29 April 2005

Language Hat on Barbarian Names

Language Hat quotes an interesting take on name etymologies from O. Maenchen-Helfen's The World of the Huns (University of California Press, 1973). Here's a bit of it:
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." Tutizar was a Goth and Ragnaris a Hun, but Tutizar is not a Gothic name and Ragnaris is Germanic. The Byzantine generals who in 493 fought against the Isaurians were Apsikal, a Goth, and Sigizan and Zolban, commanders of the Hun auxiliaries. Apsikal is not a Gothic but a Hunnic name; Sigizan might be Germanic. Mundius, a man of Attilanic descent, had a son by the name of Mauricius; his grandson Theudimundus bore a Germanic name. 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. There are many such cases in the fifth and sixth centuries. Sometimes a man is known under two names, belonging to two different tongues. Or he has a name compounded of elements of two languages. There are instances of what seem to be double names; actually one is the personal name, the other a title. Among the Hun names, some might well be designations of rank. It is, I believe, generally agreed that the titles of the steppe peoples do not reflect the nationality of their bearers. A kan, kagan, or bagatur may be a Mongol, a Turk, a Bulgar; he may be practically anything....

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. Now it has turned out that Asparuch is an Iranian name. 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. Pro-Germanic bias led Schönfeld to maintain, in disregard of all chronology, that the Moors took over Vandalic names.
I particularly like the first comment, from John Emerson:
Boodberg and Wolfram have both argued that steppe peoples are not "peoples" the way that anthropologists think of it. They are armies, together with their families. Voluntarily or otherwise, whole groups of other peoples could be absorbed.

The supposed ethnicity of a group is a function of the ethnicity of its leader and his clan, and also of the language spoken in the leadership councils. So the Huns weren't really Huns, nor the Goths Goths -- not the way we can say that a people that's been living in a certain valley for five generations might have a given ethnicity.
That's somewhat similar to my impression of many peoples along the coast of New Guinea.

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