English’s eccentricities are widely known, but fewer people are aware that the entire Germanic group to which it belongs is something of an oddity. About a third of all Germanic words do not seem to have any relation to the rest of the Indo-European language family. Although early Germanic speakers lived in the heart of Europe and were in constant contact with Indo-European relatives, some features of their grammar and phonology, too, stray far from the mainstream followed by languages from Ireland to India.
Linguists from Jacob Grimm on have puzzled over how this came about, and proposed some outside-the-box hypotheses. In the past few weeks, I have read a lot about one that sounds bizarre, but has impressive explanatory power: Germanic was influenced early and heavily on by Semitic languages of the Near East.
Phoenicians, a people native to what is now Lebanon, were the most prolific navigators of the ancient world. They established colonies from Cornwall to West Africa, most notably Carthage, which went on to rival and at one point nearly bring down Rome. The good that lured intrepid sailors the farthest from home was amber. Perhaps the most precious commodity of the ancient world, amber was found only on the gloomy, wintry shores of the Baltic Sea.
Of less interest to the Phoenicians, but more to us, were the native peoples of the region. The forefathers of all the Germanic peoples (Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, English, among others) came from somewhere on the Baltic coast, in what is now Denmark or southern Sweden. Early in the 1st Millennium B.C., they would have been a small and primitive community. It is thus entirely conceivable that rich, advanced foreigners could make a big impact.
Many Germanic quirks would be explained by a Phoenician connection. Germanic languages, particularly German and Dutch, are rich in glottal sounds, which are alien to the Indo-European family but abundant in Afro-Asiatic. Germanic languages are relatively poor in verb endings, a hallmark of heavy foreign influence, but they also stand out for their unusually strong ablaut, the change of a vowel in related forms of a word (i.e., sing, sang, sung). This exists elsewhere in Indo-European, but those familiar with modern Afro-Asiatic languages like Arabic and Hebrew will be reminded of consonant triples, whereby an entire family of words is formed of identical consonants and shifting vowels. (Arabic, Hebrew, Phoenician, and Punic are all members of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family). Altering the grammar of one’s own language to imitate that of a more prestigious one a very common linguistic trend- see, for example, English grammarians’ insistence on avoiding prepositions at the ends of sentences, which is based purely on the desire to make English obey the rules of Latin.
Some other examples are more niche, but likewise also more compelling. Germanic words for “over” and “riverbank” (e.g., German ober and Ufer) share a weird similarity paralleled only in ancient Semitic. Germanic words related to the ocean, including sea, sail, and ship, have no cognates anywhere else in the Indo-European family. It would make sense that a people native to the inland Baltic would borrow nautical vocabulary from cosmopolitan interlopers. Many early Germanic words related to war are idiosyncratic, perhaps another example of the same process by English borrowed all of its words for law and nobility from French following the Norman conquest.
Perhaps most compelling are common Germanic terms for money. The Punic (Carthaginian) name for the Near Eastern coin that we know (from Hebrew) as the shekel would have been skel. Garble it a bit and add a common Germanic suffix and you get “shilling.” The Punic word for “face” was panē. It is easy to imagine how tribesmen who had never seen coins before would confuse the word for the man on them for the “pennies” themselves.
Other trappings of high civilisation bear some traces of Semitic influence. Runes, which were used to write Germanic languages like Norse before the arrival of Christianity and the Latin alphabet, are traditionally considered to have been inspired by the Roman script (itself from Greek, which was adapted from Phoenician). But runes’ angular appearance and peculiar ordering could suggest direct Phoenician influence.
Unfortunately, since the hypothetical period of Semitic influence would have been centuries before widespread literacy in Germanic Europe, traces of it are vanishingly difficult to definitively trace and prove. The most fascinating direct evidence comes from the Merseburg charms, pagan incantations that were already ancient when they were jotted down by a bored monk in the 9th Century. The only recorded bits of Germanic paganism refer to a god called Baldr- by reverse-engineering some well-established Germanic sound shifts, we can conclude that he may once have been the Phoenician deity Ba’al.
It must be re-emphasised that none of this is linguistic gospel. Germanic languages are obviously Indo-European, and there are competing explanations for many of the points I have cited. It is extremely difficult to isolate any superstratum so far back in a language’s history, and for such an eccentric hypothesis the hurdle to credence is high.
But the fact that this hypothesis has survived in such an iconoclastic field as linguistics is pretty impressive. When the Welsh lawyer/amateur linguist William Jones stood before Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786 to assert that Sanskrit was related to Greek and Latin, most thought he had lost it. Maybe one day, Theo Vennemann will be remembered in the same light.
Special thanks to a follower who first called my attention to this theory in a comment on an earlier article. For further information, my former professor John McWhorter did an excellent episode on this on his podcast Lexicon Valley.