“What’s the Matter with You?” in the Early Germanic Languages

“What’s the Matter with You?”
in the Early Germanic Languages

All too often, students of ancient languages have little exposure to (idiomatic) expressions of a more workaday nature, expressions such as “to go to the privy” or “to have sex with,” or questions like “what’s the matter with you?” This is all the more so with the early Germanic languages, given their smaller corpora, compared to, say, Latin or Ancient Greek, and given the absence of bilingual dictionaries which have Modern English as the starting point. The equivalents of the first two expressions I have dealt with elsewhere (here and here). But how did one say “what’s the matter (with you)?” in the Early Germanic languages?

In Old English, one could say hwæt is þē? (sg.) / hwæt is ēow? (pl.), lit. ‘what is [it] with-you?’ (DOE, hwa I.E.1). (And, of course, the expression “what is it?” can still be used to mean “what’s the matter?” in Modern English. The expression with matter, by the way, dates back only to the fifteenth century.) Speakers of Old Norse could use the very same construction: hvat er þér? (sg.) / hvat er yðr? (pl.), lit. ‘what is [it] with-you?’ (Cleasby, vera B.2). I have not been able to find the equivalent in Old Saxon or Old High German, but the expression was ist mit dir? (lit. ‘what is with you?’) ‘what is the matter (with you)?’ exists in modern German. To my knowledge, the Gothic equivalent is not extant, but in light of the foregoing agreement in idiom, which may have been a Proto-Germanic inheritance, one might expect the Gothic counterpart to have been *hwa ist þus? (sg.) / *hwa ist izwis? (pl.).


Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. OUP.
DOE = The Dictionary of Old English: A to H. 2016. University of Toronto.

A Bit of Self-Promotion

If you have an interest in the Gothic language and a predilection for Medieval(esque) music, check out the recent recording of my song “Baris Standiþ” (‘The Barley Stands’), performed by Donna Greenberg. You can listen to it here (and download it here).


Or if writing in “Anglish” is your thing (i.e., a “constructed’ form of English using words of Germanic origin), you may be interested in Outlaws, a satiric literary novel in a picaresque vein, written almost entirely in words of Germanic origin (unlike this blurb), with a fair number of coinages. (Buy it here (Canada), here (USA), or here (UK)).

Are You Coming or Going? (In Gothic or Old English)


Are You Coming or Going?

(In Gothic or Old English)

The pairs Gothic qiman / gaggan and Old English cuman / gan, when used as simple verbs of motion, are commonly equated with Modern English ‘to come / to go’ respectively, but this is somewhat of a misrepresentation. Consider the following OE examples:

ga hider (Gen. 27.21) ‘come (lit. ‘go’) here’
Nero cwæð, “gang me near hider” (Blick. Hom. 179.30) ‘Nero said, “come (lit. ‘go’) closer to me here”’

In Modern English, ‘to come,’ not ‘to go,’ must be used when the local reference is to a first-person speaker, but this clearly did not apply in Old English, as these examples show. The restriction was likewise not observed in Gothic:

jah insandida skalk seinana hweilai nahtamatis qiþan þaim haitanam, “gaggiþ, unte ju manwu ist allata” (L 14.17) ‘when it is was time for dinner, he sent his slave to say to the guests, “come (lit. ‘go’), as everything is ready now”’
letiþ þo barna gaggan du mis, jah ni warjiþ þo (Mk 10.14) ‘let the children come (lit. ‘go’) to me, and do not stop them’
jabai hwas gaggiþ du mis (L 14.26) ‘if anyone comes (lit. ‘goes’) to me’

The examples given above suggest that gaggan / gan were – or leastwise could be – used to mean ‘to come’ when the focus was on the leaving of a spot, i.e., on the beginning of the action of coming, seemingly with the connotation that the potential mover was blocked in some way, held back by necessity, reticence, authority, etc. Thus, “let the children ‘go’ to me” = ‘do not hold them back (ni warjiþ þo ‘do not stop them’) but let them leave that spot and proceed to me,’ and “‘go,’ as everything is ready” = ‘there is no need now to wait here any longer; you are free to proceed to table.’

In the following example, qiman, and not gaggan, is used because the focus is not on the leaving but on the arriving: “have you come here to torment us?” = ‘are you here now to torment us?’:

qamt her faur mel balwjan unsis? (Mt 8.29) ‘have you come here to torment us before it is time?’

The same applies in the following OE example:

hi ferdon þa and comon and cwædon to Iosue (Josh 7.3) ‘then they returned [lit. ‘went and came’] and said to Joshua’

How the Heck Are You? (In Gothic)


How the Heck Are You? (In Gothic)

The equivalent of Modern English ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you doing?’ is not extant for Gothic, but it can be reconstructed with a fair degree of certitude based on comparanda from the other early Germanic languages.

In Old English, the verb magan (> ModE ‘may’) ‘to be able to, can’ was also used intransitively to mean ‘to be strong, to have power or influence, to prevail’ and figured in questions and statements about a person’s well-being: e.g. “Hu mæg he?” Hig cwædon þæt he wel mihte (Ælfric Gen. xxix) ‘“How is he?” They said that he was well’ (cited in Bosworth-Toller 1964: 665). The same goes for the Old Norse cognate mega, which has roughly the same semantic field as OE magan (and typically appears modified here by the adverbs vel ‘well’ or illa / lítt ‘ill / a little’): “Hversu mátti Þorleifr?” – “Vel mátti hann” (Sturl. i.89) ‘“How was Þorleifr [when you left him]?” – “He was well”’ (cited in Cleasby-Vigfusson 1962: 420). (The Modern Swedish expression hur mår du? ‘how are you?,’ first extant from the early sixteenth century (Svenska Akademiens Ordbok: v.2 1), appears to be a direct continuation of the old idiom.) The situation is more or less identical with the Old High German cognate (ga)magan and its later reflex (again commonly modified with an adverb meaning ‘well, ill,’ or the like): cf. the Early NHG daz sich unser herr der kunig wider nider gelegt hat und daz er gar ubel mag (Deutsche Städtechronik 1.156.16) ‘that our lord the King has lain down again and that he is quite unwell’ (cited in the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, ‘mögen’). It would appear then that the use of the reflex of Proto-Germanic *magana in expressions of well-being was a Proto-Germanic inheritance.

And so, what is the likely equivalent in Gothic, if one assumes that the same usage was present there as well? For the question, one would expect *hwaiwa magt? (‘how are you?’ sing.), and for possible answers *waila mag (‘I’m well / fine’) or *ubilaba mag (‘I’m not well / not fine’). If Gothic followed similar word-order principles as OE and ON, which seems very likely, then the adverb would presumably be shifted leftwards here, as in the OE and ON examples and as shown in the reconstructions, given that the wellness or unwellness (i.e., the ‘rheme’ here) would naturally be highlighted in the answer, cf. ModE ‘well he is.’


Bosworth, J. & T.N. Toller. 1964. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm auf CD-ROM und im Internet. http://dwb.uni-trier.de/de/
Svenska Akademiens Ordbok. https://www.saob.se/

Gothic Cats


Gothic Cats

The Gothic word for ‘cat’ is not extant but was likely *katto (f on), with *katta (m n) / *katts (m a) for ‘tom-cat.’ This is suggested by the early Germanic cognates OE catte (f on) / catt (m a?), OHG kazza (f on) / kazzo (m n), ON köttr (m u). (The Proto-Norse u-stem *katt-u-z is seemingly a secondary analogical form extended from the acc. pl. *kattunz of an original masc. n-stem *katta, a development seen elsewhere, e.g., with örn (Orel 2003: 24-25; Kroonen 2013: 32).) The Germanic word is commonly thought to be a borrowing from (Vulgar) Latin, to wit, catta / cattus. (For a different etymology, see Kroonen (2013: 281-282).) In fact, the introduction of the domestic cat into transalpine Europe seems to have gone hand and hand with Roman northward expansion and cultural influence, for archaeological research suggests that the domestic cat was unknown to Germania before the centuries AD. Even in Southern Europe, remains of cats are uncommon from the late BC and early AD periods: while the remains of many dogs have been uncovered at Pompeii, for instance, there is none of cats. Once introduced into Germania, the domestic cat spread rather slowly, judging from osteological indices: at Roman-Iron-Age Feddersen Wierde, for example, cat bones amounted to a mere 0.01% of the total finds of domestic animal bones, while at the Viking-Age settlement of Schleswig they reach 2.5% (Tiefenbach et al. 2000: 333). And with regard to the Wielbark and Chernyakhov cultures (archaeological cultures linked to the Goths of the Pre-Migration Age), finds of cat bones were apparently insignificant enough that they fail to be mentioned in some overviews (e.g. Leiber 1995: 60; Heather & Matthews 1991: 87, 90), although cats do seem to have been kept at some Chernyakhov settlements at least (Kazanski 1991: 49).


Heather, P. & J. Matthews. 1991. Goths in the Fourth Century. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Kazanski, M. 1991. Les Goths, Ier-VIIe siècles ap. J.-C. Paris: Errance.
Kroonen, G. 2013. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
Leiber, C. (ed.). 1995. Schätze der Ostgoten. Stuttgart: Theiss.
Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden: Brill.
Tiefenbach, H. et al. 2000. “Katze.” In Beck, H. et al. (eds.), Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde. Vol. 16. Berlin / New York: De Gruyter.

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.