Gothic for Goths Lesson 01: The Script

Gutiska Razda faúr Gutans

Welcome to our new series Gothic for Goths. In this first lesson, we’ll learn about the gothic alphabet.

Gothic was most likely originally written in runes, and the names of the letters are mostly the same as the names given to the ancient germanic runes. The gothic alphabet was invented by a monk named Wulfilas in the fourth century, and is based primarily on the latin and greek alphabets, but with some influence by the runes, which i’ll point out as we come to them. You’ll probably recognize many of the letters.

Today, Gothic is most commonly written in latin letters used to transliterate the original alphabet.

The first letter is ans, which means god or deity. Or maybe it's ahs, which means ear of corn. Some say it's ahsa, which means axle. Nobody knows for sure, but we do know it is pronounced like the A in father or the american pronunciation of the O in goth. <[I've taken some crap for saying "o in goth" because some english speakers pronounce 'goth' differently than i do.  Since i actually say this instead of just writing it, it shouldn't be a big deal for most people, but please let me extend my sincerest apologies to the international deaf community, who didn't hear me say it anyway. And for the record, ans = /a/.] As you can see, this is derived from the greek letter alpha, as it looks nothing like the runic letter ansuz.

The next letter is baírkan, which means birch. This is usually pronounced like B in boy, but in some circumstances sounds more like V in voice. The greek bēta and the runic berkanōn look very similar.

Giƀa
means gift, and can be pronounced like G in go, or between vowels it becomes a continuant like the greek letter Γ. At the end of a word, or before an unvoiced consonant, it also becomes unvoiced, and is pronounced like the letter haǥl, which we’ll get to in a minute. You can see how this letter is derived from the uppercase Γ, not the runic gebō.

Dags means day, and is pronounced like D in day, or between vowels like the TH in mother. You can sorta see how this is derived from Δ instead of the rune dagaz, but be careful not to confuse it with an A or ans.

Next is aíƕus, which means horse, like latin equus. This vowel is always long, and is pronounced like ay in day. I personally think it’s funny that the word aíƕus does not contain the letter it represents, though it probably did in proto-germanic or early East Germanic around the time that the runes were created. This is derived from the greek letter Ε, as the runic letter looked more like the latin letter M.

Qaírþra represents the /kw/ sound like QU in english, but when transliterating gothic we only write the letter Q. This is thought to be a made-up nonsense word invented to rhyme with paírþra, although it might at one time have referred to a type of fruit tree.  The same word was used in old english for the name of the rune cweorð, which has the same phœnetic value. This looks like a lowercase U, but it’s really supposed to be an upside-down paírþra, even though it’s really an upside-down gothic letter ūrus, which looks like an N. But that’s another story. Anyway, it’s a Q; just accept it.

It is not certain what the next letter means, although the other germanic runes use words meaning elk, which would probably be algs in gothic. The gothic name of this letter may have been azēts, meaning “easy” or “light.” This is pronounced like the letter Z in zebra. It’s possible that the name of this rune was changed so that it still contained the Z sound that it represented, though some claim the name of this letter is actually iuja, which doesn’t contain anything even close to a Z. This is derived from the greek letter Ζ, and is unrelated to the runic algiz.

Hagl means hail, <[I've seen this as both "hagl" and "hagls."] and is pronounced like H when it appears at the beginning of a word; otherwise it is pronounced like CH in german “Bach.” Some would disagree with me, and say that it’s always pronounced like H, and i won’t argue with that here, but you’re wrong. This is derived from the lowercase greek letter Η (η), although its sound is definitely that of the runic hagalaz, which looks very similar to the uppercase greek letter.

Þiuþ means good and is pronounced like the unvoiced TH in thing; not like the voiced TH in this. The germanic rune is called either þurnaz, meaning thorn, or þurisaz, which is the name of a giant troll-demon. I’m guessing that Wulfilas, being a christian monk, was probably not keen on troll-demons, so the name was most likely changed accordingly. This is transliterated as the letter thorn, which is still used in faroese and icelandic, but which disappeared from english with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, since there was no german equivalent for it, and the english apparently couldn’t afford to have one made, so we all started using TH instead. Gothic doesn’t use the germanic thorn-rune either, but is instead derived from the greek letter Φ, which is even stranger, since it actually represents the same sound as Θ, which is used for a different, unrelated letter in gothic.

Eis means ice, and is always a short vowel. It is pronounced like the I in it. This is a pretty standard letter, and is the same in greek, latin, runic, and gothic. When this letter appeared at the beginning of a word or syllable, usually two dots were placed over it by gothic writers, but this isn’t usually reflected in transliteration. By the way, the two dots over a letter is not an umlaut, it’s a diæresis. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the difference here, but i promise i’ll rant about it at some point. For now, just know that an umlaut implies that it changes the sound of a letter. In fact, the word umlaut means sound shift in german. And, unlike every other germanic language, there are no vocalic sound shifts in gothic, and hence no umlauts. But i digress. 

Káuns is pronounced like K in kite or C in cat. Like some of the other letters, we’re not sure exactly what this means, ,although in some of the other germanic languages this means a sore or ulcer.. Some suggest it should actually be kusma or káunzama.  It’s pretty easy to see how this letter is derived from the greek side of things – the runic letter kaunaz or kennaz looked more like a latin letter C.. 

Laǥus means open water, a little like the word “lake,” and it is pronounced like L in lake. Laǥus can also occur by itself in a syllable, like in the word haǥl. (This is known as a syllabic.) You can see how this letter is derived from the greek letter Λ, not the runic laguz or the latin L. 

Manna means man, and is pronounced like M in man. Manna can also act as a syllabic, like in the word maíþms. It is derived frrom the greek letter Μ, although the runic letter mannaz <[or mannam?] is very similar.

Náuþs means need, and is prounounced like N in need. Náuþs can also act as a syllabic, like in the word riǥn. Náuþs was most certainly taken from the Greek Ν rather than the runic nauþiz.

Jēr means year, and has the sound of Y in year. It’s transliterated as a J, which is the Y sound in, well, most germanic languages other than english. This looks like an uppercase G, and if you’ve studied old english, this should make perfect sense to you, but otherwise just remember that it’s really more like a Y. This was probably taken from latin rather than greek or runic. 

Ūrus means aurochs, which is a sort of extinct bull. Like ans, it can be shorrt or long. When short, this is pronounced /ʊ/ like double-O in wood. When long, it is more like the double-O in food. It looks like a lower-case N, which is derived from its runic form, ūruz. In the norse rune poems, ūrus is translated as “slag” or “drizzle,” frfom the weak Proto-Germanic noun ūram instead of the strong noun ūruz that is used in gothic and old english. 

Paírþra is a dice cup, and has the sound of P in pie. This may have originally meant pear-tree.  You’ll probably recognize this letter as being derived from the greek letter Π, not the runic perþ(r)ō.

The next letter is a little tricky, and it’s not really a letter. It’s not actually used in writing – it represents the number 90. No need to memorize this one for now. 

Raiđa means cart or wagon, and is pronounced like the trilled r in italian or spanish. Like the other sonorants L, M, and N, raiđa can act as a syllabic, like in the accusative noun brōþr. This is from the runic letter raidō, not the greek Ρ. 

Saúwil means the sun, and is pronounced like S in see. This is probably derived from the runic sōwilō, possibly influenced by latin, rather than the greek Σ. 

Teiws or Tius is the name of a germanic sky-god, and is the same name from which we get the word tuesday. There is a great debate out there as to whether this is derived from the greek Τ or the runic tīwaz, or whether the runic form we know is derived from an earlier form that wasn’t pointed, that maybe only the goths used, but asided from a lot of people on the internet, no one really cares.

Winja means happiness, and is pronounced like the W in wind. Or it may have been called wunja, which means meadow.  When transliterating greek words into gothic, it is also pronounced like /y/, but we won’t really be discussing that here. It looks like a Y, but it’s really derived from the greek letter Υ, not the runic. 

Faíhu means cows, and is pronounced like F in friend. The germanic word fehu became the english word fee and the old norse word , since money was thought of in terms of how many cows you owned. This is not to be confused with the word fellow, which, contrary to popular belief, although it is derived from the same word, does not mean someone you go cow-tipping with. This is derived from the latin F or runic letter fehu, not the greek Φ, as this was already used to express the letter þiuþ

Iggws is pronounced like K. This letter was only used to transliterate greek words into gothic, so unless you’re reading the bible in gothic, you don’t really need to know this. It’s directly derived from the greek letter Χ, although it takes its name from the germanic rune ingwaz.

Ƕair is pronounced like the WH in cool whip. It means cauldron or vessel. It is derived from the greek letter Θ. No one knows why. 

Ōþal means ancestral property or inheritance, and is always a long vowel. It is pronounced like O in hope. This is derived from the runic letter ōþalaz, not from greek Ω, though they are very similar. 

The last letter, like the letter for 90, doesn’t represent any sounds, just the number 900, and also doesn’t have a name that has survived. 

Now, unfortunately, like most alphabets, just knowing the letters isn’t the end of it. Different letters behave differently in combination with others. There aren’t many of these in gothic, but there are some very important ones. 

In most languages based on the latin alphabet, the nasal velar or NG sound <[ŋ(g)] is usually represented by an N followed by a velar consonant like G or K, but in greek this was done with a G instead of an N. Wulfilas used the greek model in gothic, and so the combinations giƀa-giƀa, giƀa-káuns, and giƀa-qaírþra are nasalized, for example in the words gaggan, drigkan, and igqis. The strange thing about this is that the germanic runes actually had a letter for the NG sound – ingwaz – but Wulfilas didn’t include this in his gothic alphabet, though its name is reflected in the letter iggws.

The vowels are a bit more changeable. 

The combination of aíƕus and eis (ei) produces what is technically the long form of eis, though it was never written that way. This is one of four major diphthongs, although this is not technically a diphthong in the linguistic sense. Linguistically speaking, this does acurately represent what was previously a diphthong in IndoEuropean and maybe early Protogermanic,  but that’s completely coincidental, and this pseudodiphthong is really just wulfilas copying the greek style of the day.

Another diphthong – a true diphthong in ths case – is eis ūrus, which was probably pronounced a little like “eew,” though it may have been pronounced /y:/ in some areas. <[And yes, in those areas where i believe it may have been pronounced /y:/, it would have been a monophthong, not a diphthong. But Wulfilas still used two letter.  So meh.]

Finally, there are two diphthongs which cause a world of problems in gothic, as each of them has three separate possible pronunciations.

Ans-eis is pronounced “ai” in most cases. In transliteration this is usually indicated by an accent mark over the A. However, in other cases, it is pronounced like E in bet if the accent appears over the I. If there is no accent mark at all, either the writer was sloppy, or it is a longer version of the E sound in bed.

Ans-ūrus has rules very similar to the rules of ans-eis. An accent over the A in transliteration means it is pronounced like au in german Haus. An accent over the U, however, changes the pronunciation to /ɔ/, like the AU in caught. If there is no accent and the writer isn’t just being lazy, it is longer, like aw in saw. 

Finally, there is also a group of letters – the voiced plosives – which become unvoiced continuants in certain cases, usually at the ends of words, and most particularly verbs in the second person preterite or imperative.  In these cases, baírkan becomes faíhu, giƀa becomes haǥl, and daǥs becomes þiuþ.  This really has more to do with grammar than with the alphabet, but it’s useful to keep in mind that these letters are related, sort of how F and V are related in english in the words knife and knives. There is also a related and opposite process at work in all germanic languages known as Verner’s Law, but I’ll spare you the details of that for now.

That’s it for variations, really, and that’s not bad if you stop to think for a minute about english and things like CH, TH, SH, silent Es, long and short vowels all jumbled together, Gs that can be like in get or gel, Cs that can be like cat or ceiling, I before E and E before I, and does and does, and lead and lead, and read and read, and bow and bow, présent and presènt... I could go on all day! So learn these few simple rules and be glad you already speak english! ...unless you don’t, in which case, my condolences.

I hope you've enjoyed this first lesson of Gothic for Goths.  Please check in again for lesson two, in which we'll learn about the interrogative particle, the accusative case, and how to track down a missing pet if you're lost in Gothic territory. Thanks for watching, and if you liked this lesson, please watch the others and subscribe if you want to see more.