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

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