They Perished Like Avars.

I was looking through Vasmer’s etymological dictionary when I ran across the entry обрин [obrin] (plural обре [obre]), the Old Russian word for Avar. Vasmer says it’s related to a Slavic word for ‘giant’ (Slovenian óbǝr, Czech оbr, Slovak оbоr, Old Polish obrzym, Polish olbrzym) and Byzantine Greek ᾽Αβαρ (plural ᾽Αβαρεις, ᾽Αβαροι), but beyond that its history is unclear. When I googled the Russian word I found the Old Russian phrase погибоша аки обре ‘they perished like Avars,” which comes from the Povest’ vremennykh let and is apparently used ironically to mean ‘they vanished without a trace.’ I thought that was piquant enough to pass along.


  1. earthtopus says:

    My Rejzek (an etymology of Czech) has an entry for “obr”! It describes the word as “commonly associated” with the name Avar but is less certain that that name is actually the source of the word for ogre. If I’m reading him right, he seems to think that the first attestation of the word in Old Russian, far from the limits of Avar power, needs to be taken into account. He closes with citations of Gothic abrs “strong, powerful” and Greek óbrimos “strong, violent” as words with more and less convincing connections.

    I can see his counterexample, but it is possible some Slavs that might have gone one to speak Old Russian would have had the chance to come across the Avars as they moved west towards the Danube (and their eventual meeting with the eventual speakers of Czech, Slovak, Upper Sorbian, Polish, and Slovenian (the modern Slavic languages other than Russian with a reflex) as well.

  2. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I always get the Avars confused with the Alans. Never can remember which one there’s two of.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    I always get the Avars confused with the Alans. Never can remember which one there’s two of.

    Both, IIRC, but in one case (Alans) they’re likely to be the same, and in the other (Avars) they’re probably not.

    On the phrase itself – I recently realized that the word обре (if it really comes from “Avar” and not something else) is yet another witness for Proto-Slavic *a (where *o is expected).

  4. I don’t see where the irony comes in. The Avars have vanished without a trace, given that the modern Avars aren’t the same folks.

  5. I don’t see where the irony comes in. The Avars have vanished without a trace, given that the modern Avars aren’t the same folks.

    The irony would be in comparing whatever modern person or entity you’re talking about to the Avars, and putting a modern-day situation in the context of the Old Russian chronicles.

  6. The issue of the extent of Avar power in Eastern Europe is not settled.

    There is somehow a persistent conception that it’s eastern border run at Carpathian mountains, but this is not supported by archaeological evidence.

    I think Avars ruled all over modern Ukraine, including most of the territories where Kievan Rus emerged several centuries later.

    See found in Eastern Ukraine.

    In the literature it is linked to Bulgars, but the objects (Byzantine coins used to paying tribute to Avars) found seem to imply that it was treasure of Avar Khagan

  7. Was rereading this passage in the Chronicle last night. Not too ironic – rather, the chronicler monk expresses a linguist’s familiar awe about the idiomatic expressions of his time still retaining the memory of the forgotten historical events. The Chronicler explains that he’s familiar with the “disappeared like the Avars” metaphor even though over 2 centuries passed since their rout and nobody could remember anything for certain about the Avars anymore. (He even seems to be confused between the Oghurs, contemporaneous with the Avarian invasions, and the later, and similarly named Hungarians, spinning the notion of the “two kinds of Hungarians”, the White ones and the Black ones). In a typical tall-chronicle fashion the Avars become giants who rode carts driven by groups of Slavic women (the Dulebs from River Bug, it explains).

    The topic suddenly sprung back to live this summer with the publication of two ancient DNA papers. One looked at the late Avars of the Longobard migration era, and found that some of them were indistinguishable from today’s Western Slavs. Another looked at the earlier warrior graves from the zenith of the Avar power, and they appeared to be East Asian in composition.

  8. Fascinating! DNA studies are really exploding.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    References or links, please!

  10. VI Century data (open access)

    Avar-era burials (AV1 and AV2) were sort of a byproduct in this study, but the genomes ended up openly accessible as well

  11. VI Century data (open access)

    AV1 / AV2 are the two graves sampled essentially by chance

  12. The system keeps deleting my other link 🙂 where, along with dozens Longobardi, the reasearchers snagged a couple of (not really wanted) Avar burials in the same cemetery in Pannonia.
    It’s in Nature Communications entitled
    Understanding 6th-century barbarian social organization and migration through paleogenomics

  13. Sorry, your comments got caught in moderation — I freed them as soon as I woke up!

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Very interesting, but I hope the “phylogenetic” analysis in the preprint is replaced with something closer to the state of the art before peer-reviewed publication. Neighbor-joining in PHYLIP?!? Which century is this?

  15. Another new paper attempting to show a correlation between genetic and linguistic proximity in the Uralic languages, and peculiarly finding no trace of the Avars or indeed “the original Hungarians”.
    An important observation is that although most Finno-Ugric peoples are substantially genetically similar to their neighbors, they present with a large swath of genetic ancestry best represented in Khanty and Mansi, as well as Selkups and non-Uralic Kets.

    In the Volga-Ural region and further to the North, most neighbors of the Finno-Ugric peoples (including Turkic Chuvash / Bashker / Tatar and Slavic Northern Russians) are only a little behind in their share of the same (presumably Proto-Uralic / Paleosiberian component) which isn’t too surprising considering the demographic history of the region.

    Estonians possess very little of this presumed PU DNA, and aren’t that different in this respect from their Latvian neighbors (perhaps the extinct Livonians are responsible for the latter?). But in Hungarians, they couldn’t see anything “Proto-Uralic” in their DNA at all.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    If I read it correctly, they say that while there’s a significant shared ancestry separating most Uralic speaking groups from their non-Uralic neighbours, it’s unclear exactly how much of the “Sibirian” ancestry in Northeast Europe that may rather be attributable to other events, like the one that brought Siberian genes to Northern Fennoscandia. (I bring this up only to have another chance to use the word Ymyjakhtakh,)

  17. Very interesting, thanks for the tip!

    The Khantys and Mansis have quite obviously gone through a language shift, which I think makes it seem likely that this “Khanty–Mansi-like” cluster K9 does not represent Proto-Uralic speakers, but rather some earlier stage of population movement (as I believe Trond is also saying). This would go well with its absence from Estonian and Hungarian: early southerly latitudinal expansion, followed by spreading northwards with admixture from earlier populations, and the later extirpation of Uralic from most of its original early range by Russian/Turkic (/? Iranian). At least in the Finnish/Estonian case, we know quite well that the Proto-Finnic homeland was in northern Baltia, and that Finns have partial Sami ancestry. Shame that Ingrians proper / Votes / Livonians were not sampled here, but there will be time for that later still (the languages are all moribund-to-extinct, but this is due to language shift, not demic replacement).

    One intriguing sub-result is how this study also shows that the Mansi have a particularly large range of genetic variation, seemingly in three components — per Fig. 2a a western group close to Mordvins and North Russians, a central group close to Komis, and an eastern group close to Khantys.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    (as I believe Trond is also saying)

    Not as strongly, but yes. When the K9 signal is strongest in periferal regions and in Ket, it looks like a substrate to me. In North Fennoscandia the language shift from some Non-Uralic language to Sami happened in the first centuries CE or thereabouts. The relation between Siberian and Finnic populations disappears at K11. I’m not sure what that means, but maybe a deep split in the shared Siberian ancestry.

    I agree that the Mansi results are interesting. The Ob-Yenisei cluster of Eastern Mansi, Khanty, Selkup and Nenets could well have been Yeniseian speakers before the shift to Uralic. That fits what I’ve heard about toponymic evidence in the Ob-Yenisei basin, but it’s in the wrong direction for the Dene-Yeniseian link. I’d like to see what happens if they add North American data.

  19. There are about no Yeniseian loanwords in Ob-Ugric though, alas. My money would be on some entirely extinct group. Though I’ve seen at least one guy propose that some of the toponymic evidence has been interpreted backwards and would rather indicate Ugric substrate or loanwords in Yeniseian.

    Mansi, Khanty, Selkup and Nenets share a few linguistic areal features too, e.g. retention of *w as labiovelar, or being the only Uralic languages that neither retain geminates nor have introduced voiced stops. The latter I’ve already suggested earlier as a common substrate feature.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    So a shared unknown substrate in Ket and “Ob-Yenisei Uralic”. Sakhartya? On another note, the real outlier in Uralic is Nganasan. What’s going on there?

    I wouldn’t be very surprised if the Yeniseians turned out to be relative newcomers to Central Siberia. I must have said before that I suspect a Dene-Yeniseian homeland on the Arctic Coast, with a first spread zone from Yenisei to Mackenzie (a range of a similar extent as Eskimoan) and migrations up the rivers being later developments, maybe even as a result of new groups spreading on the coast, either coming down from the Baikal area or north through the Bering Strait.

    When I said North American data would be interesting, it’s also because of the cluster of Koryaks, Chukchis, and partly Nivkhs and Evens.

  21. Sakhartya?

    If you mean the Sikhirtya: no, they were from the Barents Sea coast and they probably had nothing in particular to do with any Paleosiberians. If we want a label for a hypothetical Ob-Ugric++ substrate, already Helimski suggests that the name “Yugra” could be even pre-Uralic. Seemingly the implication would be that this name has been only folk-etymologically associated with Onogur > Hungary (similar to how the h has been added by folk-etymological association with the Huns).

  22. Trond Engen says:

    If you mean the Sikhirtya: no, they were from the Barents Sea coast and they probably had nothing in particular to do with any Paleosiberians.

    Yes, thanks, stupid error. I love the word Sikhirtya almost as much as Ymyjakhtakh, But Yugra is a good word too. I agree that the name Sikhirtya is known from too far away to be applicable here, but I also think they could have come to the Barents coast from the east, e.g. in the K9 (per above) spreading event.

  23. On another note, the real outlier in Uralic is Nganasan.

    Freshly reporting from a seminar earlier today…

    Nganasans have a decent share of seemingly non-Samoyedic vocabulary, mythology and cultural traits (e.g. reindeer hunting rather than husbandry), which have for long been suspected to be substrate influence. This would check out chronologically. Apparently archeology shows southern Siberian ceramics spreading to the Arctic Sea around the first half of the first millennum CE, followed by long-term cultural stability ranging to the present day, and this transition would make a natural point for the northern expansion of Samoyedic. (Driven by the domestication of reindeer, probably?) Human settlement however goes much further back, even on the Taimyr peninsula.

    While previous research has not managed to find any loanword connections, apparently V. Gusev has recently identified a handful of suspiciously specific syntactic commonalities between Nganasan and Yukaghir. This might be the first real lead on the identity of the substrate.

    I must have said before that I suspect a Dene-Yeniseian homeland on the Arctic Coast, with (…) migrations up the rivers being later developments

    A coastal homeland does not match up very well with how almost all of the groups are today inland. The only marine mammal hunters are the Dena’ina in southern Alaska, which possibly involves language shift from an Aleut substrate. Yeniseians as newcomers sounds good to me, but a Central Asian route of entry seems better already from how the Yeniseian languages get more diverse towards the south, not the north.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Freshly reporting from a seminar earlier today…

    Wow, thanks! If you look for a candidate for a substrate in Nganasan, and base it on nothing but maps, Yukaghir is a pretty obvious candidate. Based on nothing but maps, I’ve also thought that there ought to be a Yeniseian substrate in Enets.

    When I want the Arctic Coast to be the homeland and/or route for Dene-Yeniseian, it’s one of those hypotheses of mine that tend to get knocked down by the slightest of evidence. But disregarding that for a moment longer, my three arguments are (1) it’s the shortest route, (2) those who live there often travel long distances on a regular basis, and (3) we know of a language family with a similarly wide circumpolar distribution. If we think the Yeniseians came from the south, they are so riverine that it’s hard to see how they could have crossed from anywhere by foot, and I want to suggest that they specialized in transport of Taimyr bronze to the Seima-Turbino workshops, gradually increasing their reach by boat from the southern end of their known realm. But this trade could also just as well have pulled them up from the coast.

    I gather that there were two culturally distinct centres of bronze production in the Taimyr peninsula, one western towards the Yenisei, with ties to the south and west, and one on the eastern side, connected to the surrounding hunting culture. We might hypothesise that the western centre was ‘Yugri’ and the eastern Proto-Yukaghir. Or either one could have been Yeniseian.


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