Gothic is an extinct East Germanic language that was spoken by the Goths. It is known primarily from the Codex Argenteus, a 6th-century copy of a 4th-century Bible translation, and is the only East Germanic language with a sizeable text corpus. All others, including Burgundian and Vandalic, are known, if at all, only from proper names that survived in historical accounts, and from loanwords in other languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, and French.
As a Germanic language, Gothic is a part of the Indo-European language family. It is the earliest Germanic language that is attested in any sizable texts, but it lacks any modern descendants. The oldest documents in Gothic date back to the fourth century. The language was in decline by the mid-sixth century, partly because of the military defeat of the Goths at the hands of the Franks, the elimination of the Goths in Italy, and geographic isolation (in Spain, the Gothic language lost its last and probably already declining function as a church language when the Visigoths converted from Arianism to Nicene Christianity in 589). The language survived as a domestic language in the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) as late as the eighth century. Gothic-seeming terms are found in manuscripts subsequent to this date, but these may or may not belong to the same language. In particular, a language known as Crimean Gothic survived in the lower Danube area and in isolated mountain regions in Crimea. Lacking certain sound changes characteristic of Gothic, however, Crimean Gothic cannot be a lineal descendant of Bible Gothic.
The existence of such early attested texts makes it a language of considerable interest in comparative linguistics.
Only a few documents in Gothic survive, not enough to completely reconstruct the language. Most Gothic-language sources are translations or glosses of other languages (namely, Greek), so foreign linguistic elements most certainly influenced the texts. These are the primary sources:
Reports of the discovery of other parts of Ulfilas' Bible have not been substantiated. Heinrich May in 1968 claimed to have found in England twelve leaves of a palimpsest containing parts of the Gospel of Matthew.
Only fragments of the Gothic translation of the Bible have been preserved. The translation was apparently done in the Balkans region by people in close contact with Greek Christian culture. The Gothic Bible apparently was used by the Visigoths in southern France until the loss of Visigothic France at the start of the 6th century and in Visigothic Iberia until about 700, and perhaps for a time in Italy, the Balkans, and Ukraine. In the latter country at Mangup, ninth-century inscriptions have been found of a prayer in the Gothic alphabet using biblical Gothic orthography. In exterminating Arianism, many texts in Gothic were probably overwritten as palimpsests or collected and burned. Apart from biblical texts, the only substantial Gothic document that still exists and the only lengthy text known to have been composed originally in the Gothic language, is the Skeireins, a few pages of commentary on the Gospel of John.
Very few secondary sources make reference to the Gothic language after about 800. In De incrementis ecclesiae Christianae (840–842), Walafrid Strabo, a Frankish monk who lived in Swabia, speaks of a group of monks, who reported that even now certain peoples in Scythia (Dobruja), especially around Tomis spoke a sermo Theotiscus ('Germanic language'), the language of the Gothic translation of the Bible, and they used such a liturgy.
In evaluating medieval texts that mention the Goths, many writers used the word Goths to mean any Germanic people in eastern Europe (such as the Varangians), many of whom certainly did not use the Gothic language as known from the Gothic Bible. Some writers even referred to Slavic-speaking people as Goths. However, it is clear from Ulfilas' translation that despite some puzzles the language belongs with the Germanic language group, not with Slavic.
The relationship between the language of the Crimean Goths and Ulfilas's Gothic is less clear. The few fragments of Crimean Gothic from the 16th century show significant differences from the language of the Gothic Bible although some of the glosses, such as ada for "egg", could indicate a common heritage, and Gothic mēna ("moon"), compared to Crimean Gothic mine, can suggest an East Germanic connection.
A few Gothic runic inscriptions were found across Europe, but due to early Christianization of the Goths, the Runic writing was quickly replaced by the newly invented Gothic alphabet.
Ulfilas's Gothic, as well as that of the Skeireins and various other manuscripts, was written using an alphabet that was most likely invented by Ulfilas himself for his translation. Some scholars (such as Braune) claim that it was derived from the Greek alphabet only while others maintain that there are some Gothic letters of Runic or Latin origin.
A standardized system is used for transliterating Gothic words into the Latin script. The system mirrors the conventions of the native alphabet, such as writing long /iː/ as ei. The Goths used their equivalents of e and o alone only for long higher vowels, using the digraphs ai and au (much as in French) for the corresponding short or lower vowels. There are two variant spelling systems: a "raw" one that directly transliterates the original Gothic script and a "normalized" one that adds diacritics (macrons and acute accents) to certain vowels to clarify the pronunciation or, in certain cases, to indicate the Proto-Germanic origin of the vowel in question. The latter system is usually used in the academic literature.
The following table shows the correspondence between spelling and sound for vowels:
The following table shows the correspondence between spelling and sound for consonants:
It is possible to determine more or less exactly how the Gothic of Ulfilas was pronounced, primarily through comparative phonetic reconstruction. Furthermore, because Ulfilas tried to follow the original Greek text as much as possible in his translation, it is known that he used the same writing conventions as those of contemporary Greek. Since the Greek of that period is well documented, it is possible to reconstruct much of Gothic pronunciation from translated texts. In addition, the way in which non-Greek names are transcribed in the Greek Bible and in Ulfilas's Bible is very informative.
In general, Gothic consonants are devoiced at the ends of words. Gothic is rich in fricative consonants (although many of them may have been approximants; it is hard to separate the two) derived by the processes described in Grimm's law and Verner's law and characteristic of Germanic languages. Gothic is unusual among Germanic languages in having a /z/ phoneme, which has not become /r/ through rhotacization. Furthermore, the doubling of written consonants between vowels suggests that Gothic made distinctions between long and short, or geminated consonants: atta [atːa] "dad", kunnan [kunːan] "to know" (Dutch kennen, German kennen "to know", Icelandic kunna).
Gothic has three nasal consonants, one of which is an allophone of the others, all found only in complementary distribution with them. Nasals in Gothic, like most other languages, are pronounced at the same point of articulation as the consonant that follows them (assimilation). Therefore, clusters like [md] and [nb] are not possible.
Accentuation in Gothic can be reconstructed through phonetic comparison, Grimm's law and Verner's law. Gothic used a stress accent rather than the pitch accent of Proto-Indo-European. This is indicated by the shortening of long vowels [eː] and [oː] and the loss of short vowels [a] and [i] in unstressed final syllables.
Just as in other Germanic languages, the free moving Proto-Indo-European accent was replaced with one fixed on the first syllable of simple words. Accents do not shift when words are inflected. In most compound words, the location of the stress depends on the type of compound:
Gothic preserves many archaic Indo-European features that are not always present in modern Germanic languages, in particular the rich Indo-European declension system. Gothic had nominative, accusative, genitive and dative cases, as well as vestiges of a vocative case that was sometimes identical to the nominative and sometimes to the accusative. The three genders of Indo-European were all present. Nouns and adjectives were inflected according to one of two grammatical numbers: the singular and the plural.
Nouns can be divided into numerous declensions according to the form of the stem: a, ō, i, u, an, ōn, ein, r, etc. Adjectives have two variants, indefinite and definite (sometimes indeterminate and determinate), with definite adjectives normally used in combination with the definite determiners (such as the definite article sa/þata/sō) while indefinite adjectives are used in other circumstances., Indefinite adjectives generally use a combination of a-stem and ō-stem endings, and definite adjectives use a combination of an-stem and ōn-stem endings. The concept of "strong" and "weak" declensions that is prevalent in the grammar of many other Germanic languages is less significant in Gothic because of its conservative nature: the so-called "weak" declensions (those ending in n) are, in fact, no weaker in Gothic (in terms of having fewer endings) than the "strong" declensions (those ending in a vowel), and the "strong" declensions do not form a coherent class that can be clearly distinguished from the "weak" declensions.
Although descriptive adjectives in Gothic (as well as superlatives ending in -ist and -ost) and the past participle may take both definite and indefinite forms, some adjectival words are restricted to one variant. Some pronouns take only definite forms: for example, sama (English "same"), adjectives like unƕeila ("constantly", from the root ƕeila, "time"; compare to the English "while"), comparative adjective and present participles. Others, such as áins ("some"), take only the indefinite forms.
The table below displays the declension of the Gothic adjective blind (English: "blind"), compared with the an-stem noun guma "man, human" and the a-stem noun dags "day":
This table is, of course, not exhaustive. (There are secondary inflexions of various sorts not described here.) An exhaustive table of only the types of endings that Gothic took is presented below.
Gothic adjectives follow noun declensions closely; they take same types of inflexion.
Gothic inherited the full set of Indo-European pronouns: personal pronouns (including reflexive pronouns for each of the three grammatical persons), possessive pronouns, both simple and compound demonstratives, relative pronouns, interrogatives and indefinite pronouns. Each follows a particular pattern of inflexion (partially mirroring the noun declension), much like other Indo-European languages. One particularly noteworthy characteristic is the preservation of the dual number, referring to two people or things; the plural was used only for quantities greater than two. Thus, "the two of us" and "we" for numbers greater than two were expressed as wit and weis respectively. While proto-Indo-European used the dual for all grammatical categories that took a number (as did Classical Greek and Sanskrit), most Old Germanic languages are unusual in that they preserved it only for pronouns. Gothic preserves an older system with dual marking on both pronouns and verbs (but not nouns or adjectives).
The simple demonstrative pronoun sa (neuter: þata, feminine: so, from the Indo-European root *so, *seh2, *tod; cognate to the Greek article ὁ, ἡ, τό and the Latin istud) can be used as an article, allowing constructions of the type definite article + weak adjective + noun.
The interrogative pronouns begin with ƕ-, which derives from the proto-Indo-European consonant *kʷ that was present at the beginning of all interrogratives in proto-Indo-European. That is cognate with the wh- at the beginning of many English interrogative, which, as in Gothic, are pronounced with [ʍ] in some dialects. The same etymology is present in the interrogatives of many other Indo-European languages": w- [v] in German, hv- in Danish, the Latin qu- (which persists in modern Romance languages), the Greek τ- or π-, the Slavic and Indic k- as well as many others.
The bulk of Gothic verbs follow the type of Indo-European conjugation called 'thematic' because they insert a vowel derived from the reconstructed proto-Indo-European phonemes *e or *o between roots and inflexional suffixes. The pattern is also present in Greek and Latin:
The other conjugation, called 'athematic', in which suffixes are added directly to roots, exists only in unproductive vestigial forms in Gothic, just like in Greek and Latin. The most important such instance is the verb "to be", which is athematic in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and many other Indo-European languages.
Gothic verbs are, like nouns and adjectives, divided into strong verbs and weak verbs. Weak verbs are characterised by preterites formed by appending the suffixes -da or -ta, parallel to past participles formed with -þ / -t. Strong verbs form preterites by ablaut (the alternating of vowels in their root forms) or by reduplication (prefixing the root with the first consonant in the root plus aí) but without adding a suffix in either case. That parallels the Greek and Sanskrit perfects. The dichotomy is still present in modern Germanic languages:
Verbal conjugation in Gothic have two grammatical voices: the active and the medial; three numbers: singular, dual (except in the third person) and plural; two tenses: present and preterite (derived from a former perfect); three grammatical moods: indicative, subjunctive (from an old optative form) and imperative as well as three kinds of nominal forms: a present infinitive, a present participle, and a past passive. Not all tenses and persons are represented in all moods and voices, as some conjugations use auxiliary forms.
Finally, there are forms called 'preterite-present': the old Indo-European perfect was reinterpreted as present tense. The Gothic word wáit, from the proto-Indo-European *woid-h2e ("to see" in the perfect), corresponds exactly to its Sanskrit cognate véda and in Greek to ϝοἶδα. Both etymologically should mean "I have seen" (in the perfect sense) but mean "I know" (in the preterite-present meaning). Latin follows the same rule with nōuī ("I have learned" and "I know"). The preterite-present verbs include áigan ("to possess") and kunnan ("to know") among others.
The word order of Gothic is fairly free as is typical of other inflected languages. The natural word order of Gothic is assumed to have been like that of the other old Germanic languages; however, nearly all extant Gothic texts are translations of Greek originals and have been heavily influenced by Greek syntax.
Sometimes what can be expressed in one word in the original Greek will require a verb and a complement in the Gothic translation; for example, διωχθήσονται (diōchthēsontai, "they will be persecuted") is rendered:
Likewise Gothic translations of Greek noun phrases may feature a verb and a complement. In both cases, the verb follows the complement, giving weight to the theory that basic word order in Gothic is object–verb. This aligns with what is known of other early Germanic languages.
One such clitic particle is -u, indicating a yes–no question or an indirect question, like Latin -ne:
The prepositional phrase without the clitic -u appears as af þus silbin: the clitic causes the reversion of originally voiced fricatives, unvoiced at the end of a word, to their voiced form; another such example is wileid-u "do you (pl.) want" from wileiþ "you (pl.) want". If the first word has a preverb attached, the clitic actually splits the preverb from the verb: ga-u-láubjats "do you both believe...?" from galáubjats "you both believe".
Another such clitic is -uh "and", appearing as -h after a vowel: ga-h-mēlida "and he wrote" from gamēlida "he wrote", urreis nim-uh "arise and take!" from the imperative form nim "take". After iþ or any indefinite besides sums "some" and anþar "another", -uh cannot be placed; in the latter category, this is only because indefinite determiner phrases cannot move to the front of a clause. Unlike, for example, Latin -que, -uh can only join two or more main clauses. In all other cases, the word jah "and" is used, which can also join main clauses.
More than one such clitics can occur in one word: diz-uh-þan-sat ijōs "and then he seized them (fem.)" from dissat "he seized" (notice again the voicing of diz-), ga-u-ƕa-sēƕi "whether he saw anything" from gasēƕi "he saw".
For the most part, Gothic is known to be significantly closer to Proto-Germanic than any other Germanic language except for that of the (scantily attested) early Norse runic inscriptions, which has made it invaluable in the reconstruction of Proto-Germanic. In fact, Gothic tends to serve as the primary foundation for reconstructing Proto-Germanic. The reconstructed Proto-Germanic conflicts with Gothic only when there is clearly identifiable evidence from other branches that the Gothic form is a secondary development.
Gothic fails to display a number of innovations shared by all Germanic languages attested later:
The language has also preserved many features that were mostly lost in other early Germanic languages:
Most conspicuously, Gothic shows no sign of morphological umlaut. Gothic fotus, pl. fotjus, can be contrasted with English foot : feet, German Fuß : Füße, Old Norse fótr : fœtr, Danish fod : fødder. These forms contain the characteristic change /u/ > /iː/ (English), /uː/ > /yː/ (German), /oː/ > /øː/ (ON and Danish) due to i-umlaut; the Gothic form shows no such change.
Proto-Germanic *z remains in Gothic as z or is devoiced to s. In North and West Germanic, *z changes to r by rhotacism:
Gothic retains a morphological passive voice inherited from Indo-European but unattested in all other Germanic languages except for the single fossilised form preserved in, for example, Old English hātte or Runic Norse (c. 400) haitē "am called", derived from Proto-Germanic *haitaną "to call, command". (The related verbs heißen in modern German and heten in Dutch are both derived from the active voice of this verb but have the passive meaning "to be called" alongside the dated active meaning "to command".)
Unlike other Germanic languages, which retained dual number marking only in some pronoun forms, Gothic has dual forms both in pronouns and in verbs. Dual verb forms exist only in the first and second person and only in the active voice; in all other cases, the corresponding plural forms are used. In pronouns, Gothic has first and second person dual pronouns: Gothic and Old English wit, Old Norse vit "we two" (thought to have been in fact derived from *wi-du literally "we two").
Gothic possesses a number of verbs which form their preterite by reduplication, another archaic feature inherited from Indo-European. While traces of this category survived elsewhere in Germanic, the phenomenon is largely obscured in these other languages by later sound changes and analogy. In the following examples the infinitive is compared to the third person singular preterite indicative:
The standard theory of the origin of the Germanic languages divides the languages into three groups: East Germanic (Gothic and a few other very scantily-attested languages), North Germanic (Old Norse and its derivatives, such as Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese) and West Germanic (all others, including Old English, Old High German, Old Saxon, Old Dutch, Old Frisian and the numerous modern languages derived from these, including English, German, and Dutch). Sometimes, a further grouping, that of the Northwest Germanic languages, is posited as containing the North Germanic and West Germanic languages, reflecting the hypothesis that Gothic was the first attested language to branch off.
A minority opinion (the so-called Gotho-Nordic hypothesis) instead groups North Germanic and East Germanic together. It is based partly on historical claims: for example, Jordanes, writing in the 6th century, ascribes to the Goths a Scandinavian origin. There are a few linguistically significant areas in which Gothic and Old Norse agree against the West Germanic languages.
Perhaps the most obvious is the evolution of the Proto-Germanic *-jj- and *-ww- into Gothic ddj (from Pre-Gothic ggj?) and ggw, and Old Norse ggj and ggv ("Holtzmann's Law"), in contrast to West Germanic where they remained as semivowels. Compare Modern English true, German treu, with Gothic triggws, Old Norse tryggr.
However, it has been suggested that these are, in fact, two separate and unrelated changes. A number of other posited similarities exist (for example, the existence of numerous inchoative verbs ending in -na, such as Gothic ga-waknan, Old Norse vakna; and the absence of gemination before j, or (in the case of old Norse) only g geminated before j, e.g. Proto-Germanic *kunją > Gothic kuni (kin), Old Norse kyn, but Old English cynn, Old High German kunni). However, for the most part these represent shared retentions, which are not valid means of grouping languages. That is, if a parent language splits into three daughters A, B and C, and C innovates in a particular area but A and B do not change, A and B will appear to agree against C. That shared retention in A and B is not necessarily indicative of any special relationship between the two.
Another commonly-given example involves Gothic and Old Norse verbs with the ending -t in the 2nd person singular preterite indicative, and the West Germanic languages have -i. The ending -t can regularly descend from the Proto-Indo-European perfect ending *-th₂e, while the origin of the West Germanic ending -i (which, unlike the -t-ending, unexpectedly combines with the zero-grade of the root as in the plural) is unclear, suggesting that it is an innovation of some kind, possibly an import from the optative. Another possibility is that this is an example of independent choices made from a doublet existing in the proto-language. That is, Proto-Germanic may have allowed either -t or -i to be used as the ending, either in free variation or perhaps depending on dialects within Proto-Germanic or the particular verb in question. Each of the three daughters independently standardized on one of the two endings and, by chance, Gothic and Old Norse ended up with the same ending.
Other isoglosses have led scholars to propose an early split between East and Northwest Germanic. Furthermore, features shared by any two branches of Germanic do not necessarily require the postulation of a proto-language excluding the third, as the early Germanic languages were all part of a dialect continuum in the early stages of their development, and contact between the three branches of Germanic was extensive.
Polish linguist Witold Mańczak had argued that Gothic is closer to German (specifically Upper German) than to Scandinavian and suggests that their ancestral homeland was located southernmost part of the Germanic territories, close to present-day Austria rather than in Scandinavia. Frederik Kortlandt has agreed with Mańczak's hypothesis, stating: "I think that his argument is correct and that it is time to abandon Iordanes' classic view that the Goths came from Scandinavia."
The Romance languages of Iberia also preserve several loanwords from Gothic, such as Portuguese agasalho (warm clothing), from Gothic *𐌲𐌰𐍃𐌰𐌻𐌾𐌰 (*gasalja, “companion, comrade”); ganso (goose), from Gothic *𐌲𐌰𐌽𐍃 (*gans, "goose"); luva (glove), from Gothic 𐌻𐍉𐍆𐌰 (lōfa, “palm of the hand”); and trégua (truce), from Gothic 𐍄𐍂𐌹𐌲𐌲𐍅𐌰 (triggwa, “treaty; covenant”).
Several linguists have made use of Gothic as a creative language. The most famous example is Bagme Bloma ("Flower of the Trees") by J. R. R. Tolkien, part of Songs for the Philologists. It was published privately in 1936 for Tolkien and his colleague E. V. Gordon.
Tolkien's use of Gothic is also known from a letter from 1965 to Zillah Sherring. When Sherring bought a copy of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War in Salisbury, she found strange inscriptions in it; after she found his name in it, she wrote him a letter and asked him if the inscriptions were his, including the longest one on the back, which was in Gothic. In his reply to her he corrected some of the mistakes in the text; he wrote for example that hundai should be hunda and þizo boko ("of those books"), which he suggested should be þizos bokos ("of this book"). A semantic inaccuracy of the text which he mentioned himself is the use of lisan for read, while this was ussiggwan. Tolkien also made a calque of his own name in Gothic in the letter, which according to him should be Ruginwaldus Dwalakoneis.
Gothic is also known to have served as the primary inspiration for Tolkien's invented language, Taliska which, in his legendarium, was the language spoken by the race of Men during the First Age before being displaced by another of his invented languages, Adûnaic. As of 2022 Tolkien's Taliska grammar has not been published.
The Thorvaldsen museum also has an alliterative poem, Thunravalds Sunau, from 1841 by Massmann, the first publisher of the Skeireins, written in the Gothic language. It was read at a great feast dedicated to Thorvaldsen in the Gesellschaft der Zwanglosen in Munich on July 15, 1841. This event is mentioned by Ludwig von Schorn in the magazine Kunstblatt from the 19th of July, 1841. Massmann also translated the academic commercium song Gaudeamus into Gothic in 1837.
In Fleurs du Mal, an online magazine for art and literature, the poem Overvloed of Dutch poet Bert Bevers appeared in a Gothic translation.