The World of the Huns. Chapter IX. Language
O. Maenchen-Helfen

2. Transcriptions

They were Tatos and Chales and Sesthlabos
and Satzas (for I must give the names of
the highest-born of these, although the
elegant appearance of my history is spoiled by
them). [29]


It is a priori certain that the phonetic system of the Hunnish language, whatever it may have been, was different from that of Greek and Latin. Even if an author wanted to render a Hunnish name faithfully, the mere fact that he had to use the letters of his own alphabet forced him to distort it. A few names may have passed the process of transcription relatively unscathed; others must have suffered badly. What name is hidden behind ? The name of Queen Erekan's steward occurs only in Priscus, and in the dative case at that: . [30] -ις is not the Greek ending tacked on to the name. Priscus may not have been a good Christian but he must have heard of the protoplast. If the Hun's name had been Adam, Priscus would have written . The Greek, having no letters for supradental ṣ and palatal ś, transcribed these consonants by sigma.  could be Adamis or Adamiš (ṣś). But because in the transcription of Germanic names the ending is sometimes rendered by -ις,  could also be Adamiþ. [31]

Foreign names were not only adapted to Greek and Latin phonetics but also to the morphology of the writer's language. The Byzantines often treated names ending in -an or -in as if they were in the accusative. If we had only the forms  and , [32] it would be impossible to determine whether the name of the Hun king was Uldis or Uldin. Fortunately Orosius mentions it in the nominative: It was Uldin. [33] In some transcriptions the Greek and Latin endings can be relatively easily distinguished, but in others it is impossible to decide where the barbarian name ends. Procopius admired Belisarius so much that he even described the horse of his hero. "Its body was dark grey, except that the face from the head to the nostrils was of the purest white. Such a horse is in Greek called , the barbarians call it ." [34] Was it Balas, or Balan, or Bal? Balas is a Germanic word, OHG balas, equus maculosus, English blaze, German Bless. [35] The word can be recognized because it occurs in a group of well-known languages. But what if the meaning of a name is as unknown as the language ? The Hunnic names in the Latin and Greek sources can be reconstructed within limits, but these limits are rather wide. , could be the transcription of Esl, Esla, Eslas, Ešl, Ešla, Ešlas, Eslaš, Ešlaš,


Eslan, and Ešlan. Was the stress on the first or the second syllable? Was the š — if it was an š — palatal or supradental? We do not know.

Besides the orthography of the writer and the possibility of morphological change, three more factors must be considered when we try to "re-transcribe" Hunnish names. It is, first, not certain that all the names in our sources are those by which the Huns called themselves. Before the East Romans had any contact with the Huns, they heard about them from the Goths. They must have heard many names as they were pronounced by Goths and other non-Huns. Octar, the name of Attila's paternal uncle, is a good example of the modification which a Hun name underwent in the course of transmission from Hunnish through Latin into Greek. Jordanes has Octar, [36] Socrates [37]. These forms have a parallel in Accila and Optila. Eastern writers call the Ostrogoth, who killed Valentinian III, Accila or Occila; Marcellinus Comes, Jordanes, and John of Antioch call him Optila. [38] The transition from -ct- to -pt- is characteristic of Balkan Latin. [39] It was probably there that Octar became Optar-Uptar.

The second factor to keep in mind is the tendency of late Roman and Byzantine writers to alter foreign names until they sounded like Latin or Greek ones. In this way Bagrat became Pankratios. [40] The name of the Langobard Droctulft appears in his Latin epitaph as Drocton. [41] At times names were translated: Ammianus Marcellinus mentions an Iberian prince by the strange name of Ultra; [42] the prince's name was Pîrān; so Ammianus made it into  and then translated it into Latin. [43]

The third reason for treating transcribed Hunnish names with utmost caution lies in the circumstances under which they have come down to us. Proper names are particularly liable to corruption in the manuscript tradition. The Procopius manuscripts have  for Urbs Vetus and  for Urbs Salia. [44] It seems unlikely that Procopius is responsible for such forms. [45] Most of the Priscus fragments are in the collection of excerpts made by Constantinus Porphyrogenitus in the tenth century.


All existing codices, none older than 1500, are copied from the one burned in the fire which destroyed the greater part of the library in the Escorial in 1671. Six Hun names in Priscus are hapax legomena: Adamis, Basich, Eskam, Mamas, Kursich, and Oebarsius. The last one appears in all manuscripts as . [46] In a Priscus fragment dealing with the siege of Naissus by the Huns, preserved in a single manuscript of the tenth century, the city is said to be situated . [47] Naissus was not an obscure village but an important town, the junction of several roads. Priscus could not have called the river "Danube."  is evidently a scribal error. But what was the name of the river? As a rule, if a name occurs in a single passage in the writings of a single author in a single manuscript, it has to be taken as it is. But identical forms in all codices are not necessarily the correct ones. If Persian were as unknown as Hunnish,  in Theophanes Simocatta III, 18, 9, could never have been recognized as a clerical mistake for  = Arghabad. [48]

Different transcriptions of the same name are of help, though not always. The name of the commander of the troops in Thrace in 447 appears in Priscus as , [49] in Theophanes as , [50] and in the Chronicon Paschale as . [51] Which of these forms is the correct one? None, for they are all distorted from Arnigisclus, [52] Arnegisclus, [53] and , [54] Germanic *Arnegisl. [55]

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29. Anna Commena, Alexiad 6, 14 (Dawes 1928; Leib 1945).

30. EL 1468; Moravcsik, BT 2, 56.

31. Schönfeld 1911, 69.

32. Zosimus and Sozomenus, Moravcsik, BT 2, 230.

33. Hist adv. Pagan. V, 37-2 < Huldin, Marcellinus Comes, CM II, 69 > Jordanes, Romana 321.

34. Procopius VI, 18, 61.

35. Ph. Thielmann, Archiv f. latein. Lexicographie 4, 1887, 601; E. Schröder, ZfDA 35, 1891, 237; E. Schwyzer, ZfDA 66, 1929, 94-100 and Schwyzer 1914.

36. Getica 105.

37. Hist. eccles. VII, 30, PG 67, 805c; Moravcsik, BT 2, 237.

38. Schönfeld 1911, 178; add Occila, Greg. Tur. Hist. Franc. II, 7 (8).

39. The change from Octar to Uptar may have been facilitated by the existence of the Gothic name  (Schönfeld 1911, 173).

40. Justi 1895, 67.

41. Paulus Diaconus, Hist. Lang. III, 19.

42. XXVIII, 12, 26.

43. Peeters 1932, 39, n. 3.

44. Procopius VII, 11, 11; 16, 24.

45. For other distorted names, see Schwyzer 1914, 312-313.

46. Moravcsik, BT 2, 350.

47. Thompson 1947b, 62.

48. Christensen 1944, 107.

49. EL 58826.

50. C. de Boor, 12020.

51. CM II, 82, 82, ed. Bonn, 586b.

52. Marcellinus Comes, CM II, 8028, 8230.

53. Jordanes, Romano 4225.

54. John of Antioch, EI 1302.

55. Schönfeld 1911, 30.