History Files


Ancient Europe

Indo-European Daughter Languages: Germanic

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 16 February 2018

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 important.

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 of Indo-Europeans c.3000 BC
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)

A History of Indo-Europeans, Migrations and Language


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 continuous migration.

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.

Odin of Asgard

Odin (or Woden in older source material) was the ruler of the 'gods' of Asgard, ie. the king of a band of warrior heroes called the As or Os, with As-gard the name of their main stronghold

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 culturally nomadic.

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 linguists.

Northern Mesopotamian chariot petroglyphs
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

Nubian pyramids

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 rewarding breakthrough.

Proposing the Indo-Iranians-to-Scandinavia theory

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').

Map of Scandinavia c.AD 100
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 Scandinavia.

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.


Main Sources

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

Online Sources

Geochronology - Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples




Maps and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.