German, English, Swedish, and the other Germanic languages belong to the Indo-European family, but they’re odd members. They and Proto-Germanic, their common grandparent, have a lot of vocabulary and grammar utterly unlike other Indo-European languages. Rather, it resembles Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic. That suggests a fascinating lost history, with civilized Middle Easterners setting up camp among the primitives of northern Europe’s great forests.
Fully one-third of Proto-Germanic vocabulary has no relation to other Indo-European words. But it does often resemble Semitic vocabulary. The Proto-Germanic word for maiden, for instance, is something like magath. The early Semitic version was makhat. Just as interesting, the ancient Germans worshiped a god named Balder, while many ancient Semites worshiped Baal Addir, which they shortened to Baldir. Plus, Germanic languages have a lot of breathy consonants, as well as an unusual verb-shift for the past tense — in both cases unlike other Indo-European languages but like Semitic languages.
Proto-Germanic branched off from the Indo-European family tree around 500 B.C.E. What ancient Semites could have lived in northern Europe that far back? The Phoenicians came from cities in Lebanon and Syria, and they were the Mediterranean’s great sailors. We know they reached Portugal. They could easily have sailed on to northern Germany and southern Scandinavia, where Proto-Germanic formed. Plus, the Phoenicians worshiped Baal Addir (to the horror of their Hebrew cousins, who moaned about Baal in the Old Testament). And Proto-Germanic’s odd, Semitic-sounding vocabulary includes just about all its words for the sea, fish, and ships.
To reshape the natives’ language, the Phoenicians would’ve had to stay a long time, possibly in trading posts (like the ones Europeans set up in Africa and Asia during the 16th and 17th Centuries). Those settlements would be under water now, since sea levels have risen. But recently, off the coast of northern Germany, archeologists found a Phoenician pot.
Of course, the theory has to explain why the Phoenicians built settlements so far from home. Were they refugees or pilgrims, or did northern Germany offer natural resources hard to find elsewhere? We don’t know.
- Most of this analysis comes from McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, The Untold History of English (Gotham Books 2008), citing Theo Vennemann of the University of Munich.
- Illustration: Siegfried Blows His Horn (1911), by Arthur Rackham, cropped
© 2015 by David W. Tollen
The Walking Dead offers some good prehistory. In the show’s post-apocalyptic world, humanity returns to the key life stages of our prehistoric past: [SPOILER ALERT for Seasons 1-5!] Read more…
Scientists call Britain’s oldest complete skeleton “Cheddar Man.” He lived around 7150 B.C.E., when forest covered Britain and antelope roamed, along with wild horses. Cheddar Man’s people were hunter-gatherers, and they ate the antelope and horses — along with each other, most likely. Butcher marks on his skeleton suggest someone carved him up, possibly after murdering him. Read more…
The South didn’t have to surrender in 1865, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Its armies had lost, but Confederate soldiers could’ve taken to the hills and forests to fight a guerrilla war. Southern generals had plenty of role models — including the American guerrillas who’d frustrated the British during the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to do the same. Had they obeyed, the Civil War might have dragged on for years, darkening America’s character. Guerrilla combat often degenerates into terrorism, with both sides targeting civilians and killing for revenge. Democracy itself could’ve suffered. The Confederacy might even have won, since many in the exhausted North already wanted to give up in 1865. (Imagine the 20th Century without a unified America to oppose totalitarianism.) Read more…