The Name of the Black Sea.

I found this exchange in an Indo-European Linguistics group I’m a member of interesting enough to post here. The poster said:

There was an interesting Latin word in the designation of the Latin old name of Black sea – Axenum aequor. I understood that axenum from anti-xenium (unfriendly), where Latin xenium (gift given to guests or foreign ambassadors, often of food). Also Greek – ξένῐον (xénion). What is the general etymology and origin of this word? How related to Russian gostinec (gift from a guest, often in the form of food) or siny (dark-blue)?

Our old pal Piotr Gąsiorowski responded:

Latin has nothing to do with it. Latin names on maps only reflect their Greek prototypes: ὁ Ἄξεινος or Ἄξενος ‘the Inhospitable (Sea)’ was one of the Greek names for the Black Sea, then replaced by the euphemism ὁ Εὔξε(ι)νος ‘the Hospitable’. When latinised, they became Axenum, Euxinum etc., with the gender changed to neuter after Latin mare.

Of course both are derived from ξένος, Epic/Ionic ξεῖνος, Doric ξένϝος. Myc. (Linear B) ke-se-nu-wo < *ksenwos 'guest, foreigner'. Nothing to do with any colour words. A relationship to *gostь < *gʰostis is not impossible if both derive from PIE *gʰes- 'eat' (a verb root attested only in Indo-Iranian), assuming *gʰs-en- > *ksen- in Proto-Greek. But the relationship is uncertain and is at best a “root equation”.

There is also an explanation of ὁ Ἄξεινος as a Greek folk etymology of Iranian *axšaina- ‘dark-coloured’. It was popularised by Vasmer, and has become widely believed. The word is authenticalIy Iranian (Av. axšaēna etc.); I don’t, however, know of any evidence the the Iranians actually used it to name the Black Sea.

Thomas Wier added:

Yes, Axenum is direct Latinization of the original Πόντος Ἄξεινος, which is in turn a folk-etymologization of the Persian *Axshayna ‘dark-grey/blue’. The Georgians had a truly separate word for this before they borrowed the Greek root: ზღვა სპერისა zghva Sp’erisa ‘Sea of the Sasperi’ (an Anatolian tribe mentioned by Herodotus and Xenophon). I wrote more on this here.

And Martin Kümmel wrote:

There is indeed no evidence that the Black Sea was called axšaina- by Iranians, see F. de Blois, The name of the Black Sea. In: Maria Macuch, Mauro Maggi, Werner Sundermann (eds.), Iranian languages and texts from Iran and Turan. Ronald E. Emmerick memorial volume, 1-8, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. In the same paper, it is also argued that the Greek evidence rather points to ἄξεινος being secondary vs. εὔξεινος, and both only secondary epithets of the real “name” of the Black sea, i.e. Πόντος (while the normal word for ‘sea’ is ϑάλασσα, ϑάλαττα).

(There is also some discussion about the actual color of the Black Sea.) I will of course be interested in what the Hattery has to add.

Not worth a post of its own, but some people might be interested in this Map of find spots showing all sites where Tocharian texts are known to have been discovered. Alas, the links don’t seem to work yet.

Comments

  1. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Понт Авксинский and how it became Эвксинский is the overused part of Russian legends about the Black Sea. The names are still used affectionately, or to convery the aura of antiquity

  2. This Encyclopædia Iranica article by Rüdiger Schmitt claims that the Red Sea and Black Sea were named for colors associated with cardinal directions: black=north, red=south, white=west, green or light blue=east. Schmitt also accepts the Iranian *axšaina- source uncritically, so maybe the posters quoted are aware of this article and have already discounted it? Is this color/direction business worth anything?

  3. I would question that ϑάλασσα is the normal Greek word for ‘sea’.

    I think it was proven that ϑάλασσα is from the pre-Greek substrate and very likely of non-Indo-European origin.

    It then logically follows that Πόντος (literally “path”) – unquestionably Indo-European word which gave us among other things name of the Russian president – has to be the older, original word for sea which proto-Greeks used when they lived in the steppes near the Black Sea back in the early Bronze Age.

  4. Nothing can be “proven” to be from the pre-Greek substrate. That language is hypothetical. It’s a good hypothesis, but there’s no direct evidence for it.

  5. In any case, “normal” doesn’t imply “native”.

    Even if there were proto-Greeks in some specific sense (rather than PIE speakers) on the shore of the Black Sea at some point, I don’t see how we can know for sure what they called it. That said, I haven’t read the paper Kümmel cites, which sounds interesting.

  6. (The graphic diphthong in Ἄξεινος is of course spurious, which may be a point against the *axšaina- connection.)

  7. Trond Engen says:

    Not worth a post of its own, but some people might be interested in this Map of find spots showing all sites where Tocharian texts are known to have been discovered.

    Frustratingly chimeric but very interesting. It made me realize that the large freshwater lake Bosten is at the center of the Tocharian distribution.

  8. Concernant l’étymologie de ξένος, voir l’article “Le nom indo-européen de l’hôte”, https://www.academia.edu/1931738/Le_nom_indo_europ%C3%A9en_de_lh%C3%B4te

  9. Merci bien!

    Résumé : Dans l’étude qui va suivre, on propose une nouvelle analyse morphologique du nom indo-européen de l’hôte (i.e. *gʰós-ti-). La doctrine commune, qui a passé en dogme, se contente d’en rapprocher la racine i.-e. *gʰes- « manger » (véd. GHAS- « dévorer »), sans autre forme de procès : le *gʰós-ti- serait un « commensal », mais le vocalisme o est étonnant, et le détail de la formation ne se laisse pas préciser. De plus, il n’est pas facile de justifier la valeur de réciprocité qu’on surprend dans le lat. hospes m. « invité / invitant », et qui se prolonge dans le fr. hôte: « celui qui accueille » (emprunté par l’ang. host) et « celui qui est accueilli » (= ang. guest). Cet étymon i.-e. *gʰós-ti- pourrait s’expliquer comme le singulatif secondaire d’un collectif *gʰós-t-ōi̯ f. « tablée, ensemble des convives » (l’hôte et ses invités), lui-même étant fondé sur un acrostatique *gʰós-t- f. « action de manger, repas ».

  10. David Marjanović says:

    It then logically follows that Πόντος (literally “path”) – unquestionably Indo-European word which gave us among other things name of the Russian president – has to be the older, original word for sea which proto-Greeks used when they lived in the steppes near the Black Sea back in the early Bronze Age.

    There’s no logic in that; Πόντος could have started as a kenning like the Old English “swan-road”.

    Nothing can be “proven” to be from the pre-Greek substrate.

    Well, no, but not only has no IE etymology been discovered, the word doesn’t look IE at all: three syllables, no identifiable suffixes, all three vowels are /a/…

    Where Beekes went overboard is in the assumption that there was exactly one such substrate.

  11. So the proto-Greeks before coming to Greece had something derived from PIE *móri?

    They also lost PIE word for “death” which is derived from same root in PIE.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    Guillaume Jacques: Concernant l’étymologie de ξένος, voir l’article “Le nom indo-européen de l’hôte”,

    I’ll read the article before I ask what this means for the derivation of Latin hostia.

    The Tocharian map made me think once again about the ecological niche of the piedmont oasis. The Silk Road from the Caspian Sea to China is almost entirely a string of piedmont oases, meltwater rivers feeding fertile valleys or plains before fanning out into inland deltas. It would be interesting to investigate them not so much as points on a road but as one contiguous, ever-developing culture, sustained from the first appearance of the BMAC and until the modern era made the Silk Road obsolete.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    They also lost PIE word for “death”

    Judging from Hittite, mer- is just a mealy-mouthed euphemism “disappear”, anyway. The proper root is neḱ-, as in Welsh* angau.

    *Y Goron Driphlyg!

  14. PlasticPaddy says:

    So necare = totmachen

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    Deadify.

  16. the word doesn’t look IE at all: three syllables, no identifiable suffixes, all three vowels are /a/…

    You could, just for fun, posit a PIE *dʰĺ̥t-ya or *dʰĺ̥ḱ-ya which (I think) would regularly yield θάλασσα. But of course there’s no evidence for any such form, and Hesychius lists the inconvenient Macedonian(?) δαλαγχαν.

    πόντος isn’t the only Greek “sea” word that could go back to PIE, though: πέλαγος may be from *pelh₂- with some meaning like “broad” or “flat” (cf. palma), though Beekes naturally thinks it’s pre-Greek.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    The proper root is neḱ-

    Also wel- as in Valhalla.

    which (I think) would regularly yield θάλασσα

    I’m not sure if they’d yield -άλ- or -λά-, but probably not -άλα-. Also, we should probably expect -o- variants in some dialect or other.

  18. You’re right of course — I was thinking of the παλάμη rule, CRHC > CVRVC when the resonant is accented, but left out the laryngeal: read *dʰĺ̥h₂t-ya / *dʰĺ̥h₂ḱ-ya.

  19. Haun Saussy says:

    Let Byron’s fine rhyme be here remembered:

    “The wind swept down the Euxine, and the wave
    Broke foaming o’er the blue Symplegades;
    ‘T is a grand sight from off the Giant’s Grave
    To watch the progress of those rolling seas
    Between the Bosphorus, as they lash and lave
    Europe and Asia, you being quite at ease;
    There’s not a sea the passenger e’er pukes in,
    Turns up more dangerous breakers than the Euxine.”

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Don Juan strikes back!

  21. And of course if it turns over one day that’s the end of the whole area, because 90% of the water is anoxic and supersaturated with hydrogen sulfide. The Unfriendly Sea indeed.

    I note that Axeinos and Euxinos first appear, as far as our records go, in Pindar.

  22. Homer doesn’t mention the Black Sea under any name, and it’s not clear how much was known about it when the poems were composed. There are references to peoples and rivers of the north shore of Asia Minor, and one (I think) mention of the voyage of the Argo without any geographical details, but no specific reference to the sea itself, the Propontis, Achilles’ afterlife on Leuke, Prometheus’ punishment on Mt. Caucasus, etc. The first Greek mention of any of the European Black Sea rivers seems to be the Ister / Danube in Hesiod’s Theogony, composed around the time of the earliest Greek colonization of the region.

  23. De Blois’s article mentions the colour symbolism, incidentally — in fact, for him that’s the origin of the name, in Chinese-influenced directional colour symbolism brought in by the Turks. He makes a very compelling case that this is a relatively recent (medieval) way of referring to the Black Sea, and that it was not a ‘Black’ Sea in antiquity, ever.

    The other main points of his article are that the a- forms of Akseinos should be regarded as intentional poetic variations of Eukseinos, used in contexts where the ‘inhospitableness’ of the sea is being emphasized; and that Iranic *axšaina- didn’t mean ‘black’, but ‘green’, ‘blue’, or perhaps at best ‘dark blue’.

    None of which strictly disproves the Iranic etymology of Akseinos, of course. It _could_ be the case that the more archaic variant was only retained by poets in a place where its folk-etymological sense of ‘inhospitable’ made sense, and otherwise the more popular folk-etymological alteration of ‘hospitable’ had even in the earliest recorded periods become the normal name. And if anything, the sense of ‘dark blue’ would probably be more appropriate to a sea than ‘black’.

    But still, I think he makes the case well enough that the Iranic etymology is much more complicated and has no direct evidence. Theory (a) is that the Greeks found the Black Sea and gave it two epithets: ‘the path’ and ‘the hospitable’ (de Blois compares the ‘Pacific Ocean’), both of which were used as proper names. Sometimes poets had a bit of fun and altered the first syllable to call it ‘the inhospitable’. Any similarity to to *axšaina- is coincidence.

    Theory (b) is that Iranic speakers called the sea ‘the dark blue’ (plausible, but entirely speculative); that this was adapted into Greek and reformed on a folk-etymological basis first to ‘the inhospitable’; that this was subsequently largely displaced by ‘the hospitable’; but the older form was occasionally retained when its apparent sense was suited to poetic context.

    (B) is hardly out of the question, but is clearly the more complex theory, and lacks any direct evidence.

    Folks here might be interested in de Blois’s speculation that:

    ‘[Póntos] is presumably cognate with the widespread Indo-European word for “path” … perhaps in the sense that Pontos (the Black Sea, or possibly the land Pontos) was on the path which the Hellenes traversed in their migration to the Aegean basin.’ (p. 3)

    (The ellipses conceal the proposal that it was a general word for sea which later became a proper name, referring to ‘the sea as a pathway for ships’.)

  24. Trond Engen says:

    de Blois via Nelson Goering: ‘[Póntos] is presumably cognate with the widespread Indo-European word for “path” … perhaps in the sense that Pontos (the Black Sea, or possibly the land Pontos) was on the path which the Hellenes traversed in their migration to the Aegean basin.’ (p. 3)

    Thanks. I think I’m on the record for speculating that the Greeks (or some subset of them) came to the Aegean from Crimea by sea.

  25. Nelson Goering: Thanks, that’s a very useful summary.

  26. TR: Of course Odysseus also visits Kimmeria, but for him to have sailed to the north shore of the Black Sea is weirdly unlikely given the geography of the poem. Plainly to Homer it was only a name–“cold shore way up north.”

  27. Trond Engen says:

    It’s hard to tell what Homer knew about actual geography. It’s just not relevant to the travels of Odyssevs. He’s sent off his course and into a realm so far away that it only touches the known world at magical places, some in the Aegean, others only known from the tall tales of seafarers or from ancient myths.

  28. Boy, wouldn’t it be fun to sit down with Homer at some Aegean tavern and find out what he knew and where he was from and all that?

  29. Stu Clayton says:

    Unless it turned out to be like sitting down with Homer at Moe’s.

  30. Well, that would be fun too.

  31. Of course Odysseus also visits Kimmeria

    Right, but Homer’s Cimmerians live on the far shore of the Ocean, so if they’re to be equated with the historical Cimmerians that seems to show he had no concept of the Black Sea as such.

  32. Isn’t there a theory — or speculation — that Homer was a lot of people? It would be interesting to get them all together, ply them with ouzo, and observe the arguments about who did the most. “Rosy-fingered dawn, that’s what everyone remembers, and it was mine!” “Yeah, but I put in the wine-dark sea, and that still has people arguing over what it means!”

  33. Two people, I think — one for the Iliad and one for the Odyssey. I appreciate the arguments for it, and it may be right, but I prefer to think of one grizzled bard.

  34. John Emerson says:

    Everyone knows that Homer was a lady. Samuel Butler proved this before any of us were born.

  35. But was she called Rosie or Dawn?

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Homer: redactor of the Iliad, author of the Odyssey. Knew basically nothing about the Black Sea because only the Trojans had figured out how to get a ship through the Dardanelles against the usual wind & current, and inconveniently they were all dead or scattered.

    (…that’s the short version of two books by Eberhard Zangger, him of “oops, Luwian inscription fake after all”.)

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