In an effort to find out something about the Isaurians and their language (a vain effort, and if anybody knows anything beyond “warlike” and “unknown” I’d appreciate hearing about it) I ran across Vassil Karloukovski’s Page, with its many Bulgarian-related links; what particularly attracted my attention was the section devoted to The Language of the Huns, Chapter IX of O. Maenchen-Helfen’s The World of the Huns (University of California Press, 1973). I’ll quote the meaty passage on Etymologies:

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.

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. 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. 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. Still another non-Turkish etymology has been suggested by Keramopoulos. 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. 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. 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.
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.

I love that “sometimes biased by pan-Turkism”; yeah, I’d say that someone who derives shogun from the Qarluq title sagun may have a teeny little bias somewhere. I’m not sure how far one can trust his “profound erudition.”
(I expect this post to be of particular interest to John Emerson, who has cited Maenchen-Helfen in his post “The Steppe Barbarians in Eurasia.”)


  1. 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.
    The Mongols of the Golden Horde were so thoroughlu Turkish that the Mongol language was displaced in a few generations.

  2. I have always assumed that the Isaurians spoke one of the languages of the Reptilian family, perhaps Tyrannosaurian. Brontosaurian seems highly unlikely.

  3. Barbarian names (and languages for that matter) is a good topic to bring up on Language Hat although much too broad to discuss in any great depth on internet postings.
    The Scythians – They were an Indo-Iranian people like the Persians, however the two nations did not get along and the Scythians even had a tendancy to ally themselves with the Greeks against the Persians. The only Scythian language descendent today is Ossetian, spoken in the Caucasus Mountains (in northern Georgia). Joseph Stalin was part Ossetian (on his father’s side)
    The Huns – They appear to have been a north-Turkic speaking people. The nearest relative of Hunnic today is Chuvash spoken between the outskirts of Moscow and the Ural Mountains.
    Isaurian – These tough, tenacious people in the Taurus Mountains of southern Asia Minor who lived by brigandry and banditry were a constant problem for the Romans who never gained much more than nominal control over them like the Albanians, Basques, Bretons and Welsh. As late as the rule of Emperor Aurelian (c. 270-75 A.D.) we read that Roman legions were still fighting them. Mario Pei classifies their language as “Asianic” along with other little known languages in the region like Bythinian, Cappadocian, Pisidian, Carian , Mysian, Lycaonian and Lydian. Since the Greeks and Romans never recorded any of it that we know of, information is extremely hard to come by. A British journal “Anatolian Studies” however, says that many Isaurian names began with the prefixes Kid-, Kidl- and Kidr- and that the name ‘Gidlasis’ found in an inscription is probably an Isaurian name in Hellenized form. The journal also says that ‘Nena’, a common female name in the Taurus Mountains during the Roman period may have been Isaurian too. “Anatolian Studies” says that Pisidian names apparently contained the element Bar- in many of them: Barbax, Barbikon, Barbollas, Bargades etc. just to name a few.

  4. Correction: Bythinia should read Bithynia (pronounced) Bith-ew-nee-uh in Ancient Greek. The original Bithynians were non-Greek speaking though probably all Greek speaking by the end of the 3rd century B.C.. The Roman Emperor Hadrian’s male lover and companion, Antinoues, was a native of Bithynia.

  5. You’re all wrong. Standard history’s wrong. I’ve just found out the truth: the Huns come from Hawaii (scroll down).

  6. It’s a sunny Budapest morning, I have just scored a glorious victory at Tetris, and now you force me to dig up my copy of “Khazar Studies: An Historic-philological Inquiry into the Origins of the Khazars” by Peter Golden (Akedemiai Kiado, Budapest, 1980.) Well, there goes my day.
    Page 28. Ahem (clears throat. Reads…)
    “The name Hun can best be explained on the basis of Turkic, or at any case Altaic linguistics: Hun=Turk. kun (“people” Mong. kumun (man) (note Hung. “him” [male] Vogul “xum”, Zurjat “komi” Samoyed “kum, kume”)
    An analysis of the Hunnic language is made difficult by two factors: 1. the very few remnants of Hunnic in our souces 2. the multi-national character of the Hunnic tribal union, to which , aside from Altaians, Goths, Alans, and perhaps Slavs and others were joined in a fashion typical of the nomadic state. The names of the bulk of the Hunnic chieftains, however, seem to be Turkic {Oybarsius – Aybars, Mundiuchos-Munjuq, Kreka/Rekan-Ariqan, Ellac-Ilik, Ernac/Hernac-Ir-nik, Dengizix-=Turkic Tengiz, Deniz…)
    [If we flip a few pages down to page 47, we get "A note on Bulgar Language]
    “The chief criterion for distinguishing Ogur Turks from the rest of Turkdom is language. Some scholars would argue that Bulgar/Ogur Turkic is not Turkic at all but a form of Altaic very closely related to Turkic, which separated from the latter in the pre-Turkic state. Thus, N. Poppe (Intro to Altaic Ling. Wiesbaden, 1965) writes: “The ancestor of Chuvash and Common Turkic constituted a unity which preceded in time the appearance of Common Turkic. This unity can be called pre-Turkic. The question, however, of whether Oguric is aberrant Turkic or Common Turkic – Oguric being the more conservative, i.e., more Altaic – as interesting as it may be, lies beyond the scope of this work. Chuvash is the only living descendant of Ogur Turkic, but it has undergone considerable influence from both common Turkic (Kazan Tatar) and non-Turkic (Finno Ugric and Russian.)
    Now, back to Tetris!

  7. Hun=Turk. kun (“people” Mong. kumun (man) (note Hung. “him” [male] Vogul “xum”, Zurjat “komi” Samoyed “kum, kume”).
    Unfortunately my Anglo-Saxon Dictionary is not to be found at the moment, but the Anglo-Saxon word for “man” is, I believe, “gumun”. Probably the Mongols and Anglo-Saxons all split from the huns during their Hawaiian stages of history.
    The Mongol word for the Saxons of Central Europe is “Sesut”. The Sesut were the people who so terribly slandered Vlad Dracula.
    Has anyone else hear read any of Gabriel Ronay’s books? His research is fascinating and his conclusions somewhat speculative. I don’t think that “The Tartar Khan’s Englishman” deserved the bad review it got from Morgan.

  8. John: “thoroughlu Turkish” is sheer genius. And I have to agree that Tarasicodissa sounds more Tyrannosaurian than Brontosaurian.
    Brian: Many thanks for the Isaurian info! But forget the Emperor Aurelian; they weren’t subdued until the end of the fifth century. Ostrogorsky says: “The accession of Anastasius I had meant the end of Isaurian influence, but the Emperor had to wage systematic warfare against the Isaurians before their resistance was broken (498).” (Earlier in the century, poor John Chrysostom had his exile to Armenia made even more difficult by a massive Isaurian uprising in the regions he had to travel through.) I’d like to read the article you describe, so if you’d provide author, volume, and page info I’d be grateful. (I’ll also have to get hold of this book, which has an article by Hugh Elton on the Isaurians: “Elton is able to show that outsiders began to construct a definite Isaurian identity only after Zeno the Isaurian became emperor and thus created an interest in what it was that made Isaurians what they were. Yet at the same time Elton shows that the behaviour of groups designated as Isaurian in the sources cannot be attributed to, and was not determined by, that ethnicity.”)
    zaelic: Thanks, and good luck on your next game!

  9. Weren’t the Isaurians ultimately brought down by their love of billboard advertising and suburban architecture? Or am I pronouncing that wrong?

  10. xiaolongnu says:

    Huns in Hawaii! The real question is, of course, this: I’m teaching a graduate seminar in the fall (“Representations of Ethnic Identity in the Visual Culture of Premodern China”), in which we look at images of Huns/Xiongnu, Xianbei, Alans, Wuhuan and the rest of that crowd. Does this mean students should be able to take it for Hawaiian Studies credit? That would be one way to get my registration numbers up.

  11. Xiaolongnu, would there be any way to get a syllabus or any of the materials from that class? I’m very interested.
    I’ve written something about barbarian ethnicity which I’ve put up at my URL. It’s a major interest of mine.

  12. mark davis says:

    Could anyone tell me a reference for mongol children learning to ride horseback as young as 3 years of age? I read this in a book about the history of warfare 10 years ago. Please reply to I’m using this for my thesis on hominid behavior and capabilities of young children.
    Thanks for the help!
    Mark Davis

  13. Non of you can realize that you spoke Turkish dont you..But, I am going to tell you the Truth..All Europeans spoke Turkic languages before the so called Indo-European language came..
    And I am going to tell you what is indo-European..IT IS A CREOLE!!!
    A mixture of sumerian(Dravidian), old babylonian(semitic ) and basque(or caucasian)
    Believe me people..There is No indo_European language..This is corrupted semitic.NOTHING ELSE!!! They Japhetidic tribes(related with the semitics) came to Europe and they changed the whole European languages.If you dont believe me look at howthe Greeks look like-Like Arabs!!

  14. Language Hat,
    Re: Isaurian names and your comment “I’d like to read the article you describe, so if you’d provide author, volume, and page info I’d be grateful.”
    So far, I haven’t had time to look up the specific issue of “Anatolian Studies” that the article which talked about some of the Isaurian names appeared in. However I believe it was only the past few years, maybe 2002 or 2003. The 2004 issue which my nearby university just got also has an article in it (by N.P. Milner of the University of London) about some personal names that were used in East Phrygia, Lycia, Pisidia and Isauria during the Roman period. Any comments or questions please feel free to answer back.
    — Brian

  15. Language Hat,
    I found it. There is a little bit of information regarding the names of Isauria in an article in “Anatolian Studies” (the 1997 issue – Volume XLVII, p.43) by Tyler Jo Smith called “Votive Reliefs From Balboura And Its Environs.”
    Of course, the Isaurians were about the only barbarians (or maybe semi-barbarians)living in the region. Most of the surrounding Hellenistic population was very civilized for the times with high literacy rates too. The Isaurians however were one of these small but tenacious groups of peoples like the Basques and Bretons, the Welsh and the Picts, and the Albanians whom the Romans couldn’t completely suppress.

  16. Thanks! They sound like an interesting bunch, though one probably wouldn’t have wanted to get too close.

  17. Isaurian is semitic according to caucasians. It’s’a language of caucasus

  18. The Cilicians and Solymi, as well as the as the kindred Pisidians and Isaurians, were peoples of the Semitic race; who entering Asia Minor by the pass round the Gulf of Issus, overspread the sea-board beneath the chain of Taurus, and occupied its slopes and heights.” (The Ancient history of the East from the Earliest Times to the Conquest Philip Smith. p 474).

  19. Isaurian and Cilician likely were descendants of Luwian and related Anatolian languages.

    The region was the last holdout of neo-Hititte states which spoke Luwian well into classical antiquity.

  20. Tolkien on surnames (from “English and Welsh”):

    As a mere introducer or curtain-raiser, not as an expert, I will speak now a little further about these two languages, English and Welsh, in their contact and contrast, as coinhabitants of Britain. My glance will be directed to the past. Today English and Welsh are still in close contact (in Wales), little for the good of Welsh one might say who loves the idiom and the beautiful word-form of uncontaminated Cymraeg. But though these pathological developments are of great interest to philologists, as are diseases to doctors, they require for their treatment a native speaker of the modern tongue. I speak only as an amateur, and address the Saeson and not the Cymry; my view is that of a Sayce and not a Waugh.

    I use these surnames – both well known (the first especially in the annals of philology) – since Sayce is probably a name of Welsh origin (Sais) but means an Englishman, while Waugh is certainly of English origin (Walh) but means a Welshman; it is in fact the singular of Wales. These two surnames may serve both to remind students of the great interest of the surnames current in England, to which Welsh is often the key, and to symbolize the age-long interpenetration of the peoples speaking English and Welsh.


    Among the things envisaged by Mr O’Donnell, one of the lines of inquiry that seems indeed to have specially attracted him, was nomenclature, particularly personal and family names. Now English surnames have received some attention, though not much of it has been well informed or conducted scientifically. But even such an essay as that of Max Fцrster in 1921 (Keltisches Wortgut im Englischen) shows that many ‘English’ surnames, ranging from the rarest to the most familiar, are linguistically derived from Welsh (or British), from place-names, patronymics, personal names, or nick-names; or arc in part so derived, even when that origin is no longer obvious. Names such as Gough, Dewey, Yarnal, Merrick, Onions, or Vowles, to mention only a few.

    This kind of inquiry is, of course, significant for the purpose of discovering the etymological origin of elements current in English speech, and characteristic of modern Englishry, of which names and surnames are a very important feature even though they do not appear in ordinary dictionaries. But for other purposes its significance is less certain.

    One must naturally first set aside the names derived from places long anglicized in language. For example, even if Harley in Shropshire could be shown to be beyond doubt of the same origin as Harlech (Harddlech) in Wales, nothing instructive concerning the relations of the English and Welsh peoples arises from the occurrence of Harley (derived from the Shropshire place) as a family name in England. The etymology of Harley remains an item in place-names research, and such evidence as it affords for the relations of Welsh (or British) and English refers to the distant past, for which the later surname has no significance. Similarly with the surname Eccles, even when that place-name or place-name element is not under suspicion of having nothing to do with ecclesia.

    The case may be different when a name is derived from a place actually in Wales; but even such names could migrate far and early. A probable example is Gower: best known to English students as the name of a fourteenth-century poet whose language was strongly tinctured with the dialect of Kent, the whole breadth of Ynys Prydain from the region of Gwyr. But with regard to such names, and indeed to others not derived from place-names, the Welsh origin of which is more certain or more obvious – such as Griffiths, Lloyd, Meredith, or Cadwallader – one should reflect that the patrilinear descent of names makes them misleading.

    English or Anglo-Norman names were no doubt adopted in Wales far more freely and extensively than were Welsh names at any period on the other side; but it is, I suppose, hazardous to assume that everyone who bore a Welsh name in the past, from which eventually a surname might be derived – Howell or Maddock or Meredith or the like – was necessarily of Welsh origin or a Welsh-speaker. It is in the early modern period that names of this sort first become frequent in English records, but caution is, no doubt, necessary even in dealing with ancient times and the beginning of the contact between the two languages.

    The enormous popularity, to which place-names and other records bear witness, of the Cad/Chad group of names or name elements in early England must be held to indicate the adoption of a name as such. The anglicization of its form (from which the Chad variety proceeds) further supports this view. The West-Saxon royal genealogy begins with the ‘Celtic’ name Cerdic, and contains both Cadda/Ceadda and Ceadwalla. Leaving aside the problems which this genealogy presents to historians, a point to note in the present context is not so much the appearance of late British names in a supposedly ‘Teutonic’ royal house, as their appearance in a markedly anglicized form that must be due to their being borrowed as names, and to their accommodation like ordinary loan-words to English speech-habits. One deduction at least can be safely made: the users of these names had changed their language and spoke English, not any kind of British.


    So it was again when new invaders came to Britain. In later times it cannot be assumed that a man who bore a ‘Danish’ name was (in whole or part) of Scandinavian ‘blood’ or language, or even of Danish sympathies. Ulfcytel is as Norse a name as Ceadwalla is British, yet it was borne by a most valiant opponent of the Danes, the alderman of East Anglia, of whom it is recorded that the Danes themselves said that no man on Angelcynne had ever done them more damage in fighting.3 Not every Brián and Niál in Iceland had Irish blood in his veins.

    Mixture of peoples is, of course, one of the ways in which the borrowing of names takes place. Mothers have, no doubt, always played an important part in this process. Yet one should reflect that even when the adoption of a name was due in the first instance to, say, intermarriage, this may have been an event of small general importance. And once a name has been adopted it may spread quite independently. When we come to patrilinear surnames it is obvious that these may multiply without any addition to the ‘blood’ to which their etymology would seem to testify, indeed rather with the extinction of it as an effective ingredient in the make-up, physical or mental, of the bearers of the name.

    I am not a German, though my surname is German (anglicized like Cerdic) – my other names are Hebrew, Norse, Greek, and French. I have inherited with my surname nothing that originally belonged to it in language or culture, and after 200 years the ‘blood’ of Saxony and Poland is probably a negligible physical ingredient.

  21. On which basis do you say isaurian is aryan language , aryan language shows common roots with dravidian languages and sumerian langage mothers of tamil language , sumerian being a dravidian language
    also aryan language shows common roots with semitic language so why telling a language is aryan rather than semitics or influed by sumerian ?

  22. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t even know where to begin with this mess of wrong.

    Maybe first take a look ?

  23. David Marjanović says:

    …uh, the link is correct, I just wanted it to read “here”. :-]

Speak Your Mind