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Origin of the Germanic Peoples-Part 1


Active Member
The Germanic tribes were an oral culture so there are no written records that allow us to precisely state their origin. They were not a unified people and would not have called themselves Germanic, however the epithet Germanic is used today to designate a common linguistic group. In the past the Germanic tribes would have identified themselves by their tribal names; of which there were many. The origins of the tribal epithet the Germanii is obscure and seems to have been in use by the time Julius Caesar wrote about the Germanii in De Bello Gallico (commentaries on the Gallic Wars) in 53-49 BCE. There is considerable doubt that all the tribes that Caesar described as Germani cisrhenani were in fact Germanic, rather than Celtic, such differentiation was of no concern to Caesar, who considered all the tribes north of the Roman borders to be barbarians. Later, in 98 CE Tacitus would coin the term Germania for their homeland, which was in his time to the east of the river Rhine. We now use the word Germanic because these tribes shared a common language group, which was of course the Germanic languages.

To determine, as near as possible, the origin of the Germanic tribes, we are reliant on sources from the classical world (Greece and Rome), linguistic evidence and archaeology. The Germanic tribes were preliterate with the first inscriptions in Elder Futhark dated from the second century CE and these were single words generally on personal adornments and weapons. The first text in a Germanic language was the translation of the bible into Gothic (east Germanic language), written by Ulfilas in the 350 CE. Ulfilas devised a Gothic alphabet for the purpose of the translation, in common with many other written sources in Heathenry, the author Ulfilas was Christian, in this case a bishop. It was also Ulfilas that first introduced us to the word heathen, which I will cover in another essay.

However, we do know from language reconstruction that the Germanic languages, which includes West Germanic, East Germanic, and North Germanic, are a branch of the very large Indo-European language family. It is theorised that Indo-European, of which there are twelve major branches, evolved from a common ancestral language called Proto-Indo European (PIE). PIE, which is estimated to have been spoken between 4500 BCE and 2500 BCE and has left no written records. However, by the exhaustive study and comparison of the earliest Indo-European religious texts, Indo-European language construction and inscriptions, linguists have reconstructed some of the PIE vocabulary. If anyone is interested a linguistic reconstruction of how PIE may have sounded, here is a link.


PIE, as a reconstructed language is based on linguistic theory and is therefore constantly undergoing change, reevaluation and modification. There is general acceptance among linguists that PIE existed but there is a great deal of debate that centers on when PIE was spoken, the location of the PIE homeland and the method of its spread. Linguists do agree, however, that there is too much similarity in the Indo European languages for there not to have been a common ancestor language and this language likely had many dialects. So the reconstructed PIE vocabulary does not represent one monolithic PIE language but rather it is a sampling of words from the different PIE dialects that left cognates (words that mean the same thing, due common descent) in its daughter languages. Through these reconstructed PIE words we have an indication of the ritual, mythology, technology, family relationships and values of those who spoke PIE. Why is PIE of any concern to Heathens today? Because there is a commonality of ritual, mythology and construction of prayers among its daughter languages, which is likely a result of both their common heritage as well as their later cultural interaction. Understanding these commonalities gives us a better understanding of our own folkway.

So when did the daughter languages evolve from PIE and where was the proposed PIE homeland? There is no definitive archeological or linguistic evidence to answer this. question definitively, but there are several theories. The PIE homeland seems to have been somewhere in the Pontic-Caspian steppes in the area of the northern shores of the Black Sea as far east as the Caspian Seas, that is, modern day eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and northwest Kazakhstan. This choice of homeland was first proposed by James Mallory and at present seems to be the best choice, though it is one of quite a few competing theories. It is also suggested that there may have been more than one homeland, in this area. One of the competing candidates for the PIE homeland is Anatolia and its advocates postulate that PIE spread with the expansion of farming over 7000 years ago. Some academics think it is a waste of intellectual time trying to locate a homeland given the current lack of convincing evidence. Such is the nature of the debate regarding the homeland of the PIE language, the competing cannot be proven conclusively and they all have their advocates. Here is the proposed location of the PIE homeland/s in the pontic- Caspian steppe region and an interesting short article on PIE.


Due to waves of migration and interaction with other cultures, languages and dialects PIE gradually diverged into distinctly different daughter languages. Germanic, for example, became pre-proto-Germanic after its divergence from PIE, which again was most likely composed of many dialects, then pre-proto Germanic gradually became a single ancestral shared language, called proto-Germanic. This evolution from PIE to proto Germanic may have taken over two thousand years. Proto-Germanic, then further split into three daughter branches; the north, west and east Germanic languages. So if you speak English you are in effect speaking a branch of the west Germanic language, if you speak one of the Scandinavian languages you are speaking a branch of the north Germanic language. East Germanic, which was spoken by the Vandals, Burgundians and the Goths (among others) is now an extinct. Here is a diagram of the Indo-European language tree, as you can see from this diagram the Indo-European languages are widely spoken; it is estimated that 50% of the world's population speak an Indo-European language.



D. Anthony; The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.
M. Enright; Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy, and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age.
Mallory and Adams; The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.
Donald Ringe; Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic : A Linguistic History : vol 1
Prof. Robert S.P. Beekes; Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An introduction.
M. Todd; The Early Germans.
Kingdoms of the Germanic Tribes - Goths / Ostrogoths