Let them eat *turta!

An etymological investigation into the tarts and torts concerning Proto-Romance *turta “loaf, piece of bread”

Roman bread

In Old French tarte “pastry” and torte “round bread” stand next to eachother from the 13th c. CE onwards. Probably via French these terms made their way into Modern English as tart, into Modern Dutch as taart (< MidDu. tarte) and into Modern German as torte[1]. Despite their tastiness the words have proven notoriously difficult to etymologize (see REW 8802 and 8890, and Bloch 1932: 333-34).

Both lexemes are often[2] derived from Rom. *torta pane “rolled or bent bread” (cf. Lat. torquēre “to twist, to roll, to bend”) as found in the vulgata translation of the bible (ca. 420 CE) where torta panis  glosses Gk. ἄρτος “bread” (Exodus 29 : 23, I Chronic. 16 : 3, Jeremias 37 : 21).  However, the sentences in the vulgata always read tortam panis or torta panis, in which panis is a genitive to torta, probably in order to render the meaning “a loaf of bread”. If the bread itself was bent or rolled we would expect torta to be an adjective agreeing with the noun. Since Latin panis (gen. panis) is neuter and all the reflexes of Rom. *torta in the daughter languages are masculine we cannot account for the feminine gender of *torta. Furthermore, phonologically a connection to Lat. torquēre does not fit since all languages seem to point to PRom. *turta which is clear from the cognates. In the East-Romance dialects we find Rum. turtă “cake,” Vegliot. turta “vier aneinander hängende kleine Broten,” who continue PRom. *turta unchanged. PRom. *turta regularly developed into Western Romance *torta as found in OFr. torte, tourte “pain de forme ronde” (cf. ModFr. tourte “pastry” [turt]) and ModIt. torta “cake” (see REW 8802). A derivate from Lat. torquēre on the other hand would have yielded WRom. *tɔrta (cp. ModFr. tordre [tɔrdrə] “to twist,” ModFr. tort “blame, mistake” [tɔrt]). Therefore it is clear that OFr. torte, tourte and its cognates in the other Romance sister dialects cannot be derived from Lat. torquēre.

Also the earliest attestation of the word on the 2nd c. CE Vindolanda tablets reads turtas (Tab.Vind. II 120.80,[3] for the interpretation see Adams 2009: 611). After that we encounter the word in the Byzantine chronicle of Theophanes (ca. 320 CE) as τουρτίον, pl. τουρτία “loaf of bread” (see Matthews 2009: 191). The ου spelling shows that the donor word had [u] as root vocalism at the time of the loan. A few centuries later on the continent we find turtam glossing collyridam “pastry roll, cake” in the 9th c. Reichenau glosses. Here the u is in all likelihood an orthographical representation for what must have been [o] already. Since the Reichenau glosses are very informative in relating to us lexical items from the colloquial registers of Romance (which in this period had already evolved into Old French) we may safely see in it a confirmation that the word turta/torta was commonly used in 9th c. Francia.

Two questions arise. What is the origin of PRom. *turta and how do we explain the variants that must go back to Rom. *tarta? To my mind we should allow the possibilty that the word does not have its origins in Latin, which would explain its relatively late attestation.

Since the word is first attested on the British isles it seems more than fair to start our search there. In Middle Welsh we find the word torth “loaf of bread, hump of bread” (see Bevon and Donovon 2001: 6014[4]) which has often been taken as a loan from Rom. *torta. However, the word might be connected to Middle Irish tort, toirt “heap, mass” which stands alongside Middle Irish tort, gen. torte f. “loaf of bread” (Bondarenko 2012: column 262[5]). All these forms can be traced back to Insular Celtic *turtā. Both in Welsh and Irish the *u would get raised to *o under influence of the following *ā. We should note that Middle Welsh quite regularly shifts *o before resonant + consonant clusters to *a in Latin loanwords, e.g. MidW parchell “piglet” < Lat. porcellus and MidW carrai “strap” < BritRom. *kɔrria < Lat. *corrigia (Morris Jones 1913: 87). If the word was really a loan from Latin or British Romance we would have expected a variant Middle Welsh **tarth next to torth. This strengthens our case for a Celtic origin for PRom. *turta.

Insular Celtic *turtā could then have entered British Romance from whence it may have spread all over the Romance dialect continuum. It is also possible a Gaulish cognate *turtā, formally identical to the Insular Celtic proto-forms, provided the donor word. In either way the semantics would then have moved from “hump, piece” to “hump of bread” and then finally “bread.” This development is paralleled in Germanic where OE bread “brit, crumb, morsel” < *breuđ-[6]  (cp. OHG brodi “fragile”) shifts its semantics to ME bread “bread,” supplanting earlier OE hlāf “bread.’ If we assume that PRom. *turta was loaned from a Celtic form from the British isles or Gaul and spread across the Romance dialect continuum, it must have reached East-Romance and Greek before the restructuring of the vowel system. We must remember that the Roman Empire in the heydays of the late principate and early dominate still constituted a cosmopolitan world in which goods, people and cultures quickly spread across the breadth of the Roman world.

                The variant Rom. *tarta can be found in ModFr. tarte “cake” and  ModSp. tarta “cake” alongside forms that must continue Rom. *tartara “cake” (ModIt. tartara “almond cake”, Comask. tártara “cake from milk, eggs and sugar” see REW 8590). Rom. *tartara looks like the feminine form of *tartaro meaning “wine stone” as found in ModSp. tártaro “id.” and ModFr. tairtre “id.” but its connection to the word “cake” is semantically very difficult. The connection between Rom. *tarta and *torta however is obvious. Nevertheless the vacillation in root vocalism prevents us from equating the etyma. To my mind we should take contamination with an etymon of Greek origin into account. The Greek word in question would then be the above mentioned Gk. ἄρτος “bread” which made its way to Western Romance as evidenced by Old Spanish artal “especie de empanada” and Basque arto “bread” (see Beekes 2009: 143). In combination with a preceding demonstrative resegmentation of the lexeme may have occurred, i.e. Rom. *est’ arto → *tarto (cp. OFr. icorne “unicorn” → l’icorne → ModFr. licorne, see Alkire 2010: 304-05) . This word would have easily taken its place alongside Rom. *torta “loaf of bread.”

Peter Alexander Kerkhof


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

Adams, J. N., The regional diversification of Latin 200 BC – 600 AD (Cambridge 2007).

Bevan, Gareth A. et P. J. Donovan, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru LVII (Cardiff 2001).

Bondarenko, Maxim Fomin Grigory, electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (2002).

Bloch, Oscar, Dictionnaire Étymologique de la langue Française (Paris 1932).

Matthews, John Frederick, The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business, and Daily Life in the Roman East (Yale 1999).

Meyer-Lübke, Romanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Sammlung romanischer  Elementar und Handbücher III (Heidelberg 1911).

Morris Jones, J, a Welsh Grammar: Historical and Comparative (Oxford 1913).

[1] In ModDu. we also find ModDu. toert which must derive from OFr. tort, tourte.

[2] For the common etymology, see etymologiebank.nl which comprises the lemmata of the main etymological dictionaries of Dutch or etymonline.com which contains information from the main etymological dictionaries of English.

[3] An edition of the tablet may be found via this link: http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/4DLink2/4DACTION/WebRequestQuery

[4] A compressed version of the dictionary can be found on: http://www.wales.ac.uk/dictionary/pdf/GPC0018-10.pdf

[6] Verner-variant OE breað “brittle” < *breuþ-)

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