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
Very interesting. But I find the suggestion that “We know [the Phoenicians] reached Portugal. They could easily have sailed on to northern Germany and southern Scandinavia . . . ” a bit difficult to swallow without any support. If you’re suggesting that they sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean and into the North Sea, that seems somewhat unlikely to me, though I’m not that well-informed – were there really ocean-going vessels at that place in time, and if so, was it an easy trip? If there is some evidence that such voyages could have occurred, can you please point me in that direction?
Good question, Lucy. But the trip from the Mediterranean to the North Sea actually doesn’t require any time on the open ocean. Not only can you hug the coast, which is all ancient sailing vessels could manage, that’s actually the most direct route for almost the whole trip. (The only place where you’d move faster by crossing open water is the Bay of Biscay.) The Mediterranean presented several challenges greater than the trip to the North Sea, and the Phoenicians mastered them.
Plus, the Vikings made the reverse trip (1300 years later), from Scandinavia to the eastern Mediterranean, in ships less sophisticated than the Phoenicians’.
That said, it’s fair to feel skeptical of the theory, because we have little more than linguistic evidence. (A single Phoenician pot found off the shore of northern Germany doesn’t provide much additional evidence. Trade could’ve brought it there without actual Phoenicians.) I find the linguistic evidence pretty compelling, but a Phoenician settlement seems just the most likely explanation, not the only one. Maybe some Semitic group made its way over land to northern Europe. (I’d love to suggest it was the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, but they’re more myth than reality.) Or maybe a Semitic language made its way across Europe without actual Semites, as sometimes happens too.
Thank you David for your article, I would like to highlight one important fact that was omitted here; namely the newish research provided by field of genetic genealogy; it looks like obvious now the paleolithic coexistence of Proto-Semitic and Proto-Cro-Magnon-Old European tribes (that laid major foundations together with Indo-Europeans for early Germanic society) for some 20.000 (!) years (haplogroup Y-dna IJ and related J1, J2, I1) so in all probability they could share at least little of this alike sounding ancient words.
If you consider that the ancient King/Priest of Ireland, Odlam Fodlah, was the biblical figure Jeremiah and that MANY Israelites and other Semites fled the middle east in the 5th century BCE during the Assyrian/Babylonian wars (not to mention those captives that fled Assyria 200 years earlier), it’s not difficult at all to see how the proto-Germanic language developed – or understand the origin of their “pagan” religions. For my part, I’ve met many Germans and a dozen or so Israelis who were fluent in English – but even today (to my ear) their accents are indistinguishable. In the 1st Century C.E., “Saint” Paul sent a message back to Palestine after passing through Gaul and into Britannia, stating that he had “found the lost sheep of Israel and they look just like us” (paraphrased, of course). . . . I believe that it is more than tragic that historians have failed to make this connection. For my part, I don’t look upon the preceding article as “speculation”: It is evidentiary, based on the observation of sound commonalities between early Semitic dialects and proto-Germanic language. History cannot be hidden forever – unless only the ignorant remain.
I should ALSO note that the father of the written language was the antediluvian Biblical figure, “Enoch”, the great-grandfather of Noah. He was referred by the Egyptians as “Thoth” and the Greeks/Hellenists as “Hermes” or “Hermes-Trismegistus” (sp?). The word “phoenetics/phonetics” today literally relates to both sounds elicited by figures or letters, or letters used to represent sounds with regard to speech. “Phoenician” can easily be translated to “From (pho) sons of Enoch (enician)”. You honestly can’t get more “Semitic” than that.
Although this comment is a few years old…Mike I would like to hear more about this idea of Paul finding lost sheep in Gaul and Britannia? Where did you find this information? And I’d never heard of a connection with Jeremiah and Odlam Fodlah. Where did you find this also?
Its not impossible for people to have fled the middle east and the bronze age era lands, as these areas were completely ruthless, practiced slavery, and horrific subjugation practices. If someone had skills to survive and live independently, it wouldn’t have been that hard for them to up and leave. Even more so as they weren’t dependent on buying things at the store. The look at how bronze age era empires conducted business against subjugated territories is compelling for why people would be willing to leave and travel somewhere else.
Interesting post. I have two comments.
(1) Ablauts such as sing, sang, sung are not at all an exclusively Germanic phenomenon among the Indo-European languages. They also exist in Sanskrit and are part of the re-constructed proto-language. Therefore, speakers of a semitic language are by no means required to explain them. On the other hand, they are one possible explanation for the fact (I think — I am actually not an expert!) that the ablaut system survived longer in the Germanic languages.
Note that the ablaut system has also survived in the Baltic languages, which have also preserved many other original Indo-European features for longer than most of the other Indo-European languages and especially the Slavic languages, their closest relatives. On one hand, contact with the Baltic languages could be an alternative explanation for why the Germanic languages preserved ablauts. On the other hand, if there was substantial Semitic influence in the region, it might well have affected the Baltic languages as well. So unfortunately, as so often, this could be used to argue either way.
(2) Regarding Phoeniceans in Northern Europe: If you read about Pytheas (around 300 BCE, from what is now Marseille) on Encyclopedia Britannica, this doesn’t appear strange at all. The Phoeniceans had founded what is now Cádiz around 1100 BCE earlier. Pytheas went there and then continued to the island whose name he was the first to record as “Pretannia”. And then on to both the Baltic Sea and to what he called Thule. As the latter place was north of the Arctic Circle, it was probably in Norway or Iceland. It’s not unlikely that Pytheas just followed existing Phoenician trade routes all the way.
Finally, thanks for reminding me of German linguist Theo Vennemann’s “Was Proto-Germanic a Creole Language?”. He comes to the conclusion that it wasn’t a creole language, but that there was a substantial Phoenician superstratum, i.e. put simply, the speakers of Proto-Germanic were influenced by Phoenician as a high status language such as French and Latin were for English during much of its evolution. Presumably Vennemann’s work also inspired you to your post? By the way, I think he also suggested that Pictish, an extinct language of Britain about which practically nothing is known, may have been a semitic language. A keyword for articles on this is “Atlantic languages”.
There is another population of ancient Semites who might have mixed with the ancestors of the Germanic speaking peoples.
But, of course, they’re a silly fairy tale,
The tribes of Israel, especially the 10 Northern tribes of Samaria, who were in captivity to Assyria, would have retained some forms of language common to their ancestry.
Living and trading in the area known as the Land of Israel would have required some communication skills possibly in Egyptian, Arabic, Greek and possibly Chaldea and Phoenician
No doubt when they were taken into captivity in Assyria they were forced to learn Assyrian, however knowing two languages would have allowed them to speak in an tongue unknown to the Assyrians.
Hebrews taken into captivity would be required to learn Assyrian in order to communicate for the very basics of necessity, however look at how many people living in various countries today, still hold on to their historically native tongue.
It would therefore not be far fetched, to discover remnants in Pro Germanic which associate with Assyrian, Hebrew and Arabic languages.
Well, certeinly not, but some features in the Germanic languages, like the ablaut, may originate back to an ancient protolanguage called Nostratic. According to the hypothesis, the Afroasiatic languages, which include semitic, also originated from this protolanguge. Then the vowel variarions and some other fetures found in semitic morphology and in Germanic morphology may have acommon origin in Nostratic.
Or being that the germanic tribes all came from scythia and according to the book of jeremiah the “lost tribes” of Israel were north of Canaan(scythia being directly north) that the germanic tribes were the lost tribes of Israel….. It’s pretty evident by this point that the Goths are the tribe of Gad and the Danes are the tribe of Dan, that the proto germanic languages are just linguistic descendants from Hebrew… Which means that because we call speak a Phoenician based language…. It’s just different dialects of and ancestral language and probably a good place to start to understand is the bible…. We all acknowledge shem existed the word semitic means Shemite noahs son and father of all hebrews….. Just my 2 cents.
I am a hidden history buff. The Ethiopian/Egyptian origins of the Tribes and their eventual diaspora after civil war with the Romans is my particular focus. There is a book available in Sweden (at least) that I saw in a Swedish bookstore that posits that the Swedish language can be entirely traced back to Hebrew. Unfortunately, I did not buy a copy when I saw it on a trip to Sweden. If anyone knows the title, I would greatly appreciate that information. I would also greatly appreciate any suggested reading on the issue.
To me, the idea of Hebrew playing a role — as opposed to other Semitic languages — seems far-fetched. The Germanic languages broke off from the main Indo-European branch around 500 BC, as my article says. At that time, the Hebrews weren’t known as long-distance mariners, and their society was under stress, with the Babylonian conflict and exile, the rise of Persia, etc. That seems an unlikely period for an extremely long voyage of colonization or even trade. Keep in mind, few in the Fertile Crescent back then saw any reason to leave the Mediterranean. Even a trip to Spain/Hispania was a journey into the wild unknown. The Baltic Coast was like another planet.
So to me, the Phoenicians seem better candidates for the deliverers of Semitic languages. And re your book, Phoenician language is similar enough to Hebrew that one’s influence could be mistaken for the other’s.
But anything is possible. A wayward group of Jews/Hebrews could have hitched a ride with their Phoenician cousins and ended up in Northern Europe — in some attempt to get as far from their Babylonian persecutors as possible (in which case, they went overboard) or in a religiously-inspired voyage of colonization, like those that led to New England.
Another possibility, of course, is that there was no Semitic influence on Germanic. The odd vocabulary could come from the natives living in Northern Europe when the Indo-European speakers arrived. But the non-Indo-European vocabulary does seem pretty Semitic …
“The odd vocabulary could come from the natives living in Northern Europe when the Indo-European speakers arrived. But the non-Indo-European vocabulary does seem pretty Semitic …”
Or Neolithic Farmers that was inhabiting Scandinavia before Germans could have more ancient link to Afroasiatic languages or even be separate branch of those.
Now for both of your examples “maiden” and “Baldr” I found derivations from PIE, still of course they could be wrong.
Nevertheless it would be interesting to compare those supposed links in wider background of IE and AA families.
1.) There is NO meaningful difference between the Phoenician language and Hebrew. The archaic Hebrew alphabet was identical to the Phoencian alphabet. They were strong cousins.
Phoenician inscriptions unearthed in Carthage and elsewhere are indistinguishable from Hebrew and can be easily understood by Hebrew scholars.
2.) Phoenicia was at its prime at the same time as the Northern Kingdom of Israel (not Judah, but the 10 northern tribes) around 850 BC – 700 BC. Both Phoenicia and Northern Israel were oppressed by Assyria around 700 BC.
3.) The Bible says that Assyria carried off hundreds of thousands of Israelites (the northern tribes) in 722 BC and put them in the Caucus mountains (and around the Black & Caspian Seas). They disappear from the realm of history after that.
The only tribes left after that were Judah & Benjamin (& Levi) in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. All modern Jews descend from these tribes. They were not conquered by Babylon till 587 BC.
4.) in 720 BC, the Scythians suddenly appear in the record, no one knows where they came from or the origin of their name. Scythian is a Greek spelling, they would have pronounced it with a hard “t” like SKUT.
5.) Sukkot is the word for “tabernacle” or “tents” in Hebrew. Every time the Hebrews were in exile (after coming out of Egypt, before entering Canaan) they named the place Sukkot because they were living in tents.
6.) The ancient Chinese say the Scythians had 10 tribes.
7.) The Scythians tried to reconquer Northern Israel in the mid 600 BC, but gave up and went back north. Strange thing for a non-Israelite people to do.
8.) Scythian tribes were Goths (Getae) which was Gad. Jordan’s history of the Goths says their first home after “being exiled” they named “Gauti-Scandza.” This is then assumed to be Scandinavia, but if read as a Hebrew word, “Gauti-Scandza” literally means “land of the exile of Gad.”
The Danes, which were Dan were at first around the Black Sea and named the Danube and several other major rivers then went to Denmark and ScanDANavia.
The Celts/Gauls which Celt phonetically is CLT. The area Manasseh lived in Israel was called Gilead, which in Hebrew is GLD. Hebrew has a very sharp “d” which then could easily become “GLT” and the origin of both CELT and GAUL. Manasseh’s primary descendent was also called GLT.
9.) The ancestors of the Slavs were the Spali, or SPL. The tribe of Zebulon in Hebrew would have been written ZBL.
10.) The tribe of Asher is still in Azerbaijan which can even be seen in the country’s name which means “Land of the Sons of Azer.”
11.) The correct spelling of the nation of Georgia in Georgian is Sakar-Tvelo. Another tribe of Israel was Issachar (SKR) and his first born son was named Tvelo. These have also most likely become the Kurds too as a nickname for Sakar-Tvelo over the centuries became shortened form of Kartli. Kartli shorted to Kard/Kurd.
12.) The Scythian tribe of Sarmatians is most certainly a form of Samaritans, named after the capital of the Tribe of Ephraim and the entire Northern Kingdom of Israel. These were also probably the ones referred to as the Royal Scythians. They most likely became the Angles and the Saxons for reasons I won’t go into here.
13.) The tribe of Reuben became the Ripuarian Franks. Reuben means “behold a son.” Northern tribes used “bar” for son while Southern Judah used “ben.” So, in Hebrew, “Ripuar – or Reubar” is the same as Reuben. (Inhabited much of France.)
14.) Keep in mind Europe was EMPTY before 500 BC. Paris was founded in 500 BC, Rome was founded in 500 BC, etc.
15.) Two other important migrations:
A.) Many believe a big portion of the Tribe of Dan (who were all sailors, their emblem was a ship) fled Egypt because the rest of the Hebrews were being enslaved before Moses (i.e. very early) and went north in ships to found Greece and Phoenicia. It is well known that the ancestors of the Greeks were called the Danoi, i.e. the Danites.
B.) The Bible says there was a long 3 year devastating famine in the mid 800’s BC. There was literally no food, and the northern Israelites were forced to relocate. They were closely allied with Tyre (Phoenicia) and already engaged in heavy maritime activity with them.
Carthage was suddenly established about the same year by “Phoenicians” and inscriptions uncovered in that city are readable as Hebrew.
16.) Therefore, most likely the Danoi refugees who fled Egypt very early founded the Greek language which would have been a mixture of Hebrew & Egyptian.
17.) The CELTS/GAULS were first settled around the Black Sea in Galatia, were influenced by the Anatolian, Hittite, and Luwian languages and mixed those with their Hebrew. They founded Troy. After the Trojan War, many Trojans fled to Italy and founded Rome. Their language became Latin, which was a mix of Greek and Proto-Gallic.
18.) The other CELTS/GAULS, began sailing around the Mediterranean and founded colonies in Western Spain, Western France, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. (Scot = SKT = Scythian).
19.) EPHRAIM, GAD & DAN & ZEBULON, Goths, Danes & Slavs were influenced by Anatolian & Iranian languages on a varying level and mixed their Hebrew with those languages.
20.) The others were probably more influenced by Iranian language only, not as much Anatolian.
21.) There are lots of books discussing the origins of everything from Welsh to Norse and Gothic being descended from Hebrew.
19 The portion of Jacob is not like them; for he is the former of all things: and Israel is the rod of his inheritance: the Lord of hosts is his name. 20 Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms; Jeremiah 51: 19-20
Study the geneticist Marc Buhler from Australia 1 out of 4 Ashkenazi Jews share a Genetic marker with the vikings after all how close is haplogroup J2 to I1 according to Rabbi Nachmanides 20% of today’s Jews are from the Northern kingdom who Joined Judah during the split 1 out of 4
18 In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance unto your fathers. Jeremiah 3:18 Didn’t the Ashkenazi and sephardic Jews of Judah go to the North country of Europe considering there are Dolmens in Israel and Northwest Europe and Europe in General
49 Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name. Isaiah 49:1
12 Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim. Isaiah 49:12 so the major portion of the Northern 10 tribes of Israel will come from the isles or coastlands northwest from Israel
Jeremiah 31:21 set up way marks Ephraim high heaps high heaps of what? According to Rabbis I talked to its stones or rocks as a monument or testament of I was here and I will return there are Dolmens in Israel there are Dolmens in Northwest Europe I think the same people built both the most Dolmens are in Denmark DANish men of Dan NorWAY DenMARK way mark
Deuteronomy 33:22 Dan will spring from Bashan the Golan heights Gamla there are Dolmens in the Golan heights
I could go on and on but I think this paints a pretty good picture
Read Isaiah 11:13 the main Adversaries to the Jews would be the Ten tribes under Ephraim but the good news is they do come together Ezekiel 37
Numbers 23:22 Israel is compared to the unicorn and the strength of his horn
Isaiah 49:8 they will be called the covenant of the people in hebrew BRIT AM or covenant men Brit ish BRYTHonic celts
You should check out Steven M Collins and Yair Davidy great researchers in this Subject Steven M Collins believes the Northern house of Israel sailed with and took over the Phoenician empire which I agree considering the Phoenician empire died down right at the time of the Assyrian exile of the ten tribes of Israel. I mean look at the modern Jews of Judah especially the women!! Shavit wiesel, Galit Guttman, Shelly Gafni, Kate Bock, Liraz Dror, Omer Nudelman, Shir Levi etc.
“How long wilt thou go about, O thou backsliding daughter? For the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall compass a man.” Jeremiah 31:22 your Jewish if your mother is Jewish guess what the mtdna of Ashkenazi Jewish women is overwhelmingly Western European how else do they have so much red hair. Oh yeah the father has to carry it also hmmm. Oh yeah 10 They shall walk after the Lord: he shall roar like a lion: when he shall roar, then the children shall tremble from the WEST. Hosea 11:10 Judeo (Judah) Christian (Ephraim) values remind”s me of the words of Jesus 5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: 6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Matthew 10: 5-6 didn’t Christianity spread to the west into Europe? Speaking of the vikings Benjamin is called a ravenous wolf who eats booty during the day and divides the plunder at night Genesis 49:27 well remember the genetic marker found by Marc Buhler in Ashkenazi Jews with the vikings. Benjamin joined Judah in the southern kingdom. There are legends that a majority of Benjamin left around the Babylonian exile around 597 BC that is around the time of the sound shift in proto Germanic at 500 BC while some stayed with Judah. The Danes saved the Jews from the nazis the people asked why they responded ” We were just taking care of our OWN.” One more thing Israel is called the Unicorn in Numbers 22:23 Deuteronomy 33:17 etc. Remember how the lost ten tribes will be in the isles Isaiah 49:1 Northwest of Israel Isaiah 49:12 well Herodotus said that the Scythians had an aversion to Swine. A group of Scythians was called Scoti. Well Scotlands national animal is a Unicorn is on a Island Northwest of Israel
They also had an Aversion to Swine. The declaration of Arbroath king Robert the I said and I quote “1200 years after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and went to the WEST where they reside today” remember Hosea 11:10 I know what I’ve said sounds crazy and I could very well be wrong but I believe it strongly considering I’m Scottish Irish and British on my Mother’s side and Jewish on my Father’s side both sides of my family have red hair. The red Jews beyond the Sambatyon river. God Bless