We discussed the early medieval Avars in 2016 (lots of interesting genetic research in the thread); now I’ve discovered that there’s a nice fat book on them by Walter Pohl, The Avars: A Steppe Empire in Central Europe, 567–822, a 2018 revised translation of the 2015 third edition of Die Awaren. Ein Steppenvolk in Mitteleuropa 567 – 822 n. Chr. (Astonishingly, the translator does not appear to be named anywhere in the book; in the preface, Pohl says “Then the text was translated into English. I continued working on the basis of the translation and ended up introducing major revisions and updates.” This really will not do, and I cast a cold eye on both Pohl and Cornell University Press.) It’s a nice fat book (apparently the longest thing previously available in English was “a ninety-page article by H. H. Howorth in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society published in 1889″), and there’s a fair amount of Hattic material; I’ll share some excerpts. From chapter 1:

The historian of the Avars should not only gain a mastery over the Latin and Greek sources with all their nuances but must in addition deal in critical fashion with Iranian, Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, and Chinese texts, should be at home with Slavic, Hungarian, Turkic, and Mongolic linguistics and onomastics, be competent to interpret with caution the published and, to the greatest degree possible, unpublished findings of archaeologists, master the approaches and models of social anthropology, and, lastly, offer new insights into old problems discussed by colleagues in his own field.

It is no coincidence that one of the classics of steppe research is entitled Osteuropäische und ostasiatische Streifzüge (Rambles in eastern Europe and eastern Asia). It was not least the unsystematic and often excursive form of the work that enabled the author, Josef Marquart, at the turn of the twentieth century, to draw connecting lines between disciplines that may still be fruitfully pursued today. It was precisely these interdisciplinary ramblers who provided the decisive stimulus for the exploration of the nomadic peoples. In the second half of the nineteenth century the German Wilhelm Radloff made his way through the “Wild East” in the service of the Russian tsar. He collected an immense body of ethnographical and linguistic data, excavated caves from the Ice Age and kurgans or mounds from the Iron Age, undertook metallurgical investigations, and published his material in the form of a memoir “from Siberia.” Long before “interdisciplinary” became a vogue word in the humanities, frontier crossers such as Radloff and Marquart laid the foundations for research into the medieval steppes, combining archaeology and ethnography, linguistics and history.

In the constricted circumstances of the redrawn national boundaries of eastern Europe after 1918, this panoramic view could hardly be sustained. Rigid nationalistic thinking, which drew from Germanic, Slavic, or Hunnic antiquity justifications for chauvinistic politics, did not hinder serious research but ensnarled it in a vicious circle of fierce discussions about wrongly formulated questions. Were the Slavs the slaves of the Avars or the Avars merely the rulers of an alliance of Slavic tribes? Are the Romanians direct descendants of the Daco-Romans or the late results of a reversal of ethnic processes in the mountain regions between the Hungarians and the Slavs? How Carantanian are the Carinthians and the Slovenes, how Slavic the Serbs and Croats? A protracted dispute arose over eighth-century graves in Slovakia as to whether the long-departed were Avars or Slavs, Avaro-Slavs or proto-Great-Moravians, until scholars settled on the neutral term “Avar-period” (awarenzeitlich). Just how explosive historical research into remote periods could be when fed into political disputes was evidenced in the stir that arose in Romania over a history of Transylvania that was published in Hungary in 1986. The multifaceted historical contexts for research into the early Middle Ages in central and eastern Europe must be taken into account. After 1989 the search for national origins gained a new and often tragic topicality.

The multiple, changeable identities of the steppe peoples could in fact have undermined the retrospective disputes over nationality. We know from inscriptions in Old Turkic and from Chinese and Byzantine chronicles how rapidly the “peoples” of the horsemen and their followers took shape and then fell apart again. Sources attest that the Goths qualified as Scythians and that Gothic was spoken at the court of Attila the Hun. The “Hun” and “Avar” names that have come down to us are of extremely varied provenance. Germanic warriors, and even the rebellious sixth-century youth of Constantinople, assumed “Hunnic” dress; the Byzantines, Avar weaponry; the Slavs, Avar and German titles. The efforts of highly qualified historians to identify peoples with the same name but widely separated locations in time and space as “one and the same” has therefore led to many dead ends. Migrations, which continuously moved new groups of nomad warriors from one end of the Eurasian steppe zone to the other, are a fascinating object of study. Yet the Avars, (“Proto”)-Bulgars, or Magyars are not to be found in some fanciful original homeland somewhere between Manchuria and the Ural, even if we find similar ethnonyms there. […]

A more attentive epistemological discussion and insight into fundamental methodological differences among the disciplines could further their collaboration. Both archaeology and historical linguistics seek to classify their material. But fundamental errors occur when the resultant schemata are equated with historical categories. An archaeological culture or a language group cannot, without further ado, be equated with a people or with a polity. This isall the more true for early medieval ways of life, which, on the level of larger entities such as the Avar Empire, were much less homogeneous than modern nation-states. Archaeological cultures are abstractions based on certain features regarded as distinctive, not natural units. Furthermore, even an archaeological (or linguistic) chronology based on a broad range of material must presuppose the contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous. While the historian can often date more precisely, the written sources only rarely permit spatial delimitation. Thus, the integration of data from all disciplines can offer a complex picture of life under Avar rule, and with the massive evidence at hand it seems plausible to describe the dominant cultural forms to be found in the Carpathian Basin from the late sixth to the end of the eighth century as “Avar.” […]

That they do not have the same concepts in mind when dealing with the Avars, Slavs, or Romans is a first difficulty in the communication among historians and is all the more true for interdisciplinary cooperation: a person who is a Slav for a linguist, because he/she spoke Slavonic or had a Slavic name, may haveseen himself/herself as thoroughly Avar and may also have been buried in Avar attire. On the other hand, people buried in what for the archaeologist is an Avar grave may have regarded themselves as Slavs or Gepids, or may even have been members of the Byzantine army. This is particularly true when an ethnic classification is based on only a few criteria. There are some Avars who are more Avar than others. In any case, a history of the Avars must simultaneously be a history of the non-Avars, a history of the (territorial and social) space in which Avars became politically active.

The historian has no other recourse than to employ historically grown concepts with their charge of both contemporary and modern shadings. Where possible, the use of early medieval terminology can help to avoid modern overtones. The early medieval shades of meaning that one still has to reckon with at least have the advantage of being more or less part of the object of study. The matter is further complicated by the fact that many Byzantine historians prefer laborious, antiquarian circumlocutions to current terminology. Political semantics are then an important component of all historical research into the early Middle Ages. […]

What has been said of ethnic names applies even more to personal names. With barbarian names, the Latinized or Grecized version of the sources will be preferred to hypothetical Slavic, Turkic, or Germanic forms, although Greek or Latin endings will generally be dropped. Many spellings are still disputed. Whether Greek chaganos and Latin caganus are best rendered with khagan, chagan, qagan, or even qayan is a matter of philological debate. In such cases the most established spellings (in this case, khagan) will usually be preferred. The same goes for the reproduction of Greek names; in most cases, English-style Latinization of Greek names is used here. As with all other non-Latin scripts, I have transcribed Greek terms or short quotes in Latin. Transcriptions of Byzantine Greek are, however, deceptive as concerns phonetic valence; the emperor Heraclius was spelled in the classical manner as Herakleios, but pronounced as Iraklios. A phonetic rendering of Greek is, however, used for barbarian names: otherwise we would have to call the Avars Abars and the Slavs Sklab(ene)s. For transcriptions of Chinese names, I have had to switch from the old Wade-Giles system to simple Pinyin, without diacritic signs. Still, spelling and choosing the right name form always implies controversial choices. The same goes for many aspects of writing a book, and I hope for the readers’ understanding wherever they would have decided differently.

And from chapter 2:

Etymological interpretations of the name Avar are so speculative that they can scarcely be used as arguments for the origin of the European Avars. This is also true of the derivation from Mongolic abarga, “worm, snake,” which may be linked to the derogatory Chinese variant of the name Rouran: Ruanruan, “worms coiled about themselves.” Like the Turkish etymology of avar as “rebellious, disobedient,” it would not explain the name’s Scythian past. The success of the name Avar may be connected with the fact that it resonated in so many languages. As opaque as the name Avar itself are the two components of the name of the Varchonites. Chunni and Ch(i)onites are variants of the ethnonym Hun, whose extremely varied use precludes any more exact ethnic classification. Uar, which according to Theophylact was the name of one of the Avar tribal ancestors, could simply be a variant of the name Avar. But clearly contemporaries did not view the two names as identical. In the Iranian languages, the word means “broad, wide” and was frequently used in the names of great rivers. The Huns took over Var as the name for the Dnieper. Perhaps this is reflected in the information in the Suda Lexicon that the Avars initially set out from the banks of the Dnieper. Half a millennium later there was a Mongol tribe called the Varguni. Even if this name should be analogous to the Varchonites, it tells us nothing about the bearers of the name in the sixth century. […]

Apart from shifts in ethnic identities that were always possible in the steppe, we have to take into account that the names that occur in Theophylact’s account may be relevant on different levels. This emerges from Christopher Atwood’s recent reflections on “ethnonyms, dynastonyms, and lineage names in Inner Asian dynasties.” Atwood distinguishes between four levels of names found in the sources to describe a steppe empire: First, the name of the ruling lineage, for instance the Ashina clan of the Turks or the Oqor clan of the Rouran, often derived from an eponymous ancestor. Second, a “dynastic name” that defined the entire empire, among which Atwood counts Xiongnu, Turk, or Rouran. Third, an ethnonym distinguishing a wider ruling group, such as “Avar” under the Rouran. And fourth, in some cases a further, possibly less prestigious ethnonym. Atwood’s term “dynastonym” makes sense from the Chinese perspective, where successive empires were always distinguished by the name of their dynasties. It is less appropriate for the history of western Eurasia, where we should not forget that names such as the Merovingian, Carolingian, or Sassanian dynasty/empire are modern historical constructs, which are not prominently represented in contemporary sources. It would be more adequate to speak of political rather than dynastic identities.

The names used in Theophylact and elsewhere for the Avars are not easy to bring in line with Atwood’s model. Yet it may be worth reflecting on it. Was “Avars” the imperial, political identity of the new power (Atwood’s “dynastonym”), underlining that a core group of the Rouran Empire continued the rule of the khagans? Were “Var” and “Chunni” “genealogies of rulers,” as Theophylact says, or alternative ethnonyms, blended into a shared “Varchonite” identity? Was “Ogur” an “alternative ethnonym” in the build-up of the Avar Empire, perhaps even conflated with the Oqor lineage of the Rouran? What exactly all these names meant could obviously shift with political fortune and the ethnic composition of a steppe polity. Theophylact may have translated a more complex structure of identification (in line with Atwood’s model) into an ethnic origin narrative that was more attuned to the Roman ethnographic tradition. Over time, the political identity of the Avars prevailed, whereas the composite ethnic identification as Varchonites faded out.

In “or even qayan,” I suspect the last word should be qaγan (with a gamma representing the fricative), but in general there seem to be remarkably few typos for a work so dense with foreign and arcane words. Obviously he has much more to say about all this (it’s a fat book!); as far as I can see, he does not mention the modern Avars of the Caucasus, but that is only to be expected, since they have nothing to do with the sixth-century ones. What puzzles me is that the OED includes them both under one heading:

1. A member of a Turkic people, prominent in south-eastern Europe from the 6th to the 9th cent. a.d.; (also) their language. […]

2. Also Awar. A member of a people of the North Caucasus; (also) their language.

What sense does that make? Surely they deserve separate entries; I don’t even pronounce them the same (/ˈeɪvɑr/ for the old ones, /ˈɑvɑr/ for the new). The entry is from 1933, and hopefully they’ll come to their senses when they get around to revising it. (Merriam-Webster simply bashes them together: “member of a people of Eastern origin now belonging to the Lezghian division of the peoples of the Caucasus prominent from the 6th to the 9th centuries at first in Dacia and later in Pannonia.” Sheesh!)


  1. This page says that translator is one William Sayer

  2. Google preview of Preface page xxii : “Will Sayers had swiftly translated it”.

    Worldcat mentions Sayers but as some type of author rather than specifically as translator.

    All this still will not do.

  3. Dmitry Pruss says

    Fascinating. Interesting that the DNA ancestry wasn’t yet a part of the puzzle. We’ve moved a long way. The puzzlemasters of old would have enjoyed the emerging tidbits, like that the Avar elites on the central Pannonian plane where pureblooded Rouran with just a trace of Scythian DNA from centuries earlier, but beyond Tisza and Danube the Avar elites were of mixed Scythian Rouran origin. Just to give one example of what couldn’t have been gleaned before

  4. “What puzzles me is that the OED includes them both under one heading”

    It should be based on whether the etymology is the same. Which came first, using the same name because they were believed to be the same people, or believing they were the same people because the name was similar?

    How did OED treat Iberian?

  5. It should be based on whether the etymology is the same.

    But they give two different ones!

    Etymology: In sense 1 < post-classical Latin Avares (also Abares), plural (6th cent.); of uncertain origin. Compare Byzantine Greek Αὔαροι, plural.

    In sense 2 < Russian avar member of a people of the North Caucasus (1760 or earlier; plural avary), of unknown origin. Compare German Awar (1760 or earlier).

  6. ktschwarz says

    “Etymology and variant forms provisionally revised March 2022”, says the entry history box. (Previous editions gave no etymology.) No question they should be two separate entries, but OED updates move in mysterious ways.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    The discussion of his approach to transliterating names etc. seems generally thoughtful and judicious and attentive to context, but I am struck by the phrasing of the sentence “For transcriptions of Chinese names, I have had to switch from the old Wade-Giles system to simple Pinyin, without diacritic signs.” The “had to” suggests some sort of necessity or compulsion, but what would that have been? A publisher that does not permit any authorial discretion in this sphere? Something more sinister? Perfectly legitimate rationales like “I’ve switched over to pinyin because most other recently-published scholarly books have done so, so I thought that would be on balance less confusing to my prospective readers” are ready to hand, but I wouldn’t think “had to” would be how you would describe that sort of basis for the decision.

  8. ktschwarz says

    The entry is from 1933

    Actually it’s from 1972; the “first published” line doesn’t give full details. The entry in the 1933 supplement has only the first sense; the 1972 Supplement altered the definition of that sense from “an Ural-Altaic race” to “a Turkic people” and added the second sense. Maybe in 1972 they didn’t know whether the Caucasian one was the same name with a semantic shift, or an etymologically independent name?

  9. David Marjanović says

    Sources attest that the Goths qualified as Scythians

    They were barbarians, and they were (sometimes) north of the Black Sea, so.

  10. “OED updates move in mysterious ways.”

    There is a major website redesign coming soon. Perhaps in consequence a decision was made to defer refactoring Avar into two entries despite the updated etymologies. Substance is urgent, style can wait.

  11. “….but that is only to be expected, since they have nothing to do with the sixth-century ones. ”

    Wait, how? Lending names is extremely common for the migration period, and “Avars” are attested north of the Caucasus. And we still have Alans there.

    Identity of the two names appears self-evident to Pohl , 40:

    The Persians had initially feared the Avar khagan and had to treat for peace.[91] The fact that even today there are Avars in the Caucasus, who were already documented there in the Middle Ages, is part of this west Asian name tradition. An Ossete epic recounts that one could make one’s fortune in the land of the Avars.[92] Yet as proofs of a consistent tradition of Avars north of Persia, these references are too scattered spatially and chronologically.[93]

    Etymological interpretations of the name Avar are so speculative that they can scarcely be used as arguments for the origin of the European Avars.

    [92]. Vladimir A. Kuznetsov, “The Avars in the Nart Epos of the Ossets,” Acta Orient. Hung. 38 (1984): 165–69; Hans W. Haussig, Die Geschichte Zentralasiens und der Seidenstrasse in vorislamischer Zeit (Darmstadt, 1983), 162; Emanuel Sarkisyanz, Geschichte der orientalischen Völker Russlands bis 1917 (Munich, 1961), 128–30. In 1955, 240,000 Avars were still living in Caucasian Daghestan; cf. Hélène Carrère-d’Encausse and Alexandre Benningsen, “Avars,” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960), 755.
    [93]. Making much of Western Asian Avars: Altheim, Geschichte der Hunnen, 2:27; Haussig, Die Geschichte Zentralasiens, 160–63.

    But 42

    It is a widespread misunderstanding to attempt an unequivocal identification of the European Avars with a central Asian people.

  12. As for the dictionary, one entry or two, but there must be a mention that the two names can be related.

  13. If anyone thinks that “most likely” they are unrelated, what about France and Franks and Uzbeks and Uzbeks and so on? Don’t bet on it.

    Discovering any cultural continuity between those Avars and modern people of Caucasus, “Avars” or not (at the level of “Avar girls did …. and modern Avar girls also do ….”) would indeed be difficult, because we don’t know anything about their culture:)

  14. ktschwarz says

    It has nothing to do with the website redesign. They’ve been posting etymology/form-history updates ahead of the full revisions since 2019: see e.g. the entry history boxes for four, five, six, cat, drink, flower, horse. As far as I can tell, this is simply because etymology and quotation-gathering/defining are different jobs, done by different people, who don’t have to work in lockstep with each other. But it left Avar in an awkward spot.

  15. The fact that even today there are Avars in the Caucasus, who were already documented there in the Middle Ages, is part of this west Asian name tradition.

    But that doesn’t mean they were the same (just that there is another people called Avars in the Caucasus), and the p. 42 quote suggests he doesn’t think they were. In any case, the fact that the two names look the same is no evidence at all — there are vast numbers of such coincidences. If they are in fact the same people (which I consider wildly unlikely) it would have to be shown through DNA or something.

  16. Bathrobe says

    abarga in Mongolian. The modern meaning is “giant, gigantic, colossal, enormous, gargantuan, mountainous, prodigious, great, elephantine, huge, titanic”. Avarga mogoi is a large non-venomous snake of tropical areas (python?), avarga zagas is a shark. I don’t know if this is the original meaning (no references at hand) but I’m wondering about the equation to ‘snake, worm’.

    Atwood is very good on this kind of issue. See his paper on The Administrative Origins of Mongolia’s Tribal Vocabulary. His argument is that modern Mongolian words like aimag and ovog, now used in the meaning ‘tribe’, have no basis in old Mongolian texts. Aimag was an administrative unit, not a tribe. Ovog means ‘surname’, not ‘tribe’.

  17. If they are in fact the same people (which I consider wildly unlikely) it would have to be shown through DNA or something.

    Why would genetic continuity be more important here than anything else? I’m an American with a family history going largely back to the Low Countries and parts of Germany. I also now live in part of the Low Countries. Genetically, I’m probably not at all unusual for this region, but I’m emphatically not of the ‘same people’ as them in any meaningful synchronic sense.

    ‘People’ seems like one of those vague weasle-words that we use when we don’t really know what we mean. Which is fine — vague is good when talking about something as inherently vague and mutable as human groupings. The danger is that the rise of aDNA studies and the like are going to lead us to privilege that side of thing so much that we end up using ‘people’ to mean ‘ancestry group’ (a move that would have all the obvious risks of eventually recreating 19th-C race-thinking and the like).

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    I think hat only mentioned DNA because ancient Avars have not left tangible cultural or archaeological remains (although his “or something” would allow some unusual traces of this type, say something like clothing styles or yodeling).

  19. Trond Engen says

    One of the wonders of the DNA revolution is that it seems to be able to provide nuance, and nuance is the enemy of 19th century ethno-nationalism. Increasingly we’re able to see “peoples” (cultural groups, polities, long-lived warbands, etc.) form, dissolve, or be redefined — also on the level of personal history, and to discern the different mechanisms of cultural change (including language shift) also in the distant past.

    That’s when it’s combined and contrasted with other data — written history, historical linguistics, archaeology, folklore, the genetics of crops, domesticated animals and diseases — but it’s also providing nuance and complexities all on its own. Ancient admixtures are detected and are showing the composite nature of all but the most isolated of peoples, even in the distant and very distant past. The former is exactly what makes comparison with results from historical linguistics and other disciplines so interesting. The latter may eventually throw light on the origin of language itself.

  20. I guess my objection is that even if very strong DNA links are found, I’m not sure how that would establish the two Avars as being ‘the same people’.

    It’s a great tool for looking at all kinds of questions, and I fully agree with what Trond Engen says — at least as an aspirational ideal (and often enough a reality among specialists). But the notion of ‘a people’ as a unit for linking these things together is something to be used cautiously at best (obviously), and I’m always wary of anything that smacks of privileging DNA/ancestry in the construction of ‘peoples’. Probably too wary in this case, though, since I suppose Hat probably isn’t going to turn out to be a rabid defender of ethnoracialism…

  21. I think hat only mentioned DNA because ancient Avars have not left tangible cultural or archaeological remains

    Precisely right. And of course I despise ethnoracialism; my point was simply that absent DNA (which is worth whatever it’s worth — that’s a whole separate discussion) there is absolutely nothing connecting the two groups/peoples/whatever except their names, and that’s a ridiculous reason for joining them. (I’m not even going to bother providing a long list of unrelated groups with similar names, because it would be more effort than it’s worth.) As for “the notion of ‘a people’,” as you can see from the excerpts I posted, Pohl is very aware of the problem and gnaws at it from various angles.

  22. Trond Engen says

    Hopefully needless to say, I do share Nelson’s objection to singular focus on genetic ancestry, and I have no wish to see a revival of the concept of the destined Herrenvolk. But I think the opposite idea has its own dangers — a singular focus on continuity and cultural diffusion makes movement of people and cultural amalgamation into a fundamental breach with the natural order of the world. We ought to be able to see the whole spectrum of mechanisms for cultural change — from genocide and large-scale invasions to single people moving between groups and regions and bringing new ideas with them.

  23. and the p. 42 quote suggests he doesn’t think they were

    I think his views are expressed on the page 45. But he does not consider them unrelated. Note unequivocal. The very beginning of the chapter two:

    Avar history in Europe began with an embassy sent to Constantinople from the steppes north of the Caucasus in the winter of 557/58. The emperor Justinian, who had successfully governed the Roman Empire for more than thirty years, gave them a friendly reception. They arrived in a situation in which the Balkan provinces had come under pressure from a number of barbarian peoples living beyond the northern frontiers, so that the Avars were regarded as a valuable ally. This chapter discusses where they had come from and under which circumstances; and it recounts the story of their advance in eastern Europe until their final settlement in the Carpathian Basin.

    2.1 Constantinople 558
    The first thing that struck the Greeks about the Avars was their long pigtails, dirty and braided à la chinoise.

    It is these “Avars” connected or not to European Avars, observed in the same region as modern Avars.

  24. Names are always confusing, even “Uzbeks”. Yes, this mess is an artefact of insane 20th century nation-building, but the historical period in question was also messy.

    And names have different referents. “Arabs” can be people from “Arab states”, speakers of Arabic, “Arabs” as opposed to “Berbers”, Bedouins. “Russians” may include Avars (they are from Russia) – and Ruski can mean Rusyn.

    This confusion is the normal state of affairs. “Same people” – like Russian and Serbs (Slavs) or like Serbs and Croats? There are genetically uniform and culturally conservative groups like aforementioned Bedouins, but this is not always the case.

    One scenario that you are missing is a direct but purely political link.

    Not uncommon for states, why this can’t happen with Avars?

    For modern Avars there is a range of possibilities from “people of an Avar polity” to “one of peoples of this polity” to “people who would share a polity with one of those peoples” to “external group that adopted this name” to “occupied the same niche and were called by the same exonym”.

    You can’t cut the left part of this range without a reason.

  25. ktschwarz says

    “The steppes north of the Caucasus” is not “the same region as modern Avars.”

    The *names* Avar-1 and Avar-2 could theoretically be from the same origin even if the peoples are unrelated: for example, like American Indians, the later one could be an exonym applied by mistake (as mollymooly wondered above). So, is Avar-2 an exonym? The OED’s “Russian … of unknown origin” implies that it is, since they don’t trace it to the people’s own name for themselves. However, it also implies that the Russian sources of “1760 or earlier” didn’t say anything about Avar-2 being the same as Avar-1, or naming one after the other, since if they did, the OED would presumably mention it.

    Does anyone have firmer knowledge of whether Avar-2 is or isn’t originally an exonym? (The use in present-day Avar could be a borrowing.) And is there continuity between present-day Avars of Dagestan and the Avar Khanate, which lasted in Dagestan from the 12th to the 19th century? Surely *that* isn’t a coincidence? If so, who called the Avar Khanate by that name, and since when? Wikipedia gives “Avar (VI century)” as the first ruler known by name, which could be a legend.

    There’s a previous post on Learning Avar, but if there’s anything there about the historical origins, I didn’t notice it.

  26. Add European Jews referring to Russians as Greeks, and to Bohemia as Canaan.

  27. I suspect that the most likely possibility is that Avar² is etymologically derived from Avar¹, although the corresponding peoples were not closely related (whatever that means on these lengthy timescales). Of course, the OED should reflect the uncertainty about the origin of Avar². This requires a judgement about whether the two names are etymologically related, and I don’t particularly care which side they come down on. They have an apparently established protocol for situations like this anyway. If the words are listed separately, Avar² can have an annotation, “possibly the same word as Avar¹”; if they are listed together, “Sense 2 may represent a different word.”

  28. “The steppes north of the Caucasus” is not “the same region as modern Avars.”

    @ktschwarz, “steppes north of the Caucasus” is a very vague description.

    But if you want to find a reminder of a local polity, Dagestan is THE place to look.

  29. ktschwarz says

    “Steppes north of the Caucasus” covers a lot of territory, *not* including Dagestan. Present-day Avars call themselves магӀарулал, ‘mountaineers’. Maybe they moved to the mountains from the steppe (*they* don’t have any such tradition, do they?): that’s speculation, not observation. And there are also several centuries between that 6th-century embassy and the formation of the Avar-2 Khanate. Was there an Avar-1 lineage across all that time? That’s assumption, not observation.

    The Avar-1 polity collapsed centuries before the Avar-2 Khanate came to power, a thousand or so miles away. Did the Avar-2 Khanate claim any relationship to the faraway, long-dead empire? No one seems to be offering any reason to think so.

    The potential etymological connection of the names, though, depends not on whether the peoples were really related, but on whether somebody (they themselves, or others) *thought* they were. Is there any indication that anyone ever did, before the 19th century? The Russians of the 12th century onward thought that Avar-1 was a byword for “perished without issue”, not “maybe leaving descendants in a similarly-named khanate in Dagestan”, right?

    Also, aren’t we cherry-picking the form of Avar-1 that most resembles Avar-2? The Avar-1 were also called обре in Old Russian, Varchonitai in Greek, who knows what else.

  30. WP: “Iran gave Dagestan away to Russia after a 10-year agreement ship contract, (2018)”

    Nice to know. Not as good as “Weddad, also transliterated as Wydad, is based on a romantic tale inspired by Omar Khayyam’s One Thousand and One Nights”, though….

    (1, 2)

    P.S. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontic–Caspian_steppe

  31. I recently heard a 18 y.o. Dagestani about his ehtnicity: “Azeri. When they were deporting Chechens in 40s, we urgently became Azeri. Now nobody knows who we were before…”.

  32. Steppes north of the Caucasus do include some of the Repubic of Dagestan. Topographical maps from Wikipedia: Caucasus 1, North Caucasus with borders 2, Dagestan 3.

    The map of the steppe is in the steppe link above (which says: “The steppe extends to the western shore of the Caspian Sea in the Dagestan region of Russia, but the drier Caspian lowland desert lies between the steppe and the northwestern and northern shores of the Caspian.“).

    So what we have is a steppe tongue. The shore (including the Caspian Gates). And the mountains.

    Avars aside, what I think is that this interface (cultural, politicial, military, genetical, trade… human) between “exotic” people in the mountains and the portion that was crossed or conquerred by armies must be very interesting.
    As an Arabic student, I of course, find it impressive that once Arabic was spoken there.

    And back to Avars: I’m open to any possibility, I’m just against excluding any without a reason. We know nothing.

    But of course Goths were found in Crimea, not in Kiev, and Alans live in the Caucasus, not in the steppe. The steppe as such is not a very diverse space.

    Of course, you won’t look for any reminder of some sort of easily traceable influence of an ancient steppe people in the steppe proper. Of course, modern steppe cultures incorporate many elements of ancient steppe cultures, we just don’t know how to disentangle them:) You look around the steppe, and the North Caucaus is one of such refuges that occasionaly preserve something.

  33. (By italicising the Repubic of Dagestan I mean: of course, you may say that these steppes still don’t include Dagestan)

  34. @Trond, all that you said is fully applicable to scientists of 19th century.

    Scientific tools are not evil, but I have doubts about their ability to prevent madness.

  35. David Marjanović says

    ancient Avars have not left tangible cultural or archaeological remains

    That depends on the interpretation, doesn’t it. As mentioned, “Avar graves” in the archaeological sense are very much a thing, and some of the people in them have deformed heads, a custom not seen in Europe before or since (though it did spread a bit at the time).

    very distant past

    Ooh, awesome.

    Exactly a year earlier, BTW, this paper came out. It describes what seems to be a Denisovan tooth. The tooth immediately reminds me of cave-bear teeth: it has lots of additional transverse ridges.

    As an Arabic student, I of course, find it impressive that once Arabic was spoken there.

    As the language of international communication once everybody was Muslim.

    The Avar language, FWIW, is an unremarkable* East Caucasian language closely related to some of its neighbors.

    * High-pressure, though.

  36. As the language of international communication once everybody was Muslim.

    No, why, Arabs conquerred it (soon after Sassanids, and together with the rest of their realm). Then an Arab garrison was stationed there.

    1. Zelkina, Anna. “The Arabic linguistic and cultural tradition in Daghestan: an historical overview”. Arabic as a Minority Language, edited by Jonathan Owens, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2000, pp. 89-112.

    2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabs_in_the_Caucasus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirvani_Arabic is shorter)

    P.S. “It”. I mean, a part of what is now the Republic of Dagestan, and certainly a part of what I called the interface between peoples from the mountains (“Dagestan” means mountains…) and the part crossed and conqerred by others. This long vague word (interface) reflects lack of my knowelge:)

  37. @drasvi
    /Steppes north of the Caucasus do include some of the Repubic of Dagestan…
    So what we have is a steppe tongue. The shore (including the Caspian Gates). And the mountains./
    Modern Daghestan is a patchwork of a dozen or more ethnicities and languages. The Northern steppe part of is mostly Nogai(tsy), while the core Avar(tsy) region is the central-Eastern mountainous part bordering Chechnya. This map shows the distribution of languages in Daghestan with Avar in deep red –


  38. @drasvi
    /When they were deporting Chechens in 40s, we urgently became Azeri./
    In Daghestan, there is still an ongoing lively and at times bitter debate on why the Chechens were deported but not the Daghestanis

  39. David Marjanović says

    I had no idea about Shirvani Arabic – thanks!

  40. “with Avar in deep red”.
    The Avar-Andic group, including among others Tsez/Dido people. Deep red is for districts where >80% speak one of these languages.

    Dido is another word compared to an assortment of ancient names, starting from Plini's Diduri (rursus ab albaniae confinio tota montium fronte gentes silvorum ferae et infra lupeniorum, mox diduri et sodi, “Again, after passing the confines of Albania, the wild tribes of the Silvi inhabit the face of the mountains, below them those of the Lubieni, and after them the Diduri and the Sodii.”). Not much of it in English WP, more but messier in Russian WP (link)

    P.S. aha, and WP says they too were deported… to Chechnya.:/

    P.P.S. “Nogais” in the map correspond to the scarcely populated (some 20k people, predominately Nogais) Nogai district.

    The gray enclave “[1]” is Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk (“Southern Dry-sand-sk”, a district on its own. Tiny Vostochno-Sukhokumsk is considered a part of it, even though it is far away). Said to have origiated as a tent camp of oil personnel in 1958, now it is 10k people. Indeed the census registers less than a percent of Nogais among them: a half are Awars, and others Dargins, Lezgins and Laks.

    I don’t know what is this green Dargin enclave. But according to the same census they are the second largest ethnic group in the administrative unit. 1815 of them (313 in the capital)!

  41. @DM, nothing is known about local Arabic dialects. It is a part of initial Muslim aquisitions, presumably there were Arabic speakers there (and given what is Dagestan it would be unremarkable if they kept speaking it).

    And then we have a number of ambiguous claims from 18th century and later, including mixed languages, supposed later arrivals, Arab slaves (!), imperial census data where some claim Arabic L1, and some people in 30s who say that some town spoke Arabic. See Zelkina link above.

    It’s easier to discuss Dagestan as a center of Arabic literacy….

    The extact origin of Arabs in Uzbekistan is also unclear, but at least there are Arabs there, with their DNAs:)

  42. This thread passingly makes me wonder if anyone has yet attempted to etymologize Avar from Hungarian: a form *awər would be a plausible intermediate in the (recently again re-defended [pdf] with some hesitation) etymology that derives úr ‘lord’ from Indo-Iranian *asura. A slightly later intermediate *uwər could even work for Uar, if this is to be read as bisyllabic and not merely /war/.

  43. David Marjanović says

    I dimly remember a fairly convincing proposal that it’s from a Turkic *apar “strong” somewhere on academia.edu; can’t find it, though.

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