Green, D.H., 1998:

Language and history in the early Germanic world.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp.438.
ISBN 0 521 47134 6 (Hardback). £45.00 (US $69.95)


reviewed by

Nicola McLelland

Department of Germanic Studies, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin 2.
E-mail: nicolamc@tcd.ie
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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics. © 2000 Nicola McLelland.
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With his latest book, Prof. Green treats us, in an excellent piece of scholarship, to an investigation of the Germanic world up to around the ninth century A.D. It should be stressed that his book is not a straightforward linguistic history of Germania. Green's stated aim is to link conventional historical linguistics with historical and archaeological evidence to shed light on Germanic culture in the early centuries of this era, and on the effects of its contacts with the outside world. In this, Green succeeds splendidly, espcially in Part I. The focus is on historical linguistic data, but Green achieves a synthesis with historical and archaeological work too, and I imagine the result is as enlightening for the specialist of these areas as it is for the Germanist. One of the book's major strengths is its broad scope, covering not just German or even just West Germanic, but East and (to a lesser extent) North Germania too. The wealth of material on Gothic - including chapters devoted to the Gothic migrations and to Gothic influence on other Germanic tribes - is particularly welcome, for this is an area often sidelined, albeit for obvious reasons, in standard linguistic histories for Germanists.

Language and History has three parts. The first, The Germanic World, brings together linguistic and other evidence to give an insight into early Germanic society. There are chapters on religion, law, kinship, warfare, people and army, lordship and kingship (cf. Green 1965, The Carolingian Lord. Cambridge: CUP). For me this was the most rewarding part of the book - pre-Christianized, pre-Romanized Germania tends to be dismissed by Germanists in a few sentences. Here, in contrast, Green's painstaking detective work gradually builds up a picture of Germanic culture which, though necessarily still sketchy, is by far the most cogent and thorough account of it I have read.

The second and third sections deal respectively with contact with the non-Germanic (particularly Roman) world (Part II) and contact with Christianity (Part III). In Part II, the chapter on the Goths is, as I have already mentioned, fascinating reading. The other chapters provided less that was entirely new to me, but their strength lies in both the detail and the scope of the loan-words which Green treats. His examples are carefully chosen; controversies are not skirted; once standard vews are re-evaluated and updated where necessary. The care with which etymologies are argued, and their importance for our picture of Germanic culture shown, is exemplary. These chapters are a mervellous resource for anyone teaching historical linguistics of German.

In Part III, Green limits himself largely to the impact of Christianity on Old High German within the Germanic languages. Green begins with a chapter outlining developments in the process of Christianization, from a persecuted church proceeding by individual conversion, to large-scale missionary activity increasingly allied to the spread of political power too. Here some key dates to orient the reader would have been useful - reference is made to the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Toleration, but the dates of these are only given in the following chapter. - In fact, a timeline to accompany the book as a whole would have been a useful addition. In the subsequent chapters, Green revisits familiar territory to look at the development of a vocabulary related first to the externals of Christianity such as church, bishop, and alms, and then to expressing the new Christian doctrine. The roles played by a hypothetical Gothic mission, and the Irish and Anglo-Saxon missions, are re-evaluated in turn. Green prefers to explain Gothic linguistic influence on Upper German, particularly Bavarian, by the presence of some East Germanic elements in the ethnogenesis of the Bavarians, rather than by the traditional assumption of a Gothic mission for which there is no historical evidence. The importance of the Irish mission to Germany is also questioned - Green argues that it is better described as a Hiberno-Frankish mission, since it depended so much on Merovingian Frankish support, and that in any case there is no conclusive evidence of any direct Irish influence on German vocabulary.

Not so with the Anglo-Saxon mission, which left important traces. Chapter 20 compares the different approaches adopted by Wulfila in Gothic in the fourth century and by the Anglo-Saxon mission to Germany in the late seventh to ninth centuries. For instance, Anglo-Saxon willingness to adopt originally pagan terms to new Christian meanings, which contrasts sharply with Wulfila's avoidance of such vocabulary, is in line with the policy of conversion by accommodation begun by Gregory the Great. (It is comparable with his suggestion that pagan temples should not be destroyed, but Christian altars set up in them.) Secondly, the greater willingness amongst the Anglo-Saxon mission to use secular terms with military overtones in Christian discourse, such as truhtin ('leader of a war-band', but then also 'lord'; Wulfila in contrast uses frŠuja), may reflect a changing attitude to warfare which began with Constantine. Whereas the early, persecuted church was pacifist, with its alliance with the state it became possible to conceive of a 'just' war, if subjugation was a prelude to conversion.

Green's style is, as ever, lucid and concise. Links between chapters and sections are smooth, one is led from the one into the next, making this an enjoyable read from beginning to end. Having said that, though the 'blurb' at the front of the book suggests it is aimed not just at the specialist Germanist audience, but also at non-specialists from other related fields, I am unsure how many non-linguists will persevere with it in practice. Green is admirably clear, but he does assume a working knowledge of the major sound shifts which affected German, and a certain facility in reading the conventions of historical linguists. However, the index of words and the division into manageable chapters (with helpful cross-references) means this is a book that can be conveniently dipped into by anyone. At any rate, for the Germanist and historical linguist, this book is an invaluable resource.

One final comment: the referencing is impeccable, yet Green barely has a footnotes exceeding four lines. For this relief, much thanks.


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