Wednesday, April 11th, 2018...6:25 pm

The Germanic Stratum Hypothesis

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Jordan Clifford

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” – James Nicoll

English has always been held to weirdly high standards; it’s the lingua franca in many countries around the world (usually because of colonial tendencies) and because of this it’s considered by a few to be a “pure” language. But as the quote above says, English isn’t even being close to being pure; through the centuries it has borrowed languages from dozens upon dozens of languages from around the world. Even proto-Germanic isn’t pure in any sense of the word, and there is quite a bit of evidence towards the existence of a stratum language that influenced early proto-Germanic.

This hypothesis is still in the early stages of being challenged, mostly because all linguistics have to work with is reconstructed words. There are several theories which try to explain why proto-Germanic has up to a third of its lexicon come from a non-Indo-European Language (Wikipedia), and while they may not have been overnight it is pretty obvious there was some sort of large change:

Chart created by Jordan Clifford with information from Wikipedia

As you can see some you could argue are highly mutated versions of Latin or other Indo-European languages such as the English shield and the Latin scutum, however others such as English lamb compared to the Latin agnus are incomparable. This proves there had to be a stratum language which influenced the Germanic languages right? Well as always it’s more complex than that.

More proof of this hypothesis comes in the form of root noun inflection. In Indo-European languages nouns consist of a root, suffix, and an ending. This of course was lost in some of the languages, however this is a feature of PIE and its descendant languages. However some nouns in Proto-Germanic do not follow this system and it has been theorized that the reason for this is because these words were borrowed from a language that did not have suffixes or that they were not recognizable to Germanic peoples (Kroonen). However once again this can be explained somewhat by the numerous grammatical and phonological changes that took place in Proto-Germanic and its descendants, however this is not as solid a reasoning as the etymology (Wikipedia)

There are holes in this theory, one being that these words may have Proto-Indo-European roots but they are less obvious. For instance it’s believed that south came from sunþera which in turn came from sunnōn or that bear came from the term “the brown one” which was a tabooistic term (Wikipedia). However this isn’t true for every word, some cannot be traced back to PIE or any other Indo-European word no matter how hard you try.

There are other more tenuous theories that Germanic acquired these words from a Finnic language, or that Proto-Germanic has the features of a creole, however these have much less evidence (Wikipedia). What is clear is that like most languages the Germanic languages and English do not have a clear cut origin, and unfortunately since linguists are working off a reconstructed language there will always be doubt cast on a word’s origin. Maybe some day someone will uncover a rune stone with the entire Proto-Germanic lexicon neatly written on it, however because the probability of that is pretty much impossible this is the best we have. In the end one thing will always be clear:

English is a messy and weird language and it will always be.

Works Cited

“Germanic substrate hypothesis” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_substrate_hypothesis

Kroonen, Guus. “Non-Indo-European Root Nouns in Germanic: Evidence in Support of the Agricultural Substrate Hypothesis.” Mémoires De La Société Finno-Ougrienne, 2012, pp. 239–260.

“James Nicoll” Wikiquote, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/James_Nicoll



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