On Rainbows, sex change and marrying a sky god

Relations of Pre-Islamic Berber fertility conceptions with Indo-European mythology 

The appearance of a rainbow in the sky has fired mans imagination to many mythical beliefs. For example, the medieval Scandinavians believed the gods walked across the mythical rainbow bifrǫst (PGmc. < *biƀarastō “trembling road”), which they conceived of as a road to heaven guarded from the giants by the god Heimdall.[1] Folk beliefs surrounding rainbows have proven remarkably resilient to the monoculturizing aspirations of christianity and islam. In premodern Europe, many sub-christian conceptions about the nature of rainbows survived the prescriptivism of the church. The conception concerning a pot of gold falling to the individual who makes it to the end of the rainbow is still widely known, even nowadays in 21st century Europe. Other conceptions have withered; Grimm reported that in 18th c. Serbia people attributed gender changing powers to rainbows, every boy was turned into a girl when he passed under a rainbow (Grimm 1875: 610).[2]

Also in Maghrib Africa some non-Islamic conceptions have survived the cultural steamroller of an institutionalized monotheistic religion, in this case Islam. In Morocco the rainbow is an omen signalling happiness and the much desired rains (Becker 2003: 111). In Middle Atlas Berber the word for rainbow is Tisəlit n-unẓar [3], which means “the bride of the rain” (mariée de la pluie), In Maghrebi Arabic we find ʿārūs s-sḥāb, ʿāṛūst əs-sta (Rabat), l-əʿṛōsa d-əš-šta (Northern Ibala area), laʿṛūsa dyāl əš-šta and ʿāṛūst əs-sma (Cherchell Algeria)“bride of the heaven,” which are all calques from Berber (Behnstedt 2010: 416).[4] The rainbow simultaneously symbolizes the fertility of women and the fertility of the land, with the interrelationship reinforced by female rainmaking rituals. The name “bride of the rain” may originally have been connected to the colourfulness of Berber bridal gowns and the other way around living Berber tradition connects the colourfulness of the wedding dresses with the colours of the rainbow.

However, another connection might be proposed. In ancient Greece the rainbow was called ἶρις, (gen. ἶριδος), a word that could also mean the halo of the moon.[5] The Greeks also believed that rainbows signified coming rain. The deification of the rainbow as the goddess Ἶρις, the divine offspring of Thaumas and Elektra, is therefore interesting since our rainbow goddess is married to Ζέφυρος, the god of the favourable west wind and the foreboder of spring and good weather[6]. Even when Ζέφυρος is called stormy (Gk. δυσαής) and noisy (Gk. κελαδεινός), he fulfills the favourable role of kindling Patroklos’ pyre (Illias II, 200-220). That the word Ζέφυρος may have been connected to primitive Greek conceptions of fertility is suggested by its etymology. The most accepted etymology connects the word to the PIE root *h3i̯ebh“futuere” (cf. Skt. yábhati “copulate”), which is plausible provided we accept the soundlaw PIE *Hi̯- > Gk. *ζ-, i.e. PIE *h3i̯ebh-u-ros > Gk. ζέφυρος (Beekes 2009: 499). We may therefore interpret the theonym as originally alluding to the virility of the West Wind.

In ancient Rome the rainbow was also associated with coming rains, although the rainbow itself was not deified and was simply called arcus caelestis. A bawdy scene in Plautus’ Curculio relates the Roman belief that rainbows sucked up terrestrial waters that later came down in the form of rain, which is confirmed by later Roman authors like Plinius (Arnott 1995: 191). The Romans also believed that rainbows signified the blessing of Juno, a goddess associated with fertility rites (e.g. the lupercalia), indicating a similar connection between rainbows and fertility as in North Africa.

What I am hinting at is the possibility that the mythological “marriage” of rainbows as omens of rain and fertility with a personification of “virile, masculine weather” may have been a shared conception on either side of the Mediterranean. We may note that Ἶρις as the rainbow goddess was clad in an extremely colourful dress for the colours of her dress matched the colours of the rainbow (Parisinou 2005: 34). The same analogy is made of the rainbow and wedding dresses in Berber culture[7]. That the conception of the rainbow as such might be more wide-spread is also suggested by the 18th c. Bavarian folk belief that a deity identified by the farmers as the virgin Mary brings fertile rains (Quitzman 1860: 132). Interestingly this female deity, who might be identified as the Germanic goddess *siƀō (OIc. sif) does so, clad in a colourfull dress who’s seam is perceived by the mortals as a rainbow.

In Scandinavian mythology the goddess Sif, goddess of fertile rains, is married to the thunder god Þor. Here we find the same pairing of “raingoddess” with “virile weather” or even “virile sky god”. In this regard we should also note that the ancient Aryans attributed the rainbow to the god Indra, the dyaus pitar (father of the sky). Although this evidence might suggest an Indo-European basis for the “marriage” between “rainbows” and “sky gods” we might also be dealing with a mythological motive that is not exclusive to any part of the world. A good illustration of the “universality” of the motive can be found accross the Atlantic where the Iroquois guardian of heaven, Hino “the thunderer”, is said to be married to the rainbow. Nevertheless, the Berber image of the rainbow as “the bride of the rain(god)” might very well have originated in the Indo-European cultural sphere, having crossed the Mediterranean as so many cultural items have.


Arnott, Geoffrey W., “The opening of Plautus’ Curculio: Comic business and mime”, in: Plautus und die Tradition des Stegreifspiels, Lore Benz e.a. eds. (Tübingen 1995) 185-192.

Becker, Cynthia, “Gender, Identity and Morroccan weddings”, in: Wedding dress across cultures, Helen Bradly Foster et Donald Clay Johnson eds. (Oxford 2003)

Beekes, Robert S.P., Etymological dictionary of Greek, 2 vols, Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series 10/1-2 (Leiden 2009).

Behnstedt, Peter et Manfred Woidich, Wortatlas der Arabische Dialekte; band I: Mensch, Natur, Flora und Fauna (Leiden 2010).

Grimm, Jacob, Deutsche Mythologie (Berlin 1875-77).

Lee, Raymond L. et Alistair B. Fraser, The Rainbow Bridge; rainbows in art, myth and science (Pennsylvania 2001).

Parisinou, Eva, “Brightness Personified; light and divine image in ancient Greece” in: Personification in the Greek world; from antiquity to Byzantium, Emma Stafford et Judith Herrin eds. (London 2005) 29-44.

Quitzman, Anton, Die heidnische Religion der Baiuwaren; erster faktischer Beweis für die Abstammung dieses Volkes (Heidelberg 1860).

[1] On the other side of the globe, the aborigines of Australia believe the rainbow is a manifestation of a bisexual (or female) rainbow serpent.

[2] Apparently this belief was widespread in European cultures, not only found in Serbia but also in the folklores of Early Modern France, Germany, Albania (Lee et Frasier 2001). In the north of Olténie people apparently believed that anyone who hopped under a rainbow was granted a sex change. (see Handbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens II 753).

[3] The rainbow is also called taməġra n-wuššən in Tamazight which means “the wedding of the jackal”.

[4] See Behnstedt 2004.

[5] Gk. ἶρις (< PGk. *ϝιρις) is often etymologically connected to the PIE root *u̯eh1i- “to bend” and can formally be compared with OIc. vírr “twisted ornament”.

[6] In Roman mythology the attribution of favourable weather to the god of the west wind is also clear from its name, i.e. favonius.

[7] However, the image of the rainbow as a woman clad in colourful cloths is not restricted to the mediterranean. The Arab poet Ibn al-Rūmi (869 CE) who lived and worked in Bagdad also likenes the rainbow as a maiden clothed in a gaily-coloured dress.

Peter Alexander Kerkhof, MA

In 2008 when I started this weblog I was still working on my BA in History at Leiden University specializing in the Early Middle Ages and their vernacular literatures. At the Leiden institute of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics I had the opportunity and privilege to follow introductory and advanced courses in many of the medieval vernaculars. Ancient cultures, Ancient languages, Ancient history. I am very passionate about all of them.

I named the weblog “wanana sculun Frankon” after the famous Old High German exhortation of Otfrid of Weissenburg in his 9th c. versified Liber Evangeliorum (Liber I, Cap. I 33-34): wánana sculun Fránkon, éinon thaz biwánkon, ni sie in frénkisgon bigínnen, sie gotes lób singen (Vollmann-Profe 1987: 36-37). We could translate this in Modern English as: Why should the Franks be the only ones to hesitate to begin to sing the praises of god in the Frankish language.

I chose this Old High German verse as the title for my blog because I wanted to write about the interdisciplinary field between Medieval studies and historical linguistics. In Early Medieval studies the vernaculars are grossly undervalued at the moment. This is due to severe revisionism of the twentieth century paradigm of Barbarian peoples and states on the part of the historians, while most historical linguists working with Early Medieval languages and cultures still succesfully use the paradigm in their inquiries into Early Medieval culture. This is why the title wanana sculun Frankon seemed strangely appropriate for voicing my concerns regarding the divide between the disciplines.

After my BA in History I chose to do a MA in Comparative Indo-European Linguistics, because there were so many cool old languages to be learned. I specialized in Indo-European word formation and the historical phonology of the western Indo-European languages. This summer I finished my MA in Comparative Linguistics Cum Laude with a MA-thesis entitled Suffix variation in the PGmc. l-suffixes and the ablaut of the PIE l-stems which was graded with a 9/10 mark. My supervisors suggested expanding this research into a PhD-thesis encompassing the PIE l-formations by and large, work on which I can hopefully start next year. When I have integrated the main critiques of my supervisors in my thesis, I will put it on Academia.edu for those of you who might want to read it.You can find me at: http://leidenuniv.academia.edu/PeterAlexanderKerkhof.

What will I be doing now? This year I will mainly be preparing my PhD-research for the PhD-position next year, hopefully publish some of my research in academic journals and start writing a non-academic book about the languages in the Early Middle Ages.

This is also a good moment to think about what I want with this blog. In the past years I have posted articles on various subjects, from translations of Ossetic Nart sagas, North-East-Caucasian etymologies to musings on Romance sound laws and the usual Early Medieval stuff. I want to continue doing this, making this blog an academic outlet for my ideas on Comparative Linguistics, Old Germanistics and Medieval studies. Right now I am getting some introductory notes into Proto-Semitic from a friend who is now doing a PhD in comparative Semititic linguistics and I am being taught about the history of the Berber languages by a friend who is doing a Phd in comparative Berber linguistics (visit his weblog at http://orientalberber.wordpress.com/about/). I might also try to expand my knowledge of Japanese, so my linguistics articles may more often cross the boundaries of the Indo-European language family than my readers might be used to. Because I write these posts in my spare time and the articles are not always carefully proofread, typo’s may slip in. If you find them, be so kind to point out these typo’s so I can correct the article. If you have questions, remarks or just feel the urge to respond to my articles, please do so. Everybody loves a good discussion.

Kind regards,

Peter Alexander Kerkhof

PS. Because weblog.leidenuniv has changed the weblog editor from B2evolution to WordPress the layout of my old articles has been ruined. I will try to repair them in the coming months. Hang on!

A 7th century Rap Battle between Bishops

The correspondence of Frodebert and Importun as a Merovingian verbal duel


 Since the information age has permeated all aspects of Western society and everyone of us may be startled anytime by a text message arriving on our mobile phones,  it may be hard for us, 21st century scholars, to imagine a world where the written word was solely used as a complement to the spoken word. Despite recent scholarship focusing mainly on the traces of literacy the Merovingian Age has left us, no one shall contest that the Early Middle Ages were a place where the spoken word held prominence and society was predominantly illiterate.

Government in Merovingian Gaul depended on Frankish warlords ruling ruthless war bands who dominated a  countryside littered with late antique latifundiae and towns. In the towns the Merovingian church upheld the ruined vestiges of Roman bureaucracy, a bureaucracy the warlords gladly used to affirm their power. While the Roman Empire had perished these warlords still minted Roman-style coins and levied Roman taxes. The model of government these Early Medieval princes aspired to was a conflation of the ideal of Germanic martial nobility with models of authority indebted to Late Antiquity. Nevertheless, the true heir of Classical Rome was the Roman Church who inherited the administrative infrastructure and literacy of the Late Principate. Since the use of the written word was the prerogative and the profession of the clergy most of the documents that have reached us from the Merovingian age are deeply religious in wording and outlook. This may be why Bruno Krusch (1905), the famous editor of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, called the curious correspondence between the bishops Frodebertus and Importunus “das wahrste Denkmal der ganzen Merowingerzeit”.

The text

Surviving in an early ninth-century manuscript (BN lat. 4627) together with multiple Merovingian formulae (epistolary models) the correspondence is one of the more peculiar monuments of Merovingian literacy. The antagonists are Frodebert (Old Frankish personal name *Hrōþiberχt) who was bishop of Tours from 653 to 674 CE and bishop Importun who was bishop of Paris from 664 to 666 CE. Judging on the episcopacies of the two bishops the correspondence can be dated to the period between 664 CE to 666 CE. The most conspicuous feature of the correspondence is its ludicrous content. What initially may be taken as a serious written complaint from one bishop to another about a faulty grain delivery quickly escalates into a fierce polemic where vulgarities aren’t shunned. Alternately the two bishops make accusations to eachother and denounce the accusations of the other party. In this regard we should note that the text has come down to us in an orthography that is significantly influenced by Romance vernacular features and uses an idiom which draws amply from colloquial registers. Modern editions were drafted by Zeumer (1886) and Walstra (1962) but recently Danuta Shanzer (2010) reedited the text in her article “The tale of Frodebert’s tail” (2010).

The content

For convenience purposes I will use Walstra´s numbering of the fragments and Shanzer´s allotment of authors to the fragments. Shanzer summarizes the contents of which I wil give an abridged version.

1 Frod. Frodebert complains about the quality of a grain shipment that Importun send to a convent of nuns that fall under the jurisdiction of Tours. No good bread can be made from it and Importun is invited to try it. Sarcasm abounds in the first letter.
2 Import. Importun repudiates the accusation and starts accusing Frodebert of abducting and seducing the wife of Grimoald, the Neustrian maiordomus. There they did not read scripture but…(lacuna). Frodebert was born in a monastery.
3 Import. Importun asserts that Frodebert is unworthy of his rang as bishop and does the devil’s work. Furthermore he accuses Frodebert of being unjustly manumitted,                fornication with all kinds of women and extortion of his nuns. By his long tail (penis), -is it long enough?-, Frodebert is encouraged to castrate himself.
4 Frod. Old Testament allusion to Proverbs by repeating Solomon that no one should be                 foolish enough to respond to a fool. Frodebert calls Importun a falsator, a susurro and a murro. Importun forgets that Frodebert helped and raised him. Frodebert swears that Importun is a liar and a bracco (Old Frankish *brakkō “dog”) in the manger, unbefitting of a baro (Old Frankish *barō “free man, warrior”).
5 Import. This part adresses domnae sanctae (nuns?) who are urged not to believe the lies. Liars resemble fures, murones and susurrones. The fox is more cowardly than a dog since he shows his tails, but hides his face, unable to face a dog. He grabs the hoopoe but not the swallow. He eats excrement and lies like an irishman. The domnae should not believe Frodebert.

Genre and function of the text

Shanzer subjects the text, its contents and its background to a thorough investigation highlighting the carnivalesque nature of the argumentation and the rhyme. She concludes her article by speculating that the correspondence might have been part of a public perfomance conducted at “some seventh-century Feast of Fools” (Shanzer 2010: 395). To my mind she hits the nail on the head and the dialogue should be intepreted as constituting a verbal duel meant for public display in the urbanity of some Merovingian town. In this regard comparison with similar verbal duels in other cultures might illucidate the dynamic of the dialogue. Shanzer herself remarks in a footnote (2010: 393, ftn. 63) that a connection to the Germanic flyting might be considered, but deems it to speculative. Instead she looks for ties with the Patristic writings of Jerome which are just as speculative but connect better to her field of research as a Latinist.

The Germanic flyting

The flyting is a Germanic verbal duel that was part of the interaction between warriors in the mead hall. This practice is reflected in Old Germanic literature, most notably in the Old Icelandic saga’s and the Old English Beowulf poem which was shown by Clover in her article “the Unferþ episode” (Clover 1980). A flyting consists of boast and insults in wich threats, curses and vows can also be used. Favourite insults pertained to acts of cowardice, dishonouring relatives and sexual irregularities, the latter catergory constituting a field of sexual defamation called níðr in Old Icelandic. These contests of wit can be seen as the verbal equivalent of a martial duel and are also characterized as such (Old Icelandic bregdask með orðum) but are not to be understood as a prelude to actual violence. Rather they constitute a battlefield on their own. We might see these verbal duels as form of performative anger or cathartic expressions of agression that strengthens and protects the community by containing and redirecting anger, fear and conflict (Brown 2002: 166).

The dynamic of a flyting consists of a claim from the one part, a concession from the accused party and a subsequent counterclaim. Interesting here is that the facts are not discussed since they are presumed to be known to the audience. Rather the interpretation of the facts is subject of discussion. The outcome was expected to be peacefull with the victorious party accruing honour and reknown from the occasion and the losing party defamed and supposedly holding his or her tongue. That this was not always the case is clear from the Old Icelandic saga material in which the losing party may seek immediate redress for the defeat and resort to actual violence. Unfortunately the role of the audience during the verbal duel is unknown to us from the Old Germanic material, eventhough at times it may have been crucial to the dynamic of the flyting and a verbal duel cannot be properly evaluated without it.

The parallels with the correspondence between Frodebert and Importun are clear. Sexual defamation and cowardice are central themes in the repertory of insults and serious accusations are made to either party. Interesting is that the accusations aren’t conceded as in the Germanic flyting but rather the credibility of the accusing party is called in question by adducing further defamatory anecdotes. There are further deviations from the Germanic flyting model, namely the use of formal (ecclesiastical) epithets and formula’s, the allusion to scripture and the invocation of God, which may be attributed to the urban christian culture of the Gallo-Frankish towns. On the other hand, cursing with the devil and eternal damnation is also to be found in the Old Icelandic saga material.  Furthermore, the audience seems to hold an important place in the verbal duel between Frodebert and Importun since they are adressed directly in Import. 5, where in the Old Icelandic saga’s they are largely left out of the debate. Although this Gallo-Frankish verbal duel may originally be indebted to native Frankish flyting practice, it is clear that it evolved into a more christianized form adapted to the urban culture of its public. We should also note that the content of the Gallo-Frankish verbal duel is less serious than its Germanic counterpart. We know that the insulsts used are punishable by law and the sarcasm points to a mocking battle of wits rather than to a dead serious verbal equivalent of actual sword play.

Verbal duels in general

The rhyming prose in which the fragments are written point to oral poetic delivery comparable to the modern Afro-American “dozen” or even a “rap-battle”. This is also corroborated by the text itself in which Frodebert accuses Importun to “sing” (psallat) like a fox in a snare (trappa < Old Frankish *trappō). Verbal duels are to be found all over the globe. We may cite Valentina Pagliai’s definition of a verbal duel in her 2009 article on the subject: “[verbal duels are] a genre of argumentative language that entails exchanges between two persons, parties or chracters that challenge each other to a perfomative display of verbal skillfulness in front of an audience. […] In verbal dueling there is a stress on the performance, the display and the search for a public witnessing. At the same time, in verbal duels there is also a heightening of the poetic dimension.” (Pagliai 2009: 63). In her article she cites parallels from modern societies, i.e. modern day Tuscany, Ghana, Yemen, Nigeria, Guyana, Indonesia and Turkey. It is very well conceibable that Merovingian society also knew a form the “verbal duel”, to be performed at public occasions, an example of which by chance has made its way into written form. We may wonder whether the antagonists of the dialogue are also the performers of the verbal duel. The Merovingian episcopacy was a religo-political office with great religious and military authority and the exchange of such severe insults in an ordinary context would generally have been reason for feud and open warfare. Nevertheless, since the Old Icelandic evidence shows us that also kings could engage in flytings we should hold the possibility open that the in royal aula such a performative duel could be condoned and was actually part of court life. This would better explain why the verbal duel was written down in epistolary form than assuming it was part of satirical reenactment by commoners at a Merovingian carnival. It would explain the strange admixture of colloquial phrasings and learned formulas. To my mind scholars of Merovingian society focus too much on the christian context and thereby do not escape the tone of the discourse used by the writers of the sources.

Literary background

Shanzer’s fixation on the literary background is, to my mind, way off target when we are approaching a text reflecting oral perfomance. Interestingly enough she does acknowledge the colloquiality of the text when considering the specific insults that are used, since they are to be found in the Pactus Legis Salicae in the chapter that stipulates the compensation tariffs for dishonouring insults (de convitiis). When it comes to the animal metaphors however she does favour parallels in Patristic writings. Although her presumed models for these animal metaphors may be vaguely discerned in Jerome’s homelitic works the whole point of using animal metaphors is that they are based on the physical and behavioural traits of the animals in question and are therefore necessarily universal. The fragment in question is numbered “5 indiculus” and likenes Frodebert to a fox and its characteristics; he barks, moves by way of frivolous jumps, is shy, runs away from humans, and eats hoopoes instead of swallows. Shanzer argues that there is a Patristic model for the use of the hoopoe in the text since the Classical traditions that surround the hoopoe depict it as a unclean and dirty bird. She specifically points to Jerome’s work Adversus Iovinianum where the bird refers to unchaste nuns. This, according to Shanzer, would connect to the allegations of promiscuity uttered earlier in the text. However, arguing for such a connection may just as well be overanalysis. The hoopoe is also associated with excrement and filthiness (cp. ModDu. (dial.) schijtlijster) in northern European folk tradition and the use of the animal in the metaphor depicts the hoopoe as the prey of the fox while the swallow remains out of reach. Since the hoopoe forages on the ground while the swallow is air bound the metaphor may just refer to the fox opportunistic hunting habits and therefore lack of strength and bravery.

Romance features

Furthermore Shanzer fails to appreciate the orality of the text itself, namely the vernacular traits of the text that she attributes to the manuscript tradition. Haadsma and Nuchelmans (1963) in their “précis de latin vulgaire” show that the orthography, idiom and syntax are severely “romanized”. The Romance features include lenition of medial stops, loss of distinctive vowel length, reorganization of the verbal system, confusion of unstressed vowels, confusion of cases and adoption of Frankish lexic into Romance colloquial registers. To illustrate the rhyme, the tone of the duel and the Romance syntax I will cite several parts.


Latin Translation
1. frodebert (4-5)  
estimasti nos iam vicina You thought that we, while near
morte de fame perire was death, would die from hunger
quando talem annona such grain
voluisti largire[1] you wanted to offer from largesse
nec ad pretium Nor at a price
nec ad donum Nor as a gift
non cupimus tale anona Do we want such grain
3. Importun (1-2)  
Domno meo frodeberto To my lord Frodebert
Sine deo nec sancto Without god, neither holy
Nec episcopo nec seculare clerico Nor a bishop, nor a secular cleric
Ubi regnat antiquus hominum inimicus Who is possessed by the devil
4. Frodebert (26-29)  
non simulas tuo patre You don’t resemble your father
vere nec tua matre Nor your mother
non gaudeas de dentes Don’t rejoice in your teeth
deformas tuos parentes you dishonour your parents
ad tua falsatura Such falsehood
talis decet corona Befits such a crown

For a glimpse of how Romanized the grammar and phonology is I refer to Haadsma and Nuchelmans who have annotated a fair part of the text (Haadsma and Nuchelmans 1963: 118-122).


In short, what we have reflected in the atrabilious correspondence between the bishops Frodebert and Importun was in all likelihood a verbal duel between two bishops, premeditated and stylized in epistolary form, meant for oral perfomance at a mid 7th c. Merovingian monastery with a female convent as public. Such a poetic verbal duel does not only has parallels in the Old Germanic flyting but also in contemporary verbal duels in cultures accros the globe. ɔ


Clover, Carol J.

1980            “The Germanic Context of the Unferþ episode” Speculum 55. 444-468.

Shanzer, Danuta

2010        “The tale of Frodebert’s tail” in: Coloquial and Literary Latin, Eleanor Dickey et Anna Chahoud eds. 376-405.

Paliai, Valentina

2009      “The art of dueling with words: toward a new understanding of verbal duels across the world” Oral Tradition 24/1. 61-88.

[1] Largire instead of largiri

meeting the Goths

Gothic society and Greek hagiography

The late-antique Germanic tribe known as the Goths is of particular interest to Indo-Europeanists, since their language is attested in a fourth century bible translation that forms the first substantial attestation of an early Germanic language. Every student of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics in Leiden probably took the course “historical grammar of Gothic” or will do so at one time or another during his studies. Unfortunately only a really short introduction to Gothic culture is provided for the first year students. Therefore I want to discuss a major source for the culture of the fourth century Goths, the Goths in the time of Wulfila’s bible translation. This specific text is a hagiography, in this case a passio or μαρτύριον (this genre records the martyring of a saint or blessed person) written about a Goth called Saba, who was martyred during a persecution of the christian faith under the reign of Athanaricus (Gothic: Aþnareiks). However, before continuing with discussing this text I will provide the general linguists reading this article with a short introduction to who these Goths were and why they are awesome.

                Tacitus in his Germania  is one of the first classical writers to inform us of a tribe called the Gotones (Germ. 44: Trans Lugios Gotones regnantur), who lived on the Baltic shores and belonged to the Germanic sphere of influence. In the third century, people confederations, who probably in one way or another were related to the Gutones of the first century, had migrated south to central Europe were they laid waste to whatever part of the Roman limes that was ill defended, their first recorded incursion dating back to 278 CE. Living on the edge of the Roman Empire a substantial romanization of the Gothic military took place and in the course of the fourth century Arian Christianity reached the Gothic realms. In the second half of the fourth century, however, Altaic armies dominated by a people called “the Huns” poured into in East and Central Europe, pushing the Gothic confederations into Roman territory. In 370 CE the blue Danube river must have been filled with the white sails of thousands of ships when the Goths crossed the border. Maltreatment by Roman officials however, led to a Gothic revolt and the Goths went to war with the Romans once again. In 374 CE at Adrianople an Alano-Gothic army led by the warlords Fritigern (Gothic: Friþareiks), Alatheus (Gothic: Alaþewaz) and Saphrac (Alanic *saw-rag “black back”) brought about the utter destruction of the Roman army led by the Roman emperor Valens.

After the Roman defeat the Gothic peoples were on the move and wanted better lands and better guarantees that their people would be safe within Rome’s borders. A period of alternating between open warfare with Rome and fighting as Roman foederati, i.e. allies of Rome, ensued, eventually leading to the epic sack of Rome by king Alaric I in 410 AD, a story which would make a great Hollywood movie. A Gothic federation known as the Visigoths eventually moved to the south of France and Spain and founded a Visigothic kingdom there. Another Gothic federation known as the Ostrogoths conquered Italy in the late fifth century and established an Ostrogothic kingdom. The Ostrogothic king Theodericus (Gothic: Þiudareiks) became a figure of legend in the Early and High Middle Ages, being mentioned in Old English, Old High German, Middle High German, Middle Dutch and Old Icelandic literature. It is probably also at the court of Theoderic that the Codex Argenteus, the main manuscript containing the Gothic bible translations, was produced.

The text I want to discuss is called Μαρτύριον τοῦ ἁγίου Σάβα τοῦ Γότθου “the passion of St. Saba the Goth,” written in the late 4th c. CE. This text was written as letter by the Church in Gothia to Basil, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, when the Christian Goths sended the body of Saba to that province. They wanted to inform the Church of Cappadocia why this man was to be considered holy and how he died. The text is written in a literary and liturgical form, with numerous references to the Passion of st. Polycarp and the Greek New Testament. Saba was killed on a thursday, 12th of april, 372 CE, during the persecution of christians started by king Athanaric in 369 CE.

Why did Athanaric persecute the christians?  Probably because he wanted to strengthen the tribal religion and therewith the sacral bonds between the clans. We should note that allegiance and loyalty in Germanic society was dependent on sacral oaths, which were considered holy and had a religious dimension. Correct religion was therefore crucial to the adhesion of the confederation. Furthermore, Germanic kings played a crucial role in delegating the “grace” of the gods to their peoples, so guaranteeing proper worship was guaranteeing the prosperity of the people. Athanaric also wanted to get rid of Roman influence in Gothic society. We should not forget that the Christian church of the 4th c. CE was heavily entrenched in Roman society and Roman church leaders were important political agents. Since christian communities in Gothia were in direct contact with Roman church leaders, Athanaric and other Gothic leaders feared that the loyalty of these christians was to be suspected and that the christians might be more sympathetic to the Roman empire than to the Gothic authorities.

The Passion  is especially instructive as to how Gothic villages interacted with the Gothic supratribal authorities and how the persecutions were enacted on the microlevel. The passion distinguishes different phases of the persecution. Gothic nobles (μεγιστᾶνες) who visited the village of Saba went looking for christians and the villagers decided that the best way to prove there were no christians in their village was to let everyone eat sacrificial meat consecrated to the pagan gods. Saba’s fellow villagers are not too keen to have Saba get executed and go to considerable lengths to protect him, first in substituting the sacrificial meat with unconsecrated meat, later in swearing that there were no christians in the village (this is significant for perjury (*mainaiþaz) was a religious sin). But Saba, being the stubborn devote christian that he was, of course revealed himself in all occasions and insisted that they should persecute him. Too bad for Saba, even the Gothic nobles did not want to execute him and merely banished him from the village. But Saba’s obstinancy knew no bounds and, one way or another, he had to get martyred. So he returned to his village in order to celebrate Easter with a priest called Sansalas (Alanic name?) when a tribal leader called Atharidus (*Aþalrīdaz?), the son of king Rothesteus (*hrōþisþewaz?), was visiting. Saba got arrested and got tortured. Torturing plays a very important role in Passions so the hagiographer is very specific about it. Atharidus and his warrriors drive Saba naked through a thicket of burned bushes, beated him with flogs and scourges,  tied him to the axles of a wagon and broke his bones and to finish it up, they flogged him once again. At several moments Saba gets the change to eat from the sacrificial meat and end his plight, but of course he refuses. Eventually Atharidus’ warriors took him to the river Musaios (possibly the Buzaǔ) to drown him. But even these warriors do not want to kill him and decide to let him go. Saba refuses to be released and insist the warriors do their duty: “τί ματαιολογεῖτε καὶ οὐ ποιεῖτε τὸ προστεταγμένον ὑμῖν” (“why do you talk idlely and not do what you are told to!”) After a lot of begging, the warriors do their duty and drown him in the river, Saba finally having achieved the martyrdom he so desparately craved.

 Why is this text monument important? Because it is the only contemporary description of Gothic society before it got Romanized, for later descriptions of Gothic society come from 6th and 7th c.  Latinate texts, which are aimed at the elite. Detrimental to the historian’s wish to be informed about paganism in Gothic society, Early Medieval Latinate hagiographies often have no interest whatsoever in describing heathen rituals. The Passion of Saba, fortunately does describe the dinner ritual, although not in too much detail. It also indicates that Athanaric’s persecution does not only stem from political fears but may also come from genuine royal concern for the religion of the people. We hear one of the Gothic officials say to Saba when he refuses the meat: “ταῦτα Ἀθάριδος ἐκέλευσεν ὑμῖν κομισθῆναι, ἵνα φάγητε καὶ ῥύσησθε ἐκ θάνατου τὰς ψυχάς ὑμῶν” (“Atharidus ordered these things to be brought for you, so that you may eat and save your souls from death”) Another thing we should be grateful for is that the Passion clearly shows the hierarchy in Gothic society; the war leader Athanaric at the top has ordered the persecution and tribal chiefs like Atharidus and Rothesteus are responsable for enacting the persecution. They would send nobles (μεγιστᾶνες) to oversee the heathen ceremonies in the villages. To sum it up, the Passion of st. Saba the Goth is the most important source for Germanic society in late antiquity for it describes in considerable detail the persecution of christians in Gothic society at the microlevel of an agrarian village. These were the people who actually listened to Wulfila’s bible translation and spoke the Gothic that has come down to us.



Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic wars (Cambridge 2007)

E. A., Thompson, The visigoths in the time of Ulfila (Oxford 1966).

Peter J. Heather and John Matthews, The Goths of the fourth century (Liverpool 1991).

Delehaye, H., “Passio S. Sabae Gothi, in: Saints de Thrace et de Mésie, an. bol. 31 (1912)

Parisian Conversations

A linguist look into Carolingian everyday life


The Parisian Conversations are probably the most enigmatic piece of Old High German literature that ever came down to us. What we have preserved in them is an actual and unique picture of the Carolingian day-to-day. Vernacular renderings of conversations in which people greet each other, laugh together and insult each other. The Parisian Conversation may have originated in a Early Medieval travelguide of sorts intended for Romance speaking clergymen traveling to the Franconian speaking east. It is almost as if we can see the people who uttered these sentences a thousand years ago standing on some withered Roman road, the cobble stones green with moss for the lack of maintenance, a hot wind blowing through the trees and the reed roofs of large farmhouses laying hazily in the background. A historian’s dream come true!

Strangely, however, the importance of the Parisian conversations is mostly overlooked by historians of Carolingian culture (even nowadays). Their linguistic and philological value on the other hand have been acknowledged by Old Germanicists from the nineteenth century onwards. The glosses were written down by a Romance speaking clerc, who learned Old High German as a second language and possibly heard the sentences somewhere during his travels. The “Latin” sentences that the Old High German was supposed to gloss can hardly be called Latin anymore, and is better understood as colloquial Proto-Romance. A good reminder to the historian that the clergymen writing our manuscripts did not “live” in a Latin world, they lived in a vernacular world and spoke to eachother using the Romance or the Germanic vernacular.

The sentences are concatenations of spoken language heavily influenced by the way the Romance scribe pronounced Old High German, naturally with Romance dialect features. The copyist who subsequently copied the text into the manuscript that we nowadays posses probably didn’t know any Old High German and corrupted parts of the text by making transcription errors and wrong word divisions. But still, the fact that we have an actual specimen of original non-poetic spoken Old High German makes the Parisian conversations a very valuable text for linguists.

 But not only the specialized linguist or philologist will enjoy the content of the Parisian Conversations. The vulgar and bawdy nature of quite some parts of the text make for a good laugh and a fun read. It seems very likely that some conversations were only written down for their humorous nature in the first place. In this article I want to present you a scandalous collection of sentences from the Parisian Conversations, which may together constitute a somewhat coherent converstation. I will give you the Old High German gloss, a tentative Old High German reconstruction of what the author of the text actually wanted to transcribe and the Latin translation. Finally I will give a modern rendering of the conversation as it might have looked. I will, however, not give a linguistic analysis, for that would make a whole article on itself.



The Parisian Conversations are preserved in the margins of a ninth century manuscript[1] that originated in the south of France, possibly the monastery st. Marcel at Châlons-sur-Sâone. The Parisian Conversations are copied from an older source that might be connected to the area of Sens, possibly the area where the text originated. The text is written in a dialect of Old High German which has some peculiar idiosyncracies. This has led some scholars to believe that it actually represents a dialect of Franconian spoken in the north of France, an elite Frankish sociolect surrounded by Romance speakers. Most of the idiosyncracies however can be explained as orthographical alternations and pronunciation difficulties common to the Romance speaking scribe. Please note that the Romance-Latin glosses are just as interesting to the linguist as the Old High German, for the language used there can hardly be called “Latin” anymore and truly ressembles colloquial Proto-Romance.

  Romance-Latin Old High German as glossed Reconstructed “Old High German”
83 Quot vices fottisti guanna sarden ger wanne sarden ger?
84   terue naste truwa, ne wist ech!
60 quare non fuisti ad matutinas? quandi nae guarin ger za metin wande ne waren[2] ger[3] zu metin?
61 ego nolui En valde ech[4] ne wolde!
62 tu iacuisti ad feminam in tuo lecto? ger ensclephen bitte uip in ore bette ger insliefun bit demu wif in (i)uwer bettin?
63 si sciuerit hoc senior tuus iratus erit tibi per meum caput! guez or erre az pe de semauda ger enscelphen pe dez uip so es terue u rebolgan wez (i)uwer herra daz, bi desemu (mīn)[5] hauƀda, ger insliefun so ist truwa (i)u irbolgan
64 quid dicitis vos? guaz queten ger, erra[6] waz queden ger?
65 Ausculta[7] fol[8]! coorestu, narra gahoristu, narra!
66 uelles corium de tuo equo habere in collo tuo? gualdestu abe (de)[9] tinen rose ter uht ze ine ruge? woldost du haben dīnen (h)rossen der hūt[10] zu dīnemo ruggi?
67 Stultus uolentarie fottit! narra, er sarda gerra narra, er sard gērno


I place the last two sentences which were numbered 83 and 84 in Wilhelm Braune’s edition in the same context as the conversation. I do this because sentences 83 and 84 were written on the upper margin of the manuscript page and the text seems to continue in the right margin of the page, therefore 83 and 84 seem to be followed by sentence 60 in Braune’s way of counting. The fact that 83-84 and 60-67 share a rather scandalous nature combined with the possibility that they may have followed eachother up in the original text, brings me to put the two sets of sentences together, for that may be how the text was originally intended.

                I interpret the lines as representing a verbal jousting amongst friends. The inquiry as to why one of the speakers wasn’t present at matins does not sound like something you would ask a stranger. The use of the politeness form in the second plural is used as part of their verbal game.[11] The rudeness of the retort seems to confirm this interpretation. Sentence 66 is best interpreted as referring to a physical beating by a riding whip. Sentences 83 and 84 use the word sarden which is cognate to Old Icelandic serða, which meant “unconventional intercourse”. The Latin translation fottire is the Romance continuation of Classical Latin futuere and seems to have a quite general meaning.

Reconstructed conversation

In my reconstruction of the text I will name the speakers Ruodlieb and Walthar, after the protagonists of the two most important secular poems that were written down in Carolingian times.

Ruodlieb:              How many times did you have sex?

Walthar:               Truly, I dont know!

Ruodlieb:              Why weren’t you there at matins?

Walthar:               I did not want to go!

Ruodlieb:              Did you sleep with a woman in your bed?

                               If your lord finds out that you slept, by my head, he will be so angry!

Walthar:               What did you say?

Ruodlieb:              Listen, fool!

Walthar:               Do you want to feel the skin of your horse on your back!?!

Ruodlieb:              Fool, he likes having sex (too much)!


Wolfgang Haubrichs et Max Pfister eds., „In Fracia Fui; Studien zu den romanisch-germanischen Interferenzen und zur Grundsprache der althochdeutschen ‚Pariser (Altdeutschen) Gespräche“, Abhandlungen der geistes- und sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse 1989, 6 (Mainz 1989).

Braune, Wilhelm, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (17th edition 1994 Tübbingen; 1875).

Wilhelm Braune, Althochdeutsche Grammatik (Tübingen 2004).

[1] the fragments of which are to be found in Cod.Vat.Reg.Lat. 566 and Cod.Paris.B.N.lat.764

[2] the indicative  2.pl. in /-en/ is enigmatic and looks like a dialect feature of this specific Frankish dialect

[3] it may be that ger instead of expected gi or gir is also a dialect feature of this dialect, another possibility is that is merely the Romance confusion of /i/ and /e/.

[4] See last note, ech instead of ich.

[5] I put this mīn here because it warranted by the Latin translation and to make it fall in line with similar colloquial expessions in the Middle Germanic languages and early modern English.

[6] this erra is not translated in the Latin gloss and it looks like it is quite out of place.

[7] This word is naturally the Romance word for “to listen” continued in Fr écouter, It ascoltare, Sp escuchar

[8] note here the ancestor of modern English fool!

[9] this de looks like an erroneous placement of the de in the Latin translation

[10] litterally; the skin of your horse

[11 a parallel would be the use of the politeness forms in the plays of Shakespeare

Waiting for the Barbarians

On the divide between history and historical linguistics concerning the Migration Age with the Scandinavian origin of the Goths as case study.

Sometimes neighbouring academic disciplines do not speak in the same idiom. Nowhere is this more clear than in the controversial subject of the “transformation of the Roman world”, a line of inquiry into the dynamics of the transition periode between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages favoured by leading historians such as Walter Goffart, Ian Wood and Peter Heather. It’s argument is summarized by Robert Anderson, director of the British Museum:

The period of transition between the world of late antiquity and the Middle Ages has […] traditonally been seen as one of chaos and obscurity, the “Dark Ages”. Yet modern scholarship is increasingly revealing how profoundly dynamic and influential were the cultural and intellectual shifts which mark the period. Far from initiating an age of barbarism, the successor states saw themselves as part of a Roman continuum, and readily exploited the institutions and intellectual traditions of late antiquity, adapting and reinventing them to suit their own changing circumstances and cultural traditions. (Anderson 1997; 8 )

Revisionism of this pivotal periode in Western History was not new. Since the end of the second world war scholars became mighty uncomfortable discussing the period in terms of “Germanic expansion”, the nazi discourse of “Germanic fraternity” freshly in mind. The “transformation of the Roman world” movement could be seen as an exponent of this postwar “uncomfort” and has become increasingly influential in “correcting” popular views of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. A challenge to modern revisionism came from Bryan Ward-Perkins in 2005. Whereas the revisionists may sometimes suggest an easy and peaceful integration of Germanic peoples into a continuing and evolving Roman world, Ward-Perkins takes fault with this line of interpretation and says he is “conviced that the coming of the Germanic peoples was very unpleasant for the Roman population, and that the long-term effects of the dissolution of the empire were dramatic” (Ward-Perkins 2005: 10). His book “The fall of the Roman empire and the end of civilization” is an impressive polemic for rehabilitation of those late antique sources that speak of catastrophe, massive invasion and crumbling city walls. This is in sharp contrast to historians who dispute that potent barbarians groups marched into the Roman empire (e.g. Noble 2006; xvi) and those that argue hardly any migrations at all had taken place (Bowersock 2000:187-97).

                How does this relate to scholars working in the field of Germanic studies, who used to draw information from a wide interdisciplinary spectrum of philology, historical linguistics and folklore? For one, the divide between the disciplines has widened. Han Nijdam (2001) characterizes the revisionism of historians and folklorists after the second world war in the following way:

“suddenly there were no relics of Germanic customs or ideas anymore, neither in the Middle Ages nor in the Early Modern Period, but everything was Christian from the moment missionaries build churches and monasteries. Literary sources were often written by them and for every costum or idea a fitting bible passage could be found.” (Nijdam 2001; 60)

This assertion holds even more true for the revisionism by contemporary scholars. Whereas scholars in Germanic studies assume that along with the survival of the Old Germanic languages also other cultural products survived that could be named Germanic, scholars who work in the “transformation of the Roman world” paradigm reject such an assertion[1]. For them Germanic identity arose anew in the margins of the limes (i.e. the Roman border) and was barely inherited from prehistoric times. For them Germanic identity arose from the cultural dialectic between Roman rural society and small groups of barbarian immigrants.

For every comparative Indo-European linguist the inadequacies of such a paradigm are evident. The parallels in literary motives, metre and even specific formulas between Celtic, Greek, Vedic, Slavic and Germanic cosmogenic writings are astonishing. They are hardly explicable by any other means than assuming heritage from a common prehistoric literary reservoir, a reservoir justly called Indo-European (e.g. see Puhvel Comparative Mythology 1989). The comparative linguist may draw the same conclusions for the non-christian / non-Roman parallels in Old Germanic literary monuments e.g. the vestiges of a Common-Germanic pantheon (such as in the case of the worship of Wodan and Thunar). Common heritage from a cultural tradition which, in analogy to our linguistic terminology, may be called Proto- or Common-Germanic, seems likely. Rejections of such a theoretical construct by Noble and Goffart (2006: 12) are unjustified for they ignore empirical data mined from the field of comparative mythology and comparative law arguing in favour of it.

But to indicate the divide between historians and comparative linguists in the area of migration history I’d like to discuss the case of the Gothic migration, which is basically the case of the Scandinavian origin myth. This myth is to be found in Jordanes[2]Getica, an abridgment of an earlier work, historia gothorum, by the Gothic historian Cassiodorus recounting the history of the Goths. Jordanes wrote it at the Byzantine court when the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy had fallen under renewed Byzantine attempts of reconquest. According to this myth, Scandinavia was the womb of peoples from which the Goths set out in three ships. From the Baltic they made their way to the Black Sea when they arrive in the scope of Roman historians. The veracity of this myth stands at the center of the problem.

The main historical polemic on this topic is between Herwig Wolfram and Walter Goffart. Herwig Wolfram is a student of Reinhard Wenskus on whose work on ethnogenesis he largely draws. Wolfram formulated a thesis later known as the Wenskus-Wolfram thesis that focusses on the leading role in ethnogenesis for so called “nuclei of tradtion” (Traditionskerne). These are ancient families whose connections to the past gave a common focus for the myriad ethnic groups within a multi-ethnic confederation. The multiethnic groups would associate and identify themselves with these ancient families and accept their tribal name (Wolfram 2006: 52-54). His argument is that although Gothic identity has been reinterpreted and adapted multiple times throughout Gothic history, Jordanes is basically right in recounting the Scandinavian origin myth. This is how the tribal name of the 2nd century Gutones in Tacitus’ Germania survived in the late antique Γότθοι of Procopius. Goffart rejects Wolfram’s arguments as reading truth in mere fiction and argues for a strict 6th century Byzantine creation ex nihilo. That this cannot be true is argued by Svennung (1967: 235) who deemed the ethnonyms cited by Jordanes to be authentic correspondances to Scandinavian tribal names.

In the field of comparative Indo-European linguistics a Scandinavian origin for the late antique Goths is widely accepted. Augustin Speyer (2007) states:

“[Das Ostgermanische ist] Ursprünglich im südlichen und südöstlichen Skandinavien beheimatet; die Inselnamen Gotland and Bornholm (< Borgundarholmr) weisen auf Bezeihung dieser Plätze zu ostgermanischen Stämmen hin.”

Jasanoff (2008) is more carefull in placing the original home of the Goths in Scandinavia, but the connection the Baltic Gutones is not in doubt. He states this view as follows:

“Like other East Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Burgundians, Gepids and Heruls, the Goths originally lived in the area of present-day Poland and eastern Germany; their own traditions place their earliest homes in southern Sweden.”

An interesting but very late source contiguous to this Scandinavian origin myth is known to most Old Germanicists but remains undiscussed by most historians (Wenskus on the other hand treats it in some detail). This is the Gutasaga, composed around 1220 but preserved in a fourteenth century manuscript, which recounts that a third of the people left Gotland in ships and traveled to the Baltic coasts, from whence they traveled through Eastern Europe to arive in the land of the Greeks.

Sīþan af þissum þrim aucaþis fulc ī Gutlandi sō mikit um langam tīma, at land elpfti þaim ai alla fyþa. Þā lutaþu þair bort af landi huert þriþia þiauþ, sō alt sculdu þair aiga oc miþ sīr bort hafa, sum þair ufan iorþar āttu.

From these three the people on Gotland multiplied throughout such a long time that the land could not feed them all. Then they drew lots so that a third of the people left the land, so that they would have and take with them everything which they possessed above the earth.

The Gutnish myth runs parallel to Jordanes account in some respects and deviates from it in others. Historical scepticism towards a continuity of an oral traditional preserving the migration of the Goths from Gotland is however justified.  From a linguistic perspective there is also some evidence to substantiate Jordanes’ claim of a Scandinavian origin. The following parallels between North-Germanic and Gothic have led some scholars to argue for Gotonordic prestage (Eckhardt Meinecke 1953: 83-84).

  1. PGmc. –i̯̯i̯-> Goth –ddj- and PGmc. –i̯̯i̯-> OIce. -ggj-

PGmc. –ṷṷ– > Goth –ggw– and PGmc. –ṷṷ– > OIc. -ggv-

  1. retainment of PGmc. *-z# as Gothic -s# and OIc. -r#
  2. retainment of the fourth inchoative class of weak verbs in PGmc. *-nanã
  3. lexical parallels
  4. Loss of the verbs preserved in WGmc. dōn, gān and stān.
  5. retainment of 2.sg.pret. ending of the strong verbs in *-t, e.g. Goth and OIce. gaft against OHG gabi


However striking the parallels, they could also be explained in terms of retaining archaic features than in terms of common innovation. West-Germanic and North-Germanic share more features than an alleged Gothonordic. The inconclusiveness of the linguistic evidence does not give us an argument in favour of the Scandinavian origin myth of Jordanes. Nonetheless,  a linguistic continuity from the 2nd century tribal name Gutones to the fourth and fifth century Gothi and Γότθοι seems probable. Also to be mentioned is the archaism of the Gothic language itself. As a Germanic language attested in fourth century writings it predates the literary monuments of most other Old Germanic languages in atleast three and a half hundred years, so some archaism is to be expected. Most “transformation of the Roman world” historians on the other hand would have the fourth century Goths live in a highly Romanized ethnically diverse cultural realm and considering this historical background the lack of cultural loans from Latin and Greek is perplexing (not counting eclessiatical terminology). This might point to a strong Germanic core to Gothic identity (contra Goffart), an assumption strengthened by the fact that Gothic supplied the neigbouring Alans with quite some lexical material which eventually made it’s way into modern Ossetic, while the other way around the loans seem to be quite limited. Abaev (Moscow 1958) mentions, amongst others, these words:

CGmc. Ossetic Meaning
*aggwus (Goth.) > wyngæg narrow, oppressed, surpressed
*qairnus (Goth.) > koyroj mill
*lǣswaka > læsk pasturage against payment
*nakwina > lægoyn[3] hairless, bald, naked
*gahwi > qæw village, settlement
*rapaina > rævæjnæ long, thick hemp-rope
*wīsa > wis patch with mowed grass
*strab- > sævn width of clothes
*spīra- > fsīr ear of corn
*kurdra- > k’ord group, much, bundle[4]
*spelda- > syvældæg layer

The same assertion holds true for language contact with Slavic. While quite some Germanic words have entered Slavic through (presumably) the Gothic language, the other way around no such borrowing has been active. Consider for example these loans:

OCS PSL Gothic
duma *daumā < dōms
gotoviti *gataṷītēi < gatauiþs < gataujan
kupiti *kaupītēi < *kaupiþs < *kaupjan <  kaupōn
kusiti *kausītēi < kausjan
lěkъ *lēkъ < *lēka < lēkeis
lixva *leixva < leihwa < *leiχa-

An interesting article by Kortlandt (2001)  titled “The origin of the Goths” argues for a Central European urheimat for the ancestors of the Gothic speaking people. He convincingly argues that the Proto-Goths must have been situated more to the west than has often been assumed. The borrowing of the –āreis suffix from Latin –ārius pleads for this, along with the fact that Gothic borrowed the  Latin form of most Greek ecclesiastical terminology. Supposed loans from Celtic also point to a more western origin. Kortlandt does however hold open the assumption that the Gothic identity came from the Baltic Gutones via one of Wolfram’s Traditionskerne. Unfortunately, Kortlandt does not treat the aforementioned loans from Gothic into Alanic and Slavic, but they are easily explained from late fourth century contact when the Goths reached the mouth of the Danube. Especially the Alans remained bound to the Goths for most of the following century, fighting along them at Hadrianople (478), Rome (409) and at the epic battle at Châlons (451) where the romans and their Alanic-Gothic allies went into battle with the Huns of Attila.

This case shows how important an interdisciplary approach is to tackling migration history. One could ask therefore why historians do not make use of linguistic arguments. One reason is probably to be found in the technical nature of the linguistic discipline. Another concerns the scepticism of historians who work in a hermeneutic science in the positivistic approach of the comparative method of linguistics. As historical linguists we should help span the divide between old Germanic philology and medieval studies by making our arguments more accesible to the interested historian; Kortlandt’s article is a good example of this, focussing on cultural loans instead of purely linguistic argumentation.

A thing we could blame the historians for is ignoring the linguistic diversity of late antique and early medieval Europe, restricting themselves to Latinate sources. One need but to remember that Latin was not the only written language in the early medieval west. From the period of 400 – 900 AD we find literary monuments written in Celtic, Germanic and Slavic vernaculars. Considering only a small percentage of the population that lived outside the Romance speaking territory knew Latin, we have to assume that the generational transfer of culture in the Early Middle Ages was mainly done in the vernacular. When one considers the fact that early medieval vernacular sources often deviated immensely from the genres of rigid and devote Latinity, the comparative Indo-Europeanist could only sigh and shake one’s head at how many. Historians should better heed the word of Jordanes himself to “follow the writings of their ancestors and cull from their broad meadows a few flowers to weave a chaplet for those who care to know these things”.


Jay, H. Jasanoff, “Gothic”, in: the ancient languages of Europe, Roger D. Woodward ed. (Cambridge 2008) 189-214.

Augustin Speyer, Germanische Sprachen; ein vergleichender Überblick (Göttingen 2007).

Eckhard Meineke et Judith Schwerdt, Einführung in das Althochdeutsche (Paderborn 2000)

Thomas F.X. Noble, “Introduction; Romans, barbarians and the transformation of the Roman empire”, in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 1-28.

Herwig Wolfram, “Gothic history as historical ethnography” in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 43-69.

Walter Goffart, “Doest the distant past impinge on the invasion age Germans” in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 1-28.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, The fall of Rome and the end of civilization (Oxford 2005).

J. Svennung, Jordanes und Scandia; kritisch-exegetische studien (Uppsala 1967).

“Gutasaga”, in: Altschwedisches Lesebuch, Adolf Noreen ed., (Upsala 1892-94) 37-39.

F. H.H. Kortlandt, “The origin of the Goths”, in: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 55 (Amsterdam 2001) pp. 21-25.

Robert Anderson, “Foreword”, in: The transformation of the Roman World, Leslie Webster et Michelle Brown eds., (London 1997).

Han Nijdam, “Twee aardewerken schaaltjes. Collectief geheugen, (dis)continuïteit in de Friese cultuur, met het fenomeen ‘magie’ als case study”, in: Speculum Frisicum; stúdzjes oanbean oan Philippus H. Breuker, Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. e.a. eds., (Leeuwarden 2001) 59-78.

Vasily Abaev, Istoriko-jatymologičeskij osetinskogo jazyka (Moscow 1968).

[1] My former professor in Utrecht, Mayke de Jong, confessed that she’d rather speak of “Sub-Roman” traditions than of “Germanic” traditions.

[2] [2] Jordanes names is interpretated as *Iƀurnanþs by Grimm who draws for this interpretation on the spelling <iornandes> in some existing manuscripts. He argues that sixteenth century editions always read <iornandes> and may reflect additional old manuscripts that are lost. It is interesting to note that his father is called Alanoviamuth, in which the first element undoubtedly refers to the ethnonym Alani. Maybe the name should be read as *Alano-Weihamōþs “der Kampfmutige der Alanen”. Alanic descent for Jordanes is also suggested by the name of his grandfather, who was named kandag, which could go back to Old-Ossetic *kæn-dag “he who wears sack-cloth”.

[3] Regular dissimmilation of *n…n > l…n as seen in lamaz “Islamic prayer” (< Pers. namāz)

[4] Glossed by Abaev as “группа, множество, стая” in Russian

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 [conj.3.pl.]). 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).

Kluge, Friedrich, Nominale Stammbildungslehre der altgermanischen Dialecte (1886).

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”.

What did the Carolingians have against the Jews?

The OHG Isidore translation
and it’s background

A friend of mine is doing her PhD on early medieval glossaries, which brings her often to Leiden University to work with facsimiles and original early medieval manuscripts, some of them containing glossaries that are highly valuable to the linguist, although linguists rarely turn to the manuscripts themselves. We had an interesting discussion on why glossaries were collected in the first place and, more importantly, the early medieval origins of vernacular translations on the continent. Somewhere in the discussion I mentioned the Old High German translation of Isidore’s De fide catholica ex veteri et novo testamento contra Iudaeos, remembering that linguistically it was highly archaic which suggested that it must have been written before the ninth century. We both wondered why in heavens name a sixth century tractate agains the Jews was translated in the vernacular in the first place, a wondering which demanded further inquiry.

As far as we both knew the Jews were a quite insignificant minority in Carolingian society (especially in the Germanic speaking parts of the empire) who mostly worked in trade enterprises and held some small but controversial privileges, although being generally discriminated against in legal matters. In this blogpost I want to discuss the main manuscript in which the text is preserved, lay out why the tractate was translated and give you a small fragment of the text, i.e. the latin original, the OHG translation and a modern English translation of the Latin and the Old High German.

                The text that we will discuss is known as De fide catholica ex veteri et novo testamento contra Iudaeos, written by bishop Isidoris Hispalensis, Isidore of Sevilla, around 614-615 as a theological motivation to a royal decree of the Visigothic king Sisebut, ordering all Jews to convert to christianity. The Old High German translation is preserved in a late eighth century manuscript, kept in the Bibliothèque National de Paris (BN lat. 2326), and a fragment of the text is to be found in another manucript, this one preserved in Vienna (ÖNB cod. 3093). Palaeograpically the text in the Paris manuscript, evidently a copy of the original, uses an orthograpical system commonly used in Murbach. The Isidor-fragment is preceded in the Paris manuscript by an OHG translation of  the Matthew gospel, another text which the editors of the manuscript called de vocatione gentium, the final part of an eigth century sermon and sermon LXXVI of Augustine. The Latin and vernacular are given in two seperate columns. Linguistically it seems preferable to place the author of the translation in Lorraine, since the language used is Old South Rhine Franconian. Metz, St. Avold and Hornbach have been suggested as possible places. Kowalski-Fahrun convincingly argued for an early Carolingian date to the translation, since linguistically the Old High German preserved in the texts is quite archaic.

                This can be illustrated by the fact that the common OHG syncope in the past participles and the preterite of the weak verbs has not yet taken place, certain unique OHG forms are used that only have a corresponding form in Gothic (OHG lyuzilla cf. Goth luttila, OHG chillaubin cf. Goth. gilaubi, OHG mittingart cf. Goth midjungarda, OHG geizzsi cf. Goth. gaitin) and certain archaic morphological traits, such as the preservation of the u-declination, the m-ending in the first singular of the present tense, as seen in bim and sculim, and the dative plural ending in –m.

With an early dating of the text corroborated by linguistic arguments, placing the translation in the beginning of the reign of Charlemagne (770’s AD) seems reasonable, although most vernacular writings are connected to late Carolingian scholarship in the closing years of the eighth and beginning of the ninth century.  Even with a late dating of the translation, the OHG Isidore, together with the Monsee-Wiener-Fragmente, would be the oldest witness to Carolingian theological writings in the vernacular.

It is believed that the reasons for the translation of the Latin text in the vernacular were purely practical. For Isidor had collected in his tractate exhaustively all the passages of the Old Testament that had any connection to Christ and he gave an excerpt of all material from the Old Testament, with the exception of the psalms, that was necessary for the support and understanding of the christian faith. It was, as it were, a survey of messianistic prophesies along with the necessary explanations historically ordered. It would have functioned as a practical teaching manual while the original intentions of the sixth century author were pushed into the background. This is corroborated by the fact that Latin iudaeos is translated by unchilaubun, i.e. “infidels” or “unbelievers”, showing that the identification of the antagonists as Jews against whom the tractate was originally meant, was secondary.  The sixth century work contra iudaeos presented to the early Carolingian clergy the quintessence of Old Testamentic writings relevant for a proper understanding of the true faith and it is probably there where we have to look for the reasons behind the OHG translation. Remarkable is the fact that the Latin is translated in what looks like mostly genuine OHG syntax. Also, in a lot of places the OHG is a very loose translation of the Latin, aiming to convey the meaning of the text, not so much the form. The Tatian translation with its word-for-word glossing style is in many ways a step back from the high-level translating skills shown in the OHG Isidore.

                To give you an idea of what the text looks like here a fragment of the OHG Isidore translation, the Latin and the OHG, to which I added an English translation of the Latin and an English translation of the OHG. Personally, I find the late antique and early medieval logic in theological matters that this text conveys highly amusing and risible.

Latin version

4. Si Christus deus non est, dicant Iudaei nobis, quem sit affatus deus in Genesi cum diceret: ‘Faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram.’ Sic enim subiungitur : ‘Et creavit deus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem dei creavit illum’. Quaerant ergo quis deus creavit , aut ad cuius dei imaginem condidit hominem quem creavit.

5. Quod si respondeant : ‘ad angelum,’, num angelus aequalem cum deo
habet imaginem, dum multum distet imago creaturae ab eo qui creavit. Aut numquid
angelus cum deo potuit facere hominem ? Quod ita existimare magnae
dementiae est. Cui ergo dicitur, aut ad cuius imaginem conditus homo creditur,
nisi ad eius, cuius una imago cum deo est et unicum nomen divinitatis est.

English translation
of the Latin

4. If Christ isn’t god, as the Jews may say to us, to whom would God have spoken in Genesis when he says: ‘Let us make man in our image and our likeness.’ Because it is joined with the following : ‘And god created man,  in the image and likeness of god he created him’. Thus they may ask which god created or in the image of which god he composed the man that he created.

5. But if they may answer: ‘in the image of the angel,’ does the angel not have an image similar to god, while the image of that being is very different to him who created.  Or surely the angel couldnt make man together with god? To believe this is a sign of great folly. To whom is it said thusly or in the image of whom is man believed to be composed, unless in the image of him, whose one image is with god and is the sole name of divinity?

Eighth century Old Rhine
Franconian rendering of the Latin

4. Ibu Christ got nist, sagheen nu dhea unchilaubun uns, zi huuemu got uuari sprehhendi
in Genesi, dhar ir quhad : ‘duoemes mannan uns anachiliihhan endi in unseru chiliihnissu’. So dhar auh after ist chiquhedan : ‘endi got chiscuof mannan anachiliihhan endi chiliihhan gote chifrumida dhen’. Suohhen dhea nu auur, huuelih got chiscuofi, odho in huuelihhes gotnissu anachiliihhan
mannan chifrumidi, dhen ir chiscuof.

5. Ibu sie antuurdant endi quhedant : ‘in angilo’: Inu ni angil nist anebanchiliih gote? Dhanne so dhrate mihhil undarscheit ist undar dhera chiscafti chiliihnissu endi dhes izs al chiscuof. Odho mahti angil so sama so got mannan chifrumman ? Dhazs so zi chilaubanne mihhil uuootnissa ist. Huuema ist dhiz nu zi quhedanne odho zi huues chiliihnissu uuardh man chiscaffan, nibu zi dhes dher anaebanliih ist gote endi chinamno ist mit godu ?

English translation
of the Old High German

                4. if Christ isn’t god, the unbelievers may say to us, to whom is god speaking in Genesis, where he says: “Let us make man similar to us and in our likeness.’ And where also is said after that:
‘and god created man, similar and liking to god he created him. However they may ask, which god would have created or in the likeness of which god he would have made man, when he created him.

                5. If they may answer and may say: “in the image of the angel’: is the angel not similar to god? Because there is a very big difference in the likeness of that creature and of him who created all. Or would the angel and god have created man together? To believe this is great folly. To whom should this be said or in the likeness of whom is man created, if not of him who is similar to god and who is the namesake of God.


Wilhelm Braune, Althochdeutsche Grammatik (12th edition 1967: Tübingen 1868).

Braune, Wilhelm, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (17th edition 1994 Tübbingen; 1875).

Eckhardt Meinecke et Judith Schwerdt, Einführung in das Althochdeutsche (Paderborn 2001).

Herta Kowalski-Fahrun, “Alkuin und der Ahd. Isidor”, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 47 (1923) 312–324.

Horses in the Heroic Age


Johnny Cheung, Studies in the Historical
Development of the Ossetic Vocalism
, Beiträge zur Iranistik 21 (Wiesbaden

W.L. Van Helten,
Altosfriesische Grammatik (Leeuwarden, 1890)

A. Van Loey, Schönfeld’s
Historische Grammatica van het Nederlands
(6th edition; Zutphen, 1959).

Dirk Boutkan and Sjoer Michiel Siebinga, Old
Frisian Etymological Dictionary
(leiden 2005).

a suspicion also uttered by De Vries in his “Etymologisch Woordenboek van het



[4] The wide distribution of similar
forms (e.g. ORus. xъmelь
,  Hung. komlo, Finn. humala) has
been explained by Abaev by positing an Alano-Ossetic origin for all these
words, going back to PIIr. *hauma-aryaka,
the famed haoma of the Gathas, although Cheung sees a formal problem in
that *aryaka should have yielded
Ossetic **ælæg and not ællæg.

Belgian Beer, Belgian toponyms and Belgian i-umlaut

The Belgians make some fine beers…whatever side of the planet you´re
from, it is very likely that you have heard this or experienced this yourself.
If not, go to a pub and get hammered right now! One of these fine beers is
Leffe blond, a soft fruity beer with a bitter aftertase. However, I am not here
to advertise beer brands, I am hear to talk about the name Leffe and its
toponymics. When I was grabbing a beer this week with one of my friends I thought
that the name Leffe, named after the 12th century Belgian abbey
where the beer was originally brewed, contained the toponymical element –effe­,
going back to Pgmc *-aχwjō. Unfortunately, a quick peek in Maurits
Gysseling’s “Toponymisch Woordenboek” proved me wrong by showing the first
attestation of the name as leffle in 1152 AD. This name is probably to
be connected with a proper name Leffo and a toponymical element *-lauha
meaning “woodland”. However, the foundation of the abbey was carried out by
monks from a place called Floreffe, which does contain the element –effe. In
this post I want to explore the specifics concerning the historical development
of this element.

                The toponyms named
by Gysseling as containing this element are the following, given with the
proposed etymology.



First attestation






< Ofrnk *bōn[1]-aχwjō



ca 700

< Ofrnk *flōr-aχwjō




< Ofrnk *hunu-aχwjō




< Ofrnk *leni?-aχwjō




< Ofrnk *marna?[3]-aχwjō



ca 900

< Ofrnk *soni-aχwjō



ca 1070

< Ofrnk *sumbro?[4]-aχwjō



ca 1050

< Ofrnk *walha- aχwjō


The first remarkable thing that springs to mind is that the Old Frankish
fricative /h/ or /χ/ is represented as /f/ in the attestation,
with the exception of the eighth century[5]
attestation florechia for Floreffe. This, however, is a very common
soundchange seen in numerous branches of language families (e.g. Latin, where
PIE */gwh/ turns Italic */χw/ before yielding /f/ in
Sabellian and Latin) and is the regular Romance soundsubstitution of Germanic
*/χ/ in the combinations Old Frankish */χr-/[6]
and */χl-/. Wordinternally, Old Frankish */-χw-/ was replaced
by Pre-French /-ff-/ as shown in the Pre-French latinization of Old Frankish *skōhwāri
as Mlat scoffarius. Wordinternal /-χχj-/ is romanized distinctly as
shown by Old French gehir from Old Frankish *jeχχjan. Consider
the following etymologies.








< *hlanka

MHG lenken


descendant of Clovis

< *hlodowing




< *hlāwa-

Dutch lauw



< *hrok

Dutch rok


to wrinkle

< *hrunkjan

ON hrukka


to hit

< *hrappjan

ON hrappr

gehir (OFr)

to confess

< *jeχχjan

Dutch biecht < *bi-jeχti

scoffarius (Mlat)


< *skōhwāri

Germ Schuster


The development which eventually yielded –effe is best
illustrated by the early attestations of Floreffe, both dating to the eighth
century, although their copies are centuries younger, preserved in eleventh
century manuscripts containing the eighth century Vita Sancti Bertuini.







8th c. 11th
c. Copy

form already underwent
i-mutation, Gmc fricative intact


8th c. 11th
c. Copy

Romance development of Lat
/ō/ > */eu/ reflected in spelling?



Romance substitution of
Germanic */-χw-/ for /-ff-/



first geminate spelling

In the case of Floreffe, the first attestation shows the fricative /χ/
in the spelling /ch/[7],
herein being the only attestation of the toponymical element showing such an
archaic state of affairs. The first vowel of the second element is ostensibly
umlauted under influence of the yod in the following syllable. This umlaut is
evidently of Germanic origin for several reasons. Firstly, Pre-French metaphony
would not have been active in clusters other than /ry/ and /sy/ (e.g.
Vulg.Lat. area > Mod.Fr. aire [ɛr], Vulg.Lat. basiare
> Mod.Fr. baiser [beze]). Secondly, the closed syllable of the
element would have preserved the /a/ if the element was accented
independently (compare Pgmc *þwaχhlja > Mod.Fr. touaille [twajə]).
Finally, a Pre-French soundchange in the second toponymic element would be
highly unlikely since the vowel in the first toponymic element remains
unaffected by Pre-French diphtongization of old /ō/ to */eu/
<e>? (this */eu/ presumably develops to */œu/
before being simplified to /œ/ <eu> of Modern French) in
most of the attestations. Therefore it seems very likely that the first
attestation of the toponym as florechia reflects a development stage
before romanization of the toponym and possibly before romanization of the
place Floreffe itself.

 The fact that it already underwent i-mutation would
point to a early completion of the process since the early eighth century
versions of the abrogans-list still show largely unmutated vowels.  The Germanic umlaut also tells us that the
Germanic language that was spoken in that area was part of the Frankish dialect
continuum, since in other dialects of Old High German the cluster would have
prevented umlaut from taking place. (e.g. compare the usual OHG sahhis,
to the Frankish of the OHG Tatian, sehhis, sehhit), a feature
that Frankish shares with Old English, e.g. OE hliehhan < *χlaχχjan).
 A final remark is warranted by the
historical and modern geminate spelling /-ff-/. Is this a West-Germanic
gemination before yod? It may be that the form Old Frankish *aχwjō already
underwent gemination before yod, thus yielding *aχχwjō, then i-mutation
took place and subsequently the geminate got romanized as [f:]
<ff>, thus *-eχχwja > *-effia. However, MLat scoffarius shows that the cluster /
χw/yielded a geminate anyway.




Edouard, précis historique de phonetique française nouvelle collection a

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

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

Kr. Nyrop, Grammaire
historique de la langue française
, tome deuxième (Copenhagen, 1960).

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

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

Wilhelm Braune, Althochdeutsche Grammatik (12th edition 1967: Tübingen



[1] Gysseling reconstructs Old
Frankish *bōn in the meaning of “roseau” (reed), however, strictly
speaking also the element *bauna is eligible for consideration, for Old
Frankish /au/ was already monophtongized in the 10th century, as
evidenced in the Wachtendonckse Psalmen.

[2] But hunafie is attestated in
a diploma from 1034, although preserved in a 17th century copy it
clearly shows a more archaic form.

[3] A suffix *-na to Pgmc *maraz

[4] a proper name Sumbro is
suggested by the toponym Sombrin which is first attested as sumbring, showing
a patronymic suffix.

[5] However, the surviving copy date
back to the 11th century.

[6] The Romanisation of Old Frankish */χr-/
however is not unproblematic, where some dialects do substitute /fr-/ and some
/r-/, these differences may reflect a chronological distribution.

[7] a spelling also encountered
in the 6th century Salic law and Merovingian chronicals and