Crimean Gothic

Crimean Gothic

Crimean Gothic was a Germanic dialect spoken by the Crimean Goths in some isolated locations in Crimea (now in Ukraine) until the late 18th century.

The existence of a Germanic dialect in the Crimea is attested in a number of sources from the 9th century to the 18th century. However, only a single source provides any details of the language itself: a letter by the Flemish ambassador Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, dated 1562 and first published in 1589, gives a list of some eighty words and a song supposedly in the language.

Busbecq's information is problematic in a number of ways: his informants were not unimpeachable (one was a Greek speaker who knew Crimean Gothic as a second language, the other a Goth who had abandoned his native language in favour of Greek); there is the possibility that Busbecq's transcription was influenced by his own Flemish tongue; there are undoubted misprints in the printed text, which is our only source.

Nonetheless, much of the vocabulary cited by Busbecq is unmistakably Germanic and was recognised by him as such:

  • Apel "apple" (cf. Dutch appel, Swedish (vild-)apel, äpple)
  • Handa "hand" (cf. Swedish hand)
  • Schuuester "sister" (cf. German Schwester, Swedish syster)
  • Hus "house" (cf. German Haus, Dutch huis, Swedish hus)
  • Reghen "rain" (cf. Dutch and German regen, Swedish regn)
  • Singhen "sing" (cf. Swedish sjunga)
  • Geen "go" (cf. German gehen, Dutch gaan, Swedish )

Busbecq also cites a number of words which he did not recognise but which we know have Germanic cognates:

  • ano "chicken" (cf. English hen, German ''Hahn')
  • malthata "said" (cf. Old English maþelode, Old Swedish (tungo-)mål)

While the initial identification of this language as "Gothic" probably rests on ethnological rather than linguistic grounds - that is, the speakers were identified as Goths therefore the language must be Gothic - it shares a number distinctive phonological developments with the Gothic of Ulfilas's Bible. For example, the word ada "egg" (Swedish ägg) shows the typical Gothic "strengthening" of Proto-Germanic *-jj- into -ddj- (as in Ulfilian Gothic iddja "went" from PGmc. *ejjon), being from Proto-Germanic *ajja-.

There are also examples of features preserved in Crimean Gothic and Biblical Gothic but which have undergone changes in West and North Germanic. For example, both Crimean Gothic and Biblical Gothic preserve Germanic /z/ as a sibilant, while it became /r/ in all other Germanic dialects.

However, there are problems in assuming that Crimean Gothic represents simply a later stage in the development of the Gothic attested in Ulfilas' Bible. Some innovations in Biblical Gothic are not found in Crimean Gothic, for example:

  • Crimean Gothic preserves Germanic /e/, whereas in Biblical Gothic it has become /i/, e.g. Crimean Gothic reghen, suuester, Biblical Gothic rign, swister
  • Crimean Gothic preserves Germanic /u/ before /r/ whereas Biblical Gothic has /au/, e.g. Crimean Gothic vvurt, Biblical Gothic waurþi.

However, there are also similarities with developments in West Germanic, such as the change of /þ/ to a stop seen in Crimean Gothic tria (cf. Biblical Gothic þriu). Several historical accounts mention the similarity to Low German and the intelligibility of Crimean Gothic to German speakers.

There are two alternative solutions:

  1. Crimean Gothic presents a separate branch of East Germanic, distinct from Ulfilas' Gothic.
  2. Crimean Gothic is descended from the dialect of West Germanic settlers who migrated to the Crimea in the early middle ages and whose language was subsequently influenced by Gothic.

Both of these were first suggested in the 19th century and are most recently argued by Stearns and Grønvik, respectively. While there is no consensus on a definitive solution to this problem, it is accepted that Crimean Gothic is not a descendant of Biblical Gothic.

The song quoted by Busbecq is less obviously Germanic and has proved impossible to interpret definitively. There is no consensus as to whether it is in fact Crimean Gothic.


  • MacDonald Stearns, Crimean Gothic. Analysis and Etymology of the Corpus, Saratoga 1978. Includes Latin text of Busbecq's report and English translation.
  • MacDonald Stearns, "Das Krimgotische". In: Heinrich Beck (ed.), Germanische Rest- und Trümmersprachen, Berlin/New York 1989, 175-194.
  • Ottar Grønvik, Die dialektgeographische Stellung des Krimgotischen und die krimgotische cantilena, Oslo 1983.

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