Indo-European Daughter Languages: Germanic
by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 16
Whilst the exploration of the Indo-Europeans
elsewhere on this site is highly detailed (see sidebar links),
such an exploration cannot show individual tribal movement.
Individual tribal movement is usually not highly
important in the ancient world... unless that tribe founds a
persisting culture somewhere new. It is well known how the Cimbri
and Teutones tribes suddenly packed up their belongings in the
second century BC and headed south. Normally it wouldn't matter
much, but this movement was pretty heavy in terms of the number
of people involved, and it created quite a stir as those people
trundled through a swathe of other tribes until they came in
contact with republican Rome. Then they certainly became
We should expect that those far-flung Western
Indo-Europeans (West IEs), the Tocharians, took a similar wandering
course from the Pontic-Caspian steppe towards the borders of early
China. Sadly, in their case, documentation is extremely poor.
The proto-Germanics took the same kind of wandering
course which covered many hundreds of kilometres. Like the Tocharians,
this was a good two thousand years before the Roman republic was
around to record it. The proto-Germanics formed the north-western
arm of Indo-European (IE) migration during the Yamnaya horizon which
witnessed an explosion of migration from the Pontic-Caspian steppe.
Map 3 from the earlier feature on Indo-European (IE) language and
migration shows IE migration out of the Pontic-Caspian steppe by
around 3000 BC, with the proto-Germanic groups heading north-west
towards Scandinavia (click on map to view full sized)
Tribal Warfare of the Gods
Origins of the Celtic Name
Origin of Odin
RULERS OF EUROPE:
Cimbri & Teutones
Corded Ware Culture
Science: Mysterious Indo-European homeland may have been in the
steppes of Ukraine and Russia
Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples
Indo-European Etymological Dictionary (J Pokorny)
Proto-Indo-European Etymological Dictionary
Archaeology can show a progression of Yamnaya folk along the valley
of the River Dniester which corresponds to the route probably taken
by the proto-Germanics, as they were to become. There they replaced
the Lengyel culture as they developed their own cultural expression
of the Yamnaya. This in turn is grouped within a seemingly more
generalised culture called Corded Ware. This physical culture appears
to span numerous different ethnicities, not just IEs, although they
dominated. Perhaps called it a melting pot culture wouldn't be far
from the truth.
Melting pot or not, according to DNA analysis,
people of the Corded Ware could trace an astonishing three-quarters
of their ancestry to the Yamnaya. That finding serves to confirm
this part of the massive migration of Yamnaya people from their
steppe homeland into central Europe around 3000-2500 BC.
These people would seem to have rolled into new
territory with their new technology in the form of horse-drawn
four-wheeled chariots and their large herds of cattle. Then they
dominated the locals, becoming the new top dogs in the process.
From there the Corded Ware people - or at least
their cultural influence (an important differentiation as it
requires no physical migration) - spread far and wide, reaching
northern Germany and the Netherlands in the west, far into modern
Russia and the Baltic States to the east, and - most crucially -
southern Scandinavia between 2500-2000 BC.
It was in this latter region that the Corded Ware
IEs became proto-Germanics (so some physical migration certainly was
involved in order for them to get to southern Scandinavia from their
starting point along the Dniester). Their more southerly-based Corded
Ware brothers appear to have developed in a different direction which
saw them become Belgae and Venedi, seemingly a mixture of northern
Germanic and southerly Celtic characteristics (but that's another
story - see the Belgae and Venedi links in the sidebar).
Provisos to migration theories
However, care does need to be taken when
interpreting genetic results. One recent fact showed that half the
ancestry of the wide-ranging Bell Beaker culture of central and
western Europe between around 2900-1800 BC was of an IE origin. The
implication is that there wasn't just one group entering Europe from
the east which divided into multiple groups, but rather a series of
movements from the east. How this developed and from where these
people came exactly is still something of a mystery.
As for the 'pseudopods' of migration shown in the
map above, this was originally intended to represent the flow of
migration in specific directions rather than an ongoing train of
The jury is still out on the precise form of
migration taken by the various IE groups, with the favourite
generally being a flow of associated groups that took a generation
or so to complete the journey from homeland to proto-sub-group land
(whether proto-Celts in southern central Europe, proto-Germanics in
southern Scandinavia, or any of the others).
Less of an alternative to this mainstream view and
more of a tightening-up is the view that tribal movements by IE
nomads took place in much shorter, more fully-contained forms. Here
one or more entire tribes packed up and moved to their new homeland
in a single unit (however large a unit this may have been). There
would have been no generation-long trail of migrating groups on the
same path, just a single concerted movement from A to B. The
Germanics appear to have moved from Ukraine to Denmark in this very
way. The Celts likewise seem to have settled en masse in central
Europe with no drop-offs of people along their path.
There are historical examples of both types of
movement. The migration mentioned above for the Teutones and Cimbri
is one example of a failed movement taking a few short years.
Another was recorded by the Greeks, in which Celts left central
Europe, attacked the Greeks, and then crossed to central Anatolia
where they settled.
An example which took more than a handful of years
concerns the nobles of Meroė/Kush (otherwise known as Nubia), who
fled west around AD 350, and took an entire generation to reach
western Africa, where they left religious, cultural and linguistic
traces on the Fon and Yoruba peoples. The difference here is nomadic
tradition. The Kushites were settled, non-nomadic town-dwellers. The
Celts and proto-Germanics were Indo-Europeans and therefore
A generalised truth may lie between the two
variations of migration theory, but the latter view may well hold
true for the Celts and Germanics at least.
But just who were the proto-Germanics?
The subject of Os and As has been covered in detail
in the feature, Tribal Warfare of the Gods in Scandinavia
(again, see the link in the sidebar).
Essentially, the Os or As (variations of the same
source word) are cognate with 'Asura' or 'Ęsir' (derived from the IE
verb, 'to be'). Very early in mythology the Ęsir fought the Vanir
and the Ęsir were victorious. The mythological war between the Ęsir
or As/Os and the Vanir was already ancient history by the time the
Scandinavian sagas were written down.
The Ęsir also provide the source for Asgard. In Old
Norse this was Įsgaršr, meaning 'enclosure of the Ęsir'. This word,
Ęsir, is the plural form of
ǫ́ss (or įss, įs),
although this is more often shown as the mildly confusing 'As' in
modern English texts.
How the Ęsir relate to the proto-Germanics is less
obvious (and will almost certainly be somewhat contentious).
It has long been known by linguists that
proto-Germanic was not like other West IE language groups. Some
peculiarities which distinguished it from other Indo-European tongues
may have been borrowed from the indigenous Kvenish or Sįmi
languages, or the Finno-Ugrics who had more recently arrived in
eastern Scandinavia. There also appears to have been heavy cultural
contact with their neighbours to the immediate south, the northern
Celts (the aforementioned Belgae or Venedi).
But there is also something deeper than that. Whilst
all other West IEs were centum-speakers (West IE language
groups), the proto-Germanics exhibited an apparent cultural similarity
with or heavy influence by East Indo-Europeans (East IEs - specifically
Indo-Iranians). How an eastern or satem influence could have
been brought to bear on the proto-Germanics has long been a puzzle to
The Yamnaya Horizon saw many semi-nomadic pastoral tribes
migrate huge distances over many generations, helped by their
use of four-wheeled wagons and chariots, and the petroglyphs
shown here (from northern Mesopotamia) form one of history's
earliest recordings of these chariots
Never quite as grandiose as the
pyramids of Giza, the pyramids of Meroė contain the
bodies of a large number of kings, although sadly most
of the structures are in ruins
The most likely theory was that an eastern group somehow found
its way into southern Scandinavia to provide a satem
'flavour' to the proto-Germanic language.
However, recent genetic testing of living peoples
may well have cleared up the mystery. Indo-European Y chromosomes
carry two primary flavours, called R1a and R1b by geneticists. R1a
is found strongly in Slavs, Balts, and Indo-Iranians (with these
people carrying satem pronunciation), and is mixed with R1b
in Germanic-speaking peoples. The geographic distribution in ancient
times for R1a is European Russia, just to the west of the Ural
Mountains, providing an open corridor between Germanics to the west
and Indo-Iranians to the east.
Eventually this corridor would have closed up
as Uralics spread into the north from the Urals, but by that time
the Germanics had been set on their way to being noticeably
different from their nearest cousins, the Celts. It remains to be
seen whether this DNA-based theory will supersede the established
linguistics theory, but as far as the Germanics go, it's a highly
Proposing the Indo-Iranians-to-Scandinavia
Based on the satem influence on
proto-Germanic, and on the recent DNA evidence, what can be
proposed here is the theory that a band of Ęsir - otherwise known
as As or Os and originally Indo-Iranians with a strong Arte culture
- took off from their normal pastures on the Pontic-Caspian steppe
and, unlike their Indo-Iranian brothers who were generally drifting
towards the east, they took the decision to follow the West IEs and
ultimately ended up in Denmark.
Perhaps they were already located well to the west
of the main body of satem-speaking groups, in European
Russia, and heading west seem entirely natural because their
neighbours were doing it, even if those neighbours were slightly
different centum-speaking IEs. Whatever the circumstances,
they moved west, not east.
There these As/Os (haplogroup R1a) mixed with early
Celts (haplogroup R1b) - possibly specifically northern Celts in the
form of Venedi - and with the indigenous Kvens (haplogroup I) to form
the Germanic tribes of Denmark and southern Scandinavia.
By the time the Romans began to provide a record of
their existence, the Germanics were still honouring their Arte
practical philosophy, although it had lost its original name by that
time. They had been in southern Scandinavia for the best part of two
thousand years, and with only oral tradition to ensure their traditions
and heritage survived, those traditions had changed over time.
Now they retained a legend of Mannus (man), who had
three sons: Ingvae (from 'anghu', meaning 'life, being, spirit, existence',
plus a 'vae' suffix, meaning 'way or path'); Istvae (with 'Ist' meaning
'to be, what is', ie. 'truth', plus the suffix 'vae'); and Ermin (its
earlier version being Aryaman, meaning 'truth man').
Early Germanic peoples in Scandinavia were clustered for the
most part along the coasts of southern Scandinavia, and only
began to expand inland from the third century AD or so (click
on map to view full sized)
All of that provides a strong suspicion that the Arte culture which
the proto-Germanics had brought with them from the East IE section
of the Pontic-Caspian steppe had at some point over the subsequent
two thousand years divided into three sections.
Such division is a natural consequence when a people
are settled - look at the way the settled Celtic tribes of Gaul
divided themselves up over time into ever smaller tribal units. The
Germanics clearly did the same as evidenced by their much later
history as recorded by Rome and Constantinople. It's only natural
that their culture should also exhibit signs of division.
The long-standing problem of how the proto-Germanics
came to exhibit East IE influences seems to have been solved, at
least in general terms. They were eastern IEs who were probably on
the western fringe of that group, and they headed west along with
their near neighbours, the West IEs, to found a new home in southern
While there's never a single, definitive answer in
linguistics or archaeology, this one will do until it can be further
influenced by new discoveries.
Cranberry Letters, The - Pre-Proto-Germanic,
International Affairs, Language Policy, and History
Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological
Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's
Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch
Geochronology - Indo-European Chronology
- Countries and Peoples
Maps and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler.
An original feature for the History Files.