Germanic substrate hypothesis

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The Germanic substratum hypothesis is a theory published by Sigmund Feist in 1932 , according to which apparently non- Indo-European elements in the Germanic languages ​​go back to a linguistic substratum of non-Indo-European pre-inhabitants of Central Europe. The question of which peoples and cultures it should be from which the substrate material originates has, however, remained a subject of ongoing discussion among supporters of the hypothesis. Because of its clarity and rigor, the hypothesis initially won many followers. According to the Indo-Europeanist Wolfram Euler (2009), however, the theory can now be considered refuted.

The most important statements of the substrate hypothesis

With this hypothesis Feist tried not only to explain the non-Indo-European parts of the vocabulary of the Germanic languages, but also the typical Germanic initial stress and the first sound shift . According to the thesis, the primitive Germanic language originated around 2000 BC. BC as a kind of Creole language between an early Indo-European language form and that of the indigenous people living in the North and Baltic Sea region. The substratum hypothesis argues that Indo-Europeans coming from the east (according to the opinion of the time, mainly cord ceramists and band ceramists ) would have mixed with the non-Indo-European pre-population, according to the opinion of the time mainly with the carriers of the funnel-beaker culture .

This tries to explain the fact that the Germanic languages ​​contain quite a few lexemes that have no or only an uncertain equivalent in other Indo-European languages, as well as grammatical forms and the phenomenon of the Germanic sound shift . The terms adopted mainly include those from the field of seafaring and craft. This can be understood to mean that the “natives” were more experienced in these fields than the newcomers who later ruled.

The thesis was first formulated in 1932 by Sigmund Feist , who still estimated that around a third of the primitive Germanic basic vocabulary came from this non-Indo-European substrate and that the supposed simplification of the inflection system in primitive Germanic was the result of pidginization .

Initially, the hypothesis met with a lot of approval because it seemed to be able to explain a lot with a few and in itself plausible assumptions. Since “broken pieces cannot talk”, however, assignments in terms of time and subject remained difficult. Answering the question of which section of the population might have supplied the substrate material remained the subject of academic debate and research. In the area of ​​the earliest tangible Germanic peoples, speakers of the Ertebølle , funnel cup , deep-cut pottery and cord pottery cultures come into question. However, it is completely unclear which language these people spoke. It is also completely unclear whether the archaeological cultures spread across several language families.

Germanic as a special language group

The fact that the Germanic languages ​​form a distinctly different group within Indo-European has been out of the question for a long time. According to Grimm's law, they carried out a sound shift that affected all plosives . The Germanic languages ​​also have a number of innovations in grammar and phonology in common: Two of the originally eight Indo-European cases of the noun , which are still present in languages ​​such as Lithuanian or Sanskrit, which are mostly classified as conservative, are missing in Germanic: The ablative is missing complete, the locative has coincided with the dative. The Germanic verb has also been changed significantly, it has fewer modes and tenses and fewer uses of the passive voice than are still preserved in Latin . The old aorist has disappeared except for relics, but a new dental past tense has been created.

The Germanic substratum hypothesis tries to explain these features as a result of creolization. However, other Indo-European languages, which have been handed down even earlier than the Germanic, such as Hittite , have also reduced the inventory of the noun cases to a similar extent and / or changed their verbal system in a similarly profound way.

Individual theories

The position of John A. Hawkins

John A. Hawkins , one of the few remaining supporters of the hypothesis, lays out the arguments for a pre-Germanic substratum in his introductory article on the Germanic languages ​​in the book The Major Languages ​​of Western Europe . He argues that the "Urgermanen" refer to a non- Indo-European people are met and have borrowed numerous features from the language of this people. He thus hypothesized that the first sound shift resulted from the fact that non-Indo-European peoples tried to pronounce Indo-European sounds and thereby switched to the sound closest to their own language. The Corded Ceramic Culture is an ancient culture identified by archaeologists, whose members can be regarded as possible speakers of those idioms that might have influenced the Germanic languages ​​with their non-Indo-European language. Alternatively, however, in connection with the Kurgan hypothesis, the cord ceramics can be understood as an already "Kurganized" culture that builds on the substrate of the older funnel cup culture.

Kalevi Wiik's hypothesis

A certain number of stems for modern European words seem to narrow down the area of ​​origin of these influences. For example, the root of the tree name “ash” or other names from the human environment suggest that these substrate terms come from Northern Europe.

Kalevi Wiik , a Finnish phonologist , proposed a very controversial hypothesis that the pre-Germanic substratum was of Finnish origin. Wiik claimed that there were similarities between the typical mispronunciations of English by speakers of Finnish and the historical sound shift from Indo-European to Ur-Germanic. Wiik's argument is based on the assumption that there were originally only three language groups in Europe: Finno-Ugric , Indo-European and Basque , corresponding to the three Ice Age refuges. According to this, speakers of Finno-Ugric would have been the first to occupy large parts of Europe, and the language of the newly arrived Indo-Europeans would have been influenced by the native Finno-Ugric population, which would have produced the original Germanic language.

Words from non-Indo-European languages

Hawkins also claims (similar to Feist originally) that more than a third of the original Germanic vocabulary is of non-Indo-European origin, and points to the hypothetical substratum language as the cause. According to Hawkins, some word fields are even dominated by non-Indo-European words, such as terms from seafaring, agriculture, warfare, handicrafts and construction, names of animals and fish and the names of social institutions. Hawkins cited numerous examples from the English language , most of which can be translated into German:

seafaring Warfare / weapons Animals / fish Community Others
  • Lake ( * saiwaz )
  • Ship ( * skipan )
  • Beach ( * strandō )
  • Ebb ( * abjōn )
  • taxes ( * steurjanan )
  • Sail ( * seglan )
  • Kiel ( * keluz )
  • engl. oar , rowing '( * Airò )
  • Mast ( * mastaz )
  • North ( * onlyþera- )
  • South ( * sunþera- )
  • East ( * austera- )
  • West ( * westera- )
  • Sword ( * swerdan )
  • Shield ( * skelduz )
  • Helmet ( * χelmaz )
  • Bow ( * bugōn )
  • Carp ( * karpa )
  • Eel ( * ēlaz )
  • Calf ( * calf )
  • Bear ( * beran )
  • Lamb ( * lambaz )
  • Stork ( * sturkaz )
  • King ( * kuningaz )
  • Servant ( * kneχtaz )
  • House ( * χusan )
  • Woman ( * wīban )
  • Bride ( * bruþiz )
  • Bride gam ( * guman )
  • Earth ( * erþō )
  • Thing ( * þengan )
  • drink ( * đrenkanan )
  • run ( * χlaupanan )
  • Leg ( * bainan )
  • Hand ( * χanduz )
  • Siech ( * seukaz )
  • bad ( * ubilaz )
  • mdrtl. lützel 'klein' ( * luttilaz , to * luttiz ~ * - jaz , see Lütjenburg, Luxemburg / Lëtzebuerg )


The main objection

The main reason that the Germanic substratum theory is now considered refuted is that for many of the supposedly non-Indo-European words in the reconstructed Germanic lexicon, etymological points of comparison have meanwhile been found in other Indo-European languages. Some examples of this in the word list above are:

  • Helm: Concrete formation on - mo - to germ. * Helanan 'hehlen , hide', to idg. * Ḱel- 'bergen, veil', cf. Sanskrit śárman 'umbrella, protective roof, ceiling', Thracian zalmós 'animal skin'
  • Ost: shortened from the east , nominal formation to the direction adverbe ahd. Ōstar 'im, nach Osten', to germ. * Austera- , with contrasting suffixes * - tero to idg. * H₂eus- ‚Morgenröte ', cf. Latin oyster , - trī , south wind, south '.
  • Woman: to germ. * Wīban , to idg. * Gʷíh₂bʰo- , cf. tocharisch B kwipe 'shame, shame'
  • Ebbe: to germ. * Abjōn 'the outflowing, flowing away', nominal formation to * aba 'ab, away', to idg. * H₂p-ó- (in the allative ) 'from, away'
  • North: to the direction adverbe germ. * Nurþera- , to * h₁nr-tero- , contrast formation on - tero to the fading stage of idg. * H₁ner- ‚below; left ', cf. Greek nérteros , lower, underground ', umbr. nertru 'left'
  • South. Next ahd sundar '. * To germ, south, south sunþera- , Adverbialbildung to * sunnōn , Sun', the weak base of * soel that an old l - / n . -Heteroklitikon IE * séh₂u-el going back
  • West: to the directional adverb germ. * Westera- , adverbial formation to derive * wes- , perhaps reduced from idg. * Uekʷsp- 'evening'.
  • Shield: zu germ. * Skeldu- , zu * skelH-tú- , tu - abstraction formed to idg. * SkelH- 'slit open , split', cf. Lithuanian skìltis 'disk'
  • Storch: to germ. * Sturkaz , to idg. * Str̥go- , guttural expansion of the shrinkage level from * ster- 'stiff'.
  • Bear: to idg. * BʰerH- 'bright, brown', cf. Lithuanian bė́ras . Similar to other idg languages ​​in Germanic, the bear would have been taboo as "the brown one"
  • drink: to idg. * dʰré-nge- , nasalized form from * dʰreg- 'pull, pull along, slide, strip', cf. Lithuanian drė́gti 'humidify', drė́gnas 'humid'.
  • Bräuti gam (mhd. Gome , ahd. Gomo ): to germ. * Guman- , to idg. * Dʰǵʰm̥-on- 'Mensch, Mann', with possessive or individualizing n -suffixes to * dʰeǵʰ-m- 'earth'. Etymologically, the Germanic word corresponds exactly to Latin homō and old Lithuanian žmuõ .
  • Schiff: to Germ. Skipan 'dugout canoe , vessel', either borrowed from Latin scyphus 'drinking cup', or stepped formation to expand the labial to idg. * Skei- 'cut, separate', cf. Latvian šk̨ibît 'hew , cut'; the ahd. Etymon meant both 'watercraft' and 'barrel, vessel'.
  • Beach: to germ. * Strandō , to idg. * Sterh₃- 'to spread out, to scatter'.
  • König: to germ. * Kuningaz , membership formation to * kunjan '(noble) sex' (cf. mhd. Künne 'ds.', Ahd. Kunirīhhi 'state, empire'), to idg. * Ǵnh₁-io- , low-level education to * ǵenh₁ - 'generate, give birth', cf. Latin genus 'descent, gender, genus'

This incomplete list alone shows why the substrate theory in its original form no longer has many supporters. Most recent academic publications on the pre- and pre-Germanic language no longer mention the substratum hypothesis , including Joseph B. Voyles ' Early Germanic Grammar . In some circles, however, the theory is still represented, including in the Leiden School of Historiolinguistics .

Further objections to the substrate theory

Apart from the fact that Indo-European comparisons have now been found for many supposedly isolated Germanic words , even with actually isolated Germanic lexemes it does not have to be a matter of innovations or influences of a substrate language, rather there is always the possibility that the Indo-European word has only survived in Germanic and therefore cannot be recognized as Indo-European inherited due to the lack of comparison. The Munich Indo-Europeanist Wolfram Euler points out that

"The enormously long period of around 1500 to 1800 years, in which the primitive Germanic largely developed for itself, is well enough to be able to plausibly explain the verifiable lexical innovations even without substrates or other major upheavals."

All the more so since there are many Germanic "neologisms that give understandable reasons why hereditary words were replaced".

According to Euler, two further counter-arguments are

"That the fields 'armament' and 'society' cited by Feist, to which the subjugated indigenous population allegedly contributed a particularly large number of words, are precisely not the areas in which conquerors usually adopt terms from subjugated."

Finally got

"The shift of the accent to the stem syllable - a central argument of the Germanic substratum theory - with high probability did not take place in the early Bronze Age , but much later, in the pre-Roman Iron Age ."

For all these reasons, this theory is now largely out of date.


Mainly following on from the argument that the etymologically unexplained Germanic vocabulary is concentrated in areas such as “armament” and “society / domination”, and that this rather suggests superstrate influence , Theo Vennemann (2003) formulated the hypothesis that a Semitic superstrate present in Germanic .

See also

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Sigmund Feist : The Origin of the Germanic Languages ​​and the Europeanization of North Europe . In: Language . 8, 1932, pp. 245-254. doi : 10.2307 / 408831 .
  2. ^ Sophus Bugge: Etymological contributions from the Nordic , in: Bezzenberger contributions 3/2 (1879), pp. 97-121, spec. 118.
  3. Wilhelm Tomaschek: The old Thracians: an ethnological investigation . Publishing house of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna 1893, p. 10.
  4. Kroonen 2013, p. 219.
  5. Kroonen 2013, p. 43.
  6. ^ Calvert Watkins: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots . 2nd Edition. Keyword: "gʷʰībʰ-". Houghton Mifflin, Boston 2000, p. 32
  7. ^ KT Schmidt / Klaus Strunk: "Toch. B kwipe 'shame, shame', A kip 'shame', and germ. * Wīƀa 'woman' ”. In: Wolfgang Meid u. a. (Ed.): Indogermanica Europaea. Festschrift for Wolfgang Meid for his 60th birthday on November 12, 1989 . Institute for Linguistics at the University of Graz, Graz 1989. pp. 251–284.
  8. Kroonen 2013, p. 1.
  9. Kroonen 2013, p. 582.
  10. Vladimir Orel: A Handbook of Germanic Etymology . Brill, Leiden 2003. p. 384.
  11. Kroonen 2013, p. 103.
  12. Kroonen 2013, p. 195.
  13. Dagmar S. Wodtko, Britta Irslinger u. Carolin Schneider (Ed.): Nomina in the Indo-European lexicon . Carl Winter, Heidelberg 2008. pp. 86-92.
  14. Kroonen 2013, p. 446.
  15. Orel 2003, p. 340.
  16. Kroonen 2013, p. 482.
  17. See the etymological dictionary of Dutch published from 2003 to 2009 (Marlies Philippa et al. (Ed.): Etymologische woordenboek van het Nederlands . Volume 1 . University Press Amsterdam, 2003. )
  18. Euler / Badenheuer 2009, pp. 39 and 190–201.


  • Wolfram Euler , Konrad Badenheuer: Language and origin of the Germanic peoples - demolition of the Proto-Germanic before the first sound shift . London / Hamburg 2009. 244 pp., ISBN 978-3-9812110-1-6 .
  • John A. Hawkins: Germanic Languages . In: Bernard Comrie (Ed.): The Major Languages ​​of Western Europe . Routledge, London 1990. ISBN 0-415-04738-2
  • Guus Kroonen: Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic . Brill, Leiden 2013.
  • Jurij Kusmenko: Early Teutons and their neighbors: Linguistics, archeology and genetics. ( in Russian ). Saint Petersburg, 2011. ISBN 978-5-98187-870-1
  • Edgar C. Polomé: Types of Linguistic Evidence for Early Contact: Indo-Europeans and Non-Indo-Europeans. In: TL Markey / JAC Greppin (eds.): When Worlds Collide: The Indo-Europeans and the Pre-Indo-Europeans . Karoma, Ann Arbor (Mich) 1990. pp. 267-89.
  • Eduard Prokosch: A Comparative Germanic Grammar . University of Pennsylvania, Linguistic Society of America, Philadelphia 1939. ISBN 99910-34-85-4
  • Theo Vennemann : Languages ​​in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps . In: Alfred Bammesberger / Theo Vennemann (ed.): Languages ​​in prehistoric Europe . Carl Winter, Heidelberg 2003. pp. 319-332.
  • Joseph B. Voyles: Early Germanic Grammar . Academic Press, San Diego (Cal.) 1992. ISBN 0-12-728270-X
  • Kalevi Wiik: Euro-opalaists juuret (in Finnish; "Roots of Europeans"). 2002.
  • Kalevi Wiik: Suomalaisten juuret (in Finnish; "roots of the Finns"). 2004.