Yesterday I was browsing the web, when I came across a person asking a rather interesting question that sparked my curiosity immediately.
Said question was something along the lines of:
Did the Germanic languages have the concept of «history» before it was introduced through other Romance languages, like for example French or Latin?
Upon reading this I immediately started thinking about which words we have in English that have something to do with history.
The first words that came to my mind were the obvious history and the similar word story.
The origin of these two lies in the Greek word historía, with the meanings of learning from past events and record and narrate events. Latin took it as historia and it later gave us the Old French words estoire and estorie. These were taken into the English language and eventually evolved into history and story. The first one meaning “a collection of past events” and the latter, “an account of imaginary or real events told for entertainment”.
But wait, another English word that we’ve just seen is account. That one must have Germanic origins, right? Well, no.
Account comes from the Old French acont, which comes from Latin. Here we’ve got the preposition a (to) and the verb computare, which means counting, summing up.
Right now it’s not looking good for English. There has to be at least one word of Germanic origin related to history.
Let’s try thinking about other words we use together with the above mentioned ones.
We learn history, history is written, people have history. No, none of these seem relevant. We tell stories, stories are told. Here, the verb to tell!
We tell stories and tales. The word tale comes from the Proto-Germanic *talō and it means series, narration, fable and it also gives us the verb to tell. This word opens the door to other Germanic languages with similar words, such as Taal, in Dutch, speech or language; Erzählen, in German, to tell; Vertellen, in Low German, to tell; and Tale, in Danish, speech or discourse.
If you paid close attention, you might have noticed a key difference between the Greek concept of historía and the Proto-Germanic *talō. And if you studied history you will also make an interesting connection related tot that.
The Greek concept implies some kind of preservation of the events and the act of learning from them. The Proto-Germanic concept does not convey this meaning, but rather only the meaning of narrating something.
As an interesting fact somewhat related to this, the oldest coherent text recorded in Greek is the Dipylon, dated to the late 8th century BC, and the oldest one written in a Germanic language is the translation of the New Testament in Gothic by Ulfilas, dated to the 4th century.
Staying with the English language, we can now differentiate between two different concepts of «history»: the first of Germanic origin, narrating and telling events; and a second of Greek origin, keeping record and learning from past events.
But how does this compare to other Germanic languages? Is this a mutual evolution of all Germanic languages or is English the oddball? It’s a fact that English has much more Latin influence than any other Germanic language, but we will have to dig deeper in order to come to some conclusions.
Taking a closer look at other Germanic languages and their words for history-related concepts, we can find a few more examples with different origins apart from cognates to the English word tale.
Starting off with German, the second most spoken Germanic language after English, we can find the word Geschichte. Although the word itself carries the meaning of history today, it’s origins lie in the verb Geschehen, which means to happen. Etymologically, Geschichte means something that has factually happened. The verb has kept the meaning of older words from where it evolved.
In Dutch we can find the word Geschiedenis and also Geskied in Afrikaans, both meaning happening, event.
The German word Märchen, meaning tale or fable, comes from the Germanic *mērijan, a narration, usually of imaginative facts.
The last German word I want to talk about is Sage, a legend. Apart from the fact that German has the verb Sagen, to say, the word is also a cognate to the Icelandic Saga, meaning a long story. It is also a cognate to the Old English Sagu, a saying. Going even further, the English verb to say is a cognate to the Icelandic word Saga itself.
An interesting cognate is the Norwegian (Nynorsk) word Soge. This one means history, but just like the German Geschichte, it did not mean history etymologically speaking, since Soge shares its origins with previously mentioned words, all of which are related to the act of saying.
After all of this, I think we can safely answer the question that started this etymological journey:
While the Germanic languages had words for a concept of «history», it was not the same concept that the Latin language took from the Greek and was later introduced to the Germanic languages.
The concept of «history» that the Germanic languages had was history as something to pass on in an oral way, possibly just as a form of entertainment.
Meanwhile, the concept of «history» that the Greek language had was history as something we need to keep record of and also learn from. We can basically say that the Greek understood «history» as a science.