Before and between Violin and Fiddle

Etymological inquiry into the origin of ModDutch viool and vedel[1] 

Since my native language is Dutch my interest in the etymology of specific words often but not always starts with a simple inquiry into my native idiom. This was also the case when I wondered about the etymology of Modern Dutch viool “violin”, which is of course related to ModE violin and ModFr viole. The direct etymology of the word is to be found in Middle French viole which itself goes back to Old Provencal viola / viula. The source for this OProv. viula is without a doubt Medieval Latin vitula or vidula “stringed instrument, lyre”, but here things get problematic. What is the origin of MLat vitula / vidula? The Latin word is first attested in the eleventh century (MLat vidula) and attempts to connect it with vītulāri “to exult, be joyfull” on the one hand and fidēs / fǐdǐcǔla “stringed instrument” on the other are not without difficulty.

Latin fidēs and its diminutive fǐdǐcǔla are often assumed to originate in a mediterannean substratum language that also yielded Greek σφίδες “tripe fit for cookery”. The Medieval Latin /-t-/ in vitula should then be considered a Romance confusion of voiced and voiceless intervocal obstruents, which seems to be unlikely for a twelfth century attestation. The verb vītulāri seems to be derived from the name of the godess Vitula or Vitellia, who is the godess of joy, so this verb also doesn´t give us a solid etymology for vitula[2].

The modern French word vielle, by most historians of music erroneously thrown at the same etymological heap as ModFr viole and ModE fiddle, is plausibly derived from fǐdǐcǔla, assuming that Romance /e/ < Lat /ǐ/ in this case merged with /ɛ/ that could diphtongize to //. That ModFr vielle does not share the same origin as ModFr viole is clear from the OFr /-ʎ-/ that must come from a palatalized /-kl-/, cf. ModFr abeille “bee” < Lat. APICULA and ModFr caille “quail”< Lat. QUACULA.

When it comes to the origin of Medieval Latin vitula / vidula it seems therefore reasonable to look for that other major source of Medieval Latin idiom, namely the Germanic languages, a solution that was preferred by amongst others Warthburg and Bloch in their Dictionnaire Etymologique du Français. Here we encounter a family of words which is often assumed to have their origin in just that Medieval Latin word vitula, to which the ModDutch word vedel “medieval string instrument” and ModE fiddle belong. This instrument presumably possessed three to five strings and was initially plucked (Johnston 2011: 522). From the 10th c. onwards the bow became current in western Europe (see Woodfield 1984: 9) and the OHG fidula could also be bowed as evidenced by the late OHG gloss viedelstaf “fiddlestick” (Oxford Bodleian Library, Junius 83, f.63r).  The earliest attestation of the ancestor of these Germanic words is to be found in Otfrid of Weissenburg’s Evangelienbuch as fidula.

Otfrid’s Evangelienbuch, V 23, 197-201

Sih thar ouh ál ruarit thaz órgana fuarit
Líra joh fídula joh mánagfaltu suégala
Hárpha joh rótta joh thaz io gúates dohta
Thes mannes múat noh io giwúag thar ist es álles ginuag
There everything is moved By what the organ produces
Lyre and fiddle And many kinds of flutes
Harps and rotes And everything deemed good
which man’s mind always retained There there was enough of that all

The attestation of OHG fidula in the context of this fragment implies that the OHG fidula showed a closer ressemblence to the lira than to the rotta, which were both stringed instruments as well, since the instruments were probably paired for their similar likeness. Otfrid’s Evangelary also argues in favour of regarding OHG fidula as the older form, since it cites OHG fidula next to  OHG swegala “flute”, which precludes confusion of vowels in unstressed syllables. The word fidula  is also attested in a tenth century manuscript (Ro Pal. Lat. 1517) as fidala, glossing fidia for fidicula (confusion with tibia?) in the work of the late antique poet Prudence. However, when one looks at the vernacular glosses it should be noted that fidala and its younger reflexes do not only gloss fidicula, but also tibia “flute” and the nomen agentis fidulāri glosses tibicen “flute-player”. The identification as a string instrument is therefore not certain from the Old High German glosses. In Old English however the identification as fidicula is more certain since OE fiðelere and fiðelestre do gloss Latin fidicen “lyre-player, someone who plays a string instrument”.

The Old Gmc. comparanda can be analyzed in several ways. OE fiðele may point to PE *fiþælu < PGmc. *fiþalō or PE *fiþulu < PGmc. *fiþulō, agreeing with OHG fidula / fidala.[3] OIc. fiðla can go back to PGmc. *fiþlō, but also*fiþulō/*fiþalō. The nature of the suffix variation is as of yet unexplained and has been the main subject of my MA-thesis. To go into it here would not do justice to the complications and nuances of the phenomenon and its explanations and exceed the aim of this post. Suffice it to say that the Gmc. comparanda in the case of our etymon may be explained by PGmc. *fiþlōn .

If one insists on seeking the origin of the Old Germanic words in Medieval Latin vitula / vidula, one is confronted with the very late attestion of vidula (two centuries later than the first OHG attestations!) and, more importantly, the perplexing presence of Gmc /-þ-/ for Latin /-t-/ or /-d-/. My preferred solution concerns onomatopaeic formations which are amongst others to be found in the Romance languages themselves. Here we find quite some words concerning music and sound that have a sound imitative origin, e.g. Provencal piular “to bemoan, to yell”, miular “to cry” and *fiular “to whistle”. The Dizionario Etimologico della lingua Italiana doesnt it hold it unthinkable that the origin of OProv. viola / viula must be sought in a formation originally meaning “lo strumento che va viu” (an instrument that makes a viu-sound). For the plausibility of a sound imitative origin for Gmc *fiþlōn one should also note the etymology of ModGerm geige “violin”, which is the modern reflex of MHG gīge, derived from the verb gīgen “to make the sound gīg”.[4]

In the same way a Germanic sound imitative root *fi- could have acquired an instrumental suffix *-þlōn or, a root PGmc. *fiþ- an instrumental suffix *-n (litterally denoting “an instrument that makes a fi(ð)-sound”), compare Germanic *pīpana (cf. ModDu pijpen / piepen) as a sound imitative verb which gave rise to the nomen agentis *pīp-āri. Something similar was proposed by Van Wijk who insisted on a Germanic formation going back to the PIE root *piH-. This PIE *piH- would also be present in OCS piskati “to pipe” < PSl. *pīskātī, OCS pojǫ, pĕti “to sing” and Toch.B. pīyaṃ []). To this root the PIE instrumental suffix *-tlo/*-tleh2 may have been suffixed, i.e. PIE *píHtlo-/*píHtleh2 >> *fiþla-/*fiþlō with secondary short vocalism, either by laryngeal metathesis or by analogy to the PGmc. *ī/i-ablaut that goes back to PIE *ei/i.. Then OIc. fiðla would reflect the original PIE formation.

Assuming a Germanic origin for the ancestor of ModE fiddle and ModDu vedel, it becomes plausible that Medieval Latin vidula was loaned from Germanic instead of the other way around, the sound substition of */-ð-/ for /-t-/ or /-d-/ being quite common; early /-ð-/ was first romanized as /-t-/, cf. OFrnk. *friþu- > Gallo-Roman fretum, but later developed into Romance /-ð-/ before subsequently disappearing. Naturally, also Germanic /-ð-/ was romanized as /-ð-/ before disappearing, cf. OFrnk. *laðo > OFr. laon “board” and *flaðo > OFr. flaon “specific cake” (cf. ModDu vlade /vlaai).

Concerning the etymology of ModDu viool we could start from Gmc *fiþlōn > OFrnk *fiþula > Gallo-Roman fitula > vidula <viðula> > OProv. viula > MidFrench viole > EModDu viole. The initial Romance /v-/ could have arisen from lenition caused by the article, cf. una  fitula > una viðula, for intervocalic /-f-/ went through Romance /-v-/ as evidenced by OFr. Estievene < STEFANU and ravene < RAFANU. Another solution would be to assume a somewhat later loan from the north of Gaul where dialects of Franconian were still spoken untill around the early ninth century, for Franconian developed /f-/ into /v-/ as evidenced by Franconian gloss material and e.g. the tenth century property list of the bishopsee Utrecht (known in Dutch as het Utrechtse goederenregister), cf. Velepan, Velesan, Vrando. A Franconian loan seems, however, overly complicated and an internal Romance development is to be preferred. The direct Germanic development could be illustrated by Gmc *fiþn > OFrnk. *fiþula > OLFrnk. *vidala > MidDu vedel(e). This in it’s turn would be the reason why we have the pairs fiddle / violin in English and vedel / viool in Dutch.   


Alkire, Ti and Carol Rosen, Romance languages; a historical introduction (Cambridge, 2010).

Beekes, Etymological dictionary of Greek, 2 vols (Leiden 2009).

Bourciez, Edouard, précis historique de phonetique française,  nouvelle collection a l’usage

des classes III (Lille 1921).

Cortelazzo, Manlio et Paolo Zolli, Dizionario Etimologico della lingua Italiana (Bologna 2004).

Gamillscheg, Ernst, Romania germanica. (Berlin:1970).

Greimas, A. J. Dictionnaire de l’ancien français; jusqu’au milieu du XIVe siècle (Larousse, 1989).

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Vaan de, M., An etymological dictionary of Latin (Leiden 2008).

Zink, Gaston, phonétique historique du français (Paris, 1986).

[1] This article has been edited a few months after it was first published.

[2] the variation vitula and vidula is caused by Romance lenition, compare the Kassel Glosses in giving fidelli in stead of vitelli “calves”.

[3] OHG fidala may also be a later variant of OHG fidula with weaking of old u to a in unstressed syllables.

[4] For the MHG meaning, cp. Strassburger Alexander 210 “sîn meister lartin die seiten zihen, daʒ alle tône dar inne gigen”. That MHG gīgen also meant “the sound that fiddles make” is clearly illustrated in Der Trojaner Krieg by Konrad von Würzburg (13thc. CE) 3211: “daʒ man guote noten gîget ûf alten videlen”.

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