Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 4

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Previous posts in the series:

As mentioned before, the following post is not about a sword or other type of weapon per se, but in terms of its ancient Eurasian outlook, it arguably belongs in the series:

From Peter Kupfer:

Concerning your remarks about "swords", I remembered the word kertte in Tocharian B and similar in Avestan mentioned in your book on the Tarim mummies, p. 310-311. It is very similar to Chinese jian , which must have an old pronunciation something like ken/kiäm or, according to its phonetic component, even including an L-sound, corresponding to the original R.

See the long and detailed entry, including etymological notes, with possible cognates in Gothic, Old Norse, and Old English, in Douglas Q. Adams, A Dictionary of Tocharian B (rev. and greatly enlgd.), p. 211.

Juha Janhunen:

Hungarian also has kard 'sword', apparently from an Iranian source (? – can't check this at the moment).

Nicholas Sims-Williams:

I'm in Delhi, without reference books, but I think Toch. B kertte is reckoned to be an Iranian LW. At any rate the root must be what in Iranian is KART "to cut". Personally, I don't see any significant similarity to the Chinese form mentioned.

Hannes Fellner:

The the B-S reconstruction for 劍 (jiàn) is MC kjaemH < OC *s.kr[a]m-s.

The MC form seems to be the origin of Vietnamese kiếm, Korean geom and Japanese ken, right?
I don't think that there is a connection between OC *s.kr[a]m-s and Tocharian kertte. The latter is either directly inherited from PIE *kort-o– 'cutter' (: √*(s)kert 'to cut (up)' or it is a borrowing from Iranian (cf. Av. karəta– 'knife' which in turn is from PIE *kort-o-).

John Bentley:

Baxter and Sagart's new reconstruction of Old Chinese reconstructs jian as *s.kr[a]m-s. I think Schuessler probably has something like *kam. The -tte bothers me, unless it is some kind of suffix in Tocharian B/Avestan. If so, then it may have been dropped when the word was imported into OC, but that's a wild guess. I don't have Schuessler's Old Minimal Chinese dictionary at hand (it's at the office), but generally Schuessler and B/S are pretty close in their reconstructions.

Asko Parpola:

The Tocharian word kertte 'sword' is related to several Sanskrit words meaning 'knife, dagger': karttarī, karttarikā, kṛntatram, kṛntanikā. These are derivatives from the root kart- present kṛntati (Rigveda) 'to cut (off)', from PIE *(s)kert- (Lithuanian kertù 'to cut off').

Another Sanskrit word for 'sword' is kṛpāṇa-, kṛpāṇī- (the word used by the Sikhs of their dagger), probably from PIE *(s)kerp- 'to cut' (Lithuanian kerpù 'to cut', Latin carpo 'to pluck').

The roots *(s)kert- and *(s)kerp- seem to be enlarged from the root *(s)ker- 'to cut' (Nordic skera 'to cut', Greek keírō 'to shear').

Proto-Samoyed seems to have an IE loanword in *kǝrǝ 'knife' (Juha's reconstruction in Janhunen 1977: 54).

I also want to refer to what Herodotus (4,62) tells about the Scythian "rites paid to Ares [the god of war]."

In every district, at the seat of the government, there stands a temple of this god, whereof the following is a description. It is a pile of brushwood, made of a vast quantity of faggots, in length and breadth 600 yards; in height somewhat less, having a square platform upon the top, three sides of which are precipitous, while the fourth slopes so that men may walk up it. Each year 150 waggon-loads of brushwood are added to the pile, which sinks continually by reason of the rains. An antique iron sword [akinákēs sidḗreos … arkhaîos] is planted on the top of every such mound, and serves as the image of Ares; yearly sacrifices of cattle and of horses are made to it, and more victims are offered thus than to all the rest of their gods. When prisoners are taken in war, out of every hundred men they sacrifice one, not however with the same rites as the cattle, but with different. Libations of wine are first poured upon their heads, after which they are slaughtered over a vessel; the vessel is then carried up to the top of the pile, and the blood poured upon the scimitar. While this takes place at the top of the mound, below, by the side of the temple, the right hands and arms of the slaughtered prisoners are cut off, and tossed on high into the air. Then the other victims are slain, and those who have offered the sacrifice depart, leaving the hands and arms where they may chance to have fallen, and the bodies also, separate" (translated by George Rawlinson, 1860).

The Turkic words discussed in the blog have been borrowed into Russian in various shapes, the most current word for 'dagger' being kinzhál, but also chingálishche, khandzhár, konchár, konchán.

Matt Anderson:

Baxter/Sagart give jian as *s.kram-s, and Schuessler as *kam, both of which seem reasonable to me, so it does fit pretty well (though the -tt- is a little odd).

I always associated the word jian with the south, which wouldn’t work that well (it often occurs in the context of Wu and Yue, and in the Chu ci, and it is written on many southern swords, such as the late Springs and Autumns Sword of Goujian 越王勾踐劍 from Hubei); and Schuessler also notes a likely southern connection ("[T] ONW kam || ‘Sword’ [Zuo, under the year 650 BC]. || [E] Etymology not certain. This mid Zhou period word could be derived from → yǎn4 剡覃 ‘sharp’ (implied by Wulff, Geilich 1994: 110, 263), the initial k- would then be a nominalizing prefix (§5.4). Alternatively, swords seem to have originated in the ancient southern state of Wú (Sūzhōu area), which was famous for its sword smiths. From there the word, of unknown provenance, may have entered OC as well as PVM as *t-kiəm [Ferlus].”).

However, the earliest probable example of the word that I’ve been able to find so far comes from the Western Zhou Shitong ding 師同鼎, from Zhouyuan, in Shaanxi.  If this graph, written 鐱 (as are many of the southern examples of characters writing jian) in fact writes the word jian, that makes a connection with parts west much more likely. It appears in a list of metal objects, so it really does seem to be the right word.

Here is the inscription, taken from Wenwu 1982.12:

The image of the transcription cuts off the last line, which should be:


This is at least a start for considering Peter Kupfer's suggestion that the most common ancient Chinese word for "sword", namely jiàn 劍, might have a corresponding IE parallel.

There are at least two more posts to come in this series.

[Thanks to Chris Button and Mick Hunter]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    This is at least a start for considering Peter Kupfer's suggestion that the most common ancient Chinese word for "sword", namely jiàn 劍, might have a corresponding IE parallel.

    Well, they'd both contain [k] and [r] in the same order, with some kind of not-too-far-back vowel in between… all the rest would need to be explained away, which should be easy for the s- and the -s of the OC form, but not for the -m-, right?

    And even that is only the case if Baxter & Sagart are right, rather than Schuessler, though I don't understand Schuessler's reconstruction.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

    Scheussler's ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese has *kams for Old Sinitic.

  3. maidhc said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 2:09 am

    Discoveries about ancient Indo-European swords:

  4. András Róna-Tas said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 4:01 am

    may I add
    András Róna-Tas – Árpád Berta, West Old Turkic, 2011, 87-89:
    balta [båltå] ‘hatchet, axe’ | 1423 PN Baltha [balta], 1572 boldát [boldā-t], 1612 baltájával [baltā-yāval] | balta < *balta ←WOT *balta | EOT balto ‘an axe’ ← Iranian ← Semitic
    OT baltō ‘an axe, a battle axe’ (UMI 20, 13; USuv 544, 6), baldo ‘an axe (used for cutting firewood)’ (AKOguz), ‘an axe for slaughtering ox’ (AK), baldu ‘battle axe’ (AQB)
    MT balta ‘ax’ (ABF), balta ‘topor, doloto’ (AHŠF), baltā ‘teber (sic), balta’ (AIMI), balta ‘axe, hatchet’ (AKD), balta ‘topor’ (ANehF), baltä ‘topor’: baltäni (ATef), baltu ‘hache’ (AChag), baltu ‘balta’ (AChagAbV), baltu ‘topor’ (AChagMA), baltu ‘das Beil, die Axt’ (AChagR), baltu ‘an axe’ (AChagSC), balto ‘Hacke, Beil’ (AChagŠS), balta ‘(kleine) Axt; manayra, securis’, baltïčaq ‘Hammer’ (LCC), balta ‘balta’ (AAH), balta ‘balta’ (AAHI), balta ‘hache, cognée’ (ADur), balta ‘Axt’ (AKav), balta ‘topor’ (ATuh), balta ‘hache, cognée’ (AmTr), baldu ‘balta’ (AOtT).
    NT Chuv [purtă ‘topor’]; NW balta ‘topor, kolun’ (Tat), [balga ‘xärbi balta, görzi; zur čükč, kuvalda’ (TatE)], balta ‘topor’, [balġa ‘kuvalda, sekira, berdyš’] (Bashk), [balġa ~ palkä ~ palġa ‘molotok’] (SibT), [palγa ‘der Hammer’] (SibTBR), balta ‘topor’, [balka ‘molot, molotok’] (Kirg), [balġa ‘hammer’] (Kaz), balta ‘topor’, [balġa ‘molotok’] (Kkalp), balta ‘topor’ (Nog), balta ‘topor’ (CrTat), balta ‘topor’ (Kar), balta ‘topor’ (Kum), balta ‘topor’ (Krch-Blk); SW palta ‘topor’ (Tkm), balta ‘topor; molotok’ (Az), balta ‘axe, hatchet’ (Tt); Kh –; Turk bålta ‘topor’ (Uzb), paldu ~ paltu ‘axe’ (TurkiJ), [balqa ‘a hammer’] (TurkiSh), palto ~ paltї ‘topor’ (TurkiL), baltu ‘das Beil’ (TurkiTR), palta (dial.) ~ balta ‘topor’ (MUyg), palto ‘topor’ (Sal), palta ‘hache’ (SalK); S malta ‘topor’ (Alt), palta ‘das Beil’ (AltLR), palta ‘topor’ (AltQK), balta ‘topor’ (AltTK), palta ‘das Beil’ (AltTelR), paltї ‘topor’ (Khak), palta ‘das Beil’ (KhakQbR), palta ‘das Beil’ (KhakQchR), palta ‘das Beil’ (KhakSR), palta ‘das Beil’ (KhakShR), palta ‘das Beil’ (ChulR), baldї ‘topor’ (Tuv); Y balta ‘bolʹšoj kuznečnyj molot’ (Y), balta ‘Backenzahn’ (DlgS)
    Mo balta ‘big hammer, sledge hammer, axe’ (L)
    E/T Chuv purtă cited hitherto as pertaining to the H word is (together with Zyr, Voty purt) of Iranian origin (*barto < *partu < *paraðu, see Skrt paraśú; TochA porat, B peret ← Old Pers *parθu or *paraθa, further Saka paḍä < *partu < *paraθu aluka → MT with a non-Iranian mediation), and in Chuv as *barto > purtă through Old Pers mediation. On the Old Pers form, see also Szemerényi (1951: 81–82). The question is whether T balto has anything to do with Iranian *partu, if it has a Mesopotamian origin, or if it is an original T word. I assume an Iranian origin and *palto *l occurred in some Iranian lgs, though in a restricted group of words. We find this sporadic change, e.g. in Parthian (see Rastorgueva–Molčanova 1981a: 180, 182), in Saka (see Gercenberg 1981: 245), in Middle Pers (see Rastorgueva–Molčanova 1981b: 48) and surely in other Iranian lgs as well. I do not see any possibility of tracing the -t- in balta to Semitic or Sumerian, as has been done by Poppe (1953: 25). An Old Pers mediation is possible. An IE palatal *k̂ in the intervocalic and postvocalic positions changed in Proto-Iranian to s, which became θ (Avestan s) in Old Pers and h in Middle Pers. As Abaev (1958–1979/1: 451) pointed out, the final -t in Oss færæt reflects an Old Pers form, because Proto-Iranian -s would have given an s in Oss, but an Old Pers θ was substitued by -t in Oss. The same is the case with the final -t of Toch porat ~ peret (Windekens 1976: 637, citing the Oss and Saka data, presumed an “Iranian origin” instead of Old Pers). According to Adams (1999: 396), TochB peret ‘axe’ is a “borrowing from some Middle Iranian source”. Since -t- reflects a typical Old Pers feature, we have to suppose that the l > r also occurred in an Old Iranian dial identical with or near to Old Pers. In this case the same word would have entered the T lgs three times. The final vowel was PT –o, which changed to -u and –a, respectively. Starostin–Dybo–Mudrak (2003: 898) write “both Iranian and Akkadian origins of Turk *baltu ‘axe’ (see Poppe 1953, Menges 1953) seem improbable and its Altaic origin quite possible”. According to the authors T → Mo balta (hence Evk balta etc.). On the other hand, they consider Mo milaga, minaga ‘whip’ as genetically related and reconstructed a PA *màli ‘stick, cudgel’. This is acceptable from neither a phonological, nor a semantic point of view. Starostin–Dybo–Mudrak (2003: 1077) also separate MMo haluka, Mo aluka ‘hammer, mallet’ from the above and reconstruct a “Western isogloss” *pằluk´V ‘hammer’. This would be represented in T by Uzb balga (Chag), Tat balga, Kirg balga. They add, however, that it “may be an old «Wanderwort» (cf. PIE *pelek´u)”, which in fact it is.
    E/H The T origin of the H word was first mentioned by Vámbéry (1870: 129) and accepted by all H authorities since then (see Benkő 1993–1997/1: 76). The relationship among the various T data has not yet been cleared up. The H word also occurred as a personal name among the Cumans of Hungary.
    *Vámbéry 1870: 129; Gombocz 1912b: 40; Gombocz–Melich 1914–1944/1: 261; Vámbéry 1914: 138; Rásonyi 1923–1927: 129; Bárczi 1941: 14; Szemerényi 1951: 81–82; Menges 1953: 300-303; Poppe 1953: 25; Abaev 1958–1979/1: 451; Doerfer 1963–1975/1: 199; 1963–1975/2: 256–257; Egorov 1964: 166; Róna-Tas 1966: 329; Benkő 1967–1984/1: 233; Sevortjan 1974–1980/2: 57; Windekens 1976: 637; Gercenberg 1981: 245; Rastorgueva–Molčanova 1981a: 180, 182; Rastorgueva–Molčanova 1981b: 48; Ligeti 1986: 248–249; Benkő 1993–1997/1: 76; Gamkrelidze–Ivanov 1995: 620–621; Fedotov 1996/1: 447–448; Golden 1998–1999: 77; Adams 1999: 396; Róna-Tas 1999: 189, 367; Tenišev 2001: 577; Tietze 2002: 273–274; Starostin–Dybo–Mudrak 2003: 898, 1077.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 7:28 am

    András Róna-Tas's marvelously rich comment should actually be under
    "Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 3" (3/16/16), so I will put a link to it there.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    From Marcel Erdal:

    Interestingly, the I.E. root ker- was borrowed into 'Altaic' together with its ‘expansions’ (whatever that means in I.E. or in Altaic): Turkic has kïr- and Mongolic kiru-, Turkic kïrk- and Mongolic kirga-, Turkic kïrp- and Mongolic kirbe-, all in appropriate meanings; Old Turkic appears to have had kïrt- as well. Räsänen’s comparative Turkic dictionary (p. 266) quotes some very similar Tungus verb stems.

  7. Jongseong Park said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 3:02 pm

    Korean has 칼 kal for "knife/sword", from Middle Korean 갏 (Yale: kalh), and 가르다 gareuda "to cut/divide", from Middle Korean 가ᄅᆞ다 (Yale: kalota; 가ㄹ- kal- is the stem). I can only speculate whether the resemblance to the forms in other languages discussed above is coincidental or not.

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 4:13 pm

    Actually, in my previous comment, it would probably be more accurate to say that 가ᄅᆞ kalo- is the stem of the verb 가ᄅᆞ다 kalota.

  9. Eric said,

    March 28, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    Marcel's and Jongseong's comments spurred me to point out Japanese 切る kiru "to cut" (the underlying stem being //kir-//). Finding Japanese etymologies is always next to impossible for me, and I don't know if it's a long forgotten loan from a Korean language or what, but it reminds me of the out-of-favor suggestion that Japonic is a cousin to Altaic.

    If these words aren't all genetically related, maybe there's an onomatopoetic origin at play? I'd be interested to hear the relative frequency of cut/sword words starting with velars or even velar+liquid in other linguistic regions

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    March 28, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    I think our operating assumption should be that if there is some connection between all these words between different families, then they must simply be instances of loans, not inheritance from a common ancestor. It might be difficult to establish the direction of the loan in each instance, as I imagine is often the case with Wanderwörter, but there must have been plenty of contact between these languages in Eurasia.

    So there is no need to reach for an onomatopoetic origin. Even if that were the case, the probability that different languages independently came up with similar onomatopoetic words for this concept is essentially nil, so it doesn't help explain the distribution of such words.

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