21 May 2010

R. A. Lafferty and the Semitic Germans of 300 BC

The Science Fiction School of History

One of my favorite history books is The Fall of Rome by R. A. Lafferty, who was better known for his science fiction writing. I am not sure about his science fiction, but when such a creative imagination was turned loose on the declining years of the Roman Empire and the career of Alaric the Goth, the results were spectacular. The odd thing is, Lafftery really knew the ancient sources and created an image of a living, breathing world with complex characters whose lives made no concessions to our 19th century notions of how it really was. Any historian of the period worth their salt could probably pick holes in his story, but I learned a lot about history, and a lot more about the disciplined, informed historical imagination from this book. [for some big chunks of it, check here]

One of the odder notions that he put into the book was the idea that the Balti, the leading clan of the Visigoths, were not originally from Germania but were aliens to northern Europe. He makes the cryptic statement that the noble house had come from a strange land hundreds of years earlier and they remembered Rome. If I recall rightly after 40 years the italics were in the original. Nowhere in the text does he explain this but on the map on the inside of the book cover there is a note showing Carthaginians coming to the coast of Germania, right about at the foot of the Danish peninsula.

An interesting but wild idea, backed up by nothing I have always thought.

Then I read a book by the linguist John McWhorter called Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. In the last chapter he points out that proto-Germanic, the ancestor of Norse, English, German, Dutch and Gothic, is like no other version of Proto-Indo-European found in Europe. It has some very odd features (e.g. all proto-Indo-European p's become f's as pater ---> father). McWhorter, whose specialty is the formation of creoles, believes that these oddities are typical of a language, such as Proto-Indo European, that had been picked up by a number of people speaking an entirely different type of language. He then suggests that the specific oddities of proto-Germanic would be explained by contact with a Semitic language. At first you scoff, then you read his examples and you begin to wonder.

But what Semitic languages would be out on the North Sea coast near the Danish-German border in around 300 BC? Well, Phoenician. Which as Punic was the language of Carthage.

So now I am curious: just where did Lafferty come up with this particular idea, a half century ago.

his day job was working as an electrical engineer, Mr Sobrino.


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