Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Etymology of the Names of the World's Ancient Kingdoms

An interest in etymology is fundamentally a walk back through the development of language. Theoretically tracing these tongues back we would arrive at an original language, such as the Proto-Indo-European held to be the ancestor of the many languages across Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

That journey can be followed in part through basic words. Water for example, although not in the words for water itself for they are often little more than a vowel sound and they are the most easily changed. Better to trace the names of rivers, for while they are often simplistic they change little over centuries. Tree names can also be a good trail to follow for most are named for the use of the wood. Through these it is possible to see links between the Germanic and Latin groups and even parallels with Sanskrit. For there to be a language there has to be people. Those people have their community and territory, their cultures and languages, all of which contribute to the names of the nation and people. Here we examine those ancient kingdoms and empires to see why they were so named and see what is revealed.

Among the earliest are those of the Near East. Sumer describes 'the land of the civilised lords'. In the Bible Shem's eldest son gave his own name to the country of Elam. Medes took the name of Medea, the sorceress daughter of the King of Colchis who features in the Greek mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts. The Achaemenid derives its name from the dynasty's founder Achaemenes, a name describing him as 'having a friend's mind', certainly a good start in any diplomatic negotiations.

Across to the African continent and the ancient name of Egypt has many suggestions, most often given as from the Greek for 'the land below the Aegean Sea'. Greece itself is named from the people, the Greeks were held by Aristotle to be the original people of Epirus, itself meaning simply 'mainland'. The modern capital of Athens and the ancient city state are named from the goddess Athena. It's great enemy of Sparta was the name of the daughter of Eurotas and wife of Lacedaemon, who bore him Amyclas, Eurydice and Asine - note the city is recorded as often by the name of the king as it is his wife, unlike the state which is always Sparta.

The Minoans was a term coined by a historian, named from the mythical King Minos, it is not known how the Minoans referred to themselves. The city of Mycenae gave its name to the civilization whose name in Greek was Mukanai and comes from one of the tongues formerly spoken in Greece but which are unknown.

Alexander the Great hailed from Macedon, from the Greek meaning 'highlander' or 'tall one', suggesting they were noticeably taller than their neighbours. One of Alexander's generals took control of the Seleucid Empire, that man being Seleucus. Similarly Ptolemy left his mark on Ptolemaic Egypt. Carthage takes its name from the city, established by those great seafarers the Phoenicians who simply referred to it as khadash 'new town'.

India had a succession of powerful empires and nations. Mahajanpadas is from Sanskrit maha janapanda 'the great foothold of the tribe'. Most of the others take the name of the ruling family, and include Nanda, Maurya, Sunga, Satavahana, Kushan, and Gupta. The Roman Empire covered the largest area of any, named after the place traditionally founded in 753BC by Romulus. The eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine and outlasted Rome itself by a thousand years, this coming from Byzantium, the city named after King Byzas, the mythological son of the god Poseidon. That was a part of modern Turkey, the Turks had their own empire and a name derived from the Turk's Head (or fez) cactus.

One of the invading forces which ravaged the Roman Empire were the Huns, whose own empire stretched from their homeland in the east where they took the name of the Hun River, itself meaning 'muddy'. China itself comes from a Sanskrit word for the tribe of Qin, a royal clan name of unknown etymology. The Franks, and of course France, are derived from the people whose name comes from a Proto-Germanic word frankon meaning 'javelin, spear'.

Three famous peoples dominated the Americas. Unfortunately the Mayan civilizations were named by Europeans and related to both Poseidon and Atlas. Some maintain this is evidence that European voyagers reached the Americans many years before either Columbus or the Vikings, however this does not stand up to scrutiny. The Mayans were connected by the family of languages which came under this banner, the original people are now referred to as the Olmecs, itself meaning 'rubber people', ie those who produced rubber.

Inca is different, Inka means 'lord, ruler' in the Quechua tongue. The natives referred to the empire as Tawantinsuyu meaning 'the four parts' and showing it consisted of four nations. Lastly the Aztecs, a Nahuatl word for 'the people from Aztlan', itself a mythological place in the early religion of the people.

To trace language family tree of the names of the people and places would take more room than we have here. When discussing the evolution of modern speech the length of time is often underestimated. Farming is about fifteen thousand years old, writing about half as old. With humanity spread across vast swathes of the planet differences in pronunciation would soon creep in and before long the language would be mutually unintelligible to two groups with a common ancestry.

If this comes as a surprise consider this. The north/south split in England which amounts to a length of some four hundred miles and yet there are a great deal of differences in regional accents and dialects. Furthermore listen to the generation before, or more so the younger generations - they use words and expressions which we have to learn before we understand what they are saying.

This is all during an age when language should be less susceptible to change as the vast majority today are literate and have the benefit of a good education.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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