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The Glass Curtain

Gothic East and West 

Frederick Lauritzen

21st July


It is not an Iron Curtain which divides Europe, but a glass one. We could cross, but we only look through it. There are numerous ways of defining the mutual misunderstanding, which is casting a long shadow over Europe today. West of Poland, nations wish to create a restricted club of like-minded G7 members within the EU. East of Germany, countries are defined by rapid economic growth, improving opportunities, and a common mistrust of Russia’s presence in Ukraine. This ancient divide runs along the Oder River and the Neisse River down to Trieste. It marked the furthest expansion of the Mongol Empire in 1241 (battle of Legnica/Leignitz). Today it divides Germany and Poland.


However, it is even older and divides the peoples who spoke Germanic languages. It is useless, even if apparently comfortable, to say that it separates different peoples. The proof lies in the influence of the Goths, a Germanic people, on today’s languages.


The Goths moved from the area of Prussia (North East Poland, Kaliningrad Oblast, South West Lithuania) around the 2nd century AD. They migrated towards Romania, Greece, the Western Balkans until they took over the Western Roman Empire creating the Kingdom of Italy in 476. They migrated, settled, and assimilated.


Their language was an Eastern Germanic language (now extinct). English, Dutch and German are Western Germanic. Norwegian, Swedish are Northern Germanic languages.


Gothic gave the word for bread to all Slavic languages: hleb (Old Slavonic хлѣбъ) derives from Gothic hlaifs (𐌷𐌻𐌰𐌹𐍆𐍃). Western Germanic people use words like ‘bread’ (Brot in German). Gothic gave the word for glass to all Slavic languages. Sklo (Old East Slavic стькло) refers to glass and comes from Gothic stikls (𐍃𐍄𐌹𐌺𐌻𐍃). The term appears in all Slavic languages, Lithuanian, Latvian, as well as Romanian (and Old Prussian). The Western Germanic languages use ‘glass’ (German glas). Gothic was also spoken in Crimea in the form Crimean Gothic, possibly until 1945.


If one places on a map the countries which have this common Gothic vocabulary, one has an almost overlap of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795) and more recently the group of countries called the Three Seas Initiative (begun in 2015).


The Goths in their migration went West and left important traces in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. The word ‘ambassador’ derives from the Gothic notion of serving the king (andbahti 𐌰𐌽𐌳𐌱𐌰𐌷𐍄𐌹 ‘service’) and the term feudalism derives from a term such as fehu (𐍆𐌰𐌹𐌷𐌹𐌿 cattle in Gothic). The relation with the monarchy gave many first names with gothic etymologies, especially in Spain and Portugal, where the Goth created a kingdom (first capital Toulouse, then Toledo): Alarico, Alfonso, Alvarado, Amalarico, Froila, Godofredo, Gonzalo, Guzman, Ildefonso, Ramiro, Recaredo, Rodrigo, Rosendo, Velasco, Zamora. Even the French royal name Louis is a Germanic name (Hlōdowik means ‘famous in battle’ or ‘sharing battle’). Charles, Frederick, Richard, Robert, William are also examples of common Germanic names.


The royal and social aspect gave the West the word 'caste' (from Gothic *kasts 𐌺𐌰𐍃𐍄𐍃), defining a stratification of society. The Goths refused Roman Law, which they left to the lower levels of society, while using Germanic law exclusively for their nobility (Code of Euric, Salic law among many others) creating inherited noble titles in the process. The end of Roman law in the West marks the beginning of the Middle Ages, compared to the East which continued to have the influence of Roman law through Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire.


In Italy the transition from Roman law to the new Gothic legal situation was rather radical. The loanwords indicate violent confrontations: Astio = hatred / resentment (gothic 𐌷𐌰𐌹𐍆𐍃𐍄𐍃 haifsts, “conflict, strife”); Bega = quarrel (gothic 𐌱𐌰𐌹𐌲𐌰 *bega “fight”); guardia = guard (gothic 𐍅𐌰𐍂𐌳𐌾𐌰 wardja “keeper”).


East of the Oder Neisse Rivers, the Gothic words seem to reflect technological innovations or improvements. When the Goths reached Italy, they brought rather violent words into the late Latin language. In France, Spain and Portugal the kingdom of the Visigoths brought notions of social class, nobility, and with it the prestige of awarding Gothic first names.


The second century Roman Historian Tacitus refers to a Germanic word ‘glas’ (latin glaesum) as amber. Given that most amber comes from the Curonian and Vistula lagoons, the heartland of the Goths (Prussia), the transformation of the word goblet (stikls) into glas for the local implies working of the material into objects. King Theodoric of Italy (6th century) wrote a letter (written by his minister Cassiodorus) talking about the amber route from the land of the Aesti (Prussia more or less) and Italy. Theodoric was a Gothic ruler of Italy from 493 to 526. The amber route gives us literary evidence for the contact of the areas of Italy and Prussia which were under Gothic influence, already ascertained in the languages. Archaeologists refer to this area with the terms Wielbark and Chernyakov cultures. They define the areas to which the Goths migrated to and where they settled.


The Goths are relevant, since the geographic extent of the Chernyakov culture corresponds to today’s Ukraine.

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