Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Germanic Europe?

In its recent update of its admixture analysis program (which is still in the process of being rolled out), Ancestry seems to have started using the term "Germanic Europe" in reference to certain parts of western and central Europe. I take special note of the fact that Ancestry's "Germanic Europe" does not include Scandinavia and the UK, as these are given as separate categories. This means that Ancestry's usage of the term "Germanic" is in fact incorrect, since "Germanic" is neither a geographical nor a genetic term but a linguistic one, and both English and the Scandinavian languages belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Germanic does not mean the same as German. Indeed, in many (perhaps most) other European languages, the two words don't even look alike. The Norwegian word for "German" is tysk, while the word for "Germanic" is germansk. In German itself, it is deutsch and germanisch; and in French, it is allemand and germanique. English is one of the few languages where "German" and "Germanic" can be confused with each other. The fact that Ancestry does mix these concepts up, reveals the company's fundamentally Anglocentric outlook on the world. It is not really surprising that they have such an outlook, considering that Ancestry is a US-based company catering primarily to English-speaking customers, but this does not excuse their sloppy grasp of basic ethnolinguistic terminology.

In addition to the problems surrounding the terminology itself, I also find it very problematic to talk about "Germanic" Europe in relation to a genetic cluster which almost certainly also encompasses speakers of non-Germanic languages (Romance, Slavic, and, at least in older times, Celtic languages). As all genetic genealogists and admixture enthusiasts should know by now, languages have no inherent connection with DNA, and any correlation between genetic heritage and linguistic heritage is just that - a correlation, not a causal relationship. History is full of examples of individuals and groups abandoning a language and taking on another, either willingly or under pressure from external circumstances: Conquering tribes, long-distance trade, being a numerical minority, etc.

In my opinion, Ancestry should scrap the label "Germanic Europe" and give the cluster a better name. I personally like FTDNA's "West and Central Europe" label, which illustrates the interconnectedness of the peoples inhabiting the western and central parts of Europe. Since Ancestry has "France" as a separate category, perhaps they could use the name "Germany" for the residual category. Yes, this cluster encompasses areas outside modern Germany, but in this respect, the "Germany" label would be no more or less accurate than "France", and it would certainly be more accurate than "Germanic Europe".

Update: Thanks to Mr D. Bennett for pointing out that the English word "Germanic" does have the additional secondary meaning of "having characteristics of or attributed to Germans or Germany". The word does not have this meaning in the Norwegian (except perhaps in somewhat archaic usage), nor, as far as I know, in any of the other languages I have mentioned in this article. The fact that "Germanic" has such different meanings and connotations in different languages is interesting in itself, and shows the need for caution in the naming of admixture clusters in order to reduce the risk of misunderstandings.

I look forward to seeing the new update fully rolled out, so we can read Ancestry's reasoning behind choosing the name "Germanic Europe".

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