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October 8, 2004

The lost language of Gothic

by Kevin Brown

Using scientific investigation and deductive reasoning, James Dow may be able to verify the 20th century use of a language thought to have died in the 1600s. Or not.

Dow, a professor of foreign languages and literatures, has located an 848-page research paper written in 1951 by Bruno Schweizer, a linguist and mapper of languages who worked with the German Nazi SS (abbreviation of "Schutzstaffel" meaning "Defense Corps"). The paper may document the last spoken vestiges of Gothic, one of four main branches of East Germanic languages.

Dow also located 200 minutes of tape made on an old Magnetaphone (a large tape recording device used in the 1940s) that is the only known recording of the spoken language. The tapes were reformatted to CD for research use. The tapes were made in the village of Giazza (Italy), a village known to speak the most ancient Germanic language in the region.

"The tape recordings had wild fluctuations in current because of the mountainous terrain so they would speed up and slow down," Dow said of the sound engineering work to convert the tapes. "There was also a lot of background noise -- doors opening, people talking. To clean up the work means working on the tapes in 20-second segments."

Together, the paper and CDs provide a base of grammar and language that will allow Dow to compare traits of the known Gothic language (provided by a literal translation made of the Bible in the fourth century AD) to the language spoken by the residents of just a few isolated hamlets in Italy's Northern Alps. The comparison will show if the language is a variety of Gothic or a hybrid of the Germanic languages spoken in the area for generations. Hitler ceded this area to Italy in 1939.

"These people, the Kimbern, originally moved from Denmark around 100 BC to the south and into central Europe," Dow said. "Some went as far as North Africa. According to legend, these people were not annihilated by the Romans, as we read in historical documents, but fled into the mountains and have lived in the high Alpine valleys ever since."

"Only about two dozen people in the world were aware of Schweizer's research paper -- and fewer yet knew about the tapes," Dow said. "I knew of the tapes because I had worked with a researcher who had recordings of folksongs of the Alps, made with the same Magnetaphone. It definitely is Germanic and definitely has some aspects of the Gothic language. I'm still investigating if it is Gothic. The chances are a million to one."

Groups in the South Tyrol region of Italy, the wealthy tourist state that includes one of the isolated Alpine villages, are interested in Dow's research. A publishing company there is negotiating for rights to a book he is writing. He has a meeting in January 2005 to discuss his research in Bremen, Germany.

Dow was made aware of these secluded mountain communities because of his research of German and Austrian folklore (Volkskunde).

Nazi use of local culture

Dow's academic research has focused on using the scholarship of linguistics, history, geography, folklore and archeology to study how the Nazis used traditional German and Austrian folklore to further the political agenda of the National Socialist (Nazi) ideology.

For example, a 1933 re-enactment of a Germanic tribe's traditional first harvest festival, circa 1400 BC, included references and stylized representations of the Swastika to seemingly document a "cultural continuity."

In another example, the Nazis offered an ancient decoration, the "sun wheel" symbol, as proof of the purity and continuity of the Swastika and the Aryan race.

Dow has chronicled the Nazi revisions to folklore in his books The Nazification of an Academic Discipline, Folklore and Fascism, and the German book Volkische Wissenschaft.

In April 2004, he published yet another work, The Study of European Ethnology in Austria. That book examines how ethnology was viewed in Austria before, during and after World War II. It includes the role of racist educational communities in redefining Austrian mythology.

"The Germans wanted to be able to document 'cultural continuity,'" Dow said. "They wanted to demonstrate a consistent heritage and strength.

"Some academicians were opportunistic, while others just went along with National Socialism," Dow said. "But there is no mistaking that no one, regardless of education, escaped National Socialism totally."

German bibliographer

Dow also is internationally recognized as a bibliographer. He has documented folklorists in Germany, Austria and the United States in two major series including the Internationale Volkskundliche Bibliographie (International Folklore Bibliography) and as section head of the folklore volume of the Modern Languages Association International Bibliography, a standard research reference tool for the humanities.

Dow also has done extensive fieldwork with two German-speaking communities in Iowa: the Amana Colonists and the Old Order Amish of Kalona. His publications focus on folk art and on the preaching of the Amish.

Dow said he traces his academic interest to a German teacher he moved to study with when a young man in Mississippi.

"I was one of two white students who studied with this German teacher at an otherwise all African American school (Tougaloo College)," Dow said. "I heard about him and I wanted to learn from him."


James Dow has located a research paper that may document the last spoken vestiges of Gothic, one of the four main branches of East Germanic languages. Photo by Bob Elbert.