Germanic substrate hypothesis

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The Germanic substrate hypothesis is an attempt to explain the distinctive nature of the Germanic languages within the context of the Indo-European languages. It claims that the elements of the Common Germanic vocabulary and syntactical forms, which do not seem to have cognates in other Indo-European languages, suggest that Proto-Germanic may have been either a creole or a contact language that subsumed a non-Indo-European substrate language or a hybrid of two quite different Indo-European languages, from the centum and satem types, respectively.

The non-Indo-European substrate theory was first proposed by Sigmund Feist in 1932, who estimated that roughly a third of Proto-Germanic lexical items came from a non-Indo-European substrate and that the supposed reduction of the Proto-Germanic inflectional system was the result of pidginization with that substrate.[1] Which culture or cultures may have contributed the substrate material is an ongoing subject of academic debate and study. Notable candidates for possible substrate culture(s) are the Maglemosian, Nordwestblock and Funnelbeaker culture but also older cultures of northern Europe like the Hamburgian or even the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician culture.

Non-Indo-European influence[edit]

The non-Indo-European substrate hypothesis attempts to explain the anomalous features of Proto-Germanic as a result of creolization between an Indo-European and a non-Indo-European language.

Germanicist John A. Hawkins sets forth the arguments for a Germanic substrate. Hawkins argues that the Proto-Germans encountered a non-Indo-European speaking people and borrowed many features from their language. He hypothesizes that the first sound shift of Grimm's Law was the result of non-native speakers attempting to pronounce Indo-European sounds and that they resorted to the closest sounds in their own language in their attempt to pronounce them. The battle-axe people are an ancient culture identified by archaeology who have been proposed as candidates for the people who influenced Germanic with their non-Indo-European speech. However, the culture was spread through a wider range of regions across Eastern and Central Europe, already close to or in contact with areas inhabited by Indo-European speakers and their putative area of origin, and none of the Indo-European proto-languages thus produced or their succeeding languages developed along the much larger line of extension of the battle-axe people (Celto-Italic, Illyrian, Slavic, Baltic and others) appear to have been affected by the same changes that are limited to the Proto-Germanic.

Alternatively, in the framework of the Kurgan hypothesis, the battle-axe people may be seen as an already "kurganized" culture, built on the substrate of the earlier Funnelbeaker culture.

A number of rootwords for modern European words seem to limit the geographical origin of the Germanic influences, such as the root word for ash (the tree) and other environmental references suggest a limited root stream subset, which can be localized to Northern Europe.[2]

Kalevi Wiik, a phonologist, has put forward a hypothesis that the pre-Germanic substrate was of a non-Indo-European Finnic origin. Wiik claimed that there are similarities between mistakes in English pronunciation typical of Finnish-speakers and the historical sound changes from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic.[3][4] Wiik's argument is based on the assumption that only three language groups existed in pre-Indo-European Europe: Uralic, Indo-European and Basque, corresponding to three ice age refugia. Then, Uralic speakers would have been the first to settle most of Europe, and the language of the Indo-European invaders was influenced by the native Uralic population, producing Proto-Germanic.[3][4]

Existing evidence of languages outside the three refugia that he proposes (such as the Tyrsenian language family) creates a complication for Wiik's theory, meaning it relies upon an undemonstrated link between each of the languages and one of the three proto-languages that he proposes. Moreover, his thinking relies on an interpretation of Indo-European origins that is different from the mainstream and, most challenging, a picture of the linguistic landscape of Neolithic Europe that is regarded as improbable by most experts. On the other hand, Wiik's theory would appear to gain support from the Germanic language family's origins in southern Scandinavia, placing it geographically close to the Finnic group.

Theo Vennemann has hypothesized a Basque substrate and a Semitic superstrate in Germanic;[2] however, his speculations also are generally rejected by specialists[who?] in the relevant fields.

Words claimed to be derived from non-Indo-European languages[edit]

Hawkins, moreover, asserts that more than a third of the native Germanic lexicon is of non-Indo-European origin, and he again points to the hypothetical substrate language as the cause. Certain lexical fields are dominated by non-Indo-European words according to Hawkins. Seafaring terms, agricultural terms, engineering terms (construction/architecture), words about war and weapons, animal and fish names, and the names of communal and social institutions are centres of non-Indo-European words according to Hawkins. Some English language examples given by Hawkins include:

English German Dutch Danish Icelandic Latin Greek Russian
sea See zee sjór mare άλς
ship Schiff schip skib skip navis νάυς
strand (beach) Strand strand strand strönd litus, acta αιγιαλός
ebb Ebbe eb ebbe efja decessus, recessus άμπωτις
steer steuern sturen styre stýra guberno κυβερνώ
sail segeln zeilen sejle sigla navigo πλέω
keel Kiel kiel køl kjölur carina τροπίς
north Norden noorden nord norður septentrio, boreas βορράς
south Süden zuiden syd suður australis, meridies νότος
English German Dutch Danish Icelandic Latin Greek Russian
sword Schwert zwaard sværd sverð gladius (ensis, ferrum) ξίφος
shield Schild schild skjold skjöldur scutum ασπίς
helm(et) Helm helm hjelm hjálmur galea κράνος
bow Bogen boog bue bogi arcus τόξον
English German Dutch Danish Icelandic Latin Greek Russian
eel Aal aal ål áll anguilla χέλι
calf Kalb kalf kalv kálfur vitulus μόσχoς
lamb Lamm lam lam lamb agnus αμνός
bear Bär beer bjørn björn ursus άρκτος
stork Storch stork
stork storkur ciconia πελαργός
English German Dutch Danish Icelandic Latin Greek Russian
king König koning konge konungur/kóngur rex βασιλεύς
король, князь
(korol', kn'az')
knight* Knecht knecht knægt knakkur servitus ὑπηρέτης
thing Ding ding ting þing res πράγμα
English German Dutch Danish Icelandic Latin Greek Russian
drink trinken drinken drikke drekka bibo πίνω
leap (run) laufen lopen løbe hlaupa curro τρέχω
bone Bein (meaning leg) been (meaning bone or leg) ben bein os οστούν
wife (woman) Weib wijf viv víf uxor γυνή
bride Braut bruid brud brúður nupta νύφη
(bride)groom (Bräuti)gam (bruide)gom (brud)gom (brúð)gumi maritus γαμπρός


  • The common Dutch word for "stork" is ooievaar, but the older word stork still exists in dialects.[5]
  • knight/Knecht/knecht/knægt are all related, but in Dutch, German and Danish they mean "servant", which is presumed to be the original meaning, whereas in English it refers to a specific type of warrior.[6]
  • German Bein and Dutch been mean both "leg" and "bone". (In German, but not in Dutch, the meaning "bone" is archaic.)
  • German Weib and Dutch wijf mean "woman" in general (not restricted to "spouse"). Nowadays both are pejorative. The replacing words are Frau and vrouw respectively.
  • The Russian word киль (kil') was, as many naval terms, derived from the Dutch word kiel.


Controversial non-etymologies[edit]

Many of Hawkins's purported non-etymologies are controversial. One obvious way to refute the Germanic substrate hypothesis is to find Indo-European etymologies for the words on Hawkins's list. The process continues, but several cited as examples by Hawkins can likely be eliminated. For example, it is generally agreed that helmet represents IE *ḱel- ‘to hide, conceal’ (cf. Sanskrit śárman ‘shelter, cover’,[7] Thracian zalmós ‘hide’[8]).[9] East relates to IE *h2eus- ‘dawn’.[10]

Some of the words may have Indo-European derivations that are simply not well preserved in other Indo-European languages. For example, it has been suggested that wife is related to Tocharian B kwīpe ‘shame; vulva’,[11] from a reconstructed root *gʷʰíh2bʰo-.[12] Other possible etymologies include:

  • ebb: from *h2epo "off, away"
  • north: from *h₁nr̥-tero- which is in turn from *h₁ner- ‘under, left’, north being to one's left when facing the rising sun.
  • south: from *sunþera- which is in turn from *sunnōn ‘the sun’, from the oblique stem of *sóh₂wl̥
  • west: from *westera- which is in turn from *wes-, reduced form of *wespero ‘evening’[13]
  • shield: from *skel- "to cut"
  • stork: from *str̥go- which is the zero-grade form of *ster- "stiff"
  • bear: ‘the brown one’ (a taboo avoidance term, or tabooistic formation) from *bʰerH- ‘bright, brown’; or directly from *ǵʰwer- ‘wild animal’
  • drink: from *dʰrénǵe-, presentive of *dʰreǵ- ‘to draw, pull’
  • groom: (as in bridegroom) from *(dʰ)gʰm̥on which is the zero-grade suffixed form of *dʰgʰom- "earth". The word bridegroom derives from Middle English bridegome and Old English brȳdguma, a compound of brȳd 'bride' and guma 'man'. The intrusive r in Modern English bridegroom is due to contamination with the word groom (of different meaning), the origin of which is unknown.
  • ship: from *skei-, a root originally meaning ‘to cut’ (cf. En shift, ON skipa ‘to regulate, control’), or compare Greek skáptō (σκάπτω) ‘I dig’, referring to a dugout boat.
  • strand: from *ster-, meaning "wide, flat".
  • king: The cyn- part is cognate with Modern English "kin" and related to Latin genus, etc., from *ǵenh1- "beget, engender". Even the derivation has IE parallels, such as Hittite ḫaššu- "king" from ḫāš-, ḫašš- "engender".

Similarly, the word "bear" may not be unique to Germanic languages. In Russian, a bear's lair is berloga, sometimes etymologized as "the lair of ber". Others hold that berloga and other Slavic similar words (e.g. Polish "barłóg") could be derived from a Proto-Slavic word for 'swamp' that also influenced the originally West Slavic origin of the city name Berlin as a "town built on swampy grounds". A number of Slavic languages have cognates of medved for "bear", which meant "honey-eater" < *medʰu + *ed- (which was later taken to mean "honey-knower" by folk etymology). That suggests that a possible ancient Slavic word ber may have been replaced by a euphemism. However, supporters of the Germanic substrate hypothesis such as Max Vasmer explain the obvious relation between berloga and the Germanic word for 'bear' by the fact that early Old Norse influences on East Slavic languages cannot be disregarded: see the prevalent Normanist theory regarding the Varangian origin of the Rus people from Scandinavia from whom also the name of Russia is derived.

Calvert Watkins's 1969 appendix of Indo-European roots in the American Heritage Dictionary listed several roots that were believed to be unique to Germanic at the time. More recent editions have substantially reduced the number of roots claimed to be uniquely Germanic.

More recent treatments of Proto-Germanic tend to reject or simply omit discussion of the Germanic substrate hypothesis. Joseph B. Voyles' Early Germanic Grammar makes no mention of the hypothesis, like many recent publications on the Germanic language family.

Nonetheless, the hypothesis remains popular in some circles, such as the Leiden school of historical linguistics. The first etymological dictionary of any language that systematically took the hypothesis into its discussions is the new Dutch dictionary, influenced by the thinking of the Leiden group: Marlies Philippa et al. (ed), Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands, Amsterdam University press, in 4 volumes, 2003–2009.

Grimm's Law[edit]

Against the theories regarding substrata, a profound sound change in the Germanic languages known as Grimm's law has been put forward as evidence for the Germanic languages being non-substratic and having mutated of their own accord, away from other branches of Indo-European.[citation needed] Grimm's law affected all of the stops that were inherited from Proto-Indo-European. The Germanic languages also share common innovations in grammar as well as in phonology: the Germanic verb has been extensively remodelled and shows fewer grammatical moods and markedly fewer inflections for the passive voice.[14][15]

Indo-European centum-satem hybridisation as conjectured cause[edit]

As this map of Indo-European isoglosses shows, Germanic languages are classified as centum languages (blue border) but also share phonological properties with the Balto-Slavic languages (pink border), which are satem languages.

It has also been suggested that Proto-Germanic arose as a hybrid of two Indo-European dialects, one from the centum type (probably an archaic relative of P-Celtic and Osco-Umbrian, with *p becoming *f, e.g. pemp in breton => five in English) and the other from the satem type (probably related to Baltic and Slavic).

The hypothesis may help to explain difficulties in the classification of Germanic languages. They are classified as centum languages because of sound correspondences, exemplified in the formations: *hund- ("hundred" is centum with a velar fricative according to Grimm's law) and *hwis ("who", ~ Latin quis), rather than !sund and !his respectively. However, the Germanic languages, like the Balto-Slavic languages, which are satem languages, are more likely to feature -m- (as opposed to *-bh-) in the instrumental, dative, and ablative plurals as well as certain singulars and duals (see the map of Indo-European isoglosses, right).

However, the above features may just as easily be explained by a non-Indo-European substrate common to Proto-Germanic and Proto-Balto-Slavic.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Feist, Sigmund (1932). "The Origin of the Germanic Languages and the Europeanization of North Europe". Language. Linguistic Society of America. 8 (4): 245–254. doi:10.2307/408831. JSTOR 408831.
  2. ^ a b Cf. Vennemann (2003).
  3. ^ a b Kalevi Wiik, Eurooppalaisten juuret (in Finnish) ("Roots of Europeans"), 2002
  4. ^ a b Kalevi Wiik, Suomalaisten juuret (in Finnish) ("Roots of Finns"), 2004
  5. ^ "STORK (OOIEVAAR)". (in Dutch).
  6. ^ Harper, Douglas. "knight". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  7. ^ Sophus Bugge, “Etymologische Beiträge aus dem Nordischem”, Bezzenberger Beiträge, vol. 3, no. 2 (1879): 97-121, esp. 118.
  8. ^ Wilhelm Tomaschek, Die alten Thraker: eine ethnologische Untersuchung (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1893), 10.
  9. ^ Kroonen 2013, 219.
  10. ^ Kroonen 2013, 43.
  11. ^ K. T. Schmidt & Klaus Strunk, “Toch. B kwipe ‘Scham, Schande’, A kip ‘Scham’, und germ. *wīƀa ‘Weib’”, Indogermanica Europaea: Festschrift für Wolfgang Meid zum 60. Geburtstag am 12. 11. 1989, ed. Wolfgang Meid et al. (Graz: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Graz, 1989), 251–284.
  12. ^ Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd edn., s.v. ‘gʷʰībʰ-’ (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 32.
  13. ^ Kroonen 2013, 582-3.
  14. ^ Not all scholars consider languages such as Sanskrit to be conservative. Prokosch (1939) wrote that "the common Indo-European element seems to predominate more definitely in the Germanic group than anywhere else."
  15. ^ In regards to the issue, Polomé (1990) wrote: "Assuming 'pidginization' in Proto-Germanic on account of the alleged 'loss' of a number of features reconstructed by the Neogrammarians as part of the verbal system of Proto-Indo-European... is a rather specious argument.… The fairly striking structural resemblance between the verbal system of Germanic and that of Hittite rather makes one wonder whether these languages do not actually represent a more archaic structural model than the further elaborated inflectional patterns of Old Icelandic and Hellenic."


  • Robert S. P. Beekes (1995), Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ISBN 1-55619-505-2
  • John A. Hawkins (1990), “Germanic Languages”, The Major Languages of Western Europe, ed. Bernard Comrie. London: Routledge, pp. 58-66. ISBN 0-415-04738-2
  • Guus Kroonen (2013). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
  • Yury Kuzmenko (2011). Early Germanic tribes and their neighbours. Linguistics, archaeology and genetics. (in Russian). Saint Petersburg. ISBN 978-5-98187-870-1
  • Edgar C. Polomé (1990), “Types of Linguistic Evidence for Early Contact: Indo-Europeans and Non-Indo-Europeans”, When Worlds Collide: The Indo-Europeans and the Pre-Indo-Europeans, eds. T.L. Markey & J.A.C. Greppin. Ann Arbor (Mich): Karoma. pp. 267-89.
  • Eduard Prokosch (1939), A Comparative Germanic Grammar. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Linguistic Society of America. ISBN 99910-34-85-4
  • Orrin W. Robinson (1992), Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2221-8
  • Theo Vennemann (2003), “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, Languages in Prehistoric Europe, eds. Alfred Bammesberger & Theo Vennemann. Heidelberg: C. Winter, pp. 319-332.
  • Joseph B. Voyles (1992), Early Germanic Grammar. San Diego, Cal.: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-728270-X
  • Calvert Watkins. ed. (1985), The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-36070-6
  • Calvert Watkins, ed. (2000), The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-08250-6
  • Kalevi Wiik (2002), Eurooppalaisten juuret (in Finnish; "Roots of Europeans").
  • Kalevi Wiik (2004), Suomalaisten juuret (in Finnish; "Roots of Finns").