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Encyclopedia > Germanic substrate hypothesis

The Germanic substrate hypothesis is a hypothesis that some have ventured that attempts to explain the distinctiveness of the Germanic languages within the Indo-European language family. It ventures that the reason for the distinctiveness of the Germanic languages is because they represent, in essence, a creole language: a contact language between Indo-European speakers and a non-Indo-European substrate language spoken by some of the ancestors of the speakers of the Proto-Germanic language. A hypothesis (= assumption in ancient Greek) is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. ... The Germanic languages form one of the branches of the Indo-European (IE) language family, spoken by the Germanic peoples who settled in northern Europe along the borders of the Roman Empire. ... Proto-Indo-European Indo-European studies The Indo-European languages include some 443 (SIL estimate) languages and dialects spoken by about three billion people, including most of the major language families of Europe and western Asia, which belong to a single superfamily. ... A creole is a language descended from a pidgin that has become the native language of a group of people. ... A Pidgin, or contact language, is the name given to any language created, usually spontaneously, out of a mixture of other languages as a means of communication between speakers of different tongues. ... In linguistics, a substratum is a language which influences another one while that second language supplants it. ... Map of the Pre-Roman Iron Age culture(s) associated with Proto-Germanic, ca 500 BC-50 BC. The area south of Scandinavia is the Jastorf culture Proto-Germanic, the proto-language believed by scholars to be the common ancestor of the Germanic languages, includes among its descendants Dutch, Yiddish...

That the Germanic languages form a markedly distinct group within Indo-European is beyond question. Grimm's law was a profound sound change that affected all of the stops inherited from Indo-European. The Germanic languages also share common innovations in grammar as well as in phonology: more than half of the noun cases featured in more conservative languages such as Sanskrit or Lithuanian are not present in Germanic.1 The Germanic verb has also been extensively remodelled, showing fewer grammatical moods, and markedly decreasing the inflections in use for the passive voice. Grimms law (also known as the [First] Germanic Sound Shift; German: Erste Deutsche (Germanische) Lautverschiebung) was the first non-trivial systematic sound change ever to be discovered; its formulation was a turning-point in the development of linguistics, enabling the introduction of rigorous methodology in historical linguistic research. ... A stop, plosive or occlusive is a consonant sound produced by stopping the airflow in the vocal tract. ... Grammar is the study of the rules governing the use of a language. ... Phonology (Greek phone = voice/sound and logos = word/speech), or phonemics, is a subfield of grammar (see also linguistics). ... In linguistics, declension is a feature of inflected languages: generally, the alteration of a noun to indicate its grammatical role. ... The Sanskrit language ( संस्कृता वाक्) is one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family and is not only a classical language, but also an official language of India. ... A verb is a part of speech that usually denotes action (bring, read), occurrence (to decompose (itself), to glitter), or a state of being (exist, live, soak, stand). Depending on the language, a verb may vary in form according to many factors, possibly including its tense, aspect, mood and voice. ... In linguistics, many grammars have the concept of grammatical mood, which describes the relationship of a verb with reality and intent. ... In grammar, voice is the relationship between the action or state expressed by a verb, and its arguments (subject, object, etc. ...

The Germanic substrate hypothesis attempts to explain these features as a result of creolization with a non-Indo-European language. Writing an introductory article to the Germanic languages in The Major Languages of Western Europe, Germanicist John A. Hawkins sets forth the arguments for a Germanic substrate. Hawkins argues that the proto-Germans encountered a non-Indo-European speaking people and borrowed many features from their language. He hypothesizes that the first sound shift of Grimm's Law was the result of non-native speakers attempting to pronounce Indo-European sounds, and that they resorted to the closest sounds in their own language in their attempt to pronounce them. The Battle-axe people is an ancient culture identified by archaeology who have been proposed as candidates for the people who influenced Germanic with their non-Indo-European speech. Proponents of the theory sometimes call the alleged non-Indo-European element in Germanic Folkish, on the assumption that the Germanic root folk is not an Indo-European word. The name Battle-axe people (corded ware culture) identifies widely-scattered late Neolithic sites in Europe (3rd millennium BC). ... Importance and applicability Most of human history is not described by any written records. ...

Hawkins moreover asserts that more than one third of the native Germanic lexicon is of non-Indo-European origin, and again points to the hypothetical substrate language as the cause. Certain lexical fields are dominated by non-Indo-European words according to Hawkins. Seafaring terms, agricultural terms, words about war and weapons, animal and fish names, and the names of communal and social institutions are centers of non-Indo-European words according to Hawkins. Some English language examples given by Hawkins include: A lexicon is a list of words together with additional word-specific information, i. ... There are several traditions of navigation. ... War is a state of widespread conflict between states, organisations, or relatively large groups of people, which is characterised by the use of violent, physical force between combatants or upon civilians. ... The bayonet, still used in war as both knife and spearpoint. ... Phyla Porifera (sponges) Ctenophora (comb jellies) Cnidaria Placozoa Bilateria  Acoelomorpha  Orthonectida  Rhombozoa  Myxozoa  Superphylum Deuterostomia     Chordata (vertebrates, etc. ... Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus, the most abundant fish species in the world. ... The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ...

  • Seafaring vocabulary
    • sea
    • ship
    • strand
    • keel
    • boat
    • rudder
    • mast
    • ebb
    • steer
    • sail
    • north
    • south
    • east
    • west
  • Warfare and weapons
    • sword
    • shield
    • helmet
    • bow
  • Animal and fish names
    • carp
    • eel
    • calf
    • lamb
    • bear
    • stork
  • Communal and social institutions
    • king
    • knight
    • thing
  • Miscellaneous vocabulary items
    • drink
    • leap
    • bone
    • wife

Many of Hawkins's purported non-etymologies are controversial. One obvious way to refute the Germanic substrate hypothesis is to find Indo-European etymologies for the words on Hawkins's list. This process continues, but several cited as examples by Hawkins can likely be stricken. For example, it is generally agreed that helmet represents IE *kel-, a concealing covering. East relates to IE *aus-os-, "dawn." Some of the words may have Indo-European derivations that are simply not well preserved in other Indo-European languages. For example, it has been suggested that wife is related to Tocharian B kwipe, "vulva", from a reconstructed root *gwibh-. Calvert Watkins's original 1969 appendix of Indo-European roots in the American Heritage Dictionary listed quite a few roots that were believed to be unique to Germanic at that time. More recent editions have cut back substantially on the number of roots claimed to be unique in Germanic. Tocharian is one of the most obscure branches of the Indo-European language group. ... Parts of a vulva The external genital organs of the female are collectively known as the vulva (also sometimes called the pudenda). ... Calvert Watkins is a professor Emeritus of linguistics and the classics at Harvard University. ... 1969 was a common year starting on Wednesday (the link is to a full 1969 calendar). ... The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) is a dictionary of American English published by Boston publisher Houghton-Mifflin, the first edition of which appeared in 1969. ...

As such, more recent treatments of Proto-Germanic tend to reject or simply omit discussion of the Germanic substrate hypothesis. Joseph B. Voyles's Early Germanic Grammar makes no mention of the hypothesis, nor do most other recent publications on the Germanic language family.


  • John A. Hawkins, "Germanic Languages", in The Major Languages of Western Europe, Bernard Comrie, ed. (Routledge, 1990) ISBN 0-415-04738-2
  • Joseph B. Voyles, Early Germanic Grammar (Academic Press, 1992) ISBN 0-12-728270-X
  • Robert S. P. Beekes, Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (John Benjamins, 1995) ISBN 1-55619-505-2
  • Calvert Watkins (ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) ISBN 0-395-36070-6
  • Calvert Watkins (ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, second edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) ISBN 0-618-08250-6
  • Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Study of the Earliest Germanic Languages (Stanford, 1992) ISBN 0-8047-2221-8


1 Other Indo-European languages attested much earlier than the Germanic languages, such as Hittite, also have a reduced inventory of noun cases. It is not certain whether Germanic and Hittite have lost them, or whether they never shared in their acquisition. The Hittite language is the dead language once spoken by the Hittites, a people who once created an empire centered on ancient Hattusa (modern Boğazköy) in north-central Turkey. ...



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