Sunday, February 18, 2018

Latin Calques and Loanwords in Wulfila’s Bible

Wulfila was an Arian Christian bishop largely responsible for the conversion of the Gothic tribes during the fourth century. As part of his missionary efforts, he invented a Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible (supposedly all of it except for the four books of Kings) from Greek into Gothic. The vast majority of attested Gothic survives in fragments of copies of his translation made some time around the year 500 (Wright 196). Great attention has been paid over the years to the probable Greek text which Wulfila used, and to which his translation owes its syntax and possibly some of its more specialized vocabulary.[1] But an examination of existing Gothic vocabulary reveals several direct calques and loanwords from Latin. I will review three of these, and then consider the possible implications for how we should think about the complex linguistic and cultural milieu of Wulfila’s day.

*aket “vinegar”: This word, translating Greek ὄξος “vinegar” is attested only in the genitive singular. It is derived from Latin acetum. Since vinegar is made from wine, which was introduced to the Germanic tribes by Mediterranean and specifically Roman culture, this word was likely adopted well before Wulfila’s translation. The unpalatalized -c- of acetum suggests a borrowing no later than the third century AD (Lehmann 23-4).

*alew “oil”: This word translates Greek ἐλαίου “oil.” It is attested in the genitive singular form alewis. It is elsewhere used to refer to olives, as at fairgunja alewjin “at the mount of olives.” As with *aket, this loan word represents a material product associated with Mediterranean culture (olives and olive oil) and almost certainly predates Wulfila’s translation. What is less clear, however, is how the word entered Gothic. A straight borrowing from Latin oleum would suggest the form *auliw (see OE æle, OHG oli). Recent attempts have traced the route of transmission through the Roman province of Rhaetia, where surviving inscriptions show a dialectal variant of Latin which replaced -ō- with -ā-. If this transmission took place before the shift of the Archaic Latin diphthong ei > ē > Classical Latin ī, it would render the etymon *alewa- (Lehmann 26-7). But this would require interaction with the Goths sometime prior to 75 BC, much earlier than is generally supposed (Fortson 284). It seems more likely that the word was transmitted via one or more intermediary forms,[2] and that it came to Gothic as the result of indirect contact (probably via trade) with Mediterranean culture.

*armahairts “mercy, alms”: This word translates Greek ἐλεημοσύνη “alms,” and is attested in its nominative plural form. It is a compound of arma- from *arms “poor, pitiable,” and hairto “heart.” The latter is cognate, via Grimm’s Law, with Latin cor. Armahairts is thus an exact calque of Latin misericordia (Lehmann 42). Similar calques exist elsewhere in Germanic languages (see OE ælmesse, which is a more direct calque, via Vulgar Latin, of ἐλεημοσύνη), suggesting a word for this specific kind of gift-giving did not exist in Germanic culture prior to contact with Christianity, and needed to be borrowed. It is possible Wulfila introduced this word himself, although the use of a Latin calque seems curious unless the word was already known to his audience.[3]

By the time Wulfila translated the Bible into Gothic, the Goths had been in direct contact with the Roman Empire—as both enemies and mercenaries—for over a century. Although it is impossible to know just how much indirect contact they had before that, the linguistic evidence suggests that Mediterranean trade goods with Latin names had reached them. Wulfila’s missionary efforts did not take place in a cultural vacuum. His audience, having interacted with the Roman Empire during the heyday of its conversion to Christianity, was likely already familiar with the basic practices of the new religion.


[1] There are many words which appear to be Gothic transliterations of precise Greek words or phrases. Although it is likely that Wulfilas introduced these to supplement shortcomings in Gothic vocabulary, it is also possible that some of them already existed prior to his translation.

[2] An intermediary Celtic form of *olevom has been suggested, however there is no direct evidence for either this or the proposed Rhaetic form (Lehmann 26-7).

[3] As noted above, Wulfila’s tendency is to adhere (sometimes rigidly) to the syntax and meaning of his Greek source, and this practice seems to extend to compounds he introduced.



Works Cited

Fortson, Benjamin W. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Lehmann, Winfred Philipp, and Helen-Jo J. Hewitt. A Gothic Etymological Dictionary: based on the third edition of Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der Gotischen Sprache by Sigmund Feist. E. J. Brill, 1986.

Wright, Joseph. Grammar of the Gothic Language. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1910.


Currently reading: Indo-European Language and Culture: And Introduction, by Benjamin Fortson
Current Audio Book: Black Ships Before Troy, by Rosmary Sutcliffe
Currently Translating: The Old Saxon Heliand

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