History Files


Barbarian Europe

Germanic or Gaulish?

by Edward Dawson, 2 July 2011

Controversy exists as to whether particular tribes were German or Gaulish (Celtic), but this either/or view might be too narrow a definition.

There exists both historical records and linguistic evidence that German tribes were heavily influenced by Gaulish language and culture. The contact had to be heavy, so heavy that considerable mixing must have occurred.

This appears to have happened twice: Gauls may have invaded Jutland, and possibly even southern Sweden, during pre-history, and merged with the Germanic population to form hybrid Germanic-speaking tribes such as the Vandali, and hybrid Gaulish-speaking tribes such as the Belgic tribes, and probably the Veneti.

Historical examples

There are examples of mixing in the historical record. One involves Maroboduus, king of a known German tribe called the Marcomanni, which took over the Boii territory. Maroboduus ruled a tribal alliance which seem to have included the Lugii, according to Strabo. The name Maroboduus can be dissected as 'maro' (great) and 'bodu' (raven) in common Gaulish.

Another example includes several kings of the West Saxons who bore British (insular Gaulish) names such as Cerdic, Ceawlin and Caedwalla.

Linguistic examples

These include the Germanic god Thor, which is their pronunciation of the Gaulish Taranis. The modern name that Germans use for themselves, Deutsch, is from a tribe called the Teutones, whose name is from a common Gaulish word, not a proto-Germanic one (although 'theudanoz' in proto-Germanic is a reconstruction that is open to criticism).

The name of the tribe called the Vandali, or Vandals, appears to be a Gaulish word for blond/white, with perhaps a German suffix attached; or perhaps not, as the Romans assimilated Gaulish peoples around Switzerland and Austria which were known by a similar name, the Vindelici.

As mentioned in two other articles in the Tribal Names series (see related links, right), multiple tribal names seem to derive from a root common to Celtic, Italic and probably Illyrian/Venetic (ie. of Venice) languages and which means 'white'. This was commonly related to hair colour, not skin colour, so this name would be given to a baby born blond.

In common Celtic it is postulated to be 'windo'. In Latin (the only surviving Italic tongue) they swapped some letters (a not uncommon change) to produce the word 'niveus'. [1]

The -us is a suffix to form a noun. This gives us 'nivè', which is easy to perceive as 'veni' semi-reversed. Curiouser still, the proposed Indo-European root for these appears to be 'kweidos'. [2]

If this is accurate, it suggests that 'kweidos' lost its 'k' by softening to an 'h' and then being lost entirely. At some point the proto-Celtic region decided to insert an 'n' in front of the 'd'. In the proto-Germanic this last change did not occur, and so all these northern and central European tribal names which begin in 'vind-' or 'vand-' or 'van-' or 'ven-' may be postulated to derive from the Celtic form.

Oppidum Batavorum
Shown here is artist's impression of Oppidum Batavorum, the Roman tribal centre for the Batavi, a tribe which may have started out Germanic and ended up Gaulish (Celtic)

[1] Woden means god, nothing more.

[2] The Goths are named the Gods.

Mythological example

An amusing bit of indirect evidence comes from Norse legend, in which their gods are described as members of two groups: the Aesir and the Vanir. This latter is very suggestive of early contact between Germanics in Scandinavia and the seagoing Veneti living along the Gulf of Gdansk and the Vistula. [3]

Ptolemy seems a bit confused when he states, "Below the Venedae are the Gythones, then the Finni". If we assume that 'below' means east then he is indicating that the Goths are to their east, and the Finnish tribes are beyond the Goths. The fascinating thing about the name 'Goth' is that it is cognate to the English word 'God', and that the Baltic Sea along which both lived was at one point called the Codanus Sinus by Roman writers.

It should be noted that a hard 'g' and a 'k' sound (the letter 'c' in Codanus) are interchangeable if the 'c' is from the far north of Europe where it forms a 'k' sound instead of a 'ch'. And since Codan or Godan would be the Gaulish pronunciation of Woden (and also the pronunciation used by the German tribe, the Langobardi), this linguistic puzzle is resolved.

In the legends, the Aesir hosted several Vanir among them (as hostages?), all of which points at an early mixing between Germans (in the form of Goths?) and Celts (the Veneti).

[3] The Norse gods (Aesir) had heavy contact with the Vanir, a race of (slightly) lesser gods, which appear to be the Vistula Veneti.


Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.