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What’s with this “Wren” thing?
The oldest extant version of the fable
are presenting here appeared in 1913 in the first volume of a two-volume anthology
Saxon folktales (Plattdeutsche
Volksmärchen “Low German Folktales”)
collected by Wilhelm Wisser (1843–1935). Read
Notes of the translators
This was, for me, a most difficult enterprise. Several words are reconstructions, the most notable of which is “So wraínda” for “The Wren”. Heyne’s Gothic-German Dictionary gives us sparwa for sparrow, plus terms for crow, pigeon, and turtledove. No wren found. However, we had Old High German rento, rentilo, and Icelandic rindíll. Hence, we assume that Gothic would still have featured the e vowel as well as the d, which would have remained voiced in the Norse/Icelandic, but would have “Grimmed out” to an unvoiced t in OHG, then disappeared entirely in Old English.
We used kuni for “family” with knowledge that it was usually applied to a larger clan or tribe. We found no suitable substitute, as siþa denoted “kin, relatives”. No other term found, leaving us the impression that Goths of the 4th Century C.E. would quite possibly have used kuni as well.
This work is fraught with errors of declension, conjugation, and syntax. Perhaps Ron Hahn or Mike Szelog could clean it up? The mistakes of declension are ours, as are the errors or misapplications of verb forms. So Gothic was a highly inflected language. So who knew?
Syntax is a combo of Wulfila’s usages, heavily influenced by the Greek he spoke and wrote in everyday life, plus syntactical usages in Skeireins, which at places even appears to be a “lifting” or word-for-word dictionary translation from Greek. It reminds one a bit of modern computer translations in their present state of the art.
The good part, if I may say so, is that we came close to getting in all the good little bits and pieces devised by the great clockmaker in the Northwestern Forest, Ron Hahn.
The importance of Gothic to all of us Lowlanders is that this extinct (malheureusement) tongue was an ancestor of sorts, a great-great-great-uncle, if you will, of modern Low Saxon, Frisian, Dutch, Flemish, English, and Afrikaans.
It preceded the second sound shift, and accordingly bears more similarities to Lowlands and to Scandinavian in many respects.
It also affords us a glimpse—through a torn, withered curtain—of ancestral culture and society. For example, there were numerous words in Gothic for brave, stalwart, courageous, daring, bold, fearless, undaunted. Evidently this virtue figured heavily in gothic lives.
There was also a large and nuanced vocabulary pertinent to killing, injuring, bleeding, stabbing, decapitating, burning, wrecking (and wreaking), fighting, battling and warring. Not surprisingly, those words were accompanied by a bristling arsenal of swords, axes, halbards, knives, sabers, spears, bows, arrows, hammers and spikes.
Equally touching was the wide assortment of terms for loyalty, character, and love.
Finally, we cannot forget that, during the era around and after the decline of the Roman Empire, Goths lived in a more southerly land than our familiar, misty meadowlands and cold, damp, flat polders. Visigoths inhabited the Balkans, while Ostrogoths settled on and around the Black Sea, at the lower reaches of the Dnieper, Dniester and Don rivers. They were subject to all the influences of the region, whether climate, agriculture, or foreign cultures. In contrast to Gothic regions, having convenient access to red wines and having Turkic folks for neighbors were not features of Lowlands life until very recently.
Their last stand was apparently in the Crimea, where according to decent evidence they still spoke a descendant form of Gothic until the late 16th Century, and remnants survived possibly until the beginning of the 19th Century.
Romantics that we are, we insist that there is a deeper historical lesson to be learned from the Goths. All of us Lowlanders are committed, in various ways, to the furtherance, continuation, and preservation of our family of tongues. All of us –and we are many—have been nurtured by the distinctive sounds and expressions of a Lowlands lullaby. We cannot let our languages be politically condemned to death.
My brief attempt here at “Forensic Linguistics” was both challenging and saddening. The Goths disappeared, leaving behind no body of work, no Heliand, no Beowulf, no ciceronic oratory, not even a Domesday Book. No wealth of six-hundred year old maritime contracts such as the Hanseatic League or the Genoese left us. Only four books of the New Testament, plus a few scattered fragments of other religious writings out of the Greek. Of Crimean Gothic we have merely a handful of words plus some six or seven place names we were able to find in the southern mountains of the Crimean Peninsula.
Finally, we have a mysterious, cryptic Crimean Gothic song—a group of three lines—transcribed by a Flemish diplomat (Busbecq) in the late 16th Century. Robin Wiseman (my wife) and I are presently composing a poem/song, in English and Gothic, incorporating those lines and telling the tragic saga of Othmar, a soldier. It is being written in an older idiom, with meter and alliteration combining old Germanic with folk music from the Crimea and the Balkans. We will forward it upon completion.
I should be extremely angry if, some three or four hundred years from now, I am called upon to recreate forensically some extinct Dutch or Flemish phrases for the enjoyment of a mildly curious public whose attention span, no doubt, will be even shorter than today’s.
We have the opportunity to prevent sharing the fate of the Goths. Aan ’t werk!
Arthur A. Jones
Los Angeles/Genoa, March 14, 2005