Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
This is episode 26, Imperial Crisis and the Goths.
This time, we’re going to explore a period of Roman history which is sometimes called
the Imperial Crisis, and this period coincides with the rise of a group of Germanic tribes
who invaded Rome during the same time frame.
These tribes included the ancient Goths, and the Goths are particularly important to us
because they were the first Germanic tribe to provide us with a detailed written account
of their own language, and that makes their language very important in the overall context
of the Germanic languages.
But before I begin, let me note that this episode turned out a little longer than usual,
and that’s part of the reason for the delay in getting it to you, but rather than break
it into two separate episodes, I’ve decided to present it to you in one part, and that’s
because the overall subject matter relates to events that were taking place at the same
time around the 3rd and 4th centuries.
By this point in history, the original common Germanic language had begun to fracture into
various regional dialects, and for the first time in recorded history, we have references
to the Saxons, so by now we can safely assume that the earliest Saxon dialects were being
spoken in and around northern Germany.
And remember that what we call Old English was really just a particular Saxon dialect
spoken in southwestern England a few centuries later, so we’re very close to Old English.
But let’s begin this episode by picking up where we left off last time, in the Danube
region at the end of the 2nd century.
This is where Germanic tribes began to cross into Roman territory and battle the Romans
within the empire itself, and it’s also where the first Germanic speakers likely encountered
In terms of political and military history, the events during this period marked a turning
point for the Roman Empire.
For more than six centuries, Rome had been the aggressor, constantly expanding outward,
increasing the size and scope of the empire, but by the beginning of the 3rd century, that
expansion had stopped, and now Rome actually found itself on the defensive.
As it turned out, the Germans weren’t content to remain on the other side of the river,
and that meant the Romans were going to have to fight if they wanted to maintain what they
had acquired over the past few centuries.
And that was the real problem for the Romans.
At a time when they were going to have to fight to defend their empire, they weren’t
in a good position to do that.
Rome was increasingly wracked by problems, and the problems were both internal and external.
We’re now entering the period of the Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire.
The events of the next few centuries are very complicated because they involve a lot of
moving parts, but the importance of these events can’t be overstated.
These events were a major factor in the ultimate fall of the Western Roman Empire, and they
set the stage for many of the nation-states of modern Europe.
And they also ensured the spread of Germanic culture and language into Roman territory.
This is the backdrop for the migration of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain.
So let’s take a closer look at what was happening to cause these migrations or invasions.
The first part of the story is what was happening within Rome.
Simply stated, Rome was having a lot of internal problems.
In the year 235, the Roman emperor, Severus, was assassinated, and that set in motion a
period of civil wars and rebellions, assassinations, and general chaos which lasted for the next
This was a period in which various Roman leaders fought for power, and it’s the period that’s
sometimes called the Imperial Crisis.
During this period, over 20 different leaders assumed power in various parts of the empire.
As you might imagine, this created serious instability within the empire and within the
Roman military itself.
And as the infighting continued, it also forced troops to be withdrawn from the border regions.
And that left the border regions more vulnerable to invasions from across the border.
By the end of the 3rd century, all of these factors meant that there were hardly any Roman
troops left along most of the Rhine and Danube border.
In their place, the Romans had begun to rely more and more upon foreign tribes as mercenaries.
That included Germanic warriors, but it also included peoples on the eastern fringe of
the empire, like the Slavs.
So from the Roman perspective, they were hiring barbarians to defend Rome against other barbarians.
Now this trend of relying on foreign armies actually increased over time.
And that meant that Rome inevitably lost some of the loyalty and discipline which had been
associated with the Roman legions.
It also meant that Rome had to maintain the loyalty of these foreign armies by paying
them or working out some other type of arrangement with them.
One type of arrangement which Rome occasionally implemented was a deal in which the foreign
tribe was allowed to cross into Roman territory and remain there in exchange for their agreement
to defend the region against other tribes.
This was essentially the deal that the Romans made with the Franks in the north, and as
we will see, it was a deal that the Romans made with the Goths in the east as well.
But most of the time, Rome simply paid the mercenaries.
And this too became a problem in the 3rd century.
In an effort to increase the size of the Roman army, and increasingly to pay mercenaries,
the Romans had to come up with more money.
And they did that by issuing lots of new Roman coins.
But there was only so much silver available to put in those coins.
So the Romans began to cut back on the amount of silver in the coins and they replaced the
silver with cheaper metals like bronze and copper.
And that meant there were lots of new coins available, but they weren’t worth as much
And so you needed a lot more coins to buy the same goods and services.
Economists call this inflation, and when it’s really bad, they call it hyperinflation.
And that’s what Rome had to deal with throughout this period.
By the end of the 3rd century, the Roman currency had actually lost most of its value, and barter
had returned as the standard way to pay for goods and services.
Not only did these economic problems contribute to the internal disruptions, it also made
it more difficult to pay the salaries of mercenaries in the border regions.
So you can see why this period is sometimes called the Imperial Crisis.
Rome had suddenly become an economic, political, and military mess.
And all of these internal problems just happened to coincide with new developments which were
occurring across the border in Germania.
And these developments were going to cause even more problems for the Romans.
Throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries, many of those smaller tribes mentioned by Tacitus,
they’d begun to join together and form larger tribes, or confederations of tribes.
So we start to see the emergence of bigger and more powerful Germanic tribes, and therefore
more powerful Germanic armies.
And it’s during this period that we have the first mention of tribes like the Saxons
and the Franks, who were both confederations of tribes that were beginning to emerge as
powerful forces in the northern Rhine region.
So why was all of this happening in Germania?
Why were those tribes suddenly forming alliances and creating new mega-tribes?
Well a big part of the answer was population growth.
This growth had begun in the Germanic homeland in Scandinavia a few centuries earlier, and
that population growth in northern Europe had caused the initial expansion of Germanic
tribes southward out of Scandinavia.
As some of those tribes migrated into the region around the Rhine, they ran up against
the Roman Empire and they couldn’t expand any further.
So those tribes settled down, and they began to switch from nomadic herding to crop farming.
As their populations continued to grow, their settlements grew larger and larger.
Small settlements turned into villages.
And the surrounding farms were expanded outward further and further to sustain the population.
This process continued until one day small, isolated tribes suddenly became next-door
And eventually those neighboring tribes began to coalesce and form alliances.
These new tribal confederations eventually grew into mega-tribes.
And that meant these tribes were much more powerful.
And when you combine this process, which was taking place in Germania, with the imperial
crisis taking place in Rome, you can see the balance of power shifting from the Romans
to the Germans.
And as I noted, this process produced the first mention of tribes like the Franks and
the Saxons around this time.
But just to the south of the emerging Franks and Saxons, there was another new tribe emerging.
This was in the region where the Rhine and the Danube both originate, in southwestern
And this new confederation of tribes was called the Alemanni.
And the name Alemanni actually tells us a lot about what was happening at this time.
It’s generally believed that Alemanni meant all men, ala meaning all and mani meaning
So, the name of this Alemanni tribe reflects the fact that it was a group of different
tribes which had banded together into a new confederation.
Modern scholars are still not entirely sure which tribes contributed to this new group,
but many believe that it included remnants of the Marcomanni and Quadi tribes that I
mentioned in the last episode.
As I noted last time, these tribes eventually migrated from the region which had become
known as Bohemia, and they moved westward along the Danube into the region which came
to be known as Bavaria.
Well, this just happens to be the same general region where the Alemanni tribe began to emerge
during the 3rd century.
Now if you studied French or Spanish, that name Alemanni may seem a bit familiar to you.
It’s actually the root of the name of the modern nation of Germany in both of those
In French, Germany is Alemannia, and in Spanish, it’s Alemania.
The same Germanic tribe is also the root of the name of Germany in Portuguese, Welsh,
Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, as well as a variety of other languages.
And that should give you an idea of how powerful and important this tribe was for a period
of time in the 3rd century.
And in fact, if you’re a fan of square dancing, you’ve probably danced to the name of this
You might do-si-do, but you’re also probably Alemann left or right.
And this particular square dancing step comes from the name of the ancient Germanic tribe,
And it actually comes from a dance which originated in Germany and passed to France in the 17th
Since the French name for Germany was Alemannia, the French called this particular German dance
And when the French colonized the region of Louisiana, the name passed to North America.
And from there, one of the steps in the Alemannda was incorporated into square dancing.
So the name of the Alemanni tribe is still with us today.
And in the 3rd century, the Alemanni became a major problem for the Roman army.
In the year 260, the Alemanni crossed the Roman border and invaded deep into Roman territory.
In fact, they crossed the Alps and passed all the way down to Milan.
As a result, they forced the Romans to abandon the traditional frontier which ran along the
Rhine and the Danube.
And this actually created a wedge in the Roman border.
During this period, the Romans were distracted by other invading tribes, which I’m going
to talk about later.
But eventually the Romans were able to push the Alemanni back across the border.
And for a while, it looked like the Alemanni threat was over.
But in the 4th century, their invasions began again.
And in fact, it wasn’t until the 8th century, long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire,
that they were finally defeated by the Franks.
And it was only then that they ceased to be an independent kingdom.
And even today, Alemannic German is a prominent dialect of the modern High German languages.
Now as I noted, it was ultimately the Franks, not the Romans, who permanently defeated the
Both of these tribes were new confederations formed by uniting smaller tribes together.
In fact, during the 3rd century, the Alemanni appeared to be a bigger threat to Rome than
the Frankish tribes further north along the Rhine.
But over the next couple of centuries, the power of the Franks would eventually eclipse
the Alemanni, as well as most of the other Germanic tribes in the region.
Around the time of that first great invasion by the Alemanni, the Franks were a brand new
confederation which had just appeared on the scene.
One theory is that the various tribes which came together to form the Franks did so because
of the rising power of the Alemanni to their south.
The first references to the name Franks actually occurred shortly before that great Alemanni
invasion in 260.
The name appeared in a Roman army marching song from that period.
But by the time the Alemanni were invading the Roman Empire, it had become evident that
the new Franks also wanted to settle across the Rhine in Roman territory.
And they sought to do that by taking advantage of Rome’s gradual loss of control over its
Around the year 250, a group of Franks crossed the Rhine and penetrated deep into Gaul, all
the way to modern day Spain.
And from that point on, the Franks were a constant threat in the northern Rhine region.
And as I’ve noted before, the Franks would eventually succeed in this objective.
They would eventually establish a Frankish kingdom in northeastern Gaul, and as Roman
power in Gaul waned, it was the Franks who filled that vacuum and came to dominate the
And of course, they thereby provided us with the name of the modern nation of France.
But the origin of the name Franks is uncertain.
Lots of theories have been suggested by etymologists, but no one knows for certain what the original
Franks have been made to the Old Norse word fraca and the Old English word franca, which
meant hunting spear or lance or javelin.
But many scholars think that these words came from the name of the Frankish tribe, not the
other way around.
The name of the Franks also resulted in the late Latin word francus, which initially meant
free or unrestrained.
This meaning is probably derived from the fact that the Franks cut that deal with the
Romans that I mentioned earlier.
They were eventually permitted to settle across the Rhine where they lived as a free tribe
in exchange for their agreement to defend the border.
So francus came to mean free or unrestrained.
This word later passed into early French as franc, and over time the meaning of the word
expanded from its original sense as free to a much broader sense of being open, sincere
and genuine, as in to speak freely.
And that’s the version which we still have in modern English in the word frank, as in
let me be frank with you, or frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
If you’re familiar with politics, especially American politics, you may have heard of franking
That term basically refers to the right of politicians to send mail from their office
to their constituents without having to pay postage, which is a nice benefit if you happen
to own a political office.
Well that use of the term frank or franking can also be traced back to this same French
root word, and it originally meant that the letter was free to be sent or delivered because
postage had been paid for it.
So it didn’t mean free as in no cost, it meant free as in ready to be delivered.
But again, it ultimately comes from the name of this Germanic tribe, the Franks.
The old French word franchise meant that you were free to do something without legal restriction.
This term eventually passed into English as franchise, and its meaning shifted to mean
a particular legal right, specifically the right to vote.
So today when we speak of someone being disenfranchised, we mean that they’ve had their vote or rights
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term franchise came to refer to a different
type of legal right, specifically the right to sell a company’s products or services.
And this is the source of the modern sense of the word franchise as a type of business.
So if you buy a franchise, you’re free to sell a particular company’s goods and services.
And you’re usually free to use the company’s name and logos.
All of that originating from the sense of the word franc, meaning free.
The same use of the word franc as free also appears in the family name Franklin.
That name first appeared in the 12th century after the Norman French invaded England, and
it meant a landowner who was free by means other than noble birth.
And the name of the francs also appears in the name of the modern city of Frankfurt in
Germany, which originally meant Frank’s Ford, or shallow river crossing, on the River Main.
And Frankfurt also gave us the frankfurter.
And even today, we sometimes call a frankfurter a frank, so we’re right back at the beginning.
By the way, that’s the same way we get hamburger in modern English as well.
Hamburgers are not made from ham, but they come, or at least the name comes from Hamburg,
So the name of the Frankish tribe ultimately gives us words like France, French, Frank,
franking franchise, disenfranchise, Franklin, Frankfurt, and frankfurter.
Now as I’ve noted, the Franks and the Alemanni were making life very difficult for the Romans
along the Rhine in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
But further east, along the Danube, there were even bigger problems brewing.
In fact, the ultimate cause of a lot of these problems along the Roman border could be found
much further away in Eastern Europe, in places like modern-day Poland, Ukraine, Hungary,
I’ve noted in past episodes that there was a very early division of the Germanic tribes
into Northern tribes and Western tribes and Eastern tribes.
Well by this point, those Eastern Germanic tribes were spread throughout this part of
Eastern Europe, and they had also developed a very distinct dialect by this point.
These tribes included tribes like the Vandals and the Goths.
By the 3rd century, these tribes had migrated down into the Balkans and the lower Danube
And as some of these Eastern Germanic tribes began to move westward, a domino effect ensued.
So this was indirectly pushing those Western tribes that I just mentioned, like the Franks
and the Alamanni, into the Rhine and across the Rhine into Roman territory.
And this process would actually accelerate over the next couple of centuries as a new
group arrived from the Eurasian steppes to the east, and that was the Huns, but more
about them later.
Now at this point, around the same time as the Alamanni and the Franks were crossing
the Rhine to the west, the Vandals were threatening the middle Danube region in the south.
Remember that the Vandals were an Eastern Germanic tribe speaking an Eastern Germanic
They had migrated out of Scandinavia a few centuries earlier, and now they were sitting
along the middle Danube.
The Romans encountered the Vandals, and for now, they were able to hold the Vandals back,
and they even made a temporary peace, but as with many of these tribes, peace treaties
didn’t tend to last very long.
Over the next couple of centuries, the Vandals would regroup and head west straight for Gaul.
This time, they were spurred on by the Huns who were pouring in from the east and causing
a chain reaction.
The Vandals eventually reached the Rhine, where they busted through the Roman defenses
and traveled straight through Gaul itself.
They eventually traveled south into modern-day Spain, and from there, they crossed into North
Africa where they set up a kingdom there.
And in fact, this Germanic tribe, the Vandals, maintained a very powerful kingdom in North
Africa in the 5th century.
They even launched an invasion from the ancient side of Carthage, and they did something that
Carthage was never able to do.
They crossed the Mediterranean and sacked Rome.
This happened around the same time that the Anglo-Saxons began migrating to Britain.
So it’s a little later in our story, but I wanted to give you a sense of the territory
covered by this tribe, the Vandals.
They started out in Scandinavia, traveled into Eastern Europe, encountered the Romans
in the Balkans, invaded modern-day France and Spain, conquered North Africa, and then
invaded and sacked Rome from across the Mediterranean.
So from all of that, you might be able to see why we still have the name of the Vandals
in modern English.
And in fact, unlike the names of other Germanic tribes, their name comes to us virtually unchanged
from the use of the name by the Romans.
Like many of the Germanic tribes, the Romans considered the Vandals to be very dangerous
But after the Vandals sacked Rome, the name of the Vandals came to mean looters, robbers,
As we’re going to see, the Vandals weren’t the first to sack and loot Rome during this
The Goths actually beat them to it.
But for some reason, the later Roman writers had a particular distaste for the Vandals.
And they seemed to blame the Vandals more than any other group for the destruction of
the city of Rome itself.
The term Vandalism was actually coined in France after the French Revolution to describe
the destruction and violence which occurred in France during that period.
But the term harkened back to the fall of Rome, and it probably seemed quite appropriate
at the time.
From the French, the term spread into English, where it still retains its meaning as the
willful destruction of property.
By the way, if you’re curious, the origin of the name Vandals was an original Germanic
word, wandl, which meant wanderer.
And that Germanic word ultimately gives us the modern English word wander, as in to
So that name was very appropriate for this tribe.
And that also makes the term wander and vandal cognate, both coming from the same Germanic
And once again, we see that late Latin sound shift, which converted the W sound into the
V sound in many Latin words.
So just as winum, meaning wine, became venum, the same thing happened here.
And wandals became vandals.
The later French also used this same Germanic root word, now pronounced with the V at the
beginning, and they used it to create another word, vagrant.
Vagrant still has that same meaning as a wanderer, but it’s now acquired a more negative sense,
as in a beggar or tramp.
And in medieval Latin, if you wandered around outside of a specific place where you were
supposed to be, you were extravagant, or as we know it today, extravagant.
Of course, today the term refers to anything that’s excessive or beyond the normal expectations.
The medieval French also created another word from this same root word, which was very similar
to vagrant, and that’s the word vagabond.
That word has also made its way into modern English.
And if you’re trying to explain something and your thoughts wander around without being
specific and to the point, well, you’re being vague, another word the French created from
that same Germanic root word.
So all of that means the words wander, vandal, vandalism, vagrant, vagabond, extravagant,
and vague are all cognate.
They all come from the same Germanic root word.
And also note that all of those words, except for wander, came through French or Latin before
they got to English.
And that’s why they all have a v at the beginning instead of a w.
But it also shows that borrowing is a two-way street.
The Romans sometimes borrowed Germanic words.
And over time, the Romans and French created lots of new words from those original Germanic
So some of our Latin words in modern English are actually Germanic words if we trace them
back far enough.
So we’ve looked at the Alamanni, the Franks, and the Vandals.
And we’ve seen how they took advantage of the deteriorating situation in Rome, and they
made repeated efforts to invade Roman territory.
But now we need to turn our attention even farther east, all the way to the Black Sea
region and the Eurasian steppes, the same region which was once the home of the first
A completely separate Germanic tribe had found its way to this region.
This tribe was the Goths.
The important thing to understand about the Goths is their longevity.
The Greek traveler Pythias wrote about a tribe called the Gotonus in northern Europe
in the 4th century B.C.
Tacitus then mentions them in the region of modern-day Poland in the 1st century A.D.
He called them Gotonus.
By the time of the imperial crisis in the 3rd century, they were in the area north of
the Black Sea, and they were called the Goths.
Over the next five centuries, they would expand across southern Europe.
They would fight for the Romans.
They would fight against the Romans.
They would sack Rome for the first time since the creation of the Roman Empire.
They would control a large portion of Gaul.
They would establish a kingdom in Italy that lasted until the 6th century.
And they would establish a kingdom in Spain which would last until the Moors arrived in
the 8th century.
By the time these Gothic kingdoms finally collapsed, the Goths had left a recorded legacy
which lasted for more than a thousand years.
So they have a long and fascinating history.
In terms of their political and military history, I’m just going to cover the first part of
their story in this episode.
And we’ll look at the rest of that history next time when we wind up our look at the
But for our purposes, the real importance of the Goths was their language and the fact
that it was written down in the 4th century.
A Gothic translation of the Bible and other religious texts from this period still survive
to this very day.
And that makes Gothic the first Germanic language to be written down in detail.
And since these Gothic texts are a translation of the Bible, linguists have found it relatively
easy to translate the language and compare it word for word with Latin and Greek.
And this research enables scholars to essentially go back in time and examine this particular
Germanic language as it existed in the 4th century.
And since this period is only 3 or 4 centuries removed from the common Proto-Germanic period,
it allows linguists to examine the evolution of the Germanic languages over time.
So we can actually examine the vocabulary and syntax and grammar of the Germanic language
for the first time without having to rely on reconstructions.
Now before we look closer at the Goths, it’s important to keep in mind that their language
was not an early version of English.
The Anglo-Saxons and the Goths were separate groups of Germanic tribes who lived in different
parts of Europe at the same time.
The Angles and Saxons spoke West Germanic languages.
And the Goths spoke an East Germanic language.
But their respective languages were still very similar at this early point.
Now in terms of the history of English, if we had Anglo-Saxon texts from the same time
frame as the Gothic Bible, we probably wouldn’t find the Gothic language all that interesting.
It would be interesting to compare the languages, just like it’s interesting to compare the
early High German dialects with Old English.
But it would really be more of an academic exercise.
But the problem is, we don’t have Anglo-Saxon texts from this period.
And we don’t have text in any other Germanic language from this period either.
And we won’t have text in any other Germanic languages for several more centuries.
So you can see why historical linguists are so fascinated with the Gothic language.
It’s the missing link between the original common Proto-Germanic language and the later
Germanic languages that were written down from around the 7th century onwards.
But again, it’s not the mother of English.
It’s really more like a sister of English.
So let’s take a closer look at the Goths.
Having migrated from Scandinavia through Eastern Europe, the Goths arrived in the region north
of the Black Sea shortly after the time of Tacitus.
We should keep in mind that it’s probably a mistake to think of the Goths as some kind
of completely unified and homogenous tribe.
The Goths were likely a collection of tribes and war bands and other nomadic peoples who
were collectively referred to as Goths by the Romans.
So in many respects, they were similar to the Alemanni and the Franks in the West.
They were sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill and getting bigger and bigger
as they moved southward.
The first Goths reached an area north of the Black Sea by around the year 170.
So around the time of the Marcomannic Wars, which I described in the last episode.
Over the next century, other Goths continued to move into this region, and they became
well entrenched around the northern and western side of the Black Sea.
And that put them just north of the Roman border.
Once in place, the Goths were joined by waves of other migrating peoples.
So there was no single migration.
It was a series of migrations over a period of several decades.
And despite the label, there was probably no distinctive Gothic culture at this point.
It was really just a collection of culturally mixed groups.
But the sheer size of the group made it a potentially powerful force.
And that coincided with the imperial crisis back in Rome.
So Rome was distracted by events within the empire and along other portions of the border.
Now up to this point, I’ve noted that the Danube was the border between Rome and Germania.
But that’s really a simplified version of events.
In reality, shortly after the time of Tacitus, the Romans had crossed the eastern Danube
near the Black Sea, around modern-day Romania.
And there they had established a Roman territory that they called Dacia.
But Roman control of this region had always been tenuous.
And now the Goths were sitting right on the northern border of Dacia.
In the 3rd century, the Goths unleashed an ongoing assault on Dacia and in fact the entire
Black Sea region.
They actually built ships and crossed the Black Sea itself, where they raided the Black
Sea coast, including the coast of modern-day Turkey.
They even traveled through the Bosporus Strait and attacked Greece and the Aegean.
And this is very important because remember that Greek was the dominant language in the
Black Sea region during this period.
It was basically the lingua franca of the region.
Well after a few years and a lot of success, the Goths decided to refocus on expansion
And they largely abandoned their maritime campaigns across the Black Sea and the Aegean.
But they returned to their Gothic base with a large number of Greek-speaking captives,
including many from central Anatolia, modern-day Turkey.
And some of those captives ultimately served as mediators between the Goths and the Greek
world to the south.
And one of the descendants of those captives was a man named Wophilus.
And he’s the person who translated the Greek Bible into Gothic.
Now throughout this period of the 3rd century, the Romans were able to score some occasional
victories, but they weren’t able to keep the Goths out of Dacia north of the Danube,
especially after the Goths began to focus more and more on campaigns by land.
And remember that all of this Gothic expansion was taking place at the same time as the imperial
crisis in Rome, and at the same time as the invasions of the Alamanni and the Franks
along the Rhine in the west.
So it was all too much for the Romans to deal with.
And in the year 270, the Romans finally retreated back across the Danube, thereby leaving Dacia
to the Goths.
As I noted, Dacia was part of modern-day Romania.
And even though the borders of Dacia varied over time, it was generally centered around
the region we know today as Transylvania.
So keep that little bit of information in the back of your mind.
Because the Goths now called it home.
And with Dacia occupied by the Goths, there were now two separate groups of Goths.
The group which had remained north of the Black Sea, further east, were called the Ostrogoths.
And the group which settled along the north side of the Danube in Dacia were called the
Both of these groups shared a common language, the Gothic language.
But from this point forward, their history and their culture will start to diverge.
And we can begin to think of them as separate and distinct tribes.
Now the name Ostrogoths meant Eastern Goths.
In fact, that Germanic prefix, Ostro, may seem a little familiar to you.
You might remember from the episode on Germanic mythology that the Indo-Europeans had a word,
Aus, which meant to shine, especially shining at dawn.
And so this word came to be associated with the sun rising in the morning and eventually
came to be associated with the direction in which the sun rose.
And the Indo-European root word produced the original Germanic word, Austra, meaning east
towards the sunrise.
In English, that Germanic word eventually produced the word east that we have today.
But in the separate Gothic language, it produced the word Austro.
So the Ostrogoths were the Goths in the east along the northern Black Sea, in the steppe
So if Ostrogoths meant Eastern Goths, you might assume that Visigoths means Western
But the etymology here is a bit more complicated.
Originally, this Dacian group were simply called the Visi, not the Visigoths.
And it wasn’t until the 6th century that the Romans coined the term Visigoths, apparently
influenced by that term Ostrogoths.
And many assume that this term Visigoths meant Western Goths, just like Ostrogoths meant
But the prefix visi actually came from the original name of this Dacian group of Goths.
So what did that name visi mean?
Well, the v at the beginning appears to be another example of that later Latin sound
shift from the w sound to the v sound, because the tribe was called the Wisi by earlier Roman
sources and Visi by later sources after the sound change.
So there are some scholars who think that the original name, Wisi, meant West.
And therefore, Visigoths does in fact mean Western Goths if we trace the name back to
its original meaning.
But there are other scholars who think that Wisi simply meant good, and that the name
of the original tribe meant good or worthy people.
At any rate, it’s very common today to see the term Visigoth interpreted as Western Goth.
But I just wanted to note that there’s still some debate about that name.
Now shortly after the Goths, or more specifically the Visigoths, took control of Dacia from
the Romans, Rome finally started to get its house in order.
The imperial crisis in Rome and all of the chaos of the preceding 50 years finally came
to an end, at least for a while.
And the key to ending this crisis was a new Roman emperor named Diocletian.
He became emperor in the year 284, 14 years after the Romans abandoned Dacia, which had
been the first Roman province to fall to the Germans.
Under Diocletian’s leadership, Rome began to reorganize the way its provinces were administered.
It had become obvious that centralized power in Rome was no longer effective.
The empire was too big and it faced too many challenges.
So Diocletian decided to abandon the idea of centralized rule in Rome.
There was a natural linguistic division within the empire.
To the west, Latin was the dominant language.
In the east, Greek was the dominant language.
And this provided the basis for dividing the empire into separate western and eastern sections.
The empire was ultimately divided into four regions, each having its own capital and its
Two regions were established in the east and two regions were established in the west.
So, at this early point, we can begin to see the division of the empire into the eastern
and western portions.
And at this point, the city of Rome ceased to be the capital of the empire.
After Diocletian retired, the empire actually devolved into civil war again for a couple
But, by the year 324, Constantine had emerged as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.
The empire was briefly reunited under his leadership and, thanks to his religious conversion,
the empire now had a new official religion, Christianity.
Constantine also settled in the Greek city of Byzantium in western Anatolia and he made
it his new capital.
And it came to be known as Constantinople, after Constantine.
And of course, when the empire was permanently split, it became the capital of the east.
Since the time of Diocletian a few decades earlier, the relationship between Rome and
the Germanic tribes had started to settle down somewhat.
As Rome became more stable, it was a less inviting target for the Germans.
So for example, once the Goths took control of Dacia, there was no significant battle
between them and the Romans for several decades.
In fact, this was a period in which the Romans were increasingly relying upon Germanic mercenaries,
so many Goths actually sided with Rome during this period.
After Constantine became emperor, conflicts between the empire and the Goths briefly reoccurred.
But a treaty was negotiated in the year 332, which stabilized the relationship.
Rome agreed to make annual payments to the Goths, in return for the resumption of trade
across the Danube, and in return for the Goths’ agreement to provide Rome with troops as needed.
In fact, Rome was busy cutting similar deals with other tribes like the Franks and the
Alemanni and the Saxons.
Throughout this period, and especially after that treaty in 332, trade became much more
regular between the Goths and the Romans across the Danube.
And that movement of goods also meant there was a corresponding movement of people back
And with the movement of people, there was an exchange of cultures.
And part of that exchange included that new official Roman religion, Christianity.
As I noted earlier, the Gothic missionary Wulfilis had been born to a family of Anatolian
origin that had been taken into captivity by the Visigoths as part of that earlier raid.
But Wulfilis was born among the Visigoths, and he was reared as a Goth speaking the Gothic
As a boy, he was sent to Constantinople as a hostage, and there he was exposed to Christianity.
And he was eventually consecrated a bishop for the purpose of spreading Christianity
back to the Goths.
Wulfilis then traveled to Dacia, and there he converted many Goths to Christianity.
In order to secure the conversion of Goths to Christianity, Wulfilis needed a Gothic
version of the Bible.
Very few Goths spoke Latin or Greek.
So he undertook the translation of the Bible.
We know that the Germanic runic symbols had started to be used for brief inscriptions
by this period.
But they weren’t really suited for translating the Bible.
And even if they were, many Greek religious names and other terms were going to have to
be maintained, and the runes couldn’t capture all of the sounds of the Greek language.
So Wulfilis created his own Gothic alphabet, which was a combination of the runic alphabet
and the Greek alphabet.
And the final product of all of his work was the Gothic Bible.
Unfortunately, the entire Bible didn’t survive the ages, but much of it did.
And a few other miscellaneous religious texts also still exist in Gothic.
As I’ve noted, the Gothic translation of the Bible preserved the Gothic language of
the 4th century for future generations to examine.
So that makes Gothic the oldest attested Germanic language.
And given its age, it gives us a glimpse of what the Germanic languages looked and sounded
like shortly after the end of the original Proto-Germanic period.
So let’s take a closer look at the Gothic language.
In the last episode, I noted that the original Germanic language had a Z sound, which eventually
shifted to an R sound.
Linguists call this tendency of certain sounds to shift to an R sound rhotacism.
Well, this sound never shifted within the Gothic language.
So the Goths held on to that original sibilant sound, and it appears as an SS or ZZ sound
in many Gothic words, where we have an R sound in other Germanic languages.
So for example, the Goths had a word which meant to accumulate or store something.
And that word was pronounced husd.
The Old English equivalent of that word was horde.
And that word has actually changed very little over the years within English.
We still have it in modern English as horde, h-o-a-r-d, as in to horde food.
So between Gothic husd and Old English horde, you can hear that shift to the R sound that
never occurred within Gothic.
Now I’ll give you another example.
The Goths had a word which meant to acquire knowledge or skills.
And that word was lesion.
And the Old English version of that word was lern.
And lern is the Old English version of learn.
So between lesion and lern, you can hear the newer R sound in Old English.
And again, as we look at other early Germanic languages, we also see the R sound.
It’s only Gothic which held on to that original sibilant.
Also, the Gothic word mesa is equivalent to the Old English word mare.
And that word eventually became more in modern English.
So we can see in the modern English words most and more that one retains an original
sibilant sound, the S sounds, and the other has the later R sound.
The Gothic word wessen is equivalent to the Old English word weren, which eventually became
were, W-E-R-E, in modern English.
So again, in modern English, we have two variations of this word.
In the case of was, we see an original sibilant sound, the S sound, and in were, we see the
later R sound, which developed prior to Old English.
So Gothic never developed that particular sound shift.
But outside of that difference, you’ll note that the Gothic words and the Old English
words were very similar.
The Gothic language also had a unique consonant sound that didn’t exist in other Germanic
It was basically a combination of the TH sound and the L sound.
So it came out as a THL sound.
And it’s a little hard to represent that sound in modern English, but think of the
That group of consonants in the middle, the TH, is a rough example of this sound.
But within Gothic words, the sound could appear anywhere, even at the beginning.
Now in other Germanic languages, including Old English, the tendency was to use an FL
sound instead of this Gothic THL sound.
So the Goths had a word which meant to run away.
And it was pronounced flean.
But in Old English, the word was flean.
And that word eventually became flea, F-L-E-E, in modern English.
So you can hear the difference in sounds at the beginning of those two words.
Gothic fleuan and Old English flean.
And not to make this sound too technical, but Gothic had a dual pronoun form in first
person and second person, which doesn’t generally exist in any other Germanic languages
except Old Norse.
So for example, in English, we have a first person singular pronoun, I, and a plural pronoun,
But Gothic also had a dual version which only applied to two people, me and someone else.
So it basically meant, we two, or the two of us.
In Gothic, the dual version was wheat, and the plural version was weis.
Now what we see here is a simplification of the original Indo-European pronouns that was
taking place within the early Germanic languages.
The original Indo-European language had those dual forms as well, but most of the early
Germanic languages were getting rid of the dual versions and only using a singular and
But Gothic held on to that Indo-European dual form in first person.
And it also held on to that dual version in third person.
And in third person, we can see how modern English has taken this idea of simplifying
the pronouns even further.
In fact, it may have taken it a little too far, because many modern English speakers
still struggle with that change.
In modern English, we have third person singular, you, and third person plural, you, as in all
So we use the same word for singular and plural.
And many modern English speakers seem to have an innate sense that this is a little awkward.
So some dialects have a tendency to want to change that plural version to make it distinctive.
So in some English dialects, it becomes you all, or y’all, or you-ins, or youse guys,
or some other stereotype.
We sometimes make fun of these regionalisms, but it really represents modern English speakers
trying to make a distinction between singular and plural that was always made in earlier
forms of English and is still made in most other European languages.
Now back to Gothic.
While other Germanic languages, like Old English, were busy simplifying the pronouns by getting
rid of the dual third person pronoun, as I said, Gothic held on to it.
So Gothic had a singular version of you, a dual version, meaning you two, or the two
of you, and a plural version, meaning you all, or all of you.
So we’ve looked at some differences between Gothic and Old English, but as you might imagine,
there were also a lot of similarities.
So let’s compare some of the vocabulary of the two languages.
And let’s begin by listening to the basic numbers 1 through 10 in both languages.
In Gothic, the number 1 was eins.
In Old English, it was an.
So between eins and an, you can hear the similarities.
Now the number 2 in Gothic was zwei.
In Old English, it was tweien.
So again, twi, tweien.
You can see the similarities.
The number 3 in Gothic was thris.
In Old English, it was thria.
The number 4 in Gothic was fidwar.
In Old English, it was fewar.
The number 5 in Gothic was finth.
In Old English, it was fif.
The number 6 in Gothic was six.
In Old English, it was six.
The number 7 in Gothic was sieun.
In Old English, it was sievan.
The number 8 in Gothic was achtal.
In Old English, it was ekta.
The number 9 in Gothic was nian.
In Old English, it was nian.
The number 10 in Gothic was tihin.
And in Old English, it was tien.
So as you can hear, the numbers in Gothic and Old English were very similar.
We can also compare Gothic to Old English by listening to portions of their respective
versions of the Lord’s Prayer.
As you may recall from way back in episode 1, the Lord’s Prayer exists in many ancient
languages, so the various versions of the prayer provides a convenient way to compare
the structure of those early languages.
But we have to keep in mind that even though Gothic and Old English were sister languages,
the attested version of the Gothic prayer predates the Old English version by three
or four centuries.
So the differences between the two versions of the prayer are a combination of dialect
differences and time differences.
And I should also note that I can be somewhat generous in my pronunciation of Gothic because
no one knows for certain how it was pronounced.
Obviously the spelling of the words in the original Gothic alphabet provides strong evidence,
but unlike later languages like Old English, the material that we have in Gothic is much
more limited, so the actual Gothic speakers of the 4th century may well have had some
unique pronunciations or sounds which we can’t detect in the written language.
So with that caveat out of the way, let’s look at the first line of the Lord’s Prayer.
In Modern English, it’s, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
In Old English, the same passage was, Fad-e-irra duth-e-ert-on-hefen-um, seeth-e-naam-e-yih-hal-gud.
In Gothic, that passage was, Ata-un-sara duth-e-en-heem-en-um, wee-kha-nai-naam-o-thein.
So let’s look a little closer at those passages.
In Modern English, we say, Our Father, with the pronoun our before father.
But early Germanic languages reversed that order and put father first, so it was Father
In Old English, it was Fad-e-irra.
In Gothic, it was Ata-un-sara.
So between irra and un-sara, we can hear the differences between the word our in both of
But what about father?
Well, Old English was Fad-e-irra, as we’ve seen before.
But the Gothic word was Ata.
By now we know that the original Indo-European word for father had a P sound, represented
in the Latin and Greek forms of the word pater.
And that P switched to an F in the Germanic languages.
But for some reason, Gothic had lost that consonant altogether in the word father.
The resulting word was simply Ata.
And a little father in Gothic was Atilla.
And when the Huns invaded the Ostrogoths from the Eurasian steppes, many of the Ostrogoths
fled to the west.
But some of the Ostrogoths joined the Huns as mercenaries.
And the Ostrogoths called the Hunnic leader Little Father, Atilla.
And of course, we know him today as Atilla the Hun.
And we’ll talk more about Atilla and the Huns in the next episode, because their invasion
of Central Europe was one of the primary causes for the mass invasion of Western Europe by
Germanic tribes, which again we’ll discuss next time.
Before we move on, let’s take a look at a few of the other words in the passage I just
The word heaven in Old English was hephenum.
In Gothic it was hemenum.
And the word name in Old English was nama.
In Gothic it was namo.
So we can definitely see the similarities.
But as we look at the second line of the Lord’s Prayer, the differences between the two versions
become more apparent.
The second line in Modern English is, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as
it is in heaven.
In Old English, the passage read, To becometh thine riche, ye wortheth thine
willa, on earth swath swath, on hephenum.
In Gothic, that passage was, Cimae theunasus theins, rarthe weathains,
swae in hemena, jaana ertha.
Now all that may sound completely foreign to you.
And they may not even sound similar.
But if we listen closely, we can detect the similarities.
For example, take the portion that reads, In earth as it is in heaven.
In Old English, earth was erthen.
And roughly speaking, Old English used the Middle English word order for this passage.
So it was, On erthen swath swath, on hephenum.
On earth as it is in heaven.
In Gothic, the word for earth was similar to Old English.
It was erthae.
But Gothic reversed the word order of the passage.
So it read more like, As it is in heaven, it is on earth.
Swae in hemena, jaana erthae.
So I hope you found that interesting.
But as you can probably hear, the original Germanic dialects that evolved from that common
Proto-Germanic language were very similar.
It’s essentially that same process that was beginning to happen to Latin at the same time.
As Rome began to falter and fall apart, it began to break into regional entities.
And without a strong central government in Rome, the factors that held Roman Latin in
place were also disappearing.
Now, regional variations of Latin were beginning to take root.
And those dialects would eventually evolve into the modern Romance languages.
But they would also retain some basic similarities.
And the same thing was happening within the Germanic languages as well.
Now before I wrap up this episode, I wanted to explore the ultimate evolution of the word
Gothic, from its original reference to this particular Germanic tribe, to a specific type
of architecture, and now a certain subculture or lifestyle which we call Gothic.
To understand the evolution of the word, we have to begin with the Germanic period that
we looked at in this episode, and that we’ll continue to look at in the next episode.
As we now know, there were lots of Germanic tribes.
But the Goths had a particularly long history.
Remember that the Goths were attested in written histories for over a thousand years.
And the Goths actually became two separate tribes, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths.
And when the Roman Empire eventually collapsed in the West, the Germanic tribes rushed in
and filled vacuum, and that included the Goths.
The Ostrogoths, you’ll remember, established a kingdom in Italy, and the Visigoths established
a completely separate kingdom in Spain.
But after those two kingdoms eventually collapsed and disappeared, the term Goth basically fell
out of use.
And when it was used, it was used to refer to these specific Germanic tribes.
And during the following centuries, Christianity spread throughout Europe.
And during the 11th and 12th century, a new style of fancy, ornate architecture developed.
It was primarily used for churches and cathedrals, and it featured pointed arches and flying
buttresses, large stained glass windows, and so on.
Think about the Notre Dame in Paris.
And this architectural style was meant to impress and overwhelm worshippers.
And this style of architecture spread to castles and other buildings during the medieval period.
But in medieval Europe, this particular style of architecture wasn’t called Gothic.
The architectural style had developed in France, so it was called French work.
Now even though the Western Roman Empire had collapsed and given way to various Germanic
kingdoms, the Eastern Roman Empire had continued on as the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople
in Western Turkey.
But in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire.
And that led to the disbursement of Greek scholars in Constantinople throughout Western
And they brought with them manuscripts which had been written in ancient Greek and which
were previously unknown in the West.
And that discovery of this pre-Christian Greek and Roman culture caused an intellectual and
cultural revolution in the West, which was called the Renaissance.
Suddenly, everything associated with classical Greece and Rome was fashionable.
And everything associated with the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire
was considered crude, uncultured, and uncivilized.
And that included architecture.
Greco-Roman architecture was the way to go.
Large white columns, arches, and domes.
And this reflected the Greek emphasis on geometry and proportions.
And all of those older medieval castles and cathedrals were considered old-fashioned and
part of a darker age.
And this is where we start to get the terms like dark ages and middle ages.
There was that wonderful Greco-Roman period.
And there was this modern Renaissance.
And then there was all that barbaric stuff in the middle.
That dark period.
And it’s kind of hard to believe that all those beautiful cathedrals were now considered
barbaric and primitive.
But they were.
Because they weren’t Greco-Roman.
And you can see why some modern historians are still reluctant to use the term dark ages.
But nevertheless, that’s what they were considered at the time.
Well, since the Goths were such a prominent Germanic tribe during the later Roman period
and the period after the fall of Rome, some people during the Renaissance began to use
the term Gothic to refer to certain things associated with this middle period.
The period before the Renaissance.
This supposedly darker, primitive, uncivilized period.
And all of those beautiful castles and cathedrals began to be called Gothic.
Because they were built during that earlier period.
We can now skip forward a couple of centuries to the 18th and 19th centuries when a new
style of literature began to appear.
These novels and stories were often set in dark Gothic castles and cathedrals.
They typically involved dark or eerie themes.
They relied on suspense and often featured supernatural elements.
But it was the setting of the stories which was really the key.
Castles, cathedrals, dungeons, dark corridors, winding stairs, darkness, moonlight, candlelight.
And because of the darkness of the literature and its association with Gothic castles and
cathedrals, it came to be called Gothic literature.
This included the writings of Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, and even the Brothers Grimm.
And it also included works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera,
and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
It also included Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
And that novel was particularly influential.
Of course it featured a vampire who lived in Transylvania, which as we know from earlier
in this episode was once called Dacia and had been the home of the original Visigoths.
And of course Dracula was famously portrayed in the motion picture by Bela Lugosi from
Hungary, the same general region of Eastern Europe.
So we now have the use of the term Gothic to describe this particular type of literature,
primarily because of its dark, gloomy Gothic settings.
But the term now came to refer to the actual subject matter of those novels as well.
So it came to refer to vampires, monsters, ghouls, and other creepy characters.
And that takes us to the 20th century, specifically the year 1979.
In that year, a band called Bauhaus released a song called Bela Lugosi’s Dead.
This is considered one of the first and arguably the very first example of a musical style
It was dark and creepy, kind of like those Gothic novels and movies.
And soon music critics were using that term to refer to bands like Joy Division and The
Cure who were also producing music in that style.
And thanks to the popularity of those Gothic bands, at least the underground popularity
of those bands, it sparked a whole new generation of Goths who listened to the music and dressed
in black and wore makeup to make themselves look like characters out of Gothic novels.
So that’s how we got from the ancient Germanic Goths to the modern Goths.
So with the modern part of the Gothic story out of the way, next time we’ll finish looking
at the ancient Goths.
And we’ll look at the Angles and Saxons as well, because next time I’m going to focus
on the fall of Rome and the establishment of Germanic kingdoms in Western Europe.
And of course, one of those kingdoms was in Britain.
So the next episode may very well be the final episode in our look at the development of
And then we’ll be able to begin Volume 2, Old English.
So until then, thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.