Written by Dyami Millarson
I recently did an article on what made Proto-Germanic a succesful language. However, in what ways did Proto-Germanic ‘fail’? There is a certain cultural discontinuity between Proto-Germanic and its descendant languages, and it is not difficult to point this out: The speakers of the modern Germanic languages do not identify as ‘speakers of Germanic’ or as ‘speakers of languages descended from Proto-Germanic’. The cultural memory of the Proto-Germanic language has been lost in time for centuries, and that is why still today it has no significant place in the modern collective consciousness of the speakers of the various Germanic languages.
Germanic failed to transmit its original culture to subsequent generations, and that is why we are left to reconstruct that Germanic culture today. There are bits and pieces left here and there; the traces of that original culture are still all over the Germanic-speaking world, particularly in traditionally isolated places such as Schiermonnikoog, Hindeloopen, East Terschelling, Heligoland and Älvdalen. Much of this failed transmission has to do with the fact that Germanic religion did not survive the Middle Ages. The Germanic peoples were famously christianised (usually by the sword) and Germanic religion was supplanted. Germanic culture and religion were one and the same, and Germanic language was itself an expression of this reality of religio-cultural unity. As many have suggested, Germanic elements or characteristics were adopted/retained into the new culture/religion, but their Germanic identity/origin gradually faded from public consciousness in the Middle Ages.
Germanic culture was morphed into a new culture with Germanic characteristics. The original culture lost its continuity in the Middle Ages and had died out by the time that people became interested in the scientific study of Germanic languages and cultures. It must be pointed out, however, that Proto-Germanic language and culture had already been fragmented into various Germanic languages and cultures by the time Christianity came along. Nevertheless, these Germanic cultures stayed true to their polytheist philosophical roots and the speakers of the old Germanic languages of that time were still very much aware of their linguistic, cultural and religious affinity with each other, which was later forgotten and did not survive the Middle Ages, but has been witnessing a gradual rebirth in the last few centuries following the end of the Middle Ages. The greatest philosophical change during the Middle Ages in Northwestern Europe was the introduction of Christianity, and the Reformation set in motion gradual philosophical changes that would lead to secularisation and renewed interest in the Germanic past of Northwestern Europe. History may move in cycles, for what was once lost and forgotten may return.