Paired Horse and PIE breakup

Miguel Carrasquer Vidal mcv at WXS.NL
Fri Nov 6 08:01:23 UTC 1998

Paul Kekai Manansala <kekai at JPS.NET> wrote:

>We don't know for sure what the original Scythians spoke.  Some of the
>Scythian vocabulary given by Herodotus has been analyzed as Altaic.

Herodotus isn't very explicit about the Scythian vocabulary, and some
of the things he claims are almost certainly bogus, like his
explanation of the name "Arimaspians" as from Scythian <arima> "one"
and <spou> "eye", which can be neither Ossetian ("one" = <yu>, "eye"
= <ca"st>) nor Turkic ("one" = <bir>, "eye" = <go"r> ~ <go"z>), nor
any other known Eurasian language at all (I've checked Mark
Rosenfelder's numbers pages and was unable to find any language with
a word for "one" similar to *<arima>).  I'd say the word
"Arimaspians" sounds very much as if it contains Iranian <aspa>

We know that before the first documented Turkic presence in Central
Asia (8th. century Orkhon inscriptions, and before that a 6th century
Turkic document in Sogdian script found in Mongolia), most of the
languages spoken in Central Asia ("Russian" and "Chinese" Turkestan)
were Iranian.  There is a large number of Sogdian, Saka-Khotanese and
Old Khwarezmian documents that testify to this.  Additionally,
another IE language, Tocharian, was spoken in the Tarim basin.
Less is known with certainty about the Bactrian and Scytho-Sarmatian
languages, but it is generally thought that modern Pashto of
Afghanistan derives from Bactrian, and modern Ossetic of the Northern
Caucasus derives from Scytho-Sarmatian.  Likewise, Yaghnobi, spoken
near Samarkand, is the modern decendant of Sogdian (most Sogdian
speakers in Central Asia adopted Turkic languages or Persian, locally
known as Tajiki.

The evidence for the Iranian character of Scythian, apart from the
identification Saka==Scythian (and Saka-Khotanese is a
well-documented Middle Iranian lg.), is based on ancient glosses
(Hesychius gives "melition: a Scythian drink", clearly from the IE
word for "honey, mead", Herodotus' Oior-pata "man-killer" (=Amazon),
has been connected with IE *wi:ros, Skt. vi:ra- "man"), and the
evidence of toponymics, especially the South Russian/Ukrainian river
names Don, Dnestr, Dnepr < PIran *da:nu "river", cf. Oss. <don>
"water, river", *<da:nu nazdya> and *<danu apara>, the "front" and
"back" rivers, respectively.  Another Iranian etymology is Caucasus <
*xrohu-kasi- "ice-shiny".

Now it's perfectly possible that the Scythian tribes in the Ukraine
had assimilated large numbers of non-Iranian peoples.  Herodotus
tells us that when the Scythians arrived in Europe they drove out the
original inhabitants, the Cimmerians (linguistic affiliation unknown,
possibly Indo-European of the Daco-Thracian group).  And the
"Scythian farmers" described by Herodotus are considered by many to
be Proto-Slavs.

Likewise, it is possible that the Scythian/Saka and Sogdian tribes
living to the north and east of the literate areas along the "Silk
road" were mixed with Yeniseian or Altaic peoples.  Precisely because
no documents are known (or ever will be) from these areas, we just
don't know.

The same, or worse, goes for the linguistic affiliations of the
Xiong-nu, the (Western) Huns, the HuNa or White Huns or Hephthalites,
the Juan-Juan or Ju-Jan, the Avars or Varchonites, the Sabir,
Utrigur, Kutrigur and Onogur "Huns", the Toba (Tabgach), the
Hsien-Pei, etc.  All of these have been identified as Turkic or
Mongolian based more on geographical than on linguistic criteria.
The reason for this is that linguistic evidence is in most cases
completely absent.

The question of the Hunnish language has been treated extensively by
Gerhard Doerfer in his article "Zur Sprache der Hunnen", Central
Asiatic Journal XVII/1973, 1-50.  He concludes that we just can't
conclude anything.  The Xiong-Nu may not even have been the same
people or spoken the same language as Atilla's Huns or the Hun.a
(Hephthalites, White Huns) of Afghanistan/India.  The glosses given
by Byzantine authors of "Hunnish" words are all either Slavic or
Daco-Thracian, words that the Huns had picked up after their arrival
in the Hungarian plain.  The names of most Hunnish leaders are
Germanic (e.g. Attila) or Iranian, with only a few (the oldest)
unidentified, and therefore probably belonging to the original
Hunnish language, but those have no clear connection with any other
living or documented language.

As to the Xiong-nu, there appear to be some connections with Altaic
(*ta"ngri- "sky", given as Xion-nu "tch'eng-li" in Chinese sources),
but also with Yeniseian (Xiong-nu <kiat> "stone" ~ Yen. <khes> ~
<kit> "stone").  Given that the Xiong-nu were the earliest known
people to dominate the eastern steppes, it is not unlikely that these
words are borrowings into Turkic, Mongolian and Yeniseian from
Xiong-nu.  For the rest, all we have of the Xiong-nu language is the
Chinese transcription of the sentence "Send out the army, capture the
leader", given as:

        sio^g-tjeg-t'iei li at d-ka^ng
        b'uok-kuk g'ju t'uk-ta^ng

Interpretations of this as Turkic have been attempted, but one can
equally turn it into Akkadian (as Doerfer has done) or into
Indo-European (my non-serious shot at it was: *siu:ntete leudhskom,
po:ng(w)ete ju:s duktom).  Given the inadequacy of the Chinese
writing system for rendering foreign words, anything's possible.

Miguel Carrasquer Vidal
mcv at

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list