Slavic Ethnonyms in the Reconstruction of Proto-Slavic and the Process of Naming

Matthew Feeney, University of Kansas

This paper will question the use of Slavic ethnonyms in the recent reconstruction of Proto-Slavic dialects by the Slavic historical linguist S. L. Nikolaev (Dybo et. al. 1990) in view of theories of the process of naming. Nikolaev uses an approach to the reconstruction of Proto-Slavic dialects that depends in part on assuming a correlation of linguistic, ethnic and archaeological data. The author uses ethnic data in the form of ethnonyms, names of the Old Russian tribes of the Primary Chronicle that include the names Slověne and Kriviči, to connect his reconstructed Proto-Slavic dialects to Slavic tribes.

It will be proposed in this paper that many Slavic “tribal names” might have only formed as the Slavs either confronted or assimilated to more advanced cultures such as the Varangians, Romans, and Byzantines well after the Slavic migrations of ca. 500 A.D., and not during the pre-migration Proto-Slavic stage.

Fried indicates that the tribe has long been considered by scholars to be a unit marked off by a name. He says however that there is little evidence that this is so (Fried 1975: 3233). Beaulieu interprets the theory of the process of naming of Charles Sanders Pierce. She says Pierce “postulates the existence of a close relationship between naming and our knowledge and experience of the world” (1995: 48). According to this theory the Slavic tribes would have been named based upon the Slavs’ knowledge and experience of the world within the areas that they inhabited in Eastern Europe either after or before the Slavic migrations.

The Slovenian term Slovèn is derived from the same form as the “tribe” name Slověne. Bezlaj gives a derivation from the forms *slov < *slovo < *k’léuos (“word”) (1995: 265). He indicates that the meaning of *slověne is “those who can speak.” The form developed in contact with outsiders speaking other languages, who were considered to be “those who could not speak,” as given by the German term nemci, originally with this meaning. He says that this is described in the writings of early authors, including Přibík Pulkava in his chronicle of 1374.

Gołąb studied the origin of the name Kriviči and concluded that it conveyed the meaning “borderers” (1985: 170). He derived this meaning from the Late Proto-Slavic form *krív , meaning “sharp” or “having an edge” (170). He says that this is supported by the fact that the Kriviči were the people who lived along the northern boundary of the area inhabited by the East Slavs (170).

Accordingly the Slavs would have assigned names to themselves as ethnic groups based on their knowledge and experience of the world. The process of naming that they developed was probably based in part on their experience of contact with non-Slavic-speaking peoples, as shown in the use of Slověne, or on knowledge of the significance of the geographical location of the territories that they inhabited, “bordering” non-Slavic peoples, as shown in the use of the name Kriviči. The formation of these Slavic ethnonyms would accordingly be consistent with the general theory of naming formulated by Pierce. This conflicts with Nikolaev’s use of ethnic data in his proto-dialect reconstructions. It indicates that there may not be any evidence to connect “tribe” names from the Old Russian Chronicle to Proto-Slavic dialects, as these names do not necessarily define any individual Slavic tribes, but distinguish the Slavs as an ethnic group from non-Slavs.


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Bezlaj, France.1995 Etimološki Slovar Slovenskega Jezika. Tretja knjiga. P-S. Ljubljana: SAZU

Dybo, V. A.; Nikolaev S. L. and G. I. Zamjatina.1990. Osnovy slavjanskoj akcentologii. Moskva: Nauka.

Fried, Morton H.1975 The Notion of Tribe. Menlo Park: Cummings Publishing Company.

Golab, Zbigniew.1985. The Origin and Etymology of Old Russian Kriviči, International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics, 31-31:167—174.