Gothic is an Indo-European language, related to most of the major languages of Europe (except Finnish and Hungarian), and most closely related to the Germanic languages: English (including Scots), German (Low and High), Dutch, Frisian, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Faeroese. Though it has its own unique points of development, it still stands very close to the reconstructed “Primitive Germanic” from which all these languages derive; and a knowledge of Gothic is practically indispensable to a historical study of the Germanic languages. A speaker of any Germanic language will find a very large number of cognate words in any Gothic text. Speakers of those languages will consequently find the vocabulary of Gothic very easy to learn.
Like other archaic Indo-European languages, Gothic is an inflecting, “synthetic” language, in which noun and verb endings are of great importance in determining the meaning of a sentence; in this respect it is closer to Latin or Greek than, say, English or Norwegian.
The Gothic noun has four cases: Nominative, Accusative, Genitive, and Dative, and two numbers, Singular and Plural. Three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) are distinguished; these have no necessary connection with the intrinsic gender of the object named (a stone, stains, is masculine; a child, barn, is neuter; a city, baurgs is feminine) but they do have a high degree of correlation with the form of the word: for instance, knowing that stone is stains, and further that its plural is stainos, you can predict with near-total accuracy that its gender must be masculine.
Within each gender, several declensions can be distinguished, which are classified as “strong” and “weak”, and have further sub-classifications (usually referring to the reconstructed Prim. Gmc. forms).
1. a-stems (e.g. stains, “stone”)
1a1. ending in -jis (e.g. nithjis “kinsman”)
1a2. ending in -eis (e.g. asneis “servant”)
1b. wa- stems (e.g. thius “servant”)
2. i-stems (e.g. gasts “guest”)
3. u-stems (e.g. sunus “son”)
B. Weak (e.g. guma “man”)
1. r-stems (e.g. brothar “brother”)
2. nd-stems (e.g. frijonds “friend”)
3. others (e.g. reiks “ruler”)
1. o-stems (e.g. razda “language”)
1a. jo-stems ending in -i (e.g. mawi “maiden”)
2. i-stems (e.g. qens “woman”)
3. u-stems (e.g. handus “hand”)—declined exactly like the masc. u-stems
1. ending in -o (e.g. stairno “star’)
2. ending in -ei (e.g. aithei “mother”)
1. r-stems (e.g. swistar “sister”)
2. others (e.g. baurgs “city”)
1. a-stems (e.g. barn “child”)
1a. ja-stems (e.g. badi “bed”)
1b. wa-stems (e.g. triu “wood”)
2. u-stems (e.g. faihu “cattle”)
B. Weak (e.g. hairto “heart”)
C. Other (fon “fire”)
This looks like a rather formidable array (and it leaves out a number of irregularities), but in fact the major differences are only between the strong and weak declensions; within each group and gender there are strong “family resemblances”, which mean that you really are not learning a new declension each time, but only the few instances where it differs from the norm. E.g., masculine i-stems only differ from the a-stems in three cases of the plural, and then only in the type of vowel (the final consonants are the same). Likewise, the a-stem masculines and neuters are identical in the genitive and dative, and so on.
The adjectives also decline according to gender, number, and case, and also have that tricky Germanic distinction between “strong” and “weak” forms (some adjectives are only strong, some are only weak, most are both but prefer weak forms when used with the article/demonstrative pronoun); so, unfortunately, you have to memorize two sets of declensions for the adjectives—not to mention that different adjectives have a-stem, ja-stem, i-stem, and u-stem, declensions, just like the nouns! Not to worry, though—once you learn the weak declension of the nouns, you already know the weak declension of adjectives—it’s exactly the same.
The verbs are also inflected, though happily they’re much simpler than, say, the verbs of French. There are two main types, strong and weak; the strong can be divided into seven different groups and more sub-groups, but basically there are four principal parts you have to memorize with each strong verb (infinitive, preterite singular, preterite plural, and past participle) and you can decline any strong verb with those. Unlike those of English, the Gothic strong verbs are not “irregulars”; they are very common, and have very regular patterns. The weak verbs are actually somewhat more complicated; there are four different weak conjugations, but they mostly differ in the vowel preceding the final consonant. There are a some other verbs that conjugate a bit oddly, mostly the very common “modal” verbs (can, may, must, shall, etc.), “be” and “will”, and a few others.
The verb has three persons, 2 numbers in the 3rd person and 3 in the 1st and second person where a dual is also distinguished to refer to “we two” or “you two”. There are a present and preterite tense, and an indicative and subjunctive mood, which decline in all persons and numbers; a somewhat more fragmentary imperative and passive system (the latter in both indicative and subjunctive, but without a distinct preterite form); an infinitive, present participle, and past passive participle; the latter two decline as adjectives.
The pronouns, like the nouns, decline in four cases, and (except for the 1st and 2nd personal pronouns) are distinguished according to gender as well. The declensions are somewhat complicated, but there is a typical set of “pronominal” endings (distinct from the endings on nouns, but often like the adjectival endings).
Prepositions are followed by nouns in specific cases (as in Latin), most often the accusative or dative, but occasionally the genitive; sometimes by more than one case with change of meaning of the preposition.
Some adverbs show Gothic case endings, some show fossilized Indo-European case endings and some can’t be segmented into morphemes at all; they’re better just learned each one separately.
Although after all that it may not seem so, Gothic is actually a pretty simple and transparent language: it isn’t burdened with a lot of umlauts or other messy sound changes; it has a pretty straightforward spelling (with a couple of exceptions); and though there are some irregularities, they are on the whole subordinate to a very clear overall pattern.
Wulfila distinguished the following sounds by separate letters in his alphabet:
Labials Dentals Palatals Velars Labiovelars
stops: p t k q
fricatives: f th, s h hw
fricatives: b d, z
Nasals: m n
Liquids: l, r
Glides: j w
Most of these letters can be pronounced like the nearest English sound without too much distortion.
q = the qu in “queen”; cf. Gothic qens “wife, woman”
th = the th in “thorn”; cf. Gothic thaurnus “thorn”; it is never the th in “then”
hw = English wh as in “while”, by those who pronounce it differently from “wile”; a voiceless w. Cf. Gothic hweila “time, season, hour”.
g in the combinations gg, gk, gq (always) and ggw (sometimes) represents the sound of ng in “sing”; cf. Gothic figgrs “finger” (pronounced fing-grs) or siggwan “to sing” (pronounced sing-gwan); also cf. drigkan “to drink” (dring-kan), sigqan “to sink” (sing-quan).
j is the sound of English y, German j; cf. Gothic jer “year”, juggs “young”.
h, although put in the velar series above (where it must have been originally; cf. the Latin representation of the sound by ch-, e.g. in the tribe-name Chatti, evidently the ancestors of the Hessians) was in Gothic probably already a glottal fricative like English h in some positions; but when final, or before a consonant, it is better pronounced like German ch; cf. Gothic mahts “power, might” and German Macht.
b and d may be pronounced like English b and d; but there is considerable evidence that, at least in some positions they were pronounced like v in “oven” and th in “then”. For this reason we see an interchange between b (pronounced v) and its voiceless equivalent f, the latter substituting for b when final or before s.
So we have:
hlaifs “bread” (< *hlaibs) vs. hlaibis “of bread” The same interchange occurs between d (pronounced like voiced th) and th (voiceless th): haubith “head” (<*haubid) vs. haubida “heads”. g was also a voiced fricative “gh” (this sound doesn’t occur in English anymore); it occasionally shows orthographic interchange with h, but not as often or as regularly as b/f and d/th. x, the Greek letter Chi, is used to spell the first letter in Xristus “Christ”, and a handful of other names of Greek or Hebrew origin, but not elsewhere. It was probably pronounced like k. There were probably all other sorts of positional variations and other differences between the actual pronunciation of Gothic and the spelling employed by Wulfila, which tends to be phonemic rather than phonetic, and is evidently idealized. Still, lacking a living Goth to give us examples, we’re better off sticking pretty close to Wulfila’s writing system where possible. Vowels Short i ai a au u Long ei e: a: o: u: Diphthongs ai au iu i is the sound, more or less, of i in “sip” (or between that sound and the ee in “seep”), a is the sound in “father”; u the sound in “full” (or between that sound and the oo in “fool”). Gothic distinguished long from short vowels (the distinction is one of time for which the vowel is uttered, long vowels being drawn out to somewhere around twice the length of a short vowel) in pronunciation, but only the pair i:ei was realized in spelling. a: (long a) was rare and typically occurs before h as a result of compensatory lengthening, where *-anh- > -a:h-; e.g *fanhan “seize” became fa:han. u: was only a little more common. e: and o: were quite common; they were represented by Gothic e and o, and it is not really necessary to write them with a long mark, though this is often done for the sake of clarity.
ai and au need some remark. In Greek loanwords, they represented short e and o, the sounds of e and o in English “bet” or “hot”; this sound they also had, more rarely, in Gothic where they represented a development of East Germanic i and u before r, h, and hw, e.g. in bairith “(it) bears” < *birith, waurms “serpent” < *wurms. (Very often this East Germanic i or u represents an earlier e or o—it was a characteristic of East Germanic to merge short i, e and o, u). But ai and au could also represent developments of the Primitive Germanic diphthongs *ai and *au (e.g. braiths “broad”, laufs “leaf”). These can be very reasonably pronounced as diphthongs, i.e., like the ai in German “Kaiser”, or the au in German “Haus”; this has the merit of keeping the derivation in mind. But it is likely that by Wulfila’s time they were pronounced much like the previous ai, au, only longer: being thus distinguished from short ai, au in length, but from e, o in quality; e, o were higher and “tenser”, a fact that we can tell from their being occasionally confused with ei and (long) u, respectively. Short ai, au are sometimes spelled aí, aú, with an accent mark over the last vowel; long ai, au are sometimes spelled ái, áu, with an accent mark over the a. When ai, au appear before vowels (as in saian “to sow”; trauan “to trust”) they are pronounced as long monophthongs and are not marked with any accent. If long ai (ái) and au (áu) were monophthongs in all positions, then Gothic had only one true diphthong, iu, which was pronounced rather like the u in English “cute” (which the Goths might have spelled “kiut”). w was used to spell the upsilon in Greek loan-words, and is often transcribed “y” in that case (which I think is unnecessary). In Greek at the time it had the sound of ü/ue in Modern German. Wulfila may have pronounced it that way, but probably most Goths did not! They might have pronounced it like “i”. On to Lesson 1. To main Gothic Lessons page.