The adjective “Germanic” originated among eighteenth-century philologists as a way of referring to the West Indo-European language group that produced modern-day German and English, as well as the Scandinavian, Celtic, Slavic, Italic, and Greek language families. It is a designation imposed from the outside, and thus corresponds neither to any self-determined denomination nor does it reflect any provable consciousness of a common Germanic identity among early northern European peoples. As recent studies of early medieval ethnogenesis have argued, without a uniform identity-consciousness among the speakers of the Germanic dialects, the denomination “Germanic” can be considered nothing other than a mere scientific convention However, if one speaks about the Middle Ages, one can only do so badly without it. This essay traces the history of the term “Germanic” and discusses ways in which it might be re-defined in a manner more useful for current scholarship.
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