On Gothic Wings


On Gothic Wings

The Gothic word for ‘wing’ is not extant, but what is it likely to have been? The early Germanic languages have a variety of words which may serve as comparanda in order to reconstruct the possible Gothic form(s). Old English has feðra (fem. o-stem, pl.) ‘wings,’ literally ‘feathers,’ extant only in the plural with this sense. Old Norse has vængr (masc. ja-stem) ‘wing,’ from a Proto-Norse *wā-ing-ja-, a derivative of the Proto-Germanic root *wē- ‘blow’ (De Vries 1977: 671). Old High German has fedarah (neut./masc.? a-stem) / fedarahha (fem. o-stem) / feddah (masc. a-stem) ‘wing,’ and Old Saxon fetherak* (masc. a-stem). These latter forms are collectives derived from the OHG/OS words fedara/fethera* (fem. o-stems) ‘feather,’ whence Modern German Fittich ‘wing.’ In addition, there is in OE also feðerhama (masc. n-stem) ‘wing, plumage,’ lit. ‘feather-covering,’ likewise OS fetharhamo* (masc. n-stem) ‘plumage,’ and ON fjaðrhamr (masc. ja-stem?) ‘feathered haunch,’ i.e., an Icarian appendage, according to Cleasby & Vigfusson (1962: 156).

The Norse word vængr would seem to be an innovation proper to North Germanic (De Vries 1977: 671); Middle English weng- > ModE wing is ultimately a loanword from Norse (Onions 1966: 1008). The existence of fjaðrhamr suggests at least that the word for ‘feather’ may have been used to denote ‘wing’ originally in Norse. Likewise the Middle German form vlugel (> ModG Flügel ‘wing’) appears to be a more recent innovation (Seebold 2002: 305) and so can be set aside. This then leaves the OE/OHG/OS words as the most likely direct reflexes of the Proto-Germanic form(s).

A consideration of cognates in some of the other ancient Indo-European languages does indeed suggest that the use of the word ‘feather’ to mean also  ‘wing’ as found in OE/OHG/OS was an IE legacy. Consider, for example, Hittite pattar ‘feather, wing,’ Sanskrit pátram ‘wing, feather,’ Latin penna (< *pet-nā) ‘feather’ and in the plural ‘feathers, wings,’ Ancient Greek pterón ‘feather, wing,’ beside the derivative ptérux (pter-ug-) ‘wing.’ The heteroclitic Proto-Indo-European stem *pétH²-r/n-, whence these words derive, meant as much as ‘flier,’ which captures both the senses of ‘wing’ and ‘feather.’

So what then might the Gothic word for ‘wing’ have looked like? Proto-Germanic *feþrō (fem. o-stem) ‘feather, wing’ (Kroonen 2013: 138-139) would by regular sound-change yield a Gothic *fiþra (fem. o-stem) ‘feather, wing.’ Given the existence of the OHG/OS suffixed forms, beside Ancient Greek ptérux (pter-ug-), a suffixed form *fiþraks (masc. a-stem) is also a possible variant: the suffix -k- is at times found optionally in such contexts in the early Germanic languages (e.g. OE cran / cranoc ‘crane,’ and OHG krano / kranuh). The forms feðerhama, fetharhamo, and fjaðrhamr, as well as the Gothic verb -hamon, also suggest a Gothic *fiþrahama (masc. n-stem). In fact, all three reconstructed words *fiþra, *fiþraks, and *fiþrahama may have co-existed in Gothic. If the appendage itself was meant apart from its feathers (as in a cooked wing), then the more generic word liþus (masc. u-stem) ‘body-part, limb’ might have conceivably been used.


Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
De Vries, J. 1977. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden: Brill.
Kluge, F. 1926. Nominale Stammbildungslehre der altgermanischen Dialekte. Halle: Niemeyer.
Kroonen, G. 2013. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
Meid, W. 1967. Germanische Sprachwissenschaft von Dr. Hans Krahe, III Wortbildungslehre. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Onions, C.T. (ed.). 1966. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: OUP.
Seebold, E. (ed.). 2002. Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. 24th ed. Berlin / New York: De Gruyter.

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