Gothic and the Reconstruction of Proto Germanic

Winfred P. Lehmann

2.1 Introduction

Gothic is the language of two Germanic peoples, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, known from the early centuries of our era. Except for a few runic inscriptions, Gothic provides us with our earliest Germanic texts. The texts are chiefly translations of the New Testament and fragments of the Old Testament, ascribed to Wulfila (c. 300-82/3), and a few other materials from the sixth century. Because it precedes other extensive Germanic texts by three or four centuries, by even more those in North Germanic, Gothic is important for reconstruction of Proto-Germanic as well as for the information it gives us on its society and their language.

Like all early texts, those in Gothic present many problems. These have given rise to an enormous bibliography that has by no means provided solutions. Our information on Wulfila is slight. The origin of the Gothic alphabet is undocumented and spelling conventions are disputed. The text of the Greek Bible used for the translation is unknown. Only parts of the translation have come down to us, so that the stock of words and forms is not great. And the manuscripts that have preserved the translation were written in northern Italy, the Balkans or southern France, apparently in the early sixth century, possibly even by Ostrogothic scribes in contrast with the Visigoth Wulfila who produced the translation in the fourth century.

Moreover, the early history of the Goths is obscure. As a result, their relationships to the other Germanic peoples is unclear. Traditionally, as reported to us by a sixth-century historian, Procopius, they moved from Gotland in eastern Sweden to the coastal area near the mouth of the Vistula in the first century before our era; Tacitus in the Germania of ad 98 reports Gotones in this area at his time (chapter 44). Around ad 200 they migrated to southern Russia, some going on to the Black Sea, in the region around the Sea of Azov. There two distinct groups can be recognized, the Visi ('good') and the Ostrogoths ('Eastern Goths'). Subsequently the designation Visigoths was introduced and came to be interpreted as 'Western Goths', as indeed they were geographically in the Eastern Empire and later in their location in Spain from the fifth century. With other Germanic groups, whose languages we know only from names - the Burgundians, the Vandals, the Rugians - the Goths and their language are referred to as East Germanic, in contrast with the North Germanic peoples and languages of Scandinavia, and the West Germanic of central Europe. But differences in time of the texts brought about by shifts and realignments of the identifiable Germanic groups leave this classification open to many questions.

In the fourth century the Goths were in close touch with the Eastern Empire. Captives in battle were Christianized, and the new religion was introduced in other ways as well. Wulfila's grandparents were taken captive in a raid on the Cappadocian village, Sadagolthina, in ad 264. Brought up in the faith, Wulfila came with a delegation to the imperial court c. ad 336/7; there he was influenced by Bishop Eusebius to embrace the Homoean doctrine, a view of the relation of Christ to God the Father similar to that of Arianism. Probably in part because of his missionary efforts, the Goths as a group were Arians; as the Visigoths settled in the west towards the end of the fourth century, and the Ostrogoths a century later, they were at odds with the dominant Athanasian doctrines of the western Church. The doctrinal differences led to conflict. The Goths were destroyed as important political groups, the Ostrogoths by an army of the Eastern Empire under Belisarius in 555, the Visigoths by the Moslems in ad 711.

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