland.
And this movement then continued southward and eastward from there.
By around 300 BC, they were located in and around the Carpathian Mountains.
And the customs and dialects of these tribes were distinct from those of the Western Germanic
tribes, and these tribes are known to us today as the East Germanic tribes.
They eventually reached the Black Sea and the Danube.
In fact, most of the tribes which overtook Western Europe upon the collapse of the Roman
Empire were these East Germanic tribes, not, interestingly enough, the neighboring West
Now these East Germanic invaders included the Goths, the Vandals, the Gepids, the Burgundians,
and the Lombards.
Now these tribes and their dialects have long since disappeared.
They were assimilated into other tribes and peoples over time, but their story is a very
important part of the overall story of the Germanic tribes.
So we’ll look at them in more detail in an upcoming episode.
So that gives you a very general overview of the emergence and division of the early
But it also brings us to the point in our story where we actually start to have independent
evidence of these tribes and their languages.
Up to this point, we have to rely on archaeological evidence of the peoples who lived in this
But now, around 300 B.C., we get the first written accounts from people who encountered
these Germanic tribes.
And soon thereafter, we get the first archaeological evidence of the language of these tribes.
And this evidence comes in the form of some early inscriptions.
So our knowledge of the Germanic tribes starts to grow significantly after about 300 B.C.
So let’s look at some of that evidence.
The first documented encounter with these tribes can be attributed to the Greek traveler
The last time I mentioned Pythias was the episode on the Celts.
And you might recall that he also gave us our first glimpse of the Celts in Britain.
He coined the term Britannic Islands, which eventually came Britannia and then Britannia
and of course later, Britain.
Now, after he left the British Isles on his way back to Greece around 325 B.C., he traveled
across the North Sea into the region of modern-day Denmark in northern Germany.
And he mentioned two tribes in this region by name.
He mentioned the Teutons in modern-day Denmark and the Gutons in northern Germany.
Now I mentioned the Teutons back in the episode about the Celts.
And you might recall that the Teutons and the Cimbri were the two tribes that moved
out of northern Europe down to the region around Hungary and then moved westward and
threatened the Roman Empire.
And the Romans eventually defeated them, but it was a part of the overall threat to the
Romans which led Caesar to invade Gaul in the first century B.C.
And you might remember that there’s some uncertainty as to whether the Cimbri were a Germanic tribe
or a Celtic tribe.
And there’s even some argument about the Teutons as well since their name comes from
a Celtic word meaning people.
But most modern historians consider them to be a Germanic tribe.
So thanks to Pythias, we know that they were located around Denmark about 325 B.C.
And you may also remember that the name of the Teuton tribe gives us the modern word
Teutonic to refer to things associated with Germany.
So that’s the Teutons.
But what about that other tribe which Pythias mentioned, the Gutons?
Well, some scholars believe that the Gutons may have been the same tribe which we would
later know as the Goths.
And if that’s true, that means the Goths were still located in northern Europe around 325
B.C. before beginning their movement into southeastern Europe.
And the time frame actually works, but there’s no way to know for sure if Pythias was referring
to the early Goths.
In fact, the reports of Pythias are so sparse and limited that they only give us a brief
glimpse of these Germanic tribes and the region where they lived around 325 B.C.
Now as I mentioned, the Romans encountered the Teutons in the Kimberley around 109 B.C.
And that was a couple of centuries after Pythias and his reports from the region.
And that set in place a series of events which ultimately led to the Roman invasion of Gaul
all the way to the Rhine, and even beyond that on several occasions.
So after that point, around the first century B.C., we get more and more first-hand accounts
of the Germanic tribes from the perspective of the Romans.
But during the 300-year period between Pythias and Caesar, our knowledge is limited to the
Remember, the Celtic tribes and the Germanic tribes were both illiterate, so they didn’t
keep their own recorded histories.
So based on the evidence we do have, it appears that the Germanic tribes in Scandinavia and
northern Germany, they continued their migration southwest and southeast during this period.
We know the Teutons migrated from Denmark down into Hungary and then westward into Gaul.
And if the Gutons were in fact the early Goths, we know that they moved from this region southeastward
to the area around the Black Sea.
And we know from the accounts of the Romans during this period that they were getting
more and more concerned about these tribal movements to the north.
There were more and more Celtic tribes knocking at the door of the Romans during this period,
presumably because the Celtic tribes were being pushed southward by the expanding Germans
So let’s take a closer look at the migrations during this period.
As I noted, by this point, the Germanic people had started to move southwestward towards
Gaul, where they had begun to settle down and they had also begun to merge with native
So in some of these regions, Celtic tribes and Germanic tribes were already starting
to become intermingled within the same general area by this point.
And this is part of the problem we have in trying to classify early tribes like the Teutons
and the Cimbri.
They have Celtic names, but they originated in areas that were later associated with the
Germanic tribes, so historians still debate whether some of these tribes spoke Celtic
languages or Germanic languages.
Now as the Germanic tribes encounter the Celts to the south, we can also see the split between
the western and eastern tribes.
The West Germans eventually tended to settle down once they were in place, but the East
Germans continued to be migratory.
As I noted earlier, the earliest Germanic tribes were nomadic herders and shepherds
in keeping with their Indo-European roots.
And they continued to have very limited grain agriculture during this period between Pythias
And Europe was heavily wooded, which tended to limit agricultural development.
So expanding Germanic tribes tended to settle in areas which were open and unforested.
In those areas, the Germans could live off their flocks and their herds.
But as the population began to grow, the herds were not capable of sustaining the population.
So given this dilemma, they had three options.
First, they could clear more land for larger herds.
Second, they could switch over to an agricultural economy and grow crops.
Or third, they could migrate elsewhere to an area that was not as congested.
Well, the nature of the Germanic tribes was to migrate.
So they typically took the last option and they just moved on elsewhere.
The first two options were contrary to their culture and lifestyle.
So as they continued their migrations and expansion southward, the Germanic tribes continued
to travel into Celtic regions.
And the major point here is that this appears to be more of a migration than an invasion.
Central and Northern Europe was still very sparsely populated compared to today.
There were no nation-states or standing armies.
So generally speaking, these were merely nomadic, pastoral people looking for new pastures.
And this was the situation as we find it around the first century BC, with Germanic tribes
moving down into Central Europe into Celtic territory.
In fact, by this point, the Germanic tribes had reached all the way down into southern Germany.
And that meant that some of the Celtic tribes were displaced in the process and were being
forced southward as well.
So now we can start to see how all these pieces fit together.
In the south, along the Mediterranean, we have the Romans.
And in the north were the Germanic tribes.
And in most of Central Europe were the Celts.
And I mentioned in earlier episodes that the Celts were caught between a rock and a hard place.
And the ultimate trigger here was the expansion of Germanic tribes southward.
That had caused a domino effect, which pushed the Celtic tribes further southward.
And that caused pressures along the Roman border.
And in response to those pressures and the general Roman fear of the Celtic tribes to
the north, Julius Caesar invaded the Celts in Gaul in the first century BC.
And when all was said and done, the Celts in Europe were consumed by these two expanding
forces, which left the Romans and the Germanic tribes as the two primary players in Western
Europe, with the Rhine and the Danube as the de facto border between those two regions.
Now when Caesar invaded and conquered Gaul in the first century BC, the territory of
Gaul extended all the way to the Rhine in the east.
And in case you’re not familiar with European topography, the Rhine flows from Central Europe
northward to the North Sea, and the Danube flows from the same general region of Central
Europe eastward to the Black Sea.
So the region west and south of these two rivers essentially became Roman territory.
And as the Germanic tribes expanded southward, eventually consuming the Celts, the region
north and east of these two rivers became the Germanic territory.
So this is a good point to stop and take a snapshot of the situation as we find it in
We basically have a southeast and northwest divide between the Romans and the Germanic
But Celtic tribes had not completely disappeared yet.
To the west of the Rhine, in Gaul, they were still there.
They were just under the control of the Romans now.
And over time, Romanization ensured that the Celtic nature of these tribes began to disappear
and were replaced by Roman elements.
But in the east, Germanic and Celtic cultures continued to coexist for a while.
There was a Celtic tribe in this region called the Germani.
And the Romans began to call all of the people in this region east of Gaul, in other words
east of the Rhine, the Germani.
But over time, as the Germanic languages and culture began to replace the Celtic culture
in that region, the term Germani became specifically associated with these Germanic people.
So this is the origin of the words Germanic and German.
Again, as I noted in an earlier episode, Germanic, like Teutonic, has Celtic origins.
But we associate those terms with the Germans today because German culture eventually supplanted
Celtic culture in these regions, which ultimately became known as Germania.
It’s also at this point that we start to see the transition of the western Germanic tribes
from migratory herders to grain farmers.
The Celts east of the Rhine had already begun to shift to grain agriculture, and they had
begun to establish fixed settlements and villages.
But with the Roman conquest of Gaul, the Germanic tribes couldn’t penetrate the Roman territory,
which was defended by Roman legions.
So that effectively prevented any further expansion by the Germans in a westward direction.
And migration of these tribes to the east was limited because the east was already densely
occupied by other Germanic tribes, which were migrating southeastward.
So since they couldn’t really continue to migrate to new regions, as required by a nomadic
herding lifestyle, they had no choice but to adopt grain agriculture and start farming
And that’s what happened around this time in the west.
The west Germans began to adopt a lifestyle which was closely related to the Celtic tribes
which they encountered, and in some cases which they conquered.
In some of these areas, the remaining Celtic expertise in agriculture would have been valuable.
And some historians think there was a level of cooperation between the Celts and the Germans
in many of these areas.
In fact, it’s possible that there was a mixing of Germanic and Celtic tribes in some of these
regions, and this may again account for the inability of the Romans to distinguish some
of these groups as Germanic or Celtic.
But keep in mind that the eastern Germanic tribes didn’t really face this dilemma.
There was no hard barrier like the Roman army in eastern Europe north of the Danube.
So the eastern tribes continued to migrate eastward and eventually southward.
And so we see cultural and lifestyle differences emerging between the eastern and western Germanic
tribes very early on.
But let’s look back to the Rhine region to the west.
With the Romans firmly entrenched in Gaul, and with more and more Germanic tribes coming
in from the north, the region east of the Rhine became more and more densely populated
with Germanic tribes.
So it became more and more Germanic, and that meant less and less Celtic.
But since the Germanic tribes weren’t able to cross into Roman territory west of the
Rhine, Gaul didn’t become diluted by Germanic tribes.
Over time, the area west of the Rhine evolved into a Romano-Celtic culture, and the area
east of the Rhine became more and more Germanic.
So a linguistic and cultural divide on each side of the river became sharper and sharper
Now initially the Romans conquered Gaul, but that doesn’t mean they were content to remain
Remember, this is the Roman Empire we’re talking about.
So it was inevitable that Rome was going to set its sights on the Germanic region east
of the Rhine.
Now Rome initially crossed the Rhine on several occasions, but it wasn’t with the intent
of permanent occupation or conquest.
The Germanic area was a greater challenge than Gaul.
Remember that the Celts had become settled farmers in and around villages and small towns.
So once these towns were conquered, the Celts could be subdued.
But in the Germanic region, the tribes were only beginning to adopt agriculture.
Many of them were still nomadic herders when the Romans arrived.
So if the Germanic tribes were defeated in battle, they would just shrink into the forest
and engage in guerrilla warfare.
But by the first century A.D., the Romans thought they were finally in a position to
conquer and dominate the Germanic regions to the east, just as they had done in Gaul.
The Romans had actually engaged some of the Germanic tribes in battle, and they had scored
some significant victories against them east of the Rhine between the years 12 B.C. and
So the Romans decided to make a claim to the entire territory east of the Rhine, which
they now called the province of Germania.
And in the year 4 A.D., the Romans entered Germania with the intention of making it into
the next Roman province.
And they initially had success against the Germanic tribes they encountered there, and
it looked like Germania was destined to follow the same course as Gaul.
But a couple of years after that initial invasion, a highly respected and feared Roman general
named Varus was sent to consolidate Roman power in Germania.
His trusted advisor was Arminius, a German who had been handed over to the Romans as
a child by his Germanic chieftain father during that earlier Roman invasion of the territory.
So this was a customary practice at the time.
Defeated chieftains would sometimes hand over their child as tribute to the Romans and to
confirm Roman victory over the tribe.
So the young child, Arminius, had been raised as essentially a hostage in Rome, and he’d
been given a military education.
And he subsequently rose in the ranks of the Roman army.
But Arminius had secretly forged an alliance among competing Germanic tribes to oppose
And while the Roman general Varus was on his way from his summer camp to his winter camp
near the Rhine, he received reports of a rebellion in the province, and he took a detour through
some unfamiliar territory in the Teutoburg Forest region of Germany, probably at the
direction of Arminius.
What he didn’t know was that the Germanic troops were waiting for him in the trees and
in the brush.
And when Varus and his Roman troops came through, the Germanic troops ambushed the Romans.
The Germanic soldiers surrounded the three Roman legions commanded by Varus, and they
hemmed them in.
And they then proceeded to slaughter the Romans with estimates of 15,000 to 20,000 Roman casualties,
including Varus himself who committed suicide.
This is known as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and it was a complete and shocking defeat
for the Romans.
The contemporary Roman sources at the time acknowledged the complete defeat of the Romans.
And even though the Romans did make a few more limited excursions into the region in
subsequent years, the Teutoburg defeat effectively ended Roman expansion into Europe east of
And that effectively set the Rhine River as the de facto boundary between Rome and Germania
Though the Romans couldn’t conquer Germania, they could certainly trade with them.
The empire was in constant need of raw materials from Germania like amber and furs, and manpower
usually in the form of slaves.
And the Germans desired Roman luxury goods, especially gold and silver items like jugs
and buckets, ladles, cups, brooches, rings, and other jewelry.
They especially desired Roman coins, particularly those of small denominations, which they were
beginning to use in their own burgeoning free market economy.
So trade was primarily conducted between the Romans and the Germanic tribes living within
a hundred miles or so of the Rhine and the Danube border.
And these Germanic border tribes tended to act as intermediaries to facilitate the trade
of those same items deeper into Germanic territory.
So this was the state of the Romano-German relationship through the middle of the second
And so it should not be surprising that we start to see Latin words associated with the
Romans flowing into the early Germanic language at this point.
Some linguists estimate that about 175 words were borrowed directly from Latin by these
early Germanic tribes in continental Europe.
In other words, these words made their way into the Germanic languages while the Anglo-Saxons
were still on the continent, before they migrated to the British Isles.
So the presence of these words in modern English can be traced all the way back to these Germanic
tribes while they were still trading with the Romans in Europe.
So let’s look at some of those words.
We see the Latin influence in words associated with trade between the Romans and the Germanic
tribes, especially portable articles.
So the following words pass from Latin into the original Germanic dialects.
Words like chest, dish, cup, kettle, pillow, sack, sickle, chalk, pear, pepper, butter,
Now the Germans already had words for some of these items in their languages like butter
and cheese, but the modern words, which we use today, were originally borrowed from the
The word wine was also borrowed by the Germanic tribes during this period.
The Germans had beer and ale and mead, remember that mead goes all the way back to the original
Indo-Europeans, and beer and ale were drinks developed in and around Germany.
Ale is actually a Germanic word, and beer has a disputed etymology.
It’s unclear if the word beer comes from the Germanic languages or from Latin.
There are actually possible roots within both languages.
But fermented fruit juices did not come from Germany.
That was a specialty of the Mediterranean.
So the word wine definitely comes from the Latin word for wine, which was venum.
Now a trader or a huckster was called a calpo in Latin, and it may have also been used to
mean wine seller very early on.
This word was borrowed into the Germanic languages and ended up as keep in Old English, meaning
marketplace or wares or price.
But you may remember that the original Anglo-Saxon k sound assimilated or shifted to a ch sound.
So keep became cheap in Old English.
But it was originally a noun.
When the Norman French invaded England in 1066, they brought a French phrase for a bargain
which was bon marche.
And this was translated into Middle English as good cheap.
And it appears that this phrase was shortened during the early modern English period into
the adjective cheap, meaning inexpensive or low quality.
So the word cheap can be traced back to this Germanic borrowing from the Romans.
And the word anchor also came from the Germanic languages from Latin during this period.
The Romans were far more adept at shipbuilding than the central European Germans.
So the Germans were apparently impressed by this Roman technology, and anchor passed
into the Germanic languages at this time.
In addition to words associated with trade, we start to see the introduction of words
suggesting certain civilizing influences of the Romans.
The Romans introduced paved roads to the Germans, and the Latin word for paved road was strata.
And that word passed into the Germanic languages during this period and then eventually passed
into English as street.
And speaking of street, the word toll can also be traced back to a borrowing by the
original Germanic tribes from the Romans.
And in order to build roads, and for that matter, to build many of the large structures
associated with the Romans, you needed to have very precise measurements of distance
So this is where many of the Roman weight measurements entered the Germanic languages.
The Latin word for thousand, mila, produced the measurement which we know today as a mile.
I discussed this measurement back in the episode on the early Romans.
Well the word now passed into the Germanic languages and eventually into English as mile.
Now the Romans had a mila, which was a precise measurement of 1,000.
But apparently the original Indo-European language didn’t have a word for 1,000, nor
did the original Germanic languages.
But the early Germanic languages had developed a word which was pronounced something like
the sundi, which meant several hundred or a great many of something.
And the Germanic tribes used this Germanic word to translate the Latin word mila.
So that’s how the word passed into English as thousand, and it came to mean a specific
measurement of 1,000.
So even though the word thousand is a native Germanic word, its specific meaning today
comes from its association with Latin.
And in the last episode I mentioned that the British pound sterling came from the original
Old English word pund, which meant a pound of weight as used by the Romans.
Well that Old English word pund, meaning pound, goes back to the Germanic tribes who borrowed
the word from the Romans.
But you may say, hey, wait a minute, I thought the Latin word for pound was libra, which
is why we still use lb to abbreviate a pound.
Well that’s true, but the Roman word pondus meant weight, as in how much something weighs.
And they often used the phrase libra pondo to mean a pound of weight.
And it’s in this sense that the Germanic tribes borrowed the word pondo as the name
for a pound of weight.
And from there we get pound.
And with Roman construction, we get words like tile and table via this same process.
Tile meant a roof covering and was a technology introduced by the Romans.
Table came from the Latin word tabula, meaning a board or plank.
I mentioned in an earlier episode that Romans sometimes covered small boards with a thin
layer of wax used for writing.
And from this word tabula, we get the modern English word tablet.
Well this same word passed into the early Germanic languages, meaning a board or plank.
And since boards or planks were used to create certain pieces of furniture, the word tabula
eventually gave us the word table.
The Romans had also developed an advanced technology to grind grain into flour.
And from this technology, the Latin word molina passed into the Germanic languages
and eventually gave us the English word mill.
And the civilizing influence of the Romans can also be seen in a word like kitchen, which
also comes from the Romans via the Germans.
The original word was a vulgar Latin word, coquina, which meant kitchen.
And this word passed into the Germanic languages.
And again, we can see that Old English sound shift from the K sound to the CH sound in
the middle of that word, from coquina to kitchen.
The Latin word volum meant a rampart or a row of stakes.
Once again, the word was borrowed by the Germanic tribes from the Romans and eventually became
the word wall in modern English.
There’s another word that followed this route into modern English.
It is, in fact, one word in modern English, but it means two different things.
It’s the word mint.
And in modern English, it can refer to an herb or it can refer to a place where money
Well, in Old English, the herb was minta.
And that word came from the Germanic tribes who borrowed it from the Romans.
The Latin word for the herb was menta or mentha.
And that’s also where we get the word menthol in modern English.
Now, as far as the place where coins were made, that word also comes from Old English.
And the Old English word for coins was minute.
And that word came directly from the Latin word moneta, which meant money.
Now, I discussed that word in the last episode.
As you may recall, the Latin word for money or coins was moneta from the name of the Roman
goddess Juno Moneta.
Well, the word money comes from that original Latin word via the French.
But the word mint comes from that word via the Germanic tribes.
It passed into Old English as minute, still meaning coins.
But its meaning eventually evolved to mean the place where coins were made.
So again, even though the words menta, meaning the herb, and minute, meaning coins, were
once distinct in Old English, they’ve become identical in modern English as the word mint.
And both uses of the word come to us from the Romans thanks to the Germanic tribes.
So words which we still use every day reflect a time in history when the early Germanic
tribes were trading with the Roman Empire and were adopting elements of Roman civilization.
But it also helps to illustrate the many ways in which Latin has influenced modern English.
As we can see, Latin didn’t just come into English through French.
At least a few Latin words came with the original Germanic Anglo-Saxons.
So in this episode, we’ve explored the origins of the Germanic tribes, as best we can determine.
And we’ve looked at their expansion throughout Central Europe at the expense of the Celtic
And we looked at the Roman influences on the early Germanic language.
So next time, I’m going to focus on the Germanic language itself.
Specifically, the development of that language, and the structure and grammar of that language.
And that’ll be very important as it relates to English.
Since English is a Germanic language, we’ll see many features that are very familiar to us.
So next time, we’ll look at the Germanic language.
Until then, thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.