History Files


Barbarian Europe

What's in a Name - Slav

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 13 November 2020

The story behind the emergence of the Slavs is a complicated one which is hotly contested even today. Thankfully a study of the meaning of that name is somewhat easier.

Having evolved from a common Balto-Slavic language, the vocabulary of satem-speaking proto-Slavic has a character which shows various external influences. There is evidence to show a degree of early adoption of loanwords from centum-type Indo-European languages (those spoken by western groups such as Celts and Italics). Given the nearness of the Vistula Venedi to the ancestral Slav lands, it seems likely that they were a source of many Indo-European word borrowings in early Slav vocabulary.

The probable answer

Although not provable, it seems a strong possibility that the name 'slav' in its original form, 'sklav', derives from the proto-Indo-European (PIE) verb 'to cut', extended to 'split in two' (cloven) and many other variants. This makes it cognate with the source of the name 'Saxon', as both had a common origin more then two thousand years before they were first recorded in history.

The original name may have had a 'kh' sound rather than a straightforward 'k' after the 's' of 'sklav'. Older Latin (pre-Vulgar) pronounced the letter 'c' as a 'kh' in the manner of the German or Scots 'ch' (think 'loch'). This, though, is conjectural.

As the word altered from PIE, sometimes the 'k' vanished as in 'Slav', and other times the 's' vanished, leaving many words in existence for 'cut' or 'chop'. The original assumed PIE word is *(s)kel- (from Pokorny), which spawned a huge number of words, including 'half' (with the 'k' being reduced to an 'h' by German-speakers).

Historical records

The Slav name was first recorded as 'Sclavenes', both by the Greek writer, Procopius of Caesarea, and in Latin by the Byzantine historian, Jordanes. Old Church Slavonic first used the word 'Slaviane' in tenth-century Bulgarian texts which are preserved only in much later manuscripts, adding a degree of doubt to their authenticity.

More recent linguists have been of the opinion that the name was initially a Slavic self-designation for an individual group on the sixth-century Danubian frontier with the Eastern Roman empire. But that would mean 'Slav' probably being derived from a place name, much like other ethnic Slavic names with an '-ene' ending.

That theory only works with this particular examination if the place name in question began with 'sklav' or some derivative, which seems less likely. Older theories about the name deriving from Slavic words for 'fame' or 'word' are now largely discredited.

That early form of the name, 'Sclavenes', had been shortened by 550. The chronicler John Malalas of Antioch and Agathias of Myrina in Anatolia both used it, so it's clear that Byzantine terminology for these new arrivals on the frontier was being refined.

'Sklavos' quickly came to be represented in Latin as 'Sclavus', which produced 'Slav' in most Romance and Germanic languages. It also gained dominance in Greek and Latin too after around 700.

At about the same time a derivative of the name came to be used to describe a territory which was inhabited by Sclavenes or which was under the authority of a Sclavene chieftain - 'Sklavinia'.

Lech, Czech and Rus
The legendary brothers, Lech, Czech and Rus, were the eponymous founders of the Polish, Czech and Russian nations, shown here in Viktor Vasnetsov's 'Warriors', 1898

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians

Sklavinia is first attested in the History of Theophylact Simocatta, but the word was especially used by early ninth century authors along the lines of Theophanes Confessor. It also turns up in Latin in contemporary Carolingian sources.

The use of 'Sclavenes' also quickly became an umbrella term for a variety of tribal groups such as the Belegezites, Berzites, Drugubites, Rynchines, and Sagudates. Some of those tribes participated in attacks on the city of Thessalonica, while others remained on good terms with its inhabitants. By that time Slav groups were becoming ubiquitous along the frontier, and soon inside the Balkans too, where they settled to found eventual states of their own as southern Slavs.

(A complete breakdown of all of the Indo-European variations of the root word *(s)kal is available via Indo-European Etymology on the Starling Database Server - see links in sidebar.)


Main Sources

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Wolfram, Herwig - Das Reich und die Germanen (1990, translated into English as The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, by Thomas Dunlap)

Online Sources

Indo-European Etymology, Starling Database Server - examination of *(s)kal (see external links)

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary



Maps and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.