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Barbarian Europe

What's in a Name - German

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 1 November 2019

Originally the Germanic people were a branch of West Indo-Europeans who had migrated north-westwards away from the Black Sea's northern coastal steppe to the Baltic coast. From there they entered southern Scandinavia where, over the course of a couple of thousand years, they integrated with the native Kven people.

By the end of the first century BC they had become the Germans which Julius Caesar met in northern Gaul.

On the face of it, providing an explanation for that name - 'German' - is rather simple and can be explained in a single sentence instead of a full article. 'Ger' means 'spear', and 'man' means just that - 'man', with the full name meaning 'spear-man'.

But the back-story to get to this conclusion is far from simple.

Germanic shields

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians

The original Germans

To begin with, 'German' is not the name the Germanic tribes used to describe themselves. It was used specifically to denote a collection of tribes which had crossed onto the west bank of the Rhine under the command of Ariovistus.

Julius Caesar was busy pacifying Gaul at the time and had to defeat Ariovistus and his Suebi-led confederation of Germans in 58 BC. Only later did successive generations of Romans extended the use of the name to refer to the entire folk and region, which crystallised as 'Germania'.

Name origins

The name used by today's Germans to describe themselves is 'Deutsch' (and its variant, 'Dutch'). This name also derives from a tribal name which was recorded by the Romans: 'Teutones'.

Remove the Latin plural suffix '-es' and the name is 'Teuton', a word referring to a family, tribe, or extended family in various forms in Germanic and Celtic languages.

The famous linguist, Pokorny, traces this word to a proto-Indo-European (PIE) word which he gives as multiple possibles: 'tēu-, tǝu-, teu̯ǝ-, tu̯ō-, and tū-'. It may possibly have had an original meaning which referred to a mass of some kind prior to PIE, which became extended to refer to additional meanings: to swell; a crowd, a folk (people); fat; strong; a boil, an abscess.

This multiplicity of form and meaning makes it seem likely that the word is an old one, possibly one which even predates PIE. The word element 'ger-' in 'German' also shows this multiplicity of form in PIE, which is covered below in more detail.

This 'ger-' element appears originally to have referred more specifically to something which was pointed. One popular but not-always-accurate online encyclopaedia currently derives 'ger-' from a Celtic word for 'shouting, noisy' (Jacob Grimm), or from a Celtic word for 'neighbour' (Johann Zeuss), both of whom apparently never shaved using Occam's Razor (in which the simplest explanation is usually the most likely), and therefore did not derive it from early West Germanic.

Returning to Pokorny, the number of words for spear or something pointy in PIE which appear to be cognates is astonishing. Humans have used spears for a very long time and, given the number of similar words for pointy things in Pokorny's text, the original word would seem to be another which predates PIE by many thousands of years.

Gotland standing stone
This standing stone was found on the island of Gotland, immediately to the east of modern Sweden, and depicts Vikings with their boats and armaments, which were a development of those of the early Germanic settlers around the Scandinavian coastal regions

One of the most obvious is 'gher-, ghrē-, ghrō, ghrǝ-', meaning 'to stick out', but there are other options:

  • 'gherzd(h)-', meaning 'barley, grain, spike', all of which come to a point. Please note that the 'bar' element of barley can be derived from 'ghar > kwar > war > var > bar' as the word mutates. Also notice the 'gr' beginning of 'grain'
  • 'bhar- bhor- bhr̥-', meaning 'bristle, sharp point'. An old Welsh word for a spear is 'ber'
  • 'gweru-', a pole or pike. In Latin with the 'g' dropped it is 'verū', meaning 'spit, dart, pike'
  • 'ĝhasto-, ĝhazdho-', a pole. Was the 'r' dropped long ago in some usage, such as a verb form? This may be derived from the next option:
  • 'ĝhei-, ĝhēi-', meaning 'to drive, to throw, to wound'. Cattle are 'driven' with a stick. A long pole can be used to drive a four-wheeled cart. Spears are thrown. Wounds are caused by pointed objects. Also, is this cognate to 'k̂es-', meaning 'to cut'?

Pokorny also gives: 'k̂ā̆k-', nasalised 'k̂ank-', meaning a branch, possibly another noun from 'ghei-', above. He derives from it Old Indian 'śākhā', and Persian 'šāx', both of which look suspiciously similar to the word for a knife or short sword in Old German, 'sax'. Is this word so old that it predates the use of metal as the point of a knife or spear?

There are many more such words, although it isn't necessary to cover them all here. One of the mutations appears to be the addition of an 's' to the beginning of a word, resulting in 'shaft' and 'skaft' in Germanic tongues; and also 'sparus' in Latin, meaning 'javelin, spear'. Please note that the 'p' may be derived from a 'k' sound, providing an origin in that 'sk' sound which is found in Germanic and Indic tongues, ultimately deriving from the 'k̂ā̆k-' mentioned above if Pokorny is correct.

While all of this word exploration can be entertaining, it is now clear that both the 'ger-' of German and the 'teut-' of Teuton are recent words with which to name this people.

Given that realisation, what could possibly be their original name?

This is rather impossible to be certain of, but we do have a couple of intriguing candidates. Tacitus wrote that the legendary founders of the German tribes were the Ingvaeones, Herminones, and Istaevones, all 'sons' (descendents) of Mannus, meaning 'man', from the PIE word 'man', meaning 'human' (see 'related links' in the sidebar for more on this).

Could they have called themselves 'the Men' ('Mannon')?

One more thing...

The other possible candidate (and a personal favourite) is the German tribal name, 'Saxon' ('Sachsen' in modern German). This looks suspiciously similar to 'Saka' - the East Indo-European cousins of the original Germanics who ended up controlling much of the Pontic-Caspian steppe and Central Asia for quite some time in the first millennium BC.

This is a possibility if you understand that the '-on' or '-en' on the end of the name is a definite article ('the'), which makes 'Saxon' mean 'The Sax'. Could the original name be Saka, mutated somewhat by Germanics over distance and time from their eastern cousins?


Main Sources

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Mallory, JP & Adams, DQ (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

The United Sites of Indo-Europeans



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