On the Northern slopes of the Caucasus

Language contact between speakers of
pre-Ossetic and the Nakh languages

The Alanic tribes that were to become the present-day Ossetes have lived
side by side with Nakh tribes for over a millennium. Various Soviet scholars
have argued that the Proto-Ossetic ethnic elements entered the region of Alpine
Central Ossetia only in the eigth century, presumably partly displacing partly
assimmilating the local Nakh population. However, we may assume that language
contact between Pre-Ossetic speakers and Proto-Nakh speakers had been ongoing
for many centuries before that. The similarities between the material and
spiritual culture of the Ossetes and the cultures of the Chechen-Ingush point
to long term cohabition and cooperation, an assumption which is corroborated by
linguistic data. Abaev, a welknown authority in Iranology and the linguistic
history of Ossetic, lists 216 Ingush or Chechen lexical items that may have
been borrowed into Ossetic. Fridrik Thordarson pointed out that not all his comparisons
are convincing and singles out eight items for closer examination in his
publication “Ossetic Grammatical Studies”. I want to present you these items
and discuss what they tell us about Alano-Nakh cultural and linguistic

                The Nakh peoples,
represented nowadays by the nations of the Ingush, the Chechens and the Bats,
have remained a cultural and political confederation far into historical times.
It is assumed that the Ingush left the Nakh collective only in the early eighteenth
century, a process which lasted presumably around a century. What were untill
then mere dialectal differences between Ingush and Chechen only then developed
into different languages, although there is still ample mutual intelligibility
between speakers of Chechen and Ingush. The Proto-Nakh forms that I reconstruct
are simple reversions of the umlaut-processes that seperate Chechen from
Ingush. What concerns the consonantism of the protolanguage I have assumed that
when the Chechen and Ingush consonatism agree with eachother and there is no
Batsbi comparison, the common Nakh form from which the Pre-Ossetes loaned the
word must have been closer to Chechen-Ingush than to Batsbi, although Batsbi is
in many respects the more archaic of the three languages. 



Nakh languages




< Nakh *baqhi

Ing. baqh, Chech. beqhi




< Nakh *kulg

Ing. kulg, Chech. kujg




< Nakh *ʒok

Chech.Ing. zʔok, Bats. ʒok




< Nakh

Chech.Ing. laj Bats. lag




< Nakh *fons

Ing. fos Chech. hons

cattle, property



< Nakh *kog

Chech.Ing. kog





 Most loans, according to Thordarson, pertain to the semantic fields of
economy and material culture, agriculture, cattle breeding, implements and
plant names. The fact that some Proto-Iranian words for body parts were
substituted for Nakh words testify to the the intensity of linguistic and
cultural contacts between the two peoples. The Ossetic words
арм, фад and ком meaning “arm”
“foot” and “mouth” respectively have been replaced by Nakh words as listed
above.  It is not surprising that the
Nakh word for cattle was loaned into Ossetic, for far into the nineteenth
century cattle raids between neighbouring villages and tribes were a highly
ritualized way of feuding. That a Nakh word for horse was loaned into Ossetic
is quite ironic since the Alans were highly praised for their cavalry and
horsemanship, even going so far as that several Germanic tribes loaned the
Alanic word for horse as their regular word for that animal (ModE horse, Dutch
ros < *ṷršna– “horse”). We may assume that historically it
must have been a specialised term associated with horse rearing, a
specialization presumably predating the fifteenth century Yassic wordlist
glossing ecus (equus) as bah.  

Linguistically, it is
interesting to see that Nakh *lag, meaning “man, human being” was loaned
in a stage that Pre-Ossetic /a/ was not yet fronted to /
ӕ/, a development that had taken place quite recently as
suggested by the name of an 11th century Alanic mercenary with the
name Ἀραβάτης (which must go back to Pre-Ossetic *arvad < *brātā
“relative, brother”) and even by the glosses in the Yassic wordlist, e.g. dabanhworz
(Dig. d
ӕ bon xwarʒ “to you a good day”
) and the above mentioned bah for Latin equus. It stands to
reason that the word was loaned before the fifteenth century. I therefore
believe that Cheung is wrong in his book “Studies in the historical development
of the Ossetic vocalism” in reconstructing */
ӕ/ for Proto-Ossetic, since the breakup of the Ossetic dialectal unity will
not have taken place before the fifteenth century and at that time the fronting
had not yet taken place.





Ing. ford Chech. hord

< Alan. *furd



sea, large river

Ing. äla Chech. ēla Bats. ālě

< Alan. *allan







The other way around the Ossetic word фурд shows us that some borrowing
must have taken place really early, since the present day Ossetic word for
“sea”, денджыз, is a loan from Turkic. The word фурд now only occurs in the
meaning “large river” and since the Nakh word does not have this meaning the
word must have been borrowed before the Ossetes specialized the semantics.
Intriguing is the Nakh vocalism of the Ossetic loanword, which itself must go
back to Proto-Iranian *pa(u)ruta-. Cheung assumes that Proto-Iranian
*/au/ first became Proto-Ossetic /u/ and subsequently got lowered to Digor /o/
but the Nakh word argues for the opposite development in which the Digor
vocalism was original and the /u/ of Iron secondary, which is also suggested by
Thordarson. The second word is iconic for the prestige that the the
Proto-Ossetic conquerors of former Nakh territory held, for Ossetic
аллон < *
Proto-Iranian āryanā provided the Nakh word for prince and chieftain. In
the cultural encounters between Proto-Ossetes and Nakh tribes the former were
obviously the dominant part.


Fridrik Thordarson, Ossetic Grammatical Studies, Veröffentlichungen
zur Iranistik, herausgegeben von Bert G. Fragner und Velizar Sadovski 48
(Vienna 2009).

Agustí Alemany, Sources on the Alans; a Critical compilation,
Handbook of Oriental studies, section 8, volume 5 (Leiden 2000).

Johnny Cheung, Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic
, Beiträge zur Iranistik 21 (Wiesbaden 2002).

Alanic or Pre-Ossetic glosses in a Byzantine manuscript

Sysse Engberg, while studying Byzantine liturgical manuscripts in the library of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg in 1992, discovered about thirty glosses, written in an obscure language, in the margins of a thirteenth-century Byzantine manuscript preserving an Old Testament Lectionary (προφητολογίον )[1]. Professor Alexander Lubotsky from Leiden University was the first to identify the language in which the majority of the glosses were written as a prestage of Ossetic (henceforth I shall refer to the language as Alanic), a possibility that was first erroneously dismissed by Russian scholars. In 2003 Engberg and Lubotsky published an article[2] with some preliminary findings of their initial research on the glosses. I’d like to present some glosses Lubotsky identified and explained and give my own explanations for two additional glosses that were not yet examined in a scholarly publication. 

The manuscript was copied in 1275 by a deacon called Ioannes for a priest named Chrysos somewhere within the Byzantine influence sphere. On paleographical grounds it is argued that the glossator who introduced the glosses to the manuscript must have lived in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, presumably he was the owner of the manuscript back then. Historically the activity of a Alanic glossator in presumably late medieval Russia is quite significant because the Alans largely disappear from Russian chronicles in the late 13th century [3] (last time mentioned in 1277-1278) only to come in contact with Russia again in early modern times. The glossator was presumably a non-Greek who wrote glosses in his own language in the margins of the manuscript to easily identify the readings for specific liturgical feasts. The manuscript is written in Byzantine Greek and also the Alanic words are transcribed in Greek alphabet. The correspondences between the Greek transcription and the Alanic language which the Glossator intended to render are not unambiguous as can be illustrated as follows.

Greek <α> = Alanic /a/

Greek <ι> = Alanic /æ/

Greek <ε> = Alanic /æj/
(raising of /æ/ in front of following glide?)

Greek <η> = Alanic /æ/ (lengthening of /æ/ in front of final

Greek <η> = Alanic /i/?

Greek <ου> = Alanic /u/

Greek <υ> = Alanic /w/

Greek <π> = Alanic /#b-/

Greek <κ> = Alanic /-g#/

For those of you who are not acquainted with the background of the Alanic language and its successor, modern Ossetic, I will give a short overview. Most IE linguists will be aware of the fact that the modern Ossetic language as spoken in the North Ossetic Republic, an autonomous region in the Russian state, by some 500,000 speakers, continues an array of Iranian dialects spoken on the South Russian steppes for most of antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The speakers of these dialects are to be equated with the Alans of classical and early medieval sources, a confederation of Iranian tribes that played a large part in the Age of Migrations and the defeat of the Huns on the Catalaunian fields in 451. The area where Alanic was spoken was in historical times much larger than where nowadays Ossetic is spoken. Toponymic and hydronymic evidence indicates that the Alanic speaking area extended far westwards. The area where nowadays Ossetic is spoken was probably historically a Nakh speaking area. Quite recent (17th, 18th century) historical migrations moved the Ossetians to their present geographical location.

The following three Alanic glosses have been identified by professor Alexander Lubotsky. In their article Lubotksy draws attention to the fact that some soundlaws which have taken place in modern Ossetic[4] have not yet been active in this stage of the language. The most evident soundlaw is the following:

PIr. /a/ > Ossetic /o/ before –NC#, e.g.

Iron fonɀ < PIr *panča “five” < PIE *penkwe

Iron ɀærond < PIr *ɀaranta “old” < PIE *geronto

This soundchange has been dated to the thirteenth century by Abaev but Lubotsky rightly argues that the attestations in the προφητολογίον together with a fifteenth century Yassic wordlist containing the gloss daban hworz (Digor dæ bonxwarɀ “to you a good day”) prove that the change atleast postdates the Middle Ages.

τῇἁγίᾳμ(ε)γ(ά)λ() β´ πρωΐ (the great and holy Monday)

ἄυτεσήρ στούρ=Alanic *avdisær stur > Digor avdisær (æ)stur “great Monday”

The word Monday is composed of the elements *avd– “seven” (Iron avd– < PIr *hafta < PIE *septm “seven”) and *sær “head” (Iron sær < PIr *sāra- “head” < PIE *krh2os “horn”) literally meaning “the head of seven”. The Alanic word for “great”, stur, also has a solid IE etymology (Iron styr < PIr *stūra– “thick, large”) and is cognate to OI stórr “great”.

Μη(νὶ) σεπτ(εμβρίω) ηἐιςτήνγέννησιντῆςὑπ(εραγίας) θ(εοτό)κου

(September 8, the birth(day) of the most holy mother of God)

ἀστέμακ παν =Alanic *æstæjmag ban > Iron æstæjmag bon “the eighth day”

The interpretation of this gloss is also quite solid. The Alanic word *æstæjmag containes the element *ast– “eight” (Iron ast < PIr *ašta “eight” < PIE *okto) followed by the suffix –æm to make it an ordinal and the suffix –æg to make it an adjective. The Alanic word *ban (Iron bon < * PIr *banú– “light, beam”), meaning “day”, derives from a well established PIE root *bheh2– meaning to “shine”.

Μη(νὶ) νοεμβρίω ιγ’ τοῦ χρ(υσοςτόμου ) (november 13th, Eve of (st.) Chrysostomos)

ζιρήν κὰμ πάν=Alanic *zæræn(æ) kam ban > Iron zærīn kom bon “day of Golden Mouth”

The name of the specific saint that is to revered on november 13th is etymologically translated, since Chrysostomos means “Golden Mouth”. Also in Old Church Slavonic we find the same tendency to translate the name since the saint is called zlatoustъ there, a compositum of zlatъ “gold” and ousta “mouth”.The Alanic “translation” consists of *zæræn (Iron zærīn < PIr *ɀaranya “made of gold” < PIE *gholh3onyo-) and *kam (Iron kom < PIr *kahma- “ palate”?). This last word does not have a secure etymology but comparative data shows that the word must be reconstructed for Proto-Iranian, as evidenced by Persian kām, Pastho kūmai¸ Khotanese kamma, Sogdian k´m. Abaev suggested a pairing with German gaumen and Old English gōma (cf. ModE gums) but since these words must be derivatives to a root *g’heH2u– “to yawn” the connection with the Iranian word is lost. A pairing with the root PIE *k’es– “to cut” might be considered if one takes into account the semantic proximity of words meaning “cut” “gorge” “ravine” ‘ditch” and “mouth” (cf. ModE gorge < Old French gorges “throat, mouth” and German verkehlung the other way around) although a depalatalization of the initial velar consonant has to be assumed.

I took the following glosses from the request for assistence that Engberg published on the web (linguist-list[5]). Unfortunately the words are translitterated from Greek script and not the full Greek sentence that is pertinent to the glossing is given. I have retranslitterated the two words back to what I think was the Greek gloss when one takes the correspondances of Engberg’s translitteration compared to her 2003 article into account. Lubotsky and Engberg are presently working on a publication discussing all the Alanic glosses but since this publication is still forthcoming we have to wait for their expert opinions. I hope that my two identifications will agree with what they have to say on the subject.

(The exaltation of the holy cross) Tzu var urnag : τζουβαρ

Alanic *ɀuar > Iron ɀuar “cross, sanctuary”

The Alanic word for “cross”,*ɀuar,  is easily identified and is probably an early loan from Georgian (Iron ɀwar < Georgian ǰvari “cross” ) The date of borrowing must evidently predate the fourteenth century.

(the day before midpentecoste) 

pi pinlachu tzau pan : χουτζαυ Alanic *xucaw > Digor xucaw “god”

The spaces between the words are not completely consistent with an
isolation of an Alanic word *xucaw, but a quick look on the photograps of
the manuscript that are included in Engberg’s and Lubotsky’s 2003 article shows
that the spacing between the words is quite dependent on the amount of space
left in the margin. Presumed χουτζαυ in my opinion must be identified as
corresponding to Iron
xwycaw, which is also a loan from Georgian. (Iron < * xwycaw Georgian xuci, xucesi “old man, priest”). It is very conceivable
that an Alanic sentence rendering “pentecoste” includes the word for  “god”.

[1] A προφητολογίον is a liturgical book containing readings from the Old Testament to be read during vespers before the Great Liturgical Feasts.

[2] Engberg, S. & Lubotsky, A.M. Alanic marginal notes in a Byzantine manuscript: a preliminary reportNartamongae: the Journal of Alano-Ossetic Studies, II (1-2) (2003), pp. 41-46.

[3] probably due to the Mongol invasions led by Jäbä and Sübä’ätäi in 1222
and the subsequent deportation of part of the Alanic population.

[4] When speaking of modern Ossetic I mean the standard Ossetic language which is based on the Iron dialect. The Digor dialect form which will sometimes be quoted in this article usually is more conservative.

Sweatheart and her five brothers; a Slavic fairytale

In the same way as
anthropologists and descriptive linguists nowadays travel around the world in
order to write down the last traces of dying cultures before the steamroller of
globalism erases all heterogenity, the brothers Grimm traveled around late
eighteenth century Germany writing down all the remarkable fairytales and sagas
they heard. They remarked in 1819 that the knowledge of fairytales and
folktales, which had been told and retold in premodern Europe for hundreds of
years, was dying out. It pained them to find that “[…]
Von so vielem, was in früherer
Zeit geblüht hat, nichts mehr übrig geblieben, seblst die Erinnerung daran fast
ganz verloren war
(“so much, which had blossomed in times gone by, is
completely gone, even the memory of it is completely lost”)


Their monumental
work „Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ was an inspiration to a whole new generation of
folklorists, amongst whom some notable Czech scholars such as Karel Jaromír
Erben and Božena Nemcová. They went on the same mission as the brothers Grimm
before them and traveled around the Czech lands writing down folktales and
fairytales as they heard them. Halfway through the nineteenth century Alfred
von Waldau collected some of these fairytales in his book “Tschechische Märchen”
in order to make them accessible to the general public. One of these fairytales
is “Die Blume der fünf Brüder”, originally written down by Karl Amerling. I’d
like to share this fairytale with you because it looks like it preserves some
interesting elements of medieval Slavic folkbeliefs.


Before I give you
the fairytale some notes on who Černoboh and Babura are,
may be warranted. Černoboh was first mentioned by the twelfth century author Helmond
who gave a stilized and latinate description of the superstition and rituals of
the pagan Wends in his work Cronica Sclavorum. He probably hadn’t
acquired the information from personal experience and most likely he wrote the
accounts down de auditu., as so many etnographical passages from
medieval works were.


Est autem sclavorum
mirabilis error; nam in conviviis et compotationibus suis, pateram
circumferunt, non dicam consecrationis, sed execrationis verba, sub nomine
deorum, boni scilicet atque mali, omnem prosperam fortunam a bono deo, adversam
a malo dirigi profitentes. Unde etiam malum deum sua lingua diabol sive
Zcernoboch, id est nigrum deum appelant.  


(This is a
remarkable error amongst the Slavs; for at their feasts and carousals they pass
about a bowl overwhich they utter words, not words of consecration but rather
of cursing, in the name of the gods, of the good one, as well as of the bad
one, professing that all propitious fortune is arranged by the good god, all
the adverse fortune by the bad god. Hence, also, they call in their language the
bad god Diabol or Zcerneboch, which means the black god.)

Because of this
passage most nineteenth century scholars assumed that the good god in pagan
Slavic mythology must have been called Bjelobogъ, the white
god. This led to the erroneous belief that Helmond actually names the good god Beloboch,
which he doesn’t. An article by Nehring in “Archive für Slawische philologie”
from 1903 did away with all the unempirical scholarly assumptions about this
Beloboch and all we have left is an Old Slavic attestation of a pagan god
called the dark one, a deity which probably arose in the periphery of christian
culture, for the Slavic pantheon of the Kievan Rus names no such god. It is
interesting to note that in eighteenth century folklore this chthonic deity was
still known and revered as an impersonation of the devil. Note that no negative
comments are made on  Milosrda’s business
with Černoboh.


The creature named
Babura in the fairytale is another interesting figure. The word babura is
a dialect variation to *babička, which is both the word for “butterfly” and
“witch” in Proto-West-Slavic. Both words stem from the Slavic word *baba which means
“female ancestor” and it has convincingly been argued that the link between the
words stems from the Slavic folkbelief that the butterfly is the reincarnation
of a dead ancestor. The same development can be seen in Russian dušička  “butterfly” from the word duša “spirit
and the other way around in Czech strašidlo “ghost, demon” from OCS стрьшень
“hornet”. Both the meaning of the name and the cultural background to the name
give an interesting spin to the story. And, if anyone is wondering, Milosrda
could litterally be translated as “sweetheart” but its derivations all have
something to do with “charity” in modern Czech.  


Poledniče is known
in almost all Slavic folklores and in some formerly Slavic parts of Germany,
where she is called the “Mittagsfrau”.
Poledniček is her male counterpart and a demon who threatens the
working farmers at the hottest of the day with heatstroke and madness. He is
only referred to in this story.  


The Flower of the Five


Five sons returned
from a foxhunt from the distant vulture mountains. They told their father:
“Good Father, after a three day hunt we only caught one fox. Moths led us
astray into swampy thickets.” The father was angry about the excuses his sons
made and cursed them, speaking thus: “May you yourselves become moths in those
unholy mountains!”


Only three times a
year they were allowed to return home, on which occasions they repeatedly asked
their mother for help. But the father remained angry. And for nine years they
dwelt in the vulture mountains as moths. After nine years however, their little
sister, Milosrda was grown up and learned from her mother what had happened to
her brothers. Milosrda decided to deliver her brothers from the curse and
walked away.


She walked into a
dark forest where she visisted the sorceress the Babura, who knows all what
happens upon and under the earth and knows the thoughts of men. Whilst she
walked the dark paths of the forest she left a trail of ash to mark her way. At
midnight she reached the rock in which Babura lived. The rock was surrounded by
high flames and upon the highest peak sat Babura herself. She had the head of a
vulture, green eyes and a flaming blue tongue. The girl took heart and said to
the creature: “O mighty creature, o miraculous creature, please tell me where I
can find the vulture mountains where my brothers dwell cursed, for over nine
years. Tell me how I can help them!” And the Babura gave a horrible cry and she
spewed blue flames from her mouth and green lightning from her eyes. She said:
“Go back on your trail for three days and in the forest of ravens, await my


She did what was
bidden and when entering the forest of ravens she wound a thread around a tree
and marked her way through the forest with this thread. On the edge of a deep
abyss she found the horrible Babura and she asked her the same question she had
asked three days ago. Babura said: “You creature of the earth, I cannot yet
tell you the place of suffering of your brothers. Travel back on your trail for
three days in the direction of sundown. Cross three mountaintops and nine lakes
and on the ninth day you will find a lake of fire. Take this golden twig and
wave it around upon entering the boat that will be waiting for you on the shore
of the lake of fire. Then I will speak with you again.


The freightened
girl took heart once again and continued her journey. On the ninth day she
reached the lake of fire and she jumped into the boat. She waved the golden
twig around and the hot flames didn’t harm her frail body. She sailed on the
river untill midnight when she reached five fire spewing mountaintops Above the
flames stood the Barbura in all her formidable magnitude. The girl asked once
again: “Mysterious creature, please tell me where the vulture mountains are and
how I can deliver my five brothers from the curse?”


In a terrifying
voice the horricle Barbura spoke. “Here are the vulture mountains where the
firemountains spew their spite; after nine days however, their raging will stop
and you can rest in your boat. Beware, you can only deliver your brothers from
the curse when you will find a specific flower, which is the resting place of
your brothers by day. The flower is not very big, has a glinstering colour and
a bent head. It looks like a star and has five honey calixes and those are the
dwellings of your brothers. You should dig out the flower on the moment when
Poledniček, the midday spirit visits the people, you should bind it in a white
cloth and hasten to the top of the vulture mountains. Before the time of the
reign of Poledniček has ended, make a pile of the vulture bones that you will
find there. Then you should pray to Černoboh and ignite your sacrifice with
subterranean fire. When you do so, do not shake or look another way, whatever
may happen. Act thus untill all five brothers have flewn from the cleansing
fire and walk towards you to thank you. When you havent done this within three
days after your nine day during sleep, the next occasion on which you can try
to deliver your brothers is after another year and a day. Beware, you can only
perform this ritual three times per century!”


The girl thanked
the Barbura for her advise. When she returned to her boat she fell in a deep
slumber, for all the hardships she endured had made her weary. She slept for
nine days and when the ninth day had arived she awoke and started searching for
the flower. Three days of searching went by and the hour in which Poledniček
rules passed without her finding the desired flower. However sad she was, she
held true to her conviction that eventually she would be able to free her brothers
from the curse.


 She waited a whole year and at the end of the
year her heart rejoiced, for she would have another chance to deliver her
brothers. Again for three days she searched, but the hour of Poledniček on the
third day passed just as it had last year without her finding the flower. The
disappointment and sorrow was even bigger than last year! But once again she
found the love and resolve to wait a whole new year and thus she did, praying
and hoping. And when the year was at it´s end, once again the three days came
in which she could seek the flower that was the dwellingplace of her brothers.
The last three days in which she could try to lift the curse!


She searched the
first day but to no avail. She searched the second day and still she didn’t
find it. The third day came and so did the hour in which Poledniček rules and
suddenly joy filled her heart, for she saw a flower with a bent blue head and
it looked exactly how Barbura described it. She dug the flower out with roots
and all, bound it in a white cloth and hurried to the top op the mountain to
pray to the Černoboh for the deliverance of her brothers. And Milosrda made a
pile of vulturebones and put the flower on top of it, the flower which had been
the prison for her five unlucky brothers for over twelve years now!


And when she
prayed, lo and behold, what a miracle! From the earth a fire was kindled and it
devoured the pile of bones and the flower wrapped in the white cloth, reducing
it all to ashes. Unnumerable apparitions swirled around Milosrda and also
ravens and dragons, trying to evoke an emotion from the poor girl. But Milosrda
gazed determined into the fire untill her brothers walked out of it. And the
five brothers thanked the heavens and moved to tears they kissed their sister,
who had delivered them from their twelve years of suffering.



W. Nehring, “Der Name bêlbog
in der slavischen Mythologie”, Archiv für Slavischen philologie, 25 (Berlin

Alfred von Waldau ed., Tschechische
Märchen; Eine Auswahl der schönsten Volksmärchen gesammelt und deutsch erzählt
von Alfred von Waldau
(Prague 1859).

Edward Sankiewicz, „slavic
kinship terms and the perils of the soul”, in: Edward Stankiewicz ed.,
Slavic Languages; unity in diversity
(1986) 453-464.

a BIT of evidence for a PIE root “to bite”




The lexical properties of the words "to chew" and "to eat" are closely akin, which can be illustrated by a look at the Romance languages. Modern French manger
and Modern Italian mangiare are reflexes of Proto-Romance MANDUCARE, a word that originally meant “to
chew”, which had replaced the Latin verb
edere in almost all
Romance languages. This lexical replacement was probably motivated by regular
soundchange because medial lenition of /d/ reduced the original Latin word to a
very minimal state. Spanish and Portuguese were only able to retain the Latin
compound verb
comedere which yielded comer in both languages.
However, chance would have it that the Latin verb
manducare is an
interesting word in itself which presents us with some nice linguistic riddles.
So, let’s leave Romance philology on the sideline for the moment and turn
towards some IE problems.


Latin manducare
“to chew” is a secondary formation to the Latin
mandō “to chew, to bite”. The LIV joins Latin mandō to a Vedic injunctive
máthīt  “he robs” and assumes that a
nasal infix into the PIE root *
meth2 “wegreissen” is responsable for the Latin form. De Vaan (1998)
disagrees and proposes that PIE *
mnth2 “to stir” (Vedic mánthati,
Lith. menčiu, męsti) yielded Latin mandō in the same way as PIE *pnth2 yielded Latin pandō. This however prevents Greek μασάομαι and the Greek gloss μάθυιαι in joining in, which is duly accepted by Beekes
(2009). Pairing
μασάομαι to either PIE *meth2 and * menth2 would mean accepting an aberrant soundchange PIE *-th2
Grk –θ-, which isn’t very alluring[1].
However true this may be, a PIE reconstruction for Greek
μασάομαι may lead to another interesting solution. Beekes and
Frisk both consider
μασάομαι a secondary
iterative-intensive formation to a yod-present *mathyō in the same way
as φῡράω is a deverbative formation to φύρω < *phǔryo. This
leads Beekes to reconstruct a Proto-Greek root *mnth– which
he doesnt consider to be of IE ancienity.


I think it is conceivable that the Greek verb goes back to a PIE root *m(e)ndh-,
which would mean “to bite”, and it may be possible to join Latin mandō to
this root as well. De Vaan, following Schrijver, contends that Latin pand- goes
back to Pre-Italic *pndn– which secondarily acquired an a-vocalism
in Latin. Isn’t it possible that Pre-Italic *mndn– got its aberrant a-vocalism
in the same way? If we keep this possibility in mind, we might envision the
developments as follows:


Greek μασάομαι[2] “to chew, to bite” <
[deverbal derivation] Proto-Greek *mathyō < PIE *mndhyoh1


Latin mandō  “to chew” <
Pre-Latin mndnō < PIE *mndhnoh1


OHG mindil ( ON mél and OE mīdl/mīðl
) which is found as a gloss for Latin lupati[3], would, to my
mind, be another candidate for joining this interesting club. OHG mindil goes
back to Pgmc. *menðla- which, in its turn, could go back to PIE *mendhtlo,
since dental clusters preceding a liquid tend to drop the first dental  instead of assibilating (a phenomenon first
described by De Saussure, 1887).


OHG mindil “bit of the bridle” < Proto-Germanic *menðlaz
PIE *mendhtlo


This is, to my mind, a better etymological pairing than the usual
connection to Pgmc. *munþa-, itself a nominalization by accent shift of
a verbal adjective PIE *mntó[4]– (PIE *mńto
> Pgmc. *munþa-). To link OHG mindil to Pgmc. *munþa- a
vrddhi-derivation has to be assumed, which isn’t very appealing.
Furthermore, the original meaning of the formation PIE *mńto must have
meant something like “chin”, as evidenced by Latin mentum and Middle
Welsh mant, which doesnt add up with the fact that also the tlo-derivation
must be of PIE age, making it a instrumentalization of the noun “chin”. The
fact hat the tlo-suffix makes nomina instrumenti from verbs, not from
nouns, makes this development problematic as well, although this argument may
be countered by assuming that we are dealing with an instrumental lo-suffix[5].
 For these reasons it isn’t very
plausible that Pgmc. *menðla- belongs to Pgmc. *munþa-. The
contention that also Middle Irish métal “belly” belongs to the group of
Latin mentum, Pgmc. *munþa- is semantically and phonologically
not compelling and not plausible.


A last argument may be that a “bit of bridle” is within Germanic
lexically associated with the verb “to bite”, as evidenced by the causative
verb Pgmc. *baitjanan and the noun Pgmc. *bitō. A
derivation from a noun meaning “mouth” is not paralleled within Germanic. Also
in the early Romance realm a derivation from a verb refering to what the animal
does with the bit is preferred, as evidenced by Old French gobel <
Gaul. *gobbo < PIE *g(h)obh– “to
swallow” (cfr. Russian zobát’ “to masticate”)[6].


By positing a PIE root *m(e)ndh-, I think we have
ourselves an acceptable IE etymology for a verb which Beekes considered to be
Pre-Greek. Furthermore, we can assume that Latin and Greek both retained the
original meaning of the root. And, last but not least, we have a better
etymology and understanding of the development of OHG mindil and its



Eugen Hill, Untersuchungen zum inneren Sandhi des Indogermanischen; Der
Zusammenstoss von Dentalplosiven im Indoiranischen, Germanischen, Italischen
und Keltischen
, Münchner Forschungen zur historischen Sprachwissenschaft
band 1, Peter Schrijver et Peter-Arnold Mumm eds., (Bremen 2003).

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

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

Helmut Rix, Lexikon der Indogermanischen Verben; Die Wurzeln und ihre
(Wiesbaden 2001).

[1] Also in the case of Greek οἶσθα it isn’t very
probable that the laryngeal had something to do with the aspiration (Beekes

[2]  (Greek μασάομαι  <
Proto-Greek *mathyāyomai < QIE *mndh-yeh2-yo-mh2(i))

[3] Traditionally OHG mindil is
translated as “bit of a bridle”.

[4] The verbal root is often
interpreted as PIE *men “hervorragen”, which is also found in Latin promineo
and mons, montis

[5] To my mind, PIE –lo-, -tlo- an
-dhlo- are allomorphs of eachother, a contention that I will make in my thesis.
However, I cannot expand on it now.

[6] A counterargument may be found
in Slavic, where the word *ūzda and its reflexes are derived from the
word for mouth. However, most Slavic languages point to the meaning “bridle”
and only in Čakavian it developed the meaning “bit of a bridle”.    


Illegal clusters in Latin and proto-Romance and what they have to do with an Old High German problem

In my last blogpost I talked about sound laws which cross language boundaries and more specifically the early medieval language boundary between the Germanic and the Romance speech communities. In that respect I want to adduce another case which in my opinion may constitute another example of bilingual communities perpetuating a regular sound change from the one language as a sporadic sound change in the other.  In this specific instance I want to talk about a sound change which has proven to be remarkably persistent, namely the Latin soundlaw which turns /-tl-/ > /-kl-/. This soundlaw is best illustrated by the Latin reflex of the PIE instrumental suffix*-tlo/-tleh2 which has the unmarked Latin form /-culu-/ and /-cula-/.


PIE *peh3tlom > pre-Latin *pōklom >Latin pōculum

PIE *eǵhtlom > pre-Latin *veheklom >Latin vehiculum


Remarkably this soundlaw was also active in proto-Romance and turned the new */-tl-/ clusters, caused by early Romance syncope, into */-kl-./


Vulgar Latin VETULA /wɛtula/ >  *vɛtla > *vɛkla

 > *vɛkja > Italian /vɛk:ja/ <vecchia>.

                > Old French vjɛλə > French /vjɛjə/ <vieille>

 The pre-stage *vetla probably never was a phonetic reality because /-tl-/ constituted an illegal cluster in proto-Romance which was automatically substituted by /-kl-/. It is interesting to note that /tl/ is still an illegal cluster in present French when it appears initially, as evidenced by a 1998 study of Hallé. In a phonetic experiment speakers of French were asked to transcribe four nonwords containing the initial cluster /tl/ and four nonwords containing the medial cluster /dl/. More than 80 % of the participants transcribed the cluster /tl/ as /kl/, for example in the case of the first nonword.


/tlabdo/ : <klabdo>

Word medially the cluster /tl/ in modern French gained a secondary schwa as is the case with the word <atlas> /atəlas/. In that case it uses a different strategy to render the illegal cluster /tl/ pronouncable than its proto-Romance predecessor.


The tlo-suffix was also productive in the Germanic languages, where it participated in some complicated internal sandhi developments (which I will try to elucidate in my MA-thesis). One of the outcomes of PIE *-tlo is proto-Germanic *-þla. An interesting problem concerning this þla-suffix is the alternation /þl/ to / χl/ which seems to be responsable for OHG mahal in constrast to Gothic maþls. Also OHG bihal, which is thought to derive from *bīþl < *bhiHtlo, shows the same alternation. What happened here? Most Oldgermanicists regard it as an isolated soundlaw in west-Germanic, which has no clear parallel inside the continuum of Germanic languages. This, however, is not a very satisfactory explanation, because only Old High German and Langobardic, which may be regarded as an archaic dialect inside the Old High German continuum, appear to show the variant with /χ/ followed by an anaptyxic vowel /a/ consistently.


If one considers the proximity of the Old High German dialect continuum to the Romance continuum, especially pre-Italian Romance, an interesting possibility comes to mind. A Romance intermediate stage, with the substitution of /tl/ to /kl/, in the development of Old High German mahal from Germanic *maþlaz may yield a solution which accounts for the phonological intracies. Let’s assume, for my hypothesis’ sake, that the word reached early medieval Italy as Germanic *maþl(s). Seventh-century Langobardic /þ/ is consistently substited for /d/ by pre-Italian Romance speakers, as is seen in Italian:


Italian guadagnare < Langobardic *waiðanjan


Therefore I do not think that Germanic *maþl(s) entered pre-Italian Romance via Langobardic. Loans from Gothic into pre-Italian Romance, on the other hand,  substitute /þ/ word medially for Romance /t/.


North-Italian grinta < Gothic *grimmiþa


I’d like to hypothesize that Ostrogothic maþls entered pre-Italian Romance in the very early sixth century and because Gothic /þ/ was word medially perceived as /t/ the Romance speakers would have approximated the Gothic pronunciation of the word as *matl(s). This however was an illegal cluster in  Romance and was perceived as *makl. The word, audibly Germanic in origin, was picked up by the Langobardic invaders of Italy in the late sixth century. Here the anaptyxis kicks in and gives *makal. The thing that happens next is of course the Old High German sound shift which turns medial /k/ into /χ:/, spelled as single <h>or double <hh>, and that would yield the desired outcome /maχal/ <mahal>, which is found in the Langobardic laws.



Gothic /maþls/ > (Italian Romance */matl/ ) > Italian Romance*/makl/ > pre-Langobardic */makal/ > Langobardic /maχal/ <mahal>


This scenario is to my mind more plausible than to postulate an isolated Germanic soundlaw with no phonetic parallels within the Germanic dialect continuum. The form /maχal/ subsequently spread across the Old High German continuum and reached Saxony in the ninth century. Old Saxon mahal is to my mind a loan<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> from Old High German which isn’t very surprising if one considers the fact that the Franks institutionalized the mahal as a tool of government.



Wilhelm Bruckner, Charakteristik der germanischen Elemente im Italienischen (Basel 1898).


Benedicte Nielsen, “On Latin instrument-nouns in */-lo/”, in: Indo-European word formation; proceedings of the Conference held at the Universisty of Copenhagen, October 20th -22 nd 2000, eds. James Clackson and Birgit Anette Olsen (Copenhagen 2004) 189-213.


Pierre A. Hallé e.a., “Processing of Illegal Consonant Clusters; a Case of Perceptual Assimilation?”, Journal of Experimental Psychology; human perception and performance vol 24, no 2 (1998) 592-608.


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

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>


<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> The native Old Saxon term is fortunately also attested as madal.


Crossing the language border

a connection between Old English and Old French?

Every student of Germanic philology and historical linguistics will be familiar with the fenomenon of breaking. This means I don’t have to go in too much detail. To make it short; a select group of Old Germanic languages has the tendency to diphtongize short front vowels to falling diphtongs under influence of following consonant clusters or non-front vowels in the next syllable. The languages in question who show this phenomenon are Old Norse, Old English and Old Frisian. Although all these language may do this as a meance of distance assimilation, the conditions which are needed for breaking to take effect differ among the languages.  The kind of breaking which concerns us here is found in Old English and concerns the breaking of Pre-OE */æ/ > /ea/ under the influence of an immediately following consonant cluster consisting of a liquid and another consonant. Because the resulting diphtongs partook in the Pre-OE phenomenon of i-umlaut we know that OE breaking must predate i-umlaut alltogether. Another thing that is quite clear is that the degree in which the Old English dialects underwent breaking differs significantly. In the case of breaking of */æ/ when followed by a liquid and another consonant the difference mainly comes down to an opposition between the Anglian dialects and the Saxon dialects, the latter one joined by the Kentish dialect. The northern dialects show retraction of Pre-OE */ælC/ > /alC/ in contrast to the West-Saxon development Pre-OE */ælC/ > /ealC/.

Pgmc *haldanan > Proto-West-Germanic *haldan > Pre-OE *hældan > Anglian haldan

Pgmc *haldanan > Proto-West-Germanic *haldan > Pre-OE *hældan > West-Saxon healdan

On the whole, the southern dialects of Old English seem to like breaking better than their northern relatives[1] and West-Saxon and Kentish exhibit the most instances of breaking. Phonetically we may assume that the breaking of the vowel first yielded a diphtong /æa/ and subsequently stressed the contrast by turning it into /ɛa/, orthograpically represented by <ea>. This becomes relevant when we consider a similar phenomenon in old French.

What’s the deal with Old French, you might ask. Well, Old French is amongst the Romance languages quite the odd man out, which is probably due to the heavy influence of second language acquisition by Germanic speakers. This influence was the largest on the lexicon but also greatly affected the morphoponology and syntax of the pre-French Romance language. This is not very surprising if one takes the high degree of diglossia and bilinguality in the Gaulish realm into account.[2] This created a situation in which isoglosses and linguistic tendencies easily moved between the languages spoken by the specific bilingual and diglossal community. For example, the Old High German diphtongization of /ō/ > /uo/ probably originated in the continuum of Romance dialects who all diphtongated Vulgar Latin /ɔ/ to /uo/ or /ue/. Subsequently  this diphtongization wave reached the Germanic speaking realm via Pre-French.

The Old French phenomenon I’d like to discuss with you concerns the Vulgar Latin vowel */ɛ/ which is the reflex of Classical Latin /ě/, this in contrast to Vulgar Latin */e/ which continues Classical latin /ĭ/ and /ē/. In Old French Vulgar Latin /ɛ/ is one of the vowels that are seemingly affected by the vocalization of the Romance velar /l/. The effects of this velar /l/ are visible in the orthography of modern French, because it has remained notoriously conservative.

Vulgar Latin ALBA “white, dawn” > Pre-French /albə/ > Old French (XII century) /awbə/ > Modern French /obə/ <aube>

Vulgar Latin SOLIDARE “solder” > Old French /solder/ > Early Modern French (XVI century) /suder/ <souder>

If one takes Pre-French syncope into account, we can see the development to consist of Pre-French */alC/ > Old French /awC/ and pre-French */olC/ to early modern French /owC/. However, one of the the purported effects of velar /l/ on a preceding vowel which stand out amongst the other effects concerns Vulgar latin */ɛ/. What seems to have happened is that somehow the velar /l/ in combination with the preceding */ɛ/ yielded an Old French triphtong /ɛaw/ or /eaw/ with a dialectal variant in /jaw/ as evidenced by the Modern French spelling <eau> and the Old French spelling <iau>. Modern French has some words continuing the triphtong <iau> which are mainly from Picardian origin, fabiau < *faběllus and depiauter < piau < *pellis. But the usual Old French triphtong is <eau>:

Vulgar Latin BELLITATE > modern French beauté

Vulgar Latin BELLUS > modern French beau

Frankish *helma > Vulgar latin HELMU[3] > modern French heaume

The question which should be asked, if this development is to be equated with the other effects of velar /l/ on vowels, is why only the development of Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ is so aberrant. Why was it the only one to yield a triphtong? If it was indeed, as insinuated by Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen (2010) and explicitly stated by Gaston Zink (1986), a bridging vowel between the front element and the back element of a former diphtong, why did pre-French /iwC/ and /ewC/ not triphtongize to /ɛaw/ or /jaw/? Following Edouard Bourciez, I deem it more likely that /ɛlC/ first broke to /ɛalC/ and only after the breaking the liquid vocalized to /w/. So the development of the example given above could be imagined as follows:

Vulgar Latin BELLITATE > [Late Vulgar Latin] /bɛltate/ > */bɛltat/ > [OldFrench] /bɛlte/ > */bɛalte/ >  /bɛawte/ > [modern French] /bote/ <beauté>

Empirical proof for this the /ɛalC/ stage in exactly the form hypothesized is attested in the Bisclavret by Marie de France.

beals chevaliers e bons esteit                       a handsome and good knight he was                       

e noblement se cunteneit                            and he conducted himself in a noble way

The attestation of the precise form <ealC> continuing Vulgar Latin */ɛlC/ strengthens my hypothesis. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to embark on a quest for further nice orthographic representations of this pre-stage, but the example of /beals/ cited above makes it clear that the analysis of the phenomenon by Gaston Zink has become highly tenuous for it doesn’t seem to represent the empirical data.

We can conclude from the text fragment cited above that the development of */ɛlC/ to eventually the triphtong <ɛaw> takes place fairly late. Some other early Old French texts from the late eleventh and early twelfth century still spell <el>, as evidenced by the “chancun de Guillelme”. In in its title it still spells /Guillelme/ instead of later Old French /Guillaume/ (the glide in the diphtong merged with the palatality of /ʎ/ spelled <l> ). In the case of the development of BELLITATE to beauté, we also find a nice example of <el> spelling in this poem:

Il at perdu sun noble barné                             he has lost his noble knighthood

De dulce france la flur e la belté                    the flower and the beauty of sweet Francia

Gaston Zink explains the occurence of the Old French form belté as indicative of the fact that only stressed Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ yielded a diphtong and considers Modern French beauté as a derivate from the adjective beau. However, the protagonist of the poem itself is called guillelme, a perfect continuation of the Germanic name *wilhelm. When we assume that the Germanic word retained its original stress on the first syllable we have another instance of atonal */ɛlC/ which eventually triphtongizes to / ɛawC/. The proper name also shows that the vocalization of velar /l/ probably wasn’t the first step in the triphtongization of */ɛ/, otherwise we would expect to find guilleume in a text from this period.

What strikes me is the fact that these phenomena in Old French and Old English seem to have developed in a parallel fashion, both showing a breaking of a low front vowel to /ɛa/ before a following cluster consisting of an /l/ and another consonant. I think it may be possible that these phenomena aren’t only typologically related but that the one phenomenon might have caused the other due to language contact. It should be remarked that the fact that only Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ breaks in front of a liquid and another consonant neatly lines up with the fact that the Saxon dialects of Old English only consistently break Pre-OE */æ/[4] to /ea/ under the same condition. The difference between /æ/ and /ɛ/ on the vowel triangle is minimal and the allomorphy in the different realms of Anglosaxon morphology may have driven bilingual Anglo-Normans to transfer the Anglosaxon sound change to Old French.  In that the regard, the date at which this development took place in Old French seems suspicious to me, immediately following the onset of Anglo-Norman relations. The English channel,which nowadays separates the Anglophone nation from the Francophone nation, constituted in the early Middle Ages a vital maritime bridge between the two speech communities, for they were ruled by the same elite.

This, however, brings us in the realm of historical sociolinguistics and in that respect the hypothesis seems moribund. The Anglo-Norman ruling elite almost certainly favoured the use of Old French and it isn’t very likely that they acquired such a good command of Anglosaxon to allow synchronig sound changes to jump the language border. Finally, the similarity of the phenomena between Old English and Old French is rarely (to my knowledge) noted and is indicative of the necessity for the historical linguist to look beyond the linguistic borders of one’s own specialization. The fact that for most Old Germanicists the publications in French, Spanish and Italian aren’t readily accesible without an academic translation doesn’t improve the situation. And unfortunately, most Indo-Europeanists, who do tend to read a lot of modern languages, aren’t that interested in Romance linguistics, because not much information concerning the Indo-European proto-language can be mined from its historical development. I want to end this article with the contention that the development of the triphtong /ɛau/ in Old French is preceded by a stage of breaking and we therefore may very well speak of Old French breaking, independent of the fact what caused it.  


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).

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

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

E. Einhorn, Old French ; a concise handbook (Cambridge, 1974).

R. Girvan, Angelsaksisch handboek, Oudgermaanse handboeken IV (Haarlem 1931).

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

des classes III (Lille 1921).

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

Joseph Wright and Elizabeth M. Wright, Old English Grammar, the sudent’s series of historical and comparative grammars (Oxford 1914).

A. Campbell, Old English Grammar (Oxford, 1959).

Gerhard Rolfs, Vom Vulgärlatein zum Altfranzösischen; Einführung in das studium der altfranzösischen Sprache (Tübingen 1968).

[1] The usual caveat concerning Old English dialectology is in place here, pointing at the fact that OE dialectology is mainly dependent on codological and palaeographical clues to the provenance of specific manuscripts and therefore many assumptions on the phonological representation of graphemes are clouded by different copyists and manuscript traditions.

[2] Although many Oldgermanicists and even Indo-Europeanists tend to shun the Romance languages, the developments in these languages are vital to understanding the linguistic tendencies which were common in the linguistic area of western Europe during the early middle ages. The early middle ages are linguistically characterized by a high degree of diglossia concerning Latin and the vernacular and a high degree of multilinguality concerning the different vernaculars spoken in the different areas of western Europe. Especially in the later days of the migration age, when many nations roamed the former provinces of the Roman empire, not only variants of Germanic, but also of Slavic, Avar and Alan could be heard in the encampments of the barbarian armies.

[3] The fact that Romance probably first latinized the Germanic word for “helmet” before accepting it into their lexicon is evidenced by Old Spanish yelmo.

[4] I am aware of the fact that West-Saxon and Kentish also seem to break /e/ > /eo/ before /lh/, but this breaking isn’t consistently attested in our sources and the conditions for this breaking would scarcely be noted by speakers of Old French because the fricative h /x/ wasnt part of their phonology. Also, if some attempt by Old French speakers was made to break their native /e/ to /eo/ this would be clouded by the subsequent vocalization of the /l/ >/w/ because the two back elements would certainly have coalesced.

Theotisca Lingua and the Frankish connection to Gothic

In the course of the eighth century, three hundred years after the fall of Rome in 410 AD, the Frankish king Charlemaigne considered his people to be the rightful heirs to the late antique Roman Empire. At the end of the eighth century Frankish hegemony prevailed over most of western Europe. The Carolingians had extended the borders of Christendom to the edges of the known world; from the dark forests of the land of the Saxons to the vast plains of Pannonia, from the scorched slopes of Iberia to the once so proud Rome itself. To govern this West-European empire an extensive written administration was vital and the only institution which could provide such a written administration was the Latin church. Therefore Charlemaigne followed the example of his father Pippin in enlarging the prestige and the power of the Church and its hierarchy and at the same time pressed for a better latinity so as to maintain the ideological connection to the knowledge of antiquity. The multi-ethnic state that the Carolingians created and was legitimated by the papal see also needed an ideological foundation which would appeal to the Franks themselves.

In that regard the question wasn’t an easy one, for Frankish culture was ideologically torn in two. In the mainly written culture, which was primarily aimed at the church and the Gallo-Roman elites of southern Gaul, the continuity with the christian Roman Empire of late antiquity was stressed, whilst in the mainly oral culture the ties to the Germanic speaking neighbours were deemed important as well. Although oral and litterate do not stand in an absolute dialectic to eachother, to my mind we can safely assume that the greater part of Frankish society was more concerned by the secular values of farmlife and warfare than the elevated morals of the church. As historians ofcourse we find nowadays more vestiges of the ideological discourse which had a place inside the framework of Christian-Latin litteracy than vestiges which were aimed at the more secular realms of Frankish society. Nevertheless we still find glimpses of what constituted the more secular minded ideology of Frankish identity. This discourse was centered around the age of migrations and its heroes to whom the Franks felt a deep connection. It was propably because of this connection that Charlemaigne brought an equestrian statue of Theoderic the Great from norterhn Italy to the land of the Franks and it may very well be that the Old High German Hildebrandslied was also preserved because of this connection.

But also in the latin writings of Carolingian scholars we find traces of this Frankish antiquarian interest in the autochtonous and non-Roman elements in their culture. In a eighth century manuscript, which in modern scholarship acquired the name the Alkuiner handschrift, we have some Gothic glosses together with an Anglo-Saxon and Gothic futhark list preserved. We also know that the Frankish king Louis the German, a grandson of Charlemaigne, had a profound interest in Gothic history. This may very well be because of the Gothic texts they found in the north Italian archives. These texts were written in a language which the Germanic speaking Franks recognized as a language similar to their own. This similarity propably enforced the Frankish feeling of kinship to the Goths of late antiquity. A glimpse of how this sentiment was felt we find in a work written by Walafrid Strabo (the crosse-eyed) that was written around 842 AD. My translation[1] of this chapter from Walafrid’s book called “De exordiis et incrementis quarandum in observationiubus rerum ecclesiarum” I’d like to share with you because it provides an interesting view on early medieval “etymological science” and a very valuable insight to how the Franks looked upon their own language.

Dicam tamen etiam secundum nostram barbariem, quae est Theotisca, quo nomine eadem domus Dei appelletur, ridiculo futurus Latinis, si qui forte haec legerint, qui velim simiarum informes natos inter augustorum liberos computare. Scimus tamen et Salomoni, qui in multis typum gessit Domini salvatoris, inter  pavones simias fuisse delatas; et Dominus, qui pascit columbas, dat escampullis corvorum invocantibus eum. Legant ergo nostri et sicut religione, sic quoque rationabili locutione nos in multis veram imitari Grecorum et Romanorum intellegant philosophiam.

Nonetheless I’d like to relate to you with what word that same house of God is called in our barbarian language, the Germanic vernacular. I know very well that in doing so I will make myself ridiculous to all those who are versed in Latin if they read some of these things, because I want to relate the deformities of monkeys to those who are born amongst the children of emperors. After all we know that amongst the peacocks which were brought to Salomon, who in many things revealed the image of our lord saviour, there were also monkeys; and the lord that herds the doves feeds the young birds that appeal to him. Therefore may our own people read and understand that concerning our religion and our learned writings we imitate the true knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans in many things. 

Multae res sunt apud singulas gentes, quarum nomina ante cognitionem ipsarum rerum apud alias incognita sunt; sicque fit saepissime, ut rerum   intellectus alii ab aliis addiscentes nomina quoque et appellationes earum vel integre vel corrupte cum nova intellegentia in suam proprietatem trahant. Ut ab Hebreis   Greci, Latini et barbari amen, alleluia et osanna mutuati sunt, a Grecis Latini et omnes, qui libris Latinorum et lingua utuntur, ecclesiam, baptismum, chrisma et omnium paene radices dictorum acceperunt;

There are may things amongst some nations, for which the names arent known to other nations before they learned these things. And thats why it happens quite often that some nations in order to understand those things adopt from other nations the words and the pronunciation of these words with a new meaning, whether this meaning is correct or incorrect. That is why the Greeks, Romans and barbarians borrowed the words amen, alleluia and hosanna from the Hebrews and why the Romans and all who make use of Latin writings and the Latin language have received the words ecclesiam, baptismum, chrisma and the roots of almost all words from the Greeks.

a Latinis autem Theotisci multa et in communi locutione, ut scamel, fenestra, lectar, in rebus autem divino servitio adiacentibus paene omnia; item a Grecis sequentes Latinos, ut chelih a calice, phater a patre, moter a matre, genez a genetio, quae Grece dicuntur cylixf, pater, meter et genetion, cum in quibusdam horum non solum Latini, ut genitor et genitrix, sed etiam Theotisci proprias habeant voces, ut atto et amma, todo et toda. Ab ipsis autem Grecis kyrica a kyrios et papo a papa, quod cuiusdam paternitatis nomen   est et clericorum congruit dignitati, et heroro ab eo, quod est heres, et mano et manoth a mene et alia multa accepimus. 

From the Romans we, speakers of the Germanic vernacular, received many words which are used in every day situations such as scamel, fenestra and lectar, but when it concerns things which have to do with the divine service almost all the words are borrowed from Latin. We also borrowed from the Greeks via the Latin words like chelich from calix, phater from pater, moter from mater, genēz from genetio, which are called in Greek cylix, pater, meter and genetion. Nonetheless in some cases not only the Romans have their own words, like in the case of genitor and genitrix, but also the Germanic speaking nations have their own words, such as atto and amma, todo and toda. Also borrowed from Greek are words such as kyrica from kyrios and papo from papa, which is the word for a specific kind of paternity which fits the dignity of the clergy. Also we received heroro from heros and mano and manoth from mene and many things more.

Sicut itaque domus Dei basilica, id est regia, a rege, sic etiam kyrica, id est dominica, a Domino nuncupatur, quia Domino dominantium et regi regum in illa servitur. Si autem quaeritur, qua occasione ad nos vestigia haec Grecitatis advenerint, dicendum et barbaros in Romana republica militasse et multos praedicatorum Grecae et Latinae locutionis peritos inter has bestias cum erroribus pugnaturos venisse et eis pro causis multa nostros, quae prius non noverant, utilia didicisse,

Likewise is the house of god called basilica, which means royal, from the Greek word for king, and kyrica, which means lordly, from the greek word for lord, because in these building the Lord of lords and the King of kings is worshipped. If one asks howthese vestiges of Greek culture made their way to use I will have to point at the fact that barbarians used to serve in the Roman state and many preachers who were skilled in Greek and in Latin came to fight the errors amongst these beasts. That is why the people of our nation learned many useful things which they didnt know before.

praecipueque a Gothis, qui et Getae, cum eo tempore, quo ad fidem Christi, licet non recto itinere, perducti sunt, in Grecorum provinciis commorantes nostrum, id est Theotiscum, sermonem habuerint et, ut historiae testantur, postmodum studiosi illius gentis divinos libros in suae locutionis proprietatem   transtulerint, quorum adhuc monimenta apud nonnullos habentur; et fidelium fratrum relationer didicimus apud quasdam Scytharum gentes, maxime Thomitanos, eadem locutione divina hactenus celebrari officia. 

We especially learned much from the Goths, who are also called Getae, because in that time they were led to the faith of Christ, albeit not via the right way. They used whilst they dwelt in the Greek provinces our language, namely the Germanic vernacular and very soon, as we can read in the history books the scholars of this people translated the divine books in their own language, of which we still have quite some documents. I heard from some reliable monks that amongst some Scythian nations, especially amongst the Thomitanos, they still celebrate the divine
rites in the Gothic language.

Hae autem permixtiones et translationes verborum in omnibus linguis tammultiplices sunt, ut propria singularum iam non sint paenet plura, quam cum aliis communiau vel ab aliis translata.

However, these mixtures and translations of words are so many in all the languages that the own vocabulary of certain languages isnt as big as the words that they have in common with other languages or the words that they translated from other languages.

Finally I’d like to point out some interesting things in this text. First consider the ideological schizofrenia of our learned Walafrid Strabo; although the Franks and the Goths are barbarians and are likened to monkeys and beasts, he doesnt make an effort of conceiling his admiration for the Gothic bible translation and the Gothic culture. Also it is fascinating that Walafrid recognizes some clear cognates between Greek, Latin and Frankish. Walafrid’s observation that there are also Frankish words which are only to be found in Frankish is especially interesting, although he finds them less important than the words which were build on “Greek” roots. A last thing which is worth pointing out is the fact that Walafrid Strabo during the reign of Louis the Pious considers the barbaries lingua, i.e. Frankish, as the language of the Frankish empire, therewith still ignoring the rustica lingua romana as a vernacular used by the Franks. Although texts like the 9th c.  “sequence of Eulalia” attest to the existence of a highly developped Early Old French vernacular, it is clearly not his language.

Peter Alexander Kerkhof,

MA student
Comparative Indo-European linguistics

MPhil student
Medieval studies

Source of the text:

Walafridus Strabo, “De exordiis et incrementis rer. eccl.”, eds. Alfredus Boretius et Victor Krause,  in: Monumenta Germaniae historica, Capitularia Regum Francorum II, (Hannover 1897) 841-8142.



[1] My translation at some points departs from the Latin texts where Walafrid’s latinity doesn’t permit a smooth translation to English. Where I deemed it necessary I split sentences in two and chose my own words. You will also find additions in my translation where I thought that such additions would benefit the understanding of the text. I am aware that my translation doesnt follow Allice L. Harting-Correa’s translation in her edition of the “libellus de exordiis et incrementis quarandum in observationibus rerum ecclesiarum” but I hope that makes the translation more valuable because it
presents an alternate view on the latin.

West Frisian and a Proto-Anglo-Frisian word for “sick”

Sporen van de Friezen en het Fries in Noord-Holland, 12-13 november 2010