Answering the Call of Nature in Early Germanic


Answering the Call of Nature

in Early Germanic

Reconstruction of Medieval Norwegian Storehouse cum Latrine, based on description in Grettis saga

Reconstruction of a Medieval Norwegian storehouse-cum-latrine, based on a description in Grettis saga

At one point or another, just about every learner of a second language, I should think, wants to know the words for at least a few “dirty” things in that language, that is, words for certain body-parts or body-functions. Well, such a desire got the better of me lately, and so I looked into how speakers of the earliest Germanic languages would have said ‘to go to the washroom.’ Old English had gān / gangan tō gange ‘to go to [the] privy,’ where gang (lit. ‘going’) = ‘latrine, privy.’ A further option was gān / gangan ūt lit. ‘to go out,’ i.e., to the outhouse. The same idiom existed in Old Norse as well, to wit, ganga til gangs (lit. ‘to go to [the] privy’), where gangr (lit. ‘going’) also served as the word for ‘latrine, privy.’ Old High German gang could also mean ‘latrine, privy,’ although I was unable to find an attestation of *gangan zi gange, but this may be owing to the smaller size of the OHG corpus. The presence then of an identical construction in at least two different branches of the early Germanic languages suggests that the phrase ‘to go to the privy’ (where ‘privy’ = lit. ‘going’) was inherited from late Proto-Germanic, to be reconstructed as perhaps *gangana te / to gangai. It seems likely then that the same idiom also existed in Gothic and that Wulfila would have said *gaggan du gagga, with gaggs (masc. a-stem, lit. ‘going’) = ‘latrine, privy.’

Drawing from Jesse Byock’s translation of Grettir’s Saga (2009 OUP, p. 54)