Gothic Language - History and Evidence

History and Evidence

Only a few documents in Gothic survive - not enough to completely reconstruct the language. This is especially true considering that most Gothic corpora are translations or glosses of other languages (namely, Greek), so that foreign linguistic elements most certainly influenced the texts. Note:

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

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

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

Very few secondary sources make reference to the Gothic language after about 800. In De incrementis ecclesiae Christianae (840/2), Walafrid Strabo, a Frankish monk who lived in Swabia, speaks of a group of monks, who reported that "even now certain peoples in Scythia (Dobrudja), especially around Tomis" spoke a sermo Theotiscus (Germanic language), which was the language of the Gothic translation of the Bible, and used such a liturgy. He also refers to the use of Ulfilas' bible in a region probably around Lake Constance.

In evaluating medieval texts that mention the Goths, many writers used the word Goths to mean any Germanic people in eastern Europe (such as the Varangians), many of whom certainly did not use the Gothic language as known from the Gothic Bible. Some writers even referred to Slavic-speaking people as Goths. However, it is clear from Ulfilas' translation that despite some puzzles the language belongs with the Germanic language group, and not with Slavonic.

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

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

Read more about this topic:  Gothic Language

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