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 have sailed on from there 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 1: Siegfried Blows His Horn (1911), by Arthur Rackham, cropped
- Illustration 2: Coin from Byblos: Phoenician ship
© 2015 by David W. Tollen