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Did Ancient Semites Father the Germanic Languages?

January 9, 2015

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.

Could Sigurd, the legendary Germanic hero, have been a Phoenician?

Could legendary heroes of the Germanic people have been Phoenicians?

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.

Phoenician coin of the 400’s BC

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.

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SOURCES

© 2015 by David W. Tollen

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Lucy permalink
    January 10, 2015 3:04 pm

    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?

    • January 10, 2015 8:01 pm

      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. (For instance, linguists believe the Indo-European languages spread more by adoption than migration. See my post on the so-called “Aryans.”)

  2. Hans A. permalink
    February 17, 2015 11:27 am

    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”.

  3. markwilliams2015 permalink
    July 29, 2015 3:52 am

    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,

  4. TJ Hession permalink
    November 20, 2015 6:32 am

    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.

  5. May 30, 2016 3:39 pm

    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.

  6. Joshua permalink
    May 8, 2017 10:32 am

    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.

  7. Philip S. Horne permalink
    March 8, 2019 8:22 am

    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.

    • David Tollen permalink*
      March 8, 2019 9:27 am

      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 …

      • Szymon Lech Dzięcioł permalink
        March 31, 2019 6:56 am

        “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.

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