THE SOUNDS OF GOTHIC

The Gothic alphabet, invented by the fourth century bishop Wulfila, contains the following letters:

A B G D Ē Q Z H Þ I K L M N J U P Ч R S T W F X Ƕ Ō ↑

The letters Ч (90) and (900) are not used in writing words, and function strictly as numerals. The other letters are named and pronounced as follows:

Letter Name Meaning Pronunciation Numerical Value
A azgo ash(es) /a/ 1
B baírka birch /b/ ~ /v/ 2
G giba gift /g/ ~ /ɣ/ ~ /x/ 3
D dags day /d/ ~ /ð/ 4
Ē eiws yew /e:/ 5
Q qaírna millstone /kw/ 6
Z ezek ? /z/ 7
H hagl hail /h/ ~ /x/ 8
Þ þiuþ good /θ/ 9
I eis ice /i/ 10
K kusma sap /k/ 20
L lagus lake /l/ 30
M manna person /m/ 40
N náuþs need /n/ 50
J jēr year /j/ 60
U ūrus aurochs /u/ 70
P paírþra ? /p/ 80
R ráida wagon /r/ 100
S sauil sun /s/ 200
T Tius Tyr /t/ 300
W winja pasture /w/ 400
F faíhu cattle /f/ 500
X Iggws Yngvi /k/ 600
Ƕ ƕaír kettle /ʍ/ 700
Ō ōþal ancestral land /o:/ 800

A and U are short vowels most of the time, but occasionally are long. When pronounced as long /a:/, /u:/, they are shown in this guide with a macron: Ā, Ū.

The digraph AI has three possible pronunciations. AI written without an accent on either letter occurs before vowels and represents the long vowel sound /ε:/. occurs before H, Ƕ, R, and represents a short /ε/ sound. ÁI originally represented the old Germanic diphthong *ai, reconstructed as */aɪ/, but by Wulfilas' time had already begun to merge with the long /ε:/ sound.

A parallel system to AI exists for AU: before vowels, AU with no accent represents long /ɔ:/; before H, Ƕ, R, represents short /ɔ/, and the digraph written ÁU once stood for the diphthong /aʊ/ but subsequently merged into /ɔ:/.

When B, G, D are placed between vowels, they soften to /v/, /ɣ/, /ð/. At the end of a word, G is pronounced /x/ (B and D usually change spelling to F, Þ to reflect a similar sound change). This sound change also happens before S or T. When G occurs before K, Q, or another G, its sound changes to /ŋ/.

DDJ might be a geminated voiced palatal stop /ɟ:/. However, since it only occurs in a few words, it seems unlikely that it would have its own distinctive sound.

EI represents the long /i:/ sound. Ē was occasionally mistaken for EI by scribes, indicating that the two sounds are rather close together in tongue position and formant frequencies. The same is true of Ō and long Ū. Confusion of Ē or Ō with ÁI or ÁU is extremely uncommon, so these sets of sounds are certainly quite different from each other.

H does not "soften" other consonants; in the few words where SH occurs, it is pronounced as two distinct sounds /sh/, not **/ʃ/. H between vowels is occasionally confused with G, indicating that the letter H may stand for a "harder" sound approaching /x/, and/or might become voiced between vowels.

When I is the first letter in a word, it is written Ï with a diaeresis. There is no change in pronunciation.

L is likely a "clear" L, as is heard today in German, probably not the "dark" L of words such as English "full".

R is probably tapped or trilled. It is occasionally geminated, so the distinction of tapped vs. rolled, like what is heard today in Spanish, is a definite possibility.

W is usually a consonant, with originally the same phonetic value as it has in English, but beginning to change to /v/ by Wulfila's time. Occasionally this letter occurs as a vowel; its pronunciation in such positions is most likely a short vowel sound similar to that of the short U.

X is not used for writing native Gothic words. It is used to transliterate the Greek letter chi, as in pasxa (πάσχα, feast of passover), Xristus (Χριστός, anointed one). Since pasxa occurs in free variation with paska, we can infer the pronunciation of /k/ for X.

Accentuation

Gothic uses a stress accent, like English, as opposed to the pitch accent of Proto-Indo-European. For simple words, the accent is on the first syllable (haban, aftra, sáiwala, etc). For compounds in which the second element is a noun, the accent is on the first syllable of the compound (ga-man, ga-razna, afar-sabbatus, gistra-dagis, etc). For compounds with a verbal second element, the stress is typically on the first verb syllable (du-gann, afar-láistjan, faúra-ga-teihan, etc), but verbs with a "separable" prefix take the accent on the prefix (e.g. miþ-wisan, þaírh-arbáidjan).

The accent never changes with a change in inflection. Even long words like diupamma, bi-standáindáu, didēdeima, retain the same accented syllable as their dictionary forms (diups, bi-standan, djan).



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