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

3. Etymologies

Many languages were spoken in Attila's kingdom. His "Scythian" subjects were "swept together from many nations." [56] They spoke, wrote Priscus, "besides their own barbarian tongues, either Hunnish, or Gothic, or, as many have dealings with the Western Romans, Latin; but not one of them easily speaks Greek, except captives from the Thracian or Illyrian frontier regions." [57] We must be prepared to meet among the names borne by Huns Germanic, Latin, and (as a result of the long and close contact


with the Alans) also Iranian names. Attempts to force all Hunnic names into one linguistic group are a priori doomed to failure.

"Let no one," warned Jordanes, "who is ignorant cavil at the fact that the tribes of men use many names, the Sarmatians from the Germans and the Goths frequently from the Huns." [58] Tutizar was a Goth [59] and Ragnaris a Hun, [60] but Tutizar is not a Gothic name and Ragnaris is Germanic. [61] The Byzantine generals who in 493 fought against the Isaurians were Apsikal, a Goth, and Sigizan and Zolban, commanders of the Hun auxiliaries. [62] Apsikal is not a Gothic but a Hunnic name; Sigizan might be Germanic. [63] Mundius, a man of Attilanic descent, [64] had a son by the name of Mauricius; [65] his grandson Theudimundus bore a Germanic name. [66] Patricius, Ardabur, and Herminiricus were not a Roman, an Alan, and a German as the names would indicate, but brothers, the sons of Aspar and his Gothic wife. [67] There are many such cases in the fifth and sixth centuries. Sometimes a man is known under two names, belonging to two different tongues. [68] Or he has a name compounded of elements of two languages. [69] There are instances of what seem to be double names; actually one is the personal name, the other a title. [70] Among the Hun names, some might well be designations of rank. [71] It is, I believe, generally agreed that the titles of the steppe peoples do not reflect the nationality of their bearers. [72] A kan, kagan, or bagatur may be a Mongol, a Turk, a Bulgar; he may be practically anything.


The names of the Danube Bulgars offer an illustration of the pitfalls into which scholars are likely to stumble when they approach the complex problems of the migration period with their eyes fixed on etymologies. In spite of the labor spent on the explanation of Bulgarian names since the thirties of the past century, there is hardly one whose etymology has been definitely established. The name Bulgar itself is an example. [73] What does it mean? Are the Bulgars "the Mixed ones" or "the Rebels?" Pelliot was inclined to the latter interpretation but thought it possible that bulgar meant les trouveurs. [74] The Turkish etymology was challenged by Detschev; he assumed that Bulgar was the name given to the descendants of the Attilanic Huns by the Gepids and Ostrogoths and took it for Germanic, meaning homo pugnax. [75] Still another non-Turkish etymology has been suggested by Keramopoulos. [76] He takes Bulgarii to be burgaroi, Roman mercenaries garrisoned in the burgi along the limes. Without accepting this etymology, I would like to point out that in the second half of the sixth century a group of Huns who had found refuge in the empire were known as fossatisii. [77] Fossatum is the military camp.

In addition to the objective difficulties, subjective ones bedevil some scholars. Turkologists are likely to find Turks everywhere; Germanic scholars discover Germans in unlikely places. Convinced that all proto-Bulgarians spoke Turkish, Németh offered an attractive Turkish etymology of Asparuch; other Turkologists explained the name in a different, perhaps less convincing way. [78] Now it has turned out that Asparuch is an Iranian name. [79] Validi Togan, a scholar of profound erudition but sometimes biased by pan-Turkism, derived shogun, Sino-Japanese for chiang chün, "general," from the Qarluq title sagun. [80] Pro-Germanic bias led Schönfeld to maintain, in disregard of all chronology, that the Moors took over Vandalic names. [81]


In view of the difficulties concerning the study of Hun names — the inexactness inherent in transcriptions, the morphological changes which many names must have undergone, the ever present possibility that the names were Gothicized, the wide margin of error in the manuscript tradition—in view of all these one cannot help marveling at the boldness with which the problem of the Hunnish language has been and still is being attacked. [82]

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56., EL 13514. On the derogatory meaning of the term, see Wais 1942, 16 ff.

57. is ripa, not "sea coast," as Bury (1923, 283) translated.

58. Getica 58.

59. Cassiodorus, Variae VII, 27; Theoderic's letter saioni Tutizar.

60. Agathias II, 13, 3, Keydell 1967, 5719.

61. Schönfeld 1911, 184, 244.

62. John of Antioch, EI 14221-22.

63. Cf. , a Gothic martyr (Loewe 1923, 416).

64. Getica 301.

65. Procopius VII, 1, 36.

66. Schönfeld 1911, 234. Lal Bahadur (Mongol) Shastri, the Indian prime minister, named his son Kennedy, which after the assassination of the President was changed to Kenny.

67. O. Seeck, PW 2, 606-610.

68. The Ostrogoth Gundulf was also called Indulf (Procopius VIII, 23, 1). In what language could Germanic Gundulf become Indulf?

69. Asperulfus is compounded of Alanic Aspar and Germanic wulf (R. Loewe, Indogermanische Forschungen 14, 1903, 18, n. 1).

70. (Theophylactus of Achrida, PG 126, 193c). Enravota is Slavic, Boinos is Baian (Moravcsik, BT 2, 125).

71. See p. 407 on Ellac.

72. Tarqan, later so common among Turkish tribes, occurs in the first century A.D. in an entirely non-Turkish milieu. T'a-kan-ch'eng  near Kuchā, Pan Ch'ao's residence in A.D. 191 (Chavannes 1906, 233-234), is undoubtedly "the Tarqan town."

73. "Türk" is perhaps an even better one. In 1949, Kononov listed twelve etymologies and added one of his own ("Opyt analiza termina Turk," SE 1, 1949, 40-47). Clauson (1962, 87) denies any connection between the ethnic name which, according to him, is Türkü and türk, meaning "ripeness, maturity."

74. Pelliot 1950, 224-230.

75. "Der germanische Ursprung des bulgarischen Volksnamens," Zeitschr. f. Ortsnamenforschung 2, 1927, 199-216.

76. in Keramopoulos 1953, 334-336.

77. Getica 266.

78. Moravcsik, BT 2, 75-76.

79. was pitiaxš in Iberia in the second century A.D. See the intaglio in Mtskheta 1 (Tiflis, 1958), 29, fig. 4; Abaev 1949, 157, 177; Duchev, Archiv Orientální 21,1953, 353-356, and Bulg. akad. naukite 19, 1955, 335; V. Beshevliev, ibid., 24, 1961, 5.

80. Ibn Fadian 1939, 293.

81. The Moor Gildo, whose name Schönfeld (1911, 276) compared with Germanic Alalgildus, died in 397, almost thirty years before the Vandals landed in Africa. Numidic gildo means "king" (Friedrich 1954, 101).

82. The etymologies suggested until 1957 are listed in Moravcsik, BT 2. To deal all of them would serve no useful purpose.

Although to historians familiar with the works of Franz Altheim the following lines may seem superfluous, I would like to state why I chose to refrain from discussing the etymologies of Hun names which he has offered in dozens of books and articles.

Altheim thought he found in Parthian and Pehlevi ostraca from Dura-Europos five Turkish, a potiori Hunnish names. In 1953 he published his discovery in a special book, Das erste Auftreten der Hunnen, as a chapter in another book, and in Hungarian and Argentine periodicals. W. B. Henning (Gnomon 26, 1954, 476-480) showed that these Hunnish names owe their existence solely to Altheim's ignorance of the script and languages he attempted to decipher. The wonderful Hunnish names Ärk Qapxan, Quwratyl or Kirtül, Silil, Tarqānbäg, and Topčak are actually Wrwd msynk, "Orodes the elder," kpškly, "shoemaker," swlkly, "bootmaker," tlkčyny, "trapper," and sgp'n, "master of the hounds."

In Geschichte der Hunnen 1, fig. 16, Altheim reproduced an inscribed pebble, said to be found in the Kuban region, and dedicated to it a whole chapter. Discerning in the inscription a Greek sentence, an Alanic adjective, and a Turkish word, he drew from it far-reaching conclusions for the history of the alphabet in the kingdom of the Kidaritae and the early spread of Christianity among the Huns. Actually the "inscription" is a galimatias like other "inscriptions" on the forgeries which a man in Sebastopol turned out in the early years of this century. Being ignorant of the language, he copied — always with some distortions — Greek sentences or Homeric verses from some elementary textbooks; cf. Kurz 1962, 553-554.

Whereas the Greek sources and the Slavic translation of Malalas render the name of a Hun in the Caucasus as , Sturaks (Moravcsik, BT 2, 292-293), the chronicle of John of Nikiu has ěstērā. It is well known how in the course of repeated translations from one language into another the names in the chronicle were cruelly distorted; see the literature referred by G. Graf 1944, 1, 471-472. Altheim (Geschichte der Hunnen 5, 253) chose the distorted form and etymologized ěstērā as Turkish *öz-tura, der selbst ein Setzschild ist. One should think that he would reject Styrax, but he retains it and explains it as Turkish *öz-turač. For kappa as a possible transcription of č he refers to Moravcsik, BT 2, 3, who lists  for čelebī and  for čauš in chronicles of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This is held sufficient to justify the transcription of č by kappa in a name attested for the sixth century. For the suffix č Altheim refers to Gabain 1950a, 59, § 22 (read 44), without stating that this č is a diminutive and affectionate suffix. Gabain gives two examples: ögüčüm, mein Mütterchen, and atačïm, mein Väterchen *öz-turač, der selbst ein Setzschirmchen ist is not exactly an appropriate name for a Hun. These examples will I hope suffice.