Proto-Slavic borrowings

Numerous lexemes that are reconstructable for Proto-Slavic language were borrowed from various tribes that Proto-Slavic speakers came into contact with, either in prehistorical times or during their expansion when they first appeared in the 6th century (in Common Slavic period) on world's history stage. Among these, most come from Germanic languages, other prominent being Iranian, Celtic and Turkic. The topic of such loanwords in Slavic has sparked a lot of heated debates in the 20th century, and some remain controversial to this day, with experts taking sometimes almost diametrically opposite positions on the issue envolved.

Slavic and Iranian

Proto-Slavs came into contact with various Iranian tribes, namely Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans, which were present in vast regions of eastern and southeastern Europe in first centuries C.E. Names of two large rivers in the centre of Slavic expansion, Dnieper and Dniester, are of Iranian orign, and Iranian toponyms are spread even at the territory of present-day Romania.

Older linguistic manuals often emphasize the alleged significant influence Iranian languages have exerted on Proto-Slavic. Some contemporary Slavists, like Gołąb (1992), think that all Slavic words with unexplained initial *x- are in fact Iranianisms in Slavic. Matasović (2008) criticizes Gołąb's approach as "methodologically inacceptable, emphasizing that initial *x- in Slavic has several sources, some of which have been ascertained (like PIE *#ks-), and some of which have not been completely determined, and emphasizes that all the cases of initial *x- in Slavic should first be explained by means of regular Slavic sound laws, and only then should one think of loanwords, and think of Iranian as the originator if and only if the etymon has been attested in Iranian, and there is additional phonetic evidence to presume an Iranian borrowing.

In the past, various Slavists have emphasized how certain Iranianisms in Slavic are in fact surprisingly few. Vaillant and Meillet consider the only Iranian borrowings in Slavic word *taparu 'axe' (Russ. топор#Russian, Pol. topór#Polish. Cr. topor#Croatian), which came from Iranian *tapara- (cf. Persian تبر#Persian). This is how Meillet and Vaillant explain the lack of Iranianisms in Slavic:

That fact should not surprise us: the civilization of warrior and partially nomadic tribes, like Scythian and Sarmatian, could have exerted only a cursory influence on patriarchal civilization of Slavs.

But event they do not deny that there are traces of some influence of Iranian onto Slavic, such as in the semasiological development of the word god, which both in Slavic (Proto-Slavic *bagu > Common Slavic Appendix:Proto-Slavic *bogъ) and Indo-Iranian (Old Persian 𐎲𐎥#Old_Persian, Sanskrit भग#Sanskrit) denotes both deity and wealth, share.

Also one of the exclusive Iranian-Slavic lexical isogloss is one adposition: Old Persian 𐎼𐎠𐎮𐎹#Old_Persian - OCS ради#Old_Church_Slavonic.

Beside Gołąb (1992), Matasović (2008) says that the number of alleged Iranianisms compiled by Reczek (1885) and Bernštejn (1961-74) is "too high in number", and that out of the listings compiled by them one should separate words which are likely Iranian borrowings from words that are possibly Iranian borrowings, but have other possible explanations, by means of Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Balto-Slavic or Proto-Slavic derivation via regularly observed sound laws. Matasović states that "solving the problem of Iranian loanwords in Slavic, their distribution and relative chronology, is one of the most important tasks of modern Slavic studies.

Some of the likely Iranian borrowings are also Common Slavic, being attested in more than one branch. Such are:

  • PSl. *gōnjā 'cloak, mantle' (Russ. gúnja, Pol. gunja, Cr. gȗnj) < Iran. *gaunyā (Av. gaona-, Osset. γun)
  • PSl. *rāji 'heaven' (OCS rajь, Pol raj, Russ. raj) < Iranian *rāy- (Av. rāy)

Others have been attested only in a part of Slavic territory. E.g.

  • PSl. *gupānu 'master' (Old Czech hpán, Pol. pan) < Iranian *gu-pāna 'cattle supervisor'
  • PSl. *pātrītej 'to observe' (Pol. patrzyć) < Iranian *pātray- (Av. pāθrāy 'to protect')

Matasović (2008) also notes on surprising typological coincidences between Slavic and Ossetian, Iranian language whose ancestor was Alanic. Ossetian, just like Slavic, divides verbs onto perfective and imperfective, and derives perfective verbs from imperfective by means of prefixation. Also, pronominal clitics in Ossetian behave syntactically similar to Slavic, and similar is the usage of genitive to express direct object in some constructs. It remains open, however, whether those correspondences are a result of prehistorical contacts of Slavic and Alanic tribes, or just a case of accidental typological parallelism in development.

Slavic and Germanic

It is not certain when Proto-Slavs first came into contact with Germanic tribes: among Common Balto-Slavic words that have Centum reflexes there is not a single one that would betray its Germanic origin by having typical Germanic sound features.. All the prehistoric Germanic borrowings in Baltic languages have been either mediated with Slavic, or are borrowed from Old Norse or Proto-Norse in a period well after the 600 C.E. The conclusion is that the speakers of Germanic must have lived far from the area of the subsequent spread of Balto-Slavs.

Goths are the first Germanic people for which it can be proved to have intensive contacts with Proto-Slavs. Goths are believed to have reached the shores of the Black sea between Dniester and Danube about 230 C.E., so the contacts between Goths and Proto-Slavs might have started in the 2nd and the 3rd century C.E., and continue all the way to the early historical period.

It is belived that many terms of Greco-Roman cultural provenience have entered the Proto-Slavic by Gothic mediation. Such are the terms:

  • PSl. *wīna 'vine' (OCS vino) < Goth. wein
  • PSl. *akitu 'vinegar' (OCS ocьtъ) < Goth. akit
  • PSl. *kajsārju '[Roman] emperor' (OCS cěsarь) < Goth. kaisareis


Here is a list of words which are generally held to be Germanic loanwords into Proto-Slavic:

  • PSl. *asilu 'donkey' (OCS osьlъ) < Goth. asil- (< Lat. asellus)
  • PSl. *bergu 'hill' (OCS brěgъ) < Germanic *bergaz (cf. German Berg)
  • PSl. *bjōda 'bowl' (OCS bljudo) < Goth. biuda
  • PSl. *bōkū 'letter' (OCS buky) < Goth. bōkō
  • PSl. *činda 'child, infant' (OCS čędo) < Germanic *kinda (cf. German Kind)
  • PSl. *gardu 'enclosed space' (OCS gradъ) < Goth. gards 'court'
  • PSl. *gansi 'goose' (OCS gǫsь) < Germanic *gansi (cf. German Gans)
  • PSl. *ganeznantej 'to grow healthy' (OCS goneznǫti) < Goth. ganisan
  • PSl. *kōpītej 'to buy' (OCS kupiti) < Goth. kaupjan
  • PSl. *kōsītej 'to mow' (OCS kusiti) < Goth. kausjan
  • PSl. *kuningu 'duke' (OCS kъnędzь) < Proto-Germanic *kuningaz (cf. OE cyning, OHG chuning)
  • PSl. *lēku 'cure' (OCS lěkъ) < Germanic *lēka (cf. Gothic lēkareis 'doctor')
  • PSl. *lōku 'bow' (OCS lukъ) < Proto-Germanic *lauka- (cf. OHG lauh, OIcel. laukr)
  • PSl. *mastu 'bridge' (OCS mostъ) < Germanic *masta- (cf. OHG mast, OE mæst)
  • PSl. *nōta 'cattle' (OCS ''nuta) < Germanic *nauta
  • PSl. *ōsiringu 'ear-ring' (OESl. useręzъ) < Goth. ausihriggs
  • PSl. *plākātej 'to cry' (OCS plakati) < Goth. flōkan 'to mourn'
  • PSl. *pulku 'folk' (OCS plъkъ) < Germanic *fulkan (cf. OE, OHG folc)
  • PSl. *skilingu 'small money' (OCS skъlędzь) < Goth. skilling
  • PSl. *skatu 'cattle' (OCS skotъ) < Germanic *skatta (cf. German Schatz 'treasure')
  • PSl. *smakū 'fig' (OCS smoky) < Goth. smakka
  • PSl. *strēlā 'arrow' (OCS strěla) < West Germanic *strēla (cf. OHG strāla, OE strǣl)
  • PSl. *šelmu 'helmet' (OCS šlěmъ) < Germanic *helma- (cf. OHG helm)
  • PSl. *tūnu 'fence' (OCS tynъ) < Germanic *tūnaz < Celtic *dūno 'fortification' (cf. OIr dún)
  • PSl. *hlaiwu 'pigsty' (OCS xlěvъ) < Proto-Germanic *hlaiwan
  • PSl. *xulmu 'hummock' (OCS xъlmъ) < Germanic *hulma-
  • PSl. *xūzu, xūsu 'house' (OCS xyzъ) < Germanic *hūsan, *hūzan
  • PSl. *želdān 'to compensate damage' (OCS žlěsti) < Germanic *geldan 'to buy-out'

As one can see, Germanic borrowings in Proto-Slavic cover diverse semantic fields, but consist mostly of words that are commonly borrowed in languages; terms related to: building (*xūzu, *mastu, *tūnu), land configuration (*xulmu. *bergu), terms from social domain (*pulku, *želdān, *kōpītej, *činda), apellations for animals and cattle (*asilu, *gansi, *skatu).

Interpretion of Germanic material

Stender-Petersen (1927) assumes two layers of Germanic borrowings into Slavic: those who entered the Proto-Slavic from Proto-Germanic, and those that were borrowed from Gothic.

Gołąb (1992) suggests even more refined chronological layering, emphasizing that one should distinguish

  1. borrowings from Proto-Germanic, or Proto-East-Germanic
  2. borrowings from Gothic, which have spread to all Slavic languages
  3. borrowings from Balkan Gothic, which were confined only to the Slavic South
  4. borrowings from Old High German

Generally, all authors agree that Germanicisms have entered Proto-Slavic and Common Slavic during a very long period, and that numerous Slavic sound changes came be observed on them. For example, there are Germanic loanwords that have entered pre-Proto-Slavic, before the Slavic first palatalization (e.g. *činda, *želdān, *xelmu), or before the transition of PSl. *aw > PSl. */ō/ (e.g. *lōku, *kōsitej, *kōpitej).

Of special interests are certain Proto-Slavic accentual developments that can be observed on Germanic borrowings:

  1. Lots of Germanic loanwords have entered Proto-Slavic before the operation of Illič-Svityč's law, and thus concordantly most Germanic thematic neuters became masculine in Proto-Slavic.
  2. Most Germanic borrowings have entered Proto-Slavic before the operation of Dybo's law, and thus concordantly all Germanic borrowings with short initial syllable become Proto-Slavic and Common Slavic oxytones. This fact dates Dybo's law rather late, as almost all Germanic borrowings were affected by it except for those very late ones, which entered Common Slavic from Balkan Gothic or Old High German.

Germanic loanwords have entered Slavic languages well after the Proto-Slavic, i.e. in Common Slavic period. After the 600 C.E. most of them were borrowed from Old High German, and for some of them they can even be proved to be of OHG and not e.g. Gothic origin.

Slavicisms in Germanic

Beside Germanic borrowings in Slavic, Slavic borrowings into Germanic also play an important role in understanding the history of the contacts of Slavic and Germanic tribes. The first to point to those words, often unjustly neglected in the literature, was Viktor Martynov.

Among Slavicisms in Germanic prominent are the words related to crafts and social sphere:

  • OHG chursinna 'fur, pelt' < PSl. *kurzina (cf. ChSl.krъzьno)
  • PGm. *malta- 'malt' (OE mealt, ON malt, OHG malz) < PSl. *malta (cf. Ukr. mólot, Cz. mláto)
  • PGm. *neþija 'cousin, relative' (Goth. niþjis, OE niþþas, Icel. niðr) < PSl. *netiju (cf. OCS netьjь)

Possibly also:

  • PGM *warga- 'villain, criminal' (OE wearg, OHG warg, ON vargr) < PSl. *wargu (cf. OCS vragъ)

These words don't tell much about phonological history of Proto-Slavic, but it's obvious that they were borrowed before liquid metathesis, but after the Proto-Slavic change *pt > *t.

It should be noted that some linguists consider the existence of Slavic borrowings into Germanic very doubtful.

Slavic and Celtic

Matasović, an expert in Celtic languages, says that "there is very little evidence for the contacts of Slavic and Celtic tribes in historical times. By the time Slavs start to appear in historical records, Celtic languages were already confined to British isles, Brittany, and possibly some isolated enclaves in French where Gaulish could have been spoken.

However, since in pre-historical times Celts populated the regions in which Slavs have spread in the 6th and the 7th century, one cannot exclude the possibility that at the time of Slavic expansion there were some some Celtic speakers left. Matasović (2008) also emphasizes the very likely possibility of Celtic borrowings that might have entered Slavic but mediated by Vulgar Latin/early Romance dialects, since such marginally spoken Celtic was probably non-prestigious idiom spoken by lower class of society. Concordingly, Matasović argues, any possible Celtic borrowings into Slavic must come from earlier period, i.e. they had to be borrowed in pre-Proto-Slavic from Proto-Celtic.

Many Slavic words of obscure etymologies have been explained in literature as some alleged Celtic borrowings, but only for only a few of them can that claim be substantiated by linguistic evidence, one that agrees with attested etymons semantically and by regular sound laws. Matasović (2008) lists 2 examples as highly probable:

  • PSl. *karwā 'cow' (OCS krava, Russ. koróva, Cr. krȁva) < Proto-Celtic *kerawā, which would in turn be a regular Celtic Centum reflex of PIE with regular Celtic *era > *ara assimilation. Morover, Lithuanian kárvė, whose accentuation matches with that of Slavic etymons, points to prehistorical Balto-Slavic borrowing.
  • PSl. *krawu 'roof' (OCS krovъ) can be traced to Germanic etymons of the same meaning (OE hrōf, ON hróf etc.) only if Celtic mediation is assumed, from dialectal PIE *kropo- > Proto-Celtic *krowo-

Slavic and other languages

Abundant literature on Slavic languages often repeats theses of alleged contacts of Proto-Slavic speakers with other Indo-European languages, namely Italic, and also with Illyrian, Venetic and even Armenian.

Matasović (2008) argues however:

Non of these theses can be held as proved, until we can point to a stratum of words which reflect, judging from their phonetic/phonological traits, Italic, Venetic or Armenian mediation between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Slavic. This means that, in order to accept the existence of Italic loanwords into Proto-Slavic, we must be able to prove the operation of Italic sound laws on the set of Proto-Slavic etymons.

In practice, however, Slavic etymons with obscure etymologies have not so rarely been ascribed to such sources, with ad-hoc devised sound changes and far-fetched semantic correlation. Sometimes they often represent regular Proto-Indo-European reflexes, but have only been preserved in e.g. Slavic in Italic branch, which has falsely led to the conclusion that they represent a prehistorical borrowing.

Beside the contacts with other Indo-European languages, there is undoubtedly a layer of word that were borrowed from non-Indo-European languages. Most of these came from Turkic languages, chiefly Bulgar and Eurasian Avar. For most of them, it's very hard to establish the exact source and reconstruct the proto-form. Among these, commonly cited are:

  • OCS kъniga 'book' < Turkic kūinig < Old Chinese küen 'scroll' (cf. Mandarin juǎn)
  • OCS bisьrъ 'pearl' < Turkic < Arabic busr
  • Common Slavic *xmelь 'Humulus lupulus' < Turkic
  • OCS kovъčegъ 'box, casket' < Avar
  • Common Slavic *tъlmačь 'interpreter' < Turkic


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