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Proto op for ancient tongue

Athens on May 21, 2020. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on the gradual spread of a language, the echoes of which are still heard in English today.

Four and a half thousand years ago there was no such language as English. There would be no such language for another 3,000 years. But a language did exist which eventually became English, though you would have had to travel at least 500 miles across the North Sea from Britain in order to hear it being spoken.

Some time around 2,500 BC, the linguistic ancestors of modern English speakers were to be found in southern Sweden and on the Danish islands, in the region where the cities of Copenhagen, Ystad and Malmö are situated today.

We have no idea what the speakers of that ancient language called it, but modern linguists refer to it as Proto-Germanic, where proto means ‘earliest, original’.

Not much less than two hundred generations later, my native language is called ‘English’ by its speakers. But there is a direct line of transmission from the one language form to the other.

Proto-Germanic no longer exists, but it has not died out. It has simply become transformed, gradually over the millennia, into English.

And not just into English, but also into Dutch, Afrikaans, North Frisian, East Frisian, West Frisian, Low German, High German, Swiss German, Luxembourgish Yiddish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese – the other sister languages of English in the modern Germanic language family.

There are no written records of Proto-Germanic, but experts on the history of Germanic have been able to reconstruct what it must have been like by comparing the oldest Germanic languages which we have records for with one another and triangulating backwards.

Through a comparison of Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, Old Saxon and Gothic, many Germanic words have been reconstructed, some of which are still at least somewhat recognisable to English speakers today.

For example, Proto-Germanic andi, ‘in addition’, resembles modern English and; biridi, ‘is carrying’, can be seen to have a connection to burden. Ek, ‘I’, is very similar to Old English ic and to Dutch ik. And it is no surprise that fader meant ‘father’, that hwat was ‘what’, that was ‘that’, hwehwlaz meant ‘wheel’, wulfaz, ‘wolf’; wurmiz, ‘worm’; and jungaz ‘young’.

Other still-recognisable items included isti, ‘is’, mek, ‘me’, samdaz, ‘sand’, sangwaz, ‘song’, tanthu, ‘tooth’, and under, ‘among’.

But that does not mean we would be able to understand Proto-Germanic if we could hear it spoken. During the course of the millennia since 2,500 BC, the language that was spoken in southern Scandinavia has in general changed so much, as languages do, that if we could hear it today it would be unrecognisable and incomprehensible.

It is nevertheless true, however, that the language of this newspaper –based in Norfolk on the other side of the North Sea from Denmark – is a direct descendant of that ancient language of southern Scandinavia – a descendant which has been passed down directly from one generation to another over very many centuries.

Living as they did on the shores of the Baltic Sea and the Kattegat, we have to assume that these Proto-Germanic-speaking people were rather happy messing about in boats. But eventually, perhaps around 1,500 BC, some of them decided to migrate southwards, across the Baltic Sea or down along the Jutland peninsula of Denmark, towards northern Germany.

By about 1,200 BC, Germanic-speaking people were occupying not only the whole of Jutland but also a small area of northern Germany running from the mouth of the River Elbe by Hamburg to the mouth of the Oder in the region of Stettin/Szczecin, now on the German-Polish border.

By about 500 BC, Germanic speakers had reached the edge of the North Sea along the shores of what are now the Netherlands and Belgium, not too far across the North Sea from England. But they then waited another 1,000 years before embarking on the particular voyage that brought them, and their language, to the shores of this island.