On my previous post I touched slightly the topic on how the Catalan language borrowed some Gothic words and the phonetic evolution of these.

That led me to do some research and I was surprised about the importance of the Gothic influence on Catalan, and yet how little coverage or research there is about it. And that is why I decided to create this new series dedicated to the Gothic remnants in the Catalan language.

Gothic-style Cathedral in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia

Catalan started diverging from Latin in medieval times, between the 5th and the 6th centuries A.D. Now, something notorious was happening in the territories where the Catalan language as such was about to be born.

Taking advantage of the decline of the Roman Empire the Visigoths started to invade and occupy the area that we now know as Catalonia. Previously to that Latin had been the language spoken in the area but now the Visigoth invasion was starting to lay a Gothic superstratum on it, shaping a future new language.

With this a new spoken variant of Latin was starting to arise among the populus. This variant was developing further apart from Latin and would eventually give us the first literary examples of the language in the 9th century.

The terms Catalunya and Català (Catalonia & Catalan, respectively) would not be used until much, much later, though. The first documentations of the name Catalunya date from the 12th century.

Its origins are not fully clear although it’s commonly theorised it derives from Gotholàndia (Gothland). It is actually documented how the Franks would actually use the term Gothia or Gothica (Gothland) when referring to what would eventually become Catalonia.

Catalan remains a Romace language at its core but due to the great linguistic importance of the Gothic language in its development, Catalan obviously stands out in the family.

From its vocabulary, to its periphrastic past tense, to the lack of ending vowel sounds and the devoicing of ending consonants – Catalan is certainly unique among other Romance languages, even among those geographically located in nearby areas.

In today’s post we’re going to go through some vocabulary, more specifically the GUE/GUI words.

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After long and exhaustive research, I can say with confidence that most Catalan words whose root starts with GUE- / GUI- are of Gothic or Germanic origin, including given names.

After noticing the coincidence in a few words, I started building the hypothesis. Then I took a Catalan dictionary and started going through all words with GUE- or GUI- in their stem and checked their ethymological history. My hypothesis was proven right after the great majority of nouns turned out to be of Gothic or Germanic origin.

For this procedure I mainly recurred to Dictionari.cat, the Wiktionary, the Insitut d’Estudis Catalans (or IEC, the Institute of Catalan Studies) dictionary, the Glosbe dictionary and the Gothic Online Dictionary.

We will first take a look at some examples and their etymology, and then we will touch on my theory on the phonological evolution of said words.

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The following is a table showing some Catalan words and their meaning, the original Gothic/Germanic word and its meaning, and cognates in modern Germanic languages.

CatalanEnglishOriginMeaningExample of Cognate
guerxcrookedOld High German:
dwerah, twerh
crookedGerman: Überzwerch (across)
guiarto guideGothic:
widan
to join, to follow, to guideEnglish: guide
guióscript
guionetdash (-)
guisamanner, wayGothic:
weisa
manner, wayGerman: Weise (way, manner)
guisarto cook
guineufoxgiven name of Germanic origin:
Winihild
cunning / sly/
guillafoxgiven name of Germanic origin:
Wisila / Wihsila
sly / traitor/
guit, -dasaid of an animal that kicks a lotGothic:
wists
being, creatureGerman: Wesen (being)
guitzaannoyance / animal kick
Guillemgiven nameGermanic name:
Willahelm
desire, protectionEnglish: William
Guim
Guimeràgiven nameGermanic name:
Wigmar (accusative: *Wigmarane)
//

The following table shows all the the exceptions to the rule I could find, that is, words that do not originate from Gothic. Derivatives, demonyms and more modern words shared among many languages (e.g. guitarra, guillotina) are omitted, no matter their origins.

CatalanEnglishOriginComments
guinyarwinkuncertain originThe phonetic similarity with the English wink is worth noting.
guepardLeopardItalian:
Gattopardo
/
guixchalkLatin:
gypsu
/
guirigallconfusionprobably an onomatopoeia/

It is important to note that linguistic resources regarding Gothic are not abundant, due to it being a dead language and its main learning source being a translation of the Bible does limit the vocabulary we have access to.

Resources about the etymology of some words in Catalan are also difficult to come by, although I could find whether a term originated from a Germanic root or a Latin one quite easily, thanks to the websites aforementioned. Understanding which Germanic language Catalan borrowed certain words from was another story, sadly.

With that said, it could be possible that many words of “Germanic origin” were actually borrowed from Gothic.

On Cognate of the Week: Treva / Tree / True I wrote a bit about the phonetic evolution of the GU- digraph and I theorised how it might have influenced the pronunciation of the GUE / GUI graphemes.

After going through some words with said graphemes and their etymologies, we can now come to some conclusions.

It is very easy to see how all examples we’ve seen above seem to have taken the W grapheme and turned it into a GU, and this is extremely interesting, phonetically speaking. Let me explain.

GU before E / I is pronounced [ɣ] whereas the W from Gothic would have been pronounced [w] most probably.

The phoneme [w] actually occurs quite seldomly in Catalan, and where it does occur, it is usually preceded by another consonant sound. Some examples are quan [kwan] (when) or quatre [‘kwatrə] (four). The only word with a pure [w] would be, arguably, aigua [‘ajwə] (water), though the G might sometimes be pronounced resulting in [‘ajɣwə].

With this observation in mind it’s relatively safe to deduce that [w] might not be a natural/easy development for the language, thus speakers of the tongue being prone to using similar-sounding phonemes as substitution.

With the existence of the GU/QU + A/O grapheme groups to represent the sound clusters [(ɣ)w] / [kw] + A/O, it would be natural to assume their usage, more fittingly that of the former, when it comes to replacing the difficult to pronunce [w] sound.

For one, I do believe this is the case – words like weisa, believed to be pronounced [‘wi:sa], might have been adapted into guisa with the intention of keeping an approximate pronunciation such as [‘(ɣ)wisə] for an easier pronunciation.

weisa [‘wi:sa] → guisa [‘(ɣ)wisə] → guisa [‘ɣizə]

However, the digraph GU before E/I used to represent both [ɣ] and [(ɣ)w] might have at one point merged into a single one, [ɣ].

Now, in today’s Catalan, in order to represent a [(ɣ)w] sound preceding a E/I sound one must use a diaeresis U or Ü:

aigua [‘aj(ɣ)wə] (water) → aigües [‘aj(ɣ)wəs] (waters)

Looking at old literary documents in Old Catalan – specifically the Homilies d’Organyà (12th century), a cover for the magazine Tirant lo Blanc (1511) and L’Espill by Jaume Roig (1460) – the lack of diaeresis and accents stands out.

This leads me to believe, the use of Ü was most probably not a thing when the words we are discussing were first introduced by the Visigoths.

This reinforces the theory that GU + E/I had probably both pronunciations of [(ɣ)w] and [ɣ] at one point in time but later merged into a single one.

And with that I’m going to end today’s entry for this new series, but before saying goodbye allow me to list the key points we talked about today:

→ A big amount of Catalan words whose stem begins with GUE/GUI are of Gothic / Germanic origin.
→ These words were originally pronounced [w] but eventually evolved into [(ɣ)w] for a more easy pronunciation. This was reflected in the graphemes GUE/GUI.
→ This led to GU before E/I to have two distinct pronunciations at the same time: [(ɣ)w] for words that originated from Gothic with a [w] sound, and [ɣ] for the others.
→ Due to the way these graphemes were used, the phonemes merged at one point into [ɣ] and kept the spelling.

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Doing my research for this post has been very difficult due to the lack of information online as I mentioned above at one point, nonetheless it has been incredibly fun and exciting. I loved learning about the Catalan language and how the Gothic language helped shape it as a language, and I am looking forward to bringing more entries to this new series.

This post and any further additions to the series will be listed on the Post Overview page, under the section Languages in Depth.

Germanic History

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