Ashkenazi and Scythians

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It is not my intention to stir up a firestorm, but I have for decades suspected that the names "Ashkenazi" and "Scythian" are related.  Now, after having sat on this for years and letting it gnaw away at my inwyt for far too long, I've decided to seek the collected expertise of the Language Log readership to see if there really is something to my suspicion.

Ashkenazi Jews (/ˌæʃ-, ɑːʃkəˈnɑːzi/ ASH-, AHSH-kə-NAH-zee), also known as Ashkenazic Jews or, by using the Hebrew plural suffix -im, Ashkenazim[a] are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium.

The traditional diaspora language of Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish (a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages), developed after they had moved into northern Europe: beginning with Germany and France in the Middle Ages. For centuries they used Hebrew only as a sacred language, until the revival of Hebrew as a common language in 20th century's Israel. Throughout their time in Europe, Ashkenazim have made many important contributions to its philosophy, scholarship, literature, art, music and science.

The term "Ashkenazi" refers to Jewish settlers who established communities along the Rhine river in Western Germany and in Northern France dating to the Middle Ages. Once there, they adapted traditions carried from Babylon, the Holy Land, and the Western Mediterranean to their new environment.  The Ashkenazi religious rite developed in cities such as Mainz, Worms, and Troyes. The eminent French Rishon Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi) would have a significant influence on the Jewish religion.

In the late Middle Ages, due to religious persecution, the majority of the Ashkenazi population shifted steadily eastward, moving out of the Holy Roman Empire into the areas later part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, comprising parts of present-day Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

The name Ashkenazi derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, son of Japhet, son of Noah, and a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). The name of Gomer has often been linked to the ethnonym Cimmerians.

Biblical Ashkenaz is usually derived from Assyrian Aškūza (cuneiform Aškuzai/Iškuzai), a people who expelled the Cimmerians from the Armenian area of the Upper Euphrates,; the name Aškūza is usually associated with the name of the Scythians. The intrusive n in the Biblical name is likely due to a scribal error confusing a vav ו with a nun נ.

In Jeremiah 51:27, Ashkenaz figures as one of three kingdoms in the far north, the others being Minni and Ararat, perhaps corresponding to Urartu, called on by God to resist Babylon. In the Yoma tractate of the Babylonian Talmud the name Gomer is rendered as Germania, which elsewhere in rabbinical literature was identified with Germanikia in northwestern Syria, but later became associated with Germania. Ashkenaz is linked to Scandza/Scanzia, viewed as the cradle of Germanic tribes, as early as a 6th-century gloss to the Historia Ecclesiastica of Eusebius.

In the 10th-century History of Armenia of Yovhannes Drasxanakertc'i (1.15) Ashkenaz was associated with Armenia, as it was occasionally in Jewish usage, where its denotation extended at times to Adiabene, Khazaria, Crimea and areas to the east. His contemporary Saadia Gaon identified Ashkenaz with the Saquliba or Slavic territories, and such usage covered also the lands of tribes neighboring the Slavs, and Eastern and Central Europe. In modern times, Samuel Krauss identified the Biblical "Ashkenaz" with Khazaria.

Sometime in the Early Medieval period, the Jews of central and eastern Europe came to be called by this term. Conforming to the custom of designating areas of Jewish settlement with biblical names, Spain was denominated Sefarad (Obadiah 20), France was called Tsarefat (1 Kings 17:9), and Bohemia was called the Land of Canaan. By the high medieval period, Talmudic commentators like Rashi began to use Ashkenaz/Eretz Ashkenaz to designate Germany, earlier known as Loter, where, especially in the Rhineland communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, the most important Jewish communities arose. Rashi uses leshon Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi language) to describe German speech, and Byzantium and Syrian Jewish letters referred to the Crusaders as Ashkenazim. Given the close links between the Jewish communities of France and Germany following the Carolingian unification, the term Ashkenazi came to refer to the Jews of both medieval Germany and France.


The mind boggles at all these possible connections.

Now, a similar treatment for the Scythians, first history, then etymology:

The Scythians (/ˈsɪθiən, ˈsɪð-/; from Greek Σκύθης, Σκύθοι), also known as Scyth, Saka, Sakae, Iskuzai, or Askuzai [VHM:  N.B.], were an ancient nomadic people of Eurasia, inhabiting the region Scythia. Classical Scythians dominated the Pontic steppe from approximately the 7th century BC until the 3rd century BC. They can also be referred to as Pontic Scythians, European Scythians or Western Scythians. They were part of the wider Scythian cultures, stretching across the Eurasian Steppe. In a broader sense, Scythians has also been used to designate all early Eurasian nomads, although the validity of such terminology is controversial. According to Di Cosmo, other terms such as "Early nomadic" would be preferable. Eastern members of the Scythian cultures are often specifically designated as Sakas.

The Scythians are generally believed to have been of Iranian (or Iranic; an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group) origin; they spoke a language of the Scythian branch of the Iranian languages, and practiced a variant of ancient Iranian religion. Among the earliest peoples to master mounted warfare, the Scythians replaced the Cimmerians as the dominant power on the Pontic steppe in the 8th century BC. During this time they and related peoples came to dominate the entire Eurasian Steppe from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to Ordos Plateau in the east, creating what has been called the first Central Asian nomadic empire. Based in what is modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia, they called themselves Scoloti and were led by a nomadic warrior aristocracy known as the Royal Scythians.

In the 7th century BC, the Scythians crossed the Caucasus and frequently raided the Middle East along with the Cimmerians, playing an important role in the political developments of the region. Around 650–630 BC, Scythians briefly dominated the Medes of the western Iranian Plateau, stretching their power to the borders of Egypt. After losing control over Media, they continued intervening in Middle Eastern affairs, playing a leading role in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire in the Sack of Nineveh in 612 BC. The Scythians subsequently engaged in frequent conflicts with the Achaemenid Empire, and suffered a major defeat against Macedonia in the 4th century BC and were subsequently gradually conquered by the Sarmatians, a related Iranian people living to their east. In the late 2nd century BC, their capital at Scythian Neapolis in the Crimea was captured by Mithridates VI and their territories incorporated into the Bosporan Kingdom. By this time they had been largely Hellenized. By the 3rd century AD, the Sarmatians and last remnants of the Scythians were dominated by the Alans, and were being overwhelmed by the Goths. By the early Middle Ages, the Scythians and the Sarmatians had been largely assimilated and absorbed by early Slavs. The Scythians were instrumental in the ethnogenesis of the Ossetians, who are believed to be descended from the Alans.

The Scythians played an important part in the Silk Road, a vast trade network connecting Greece, Persia, India and China, perhaps contributing to the prosperity of those civilisations. Settled metalworkers made portable decorative objects for the Scythians, forming a history of Scythian metalworking. These objects survive mainly in metal, forming a distinctive Scythian art.

The name of the Scythians survived in the region of Scythia. Early authors continued to use the term "Scythian", applying it to many groups unrelated to the original Scythians, such as Huns, Goths, Türks, Avars, Khazars, and other unnamed nomads. The scientific study of the Scythians is called Scythology.


Linguist Oswald Szemerényi studied synonyms of various origins for Scythian and differentiated the following terms: Skuthes Σκύθης, Skudra, Sug(u)da and Saka.

    • Skuthes Σκύθης, Skudra, Sug(u)da descended from the Indo-European root (s)kewd-, meaning "propel, shoot" (cognate with English shoot). *skud- is the zero-grade form of the same root. Szemerényi restores the Scythians' self-name as *skuda (roughly "archer"). This yields the Ancient Greek Skuthēs Σκύθης (plural Skuthai Σκύθαι) and the Assyrian Aškuz. The Old Armenian: սկիւթ skiwtʰ is based on itacistic Greek. A late Scythian sound change from /d/ to /l/ established the Greek word Skolotoi (Σκώλοτοι), from the Scythian *skula which, according to Herodotus, was the self-designation of the Royal Scythians. Other sound changes have produced Sogdia. [VHM:  N.B.]
    • The term Saka reflected in Old Persian: Sakā, Greek: Σάκαι; Latin: Sacae, Sanskrit: शक Śaka comes from an Iranian verbal root sak-, "go, roam" and thus means "nomad". Although closely related, the Saka people are nomadic Iranians, that are to be distinguished from the European Scythians and inhabited the northern and eastern Eurasian Steppe and the Tarim Basin.


The name Scythian is derived from the name used for them by the ancient Greeks. Iskuzai or Askuzai was the name given them by the Assyrians. The ancient Persians used the term Saka for all nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, including the Scythians.


Herodotus said the ruling class of the Scythians, whom he referred to as the Royal Scythians, called themselves Skolotoi.

Modern terminology

In scholarship, the term Scythians generally refers to the nomadic Iranian people who dominated the Pontic steppe from the 7th century BC to the 3rd century BC.

The Scythians share several cultural similarities with other populations living to their east, in particular similar weapons, horse gear and Scythian art, which has been referred to as the Scythian triad. Cultures sharing these characteristics have often been referred to as Scythian cultures, and its peoples called Scythians. Peoples associated with Scythian cultures include not only the Scythians themselves, who were a distinct ethnic group, but also Cimmerians, Massagetae, Saka, Sarmatians and various obscure peoples of the forest steppe, such as early Slavs, Balts and Finno-Ugric peoples. Within this broad definition of the term Scythian, the actual Scythians have often been distinguished from other groups through the terms Classical Scythians, Western Scythians, European Scythians or Pontic Scythians.

Scythologist Askold Ivantchik notes with dismay that the term "Scythian" has been used within both a broad and a narrow context, leading to a good deal of confusion. He reserves the term "Scythian" for the Iranian people dominating the Pontic steppe from the 7th century BC to the 3rd century BC. Nicola Di Cosmo writes that the broad concept of "Scythian" is "too broad to be viable", and that the term "early nomadic" is preferable.


The ancient Chinese name for the Scythians / Sakas was 塞, pronounced Sāi in MSM, but with the following reconstructions:

(BaxterSagart): /*[s]ˤək-s/
(Zhengzhang): /*slɯːɡs/


Sāizhǒngrén 塞種人 ("Sakas") are mentioned repeatedly in early Chinese historical works.

I have been particularly mindful of the Scythians / Sakas in recent years because we have had several students write dissertations and articles focusing or touching on them (especially their art and archeology) and tracing them across the entire continent of Eurasia, from west to east.


Selected readings


  1. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 10:37 am

    Excellent summation of a still debated problem. Followers of Language Log might be interested in Paul Wexler's magnum opus (1412 pages!): "Silk Road Linguistics. The birth of Yiddish and the multiethnic Jewish peoples on the Silk Roads, 9-13th centuries" (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2021). Wexler is well known for his relexification theory of Yiddish (in his view, originally a Western Slavic tongue, that relexified its vocabulary to Germanic (and already had numerous Hebrew-Aramaic and other elements). Needless to say, this has become part of a ferocious polemic between geneticists who point to Middle Eastern DNA as the primary component of Ashkenazi Jews and those who advance one or another of the variants of the "Khazar Hypothesis" (= Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazar converts to Judaism). To say that the whole issue has become highly politicized, would be an understatement.

  2. David L. Gold said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 11:42 am

    Paul Wexler suggests a possible genetic connection between the Turkish names of four villages in northeastern Turkey and the Hebrew proper noun ashkenaz:

    "There we located four primeval villages that bear names that may derive from “Ashkenaz”—İşkenaz (or Eşkenaz) at (40°9′N, 40°26′E) in the province of Trabzon (or Trebizond), Eşkenez (or Eşkens) at (40°4′N, 40°8′E) in the province of Erzurum, Aşhanas (today Üzengili) at (40°5′, 40°4′E) in the province of Bayburt, and Aschuz (or Hassis/Haza, 30 B.C.–A.D. 640) ( Bryer and Winfield 1985 ; Roaf et al. 2015 ) in the province of Tunceli—all of which are in close proximity to major trade routes."

    Since responsible researchers, whatever their field, play devil's advocate with themselves, he is expected to consult the leading students of Turkish toponymy about the age of those Turkish place names, for if they are relatively new, the similarity in form between them and Hebrew ashkenaz could be nothing more than a coincidence, in which case they would not support his suggestion.

    So far as I can tell, he says nothing about the age of the four (using the word "primeval" does not constitute evidence).

    What can the best Turkish toponymists tell us about the age (and meaning) of those names? What is the date of the currently oldest-known evidence for each name?

  3. David L. Gold said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 12:11 pm

    P. S. A few decades ago, coming upon the family name Ashkenadze in texts dealing with Georgian Jews, I was puzzled because, on one hand, Georgian -dze (which originally meant ‘son’) was a relatively old suffix of (both Jewish and non-Jewish) Georgian family names (in contrast to -shvili, which is newer) and, on the other hand, Georgian Jews for decades did not marry Ashkenazic Jews because they thought they were not sufficiently Orthodox Jewish.

    A linguist at the Ben Zvi Institute who specializes in Georgian, including Jewish Georgian, soon set the record straight: both Jews and non-Jews have borne that family name and it does not mean *‘son of an Ashkenazi’ or have any other Jewish semantic content.

    So much time has passed since then that I have forgotten the meaning of Ashkena- in that name (possibly a word denothing an occupation or a profession). Does anyone know?

    In any case, proper names, whether toponyms or anthroponyms, can be misleading at first glance.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 1:01 pm

    In the Yoma tractate of the Babylonian Talmud the name Gomer is rendered as Germania, which elsewhere in rabbinical literature was identified with Germanikia in northwestern Syria, but later became associated with Germania.

    Understandably – as the article on Germanicea points out, it was named after Germanicus.


    That's not a thing.

    And of course you can't have sch in a Turkish word, names included.

    I do think Beider is right, though, and most of Yiddish has its origin in Bohemian Jews switching from Czech to German…

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 1:23 pm


  6. Marcel Erdal said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 1:34 pm

    Urartu was misread as Ararat because the Old Testament originally had no diacritic vowel marking.
    The name of the Sak(a) must have had a centralised vowel like Turkish ı. Then there might have been the plural suffix -uþ, together in Greek writing Sk-uþ. The early Greek [u] came to be pronounced as [ü] in Classical Greek, in subsequent spelling in Latin script becoming Skyth.
    Best, Marcel

  7. David L. Gold said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 2:15 pm

    Yoma 10a in the Babylonian Talmud indeed says גומר זה גרממיא, that is, 'Gomer is Germamya' (with a second mem, not a nun).

    Jewish religious writings contain many folk etymologies. Uriel Weinreich once sneeringly said that 'Etymology is the Jewish national sport' (reported to me by Mordkhe Schaechter, who knew him well).

    See here for some guesses on the origin of Gomer:

  8. David L. Gold said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 3:47 pm

    It is one thing to suggest that that this or that feature of lect X results from the influence of lect Y (= suggestion 1) and quite another to suggest that lect Y is a or the substratum of lect X (= suggestion 2).

    Naturally, suggestion 2 should not be made unless suggestion 1 has been proven to be right.

    Some of those who in recent years have made suggestion 1 regarding Yidish have not proven it and should therefore have refrained from making suggestion 2.

    Some of them have proven suggestion 1 and are therefore entitled to make suggestion 2 but they have not proven the latter.

    So far as I can tell, no one has proven both suggestions.

    An analysis now in press examines one of the packages (suggestion 1 + suggestion 2) and finds that the author has found not one even remotely possible instance of the influence of lect Y on Yidish. More analyses will follow.

  9. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 4:12 pm

    @David Marjanović

    You actually can have "sch" in Turkish words (if that's the IPA "ʃ"), only not at the start. Some examples:

    aş = food
    äşid = to hear
    eş = pair
    kişi = person

  10. Thomas Rees said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

    @Mehmet Oguz Derin

    But you can’t have the consonant cluster “sch” (in Turkish spelling), i.e. /sdʒh/. All the other toponyms in the Wexler quote are in Turkish spelling.

  11. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 6:21 pm

    @Thomas Reed

    IPA "sdʒh" is, for sure, not possible! But I wouldn't expect that "sch" to stand for that, despite sitting next to Turkish spellings, such feels like taking it at face value.

  12. David L. Gold said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

    When mentioning "sch," David Marjanović presumably had in mind the spelling Aschuz (in my comment of 11:42 am) rather than /ʃ/.

    I quoted the entire paragraph ("There we located four primeval villages… proximity to major trade routes") verbatim et literatim et punctuatim from one of Paul Wexler's publications.

  13. Chris Button said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 8:07 pm

    Minor note, but the reconstruction of 塞 should here probably be the one without an Old Chinese final -s. That then allows the -k coda to be retained in the Middle Chinese form.

  14. Chris Button said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 8:18 pm

    The name of the Sak(a) must have had a centralised vowel like Turkish ı.

    That would concur with the Chinese transcription which goes with /ə/ rather than /a/.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 10:47 pm

    So who called the village Aschuz, in what language, given that it no longer existed after 640 A.D.?

  16. martin schwartz said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 1:33 am

    Interesting stuff. I hope in the next 2 days to
    address some of these things as both an Ashkenazi and an Iraniist; too tired now.

  17. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 1:57 am

    A correction to my comment of July 13, 7:00 pm, where I speak of "one of Paul Wexler's publications."

    It is actually an article by four authors, of whom he is one:

    Ranajit Das, Paul Wexler, Mehdi Pirooznia, and Eran Elhaik. 2016. "Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to Primeval Villages in the Ancient Iranian Lands of Ashkenaz." Genome Biology and Evolution. Volume 8. Issue 4. April. Pages 1132–1149 (available here free of charge:

    @ Jerry Friedman. "So who called the village Aschuz, in what language, given that it no longer existed after 640 A.D.?"

    For that name in that spelling, the authors relied on "Bryer and Winfield 1985 ; Roaf et al. 2015." Those references being active fields in their article, they can be clicked to get the full bibliographical details.

  18. Francesco Brighenti said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 3:08 am

    See also O. Szemerényi, “Four Old Iranian Ethnic Names: Scythian – Skudra – Sogdian – Saka” (Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1980), p. 7 at :

    “Kimmerians and Scythians were less than a century and a half south of the Caucasus. During that relatively short period they were known to the local population, in particular to the Assyrians, as Gimirrai(a) and Aškuzai, Askuzāi, or Iškuzāi, Iškuza, respectively. The former is quite clearly the Biblical Gomer and the Greek Κιμμέριοι, but there can be little doubt that the latter also appears in the Old Testament, albeit in the corrupt form Ashkenaz, found at Genesis 10, 3, and Jeremiah 51, 27. […] It is clear that the corruption occurred in the scribal, not the oral tradition: the historically obscure ethnic ’škwz was in its written form changed to ’šknz, an easily understandable change seeing that in the development of Hebrew script the two letters were very similar in many variants of the script. That the term Ashkenazim has come to mean ‘Polish-German Jews’ in contrast to Sephardim ‘Spanish or Portuguese Jews’ is a highly interesting semantic development but not relevant to our problem.”

  19. David Marjanović said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 4:23 am

    By "that's not a thing", I didn't mean the word relexification doesn't exist. Of course it does, and I know what it means. I'm saying that what it means – that a language borrows so many words it ends up with an entirely new vocabulary – never happens. The closest thing that ever happens is language shift: the vocabulary, the sound system and the grammar are exchanged, in other words the entire language (minus a few substrate loans) – the speakers stop using their native language and speak another to their children.

    When mentioning "sch," David Marjanović presumably had in mind the spelling Aschuz (in my comment of 11:42 am) rather than /ʃ/.

    Yes. But if it's only attested from 640 or earlier, it isn't Turkish anyway…

  20. Thomas Shaw said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    I've just been on a small hunt for "Aschuz", through the reference given above by David L Gold (general searches for the name all seem to lead back to that reference). The (short) trail ends at Miller, Itineraria Romana, 1917, which gives Aschuz as an alternate name for Hassis (which seems to be the Roman name. Aza is also given as a Greek name for the same place.), but no further information. Note that 1917 is before the modern turkish alphabet was adopted, so it makes sense that this should be interpreted as a German transliteration, possibly of a contemporary Ottoman name.

  21. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 9:34 am

    @ Thomas Shaw. "Note that 1917 is before the modern turkish alphabet was adopted, so it makes sense that this should be interpreted as a German transliteration, possibly of a contemporary Ottoman name."

    I too had at first thought, before posting my comment, that sch was a German romanization but in the end did not say so because that would have meant that the z in Aschuz was German, in which case we would have to interpret it as /t͡s/ (as in German Vaduz), which, so far as I know, does not occur in Turkish.

    It is worthy of note that when non-Turkish names with /t͡s/ are recorded in Turkish, the grapheme used is either ç (as in Lev Troçki), which stands for /t͡ʃ/ in Turkish, or z (as in Vaduz), which stands for /z/ in that language.

    Paul Wexler, apparently, did not consider those anomalies in the spelling Aschuz and try to resolve them.

  22. Aaron said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    @David Marjanović: Citation needed. Simply stating that relexification does not occur is not evidence.

  23. Thomas Shaw said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 10:30 am

    @David L. Gold

    Right, difficult to conclude anything firmly, given the sparseness of the record — that was just my best guess. On the same line, Greek Aζα is transliterated as Aza, so maybe 'z' and /z/ is just a convention used here. But maybe that is a red herring too because that seems to be a spelling from a roman source. I looked around briefly for a note about how transliterations were done and wasn't able to find anything, but I gave up quickly and could easily have missed something in the 1000 page volume. I did confirm that the 'j.' in "Hassis, Haza, Aza […] j. Aschuz" is for 'jetzt', so that at least means that Aschuz is intended to be a contemporary name in some language. Anyway I agree that the Wexler connection of Aschuz and Ashkenaz is unsubstantiated and weak.

    By the way, I also looked at google maps for the purported location of Hassis given by the second citation in the Wexler paper, and found no village at those coordinates, and the modern names of the nearby towns didn't resemble Aschuz in any way.

  24. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 11:58 am

    Restricting the search to Turkish texts, I used Google’s advanced search to find instances of Aşnaxas and/or Aşnaxas. It took me to Nisanyan Yeradları’s Index Anatolicus, where we read:

    Üzengili köy – Bayburt Merkez – Bayburt
    1835a 1910h : Aşxanas/Aşnaxas

    That is, the name of the village now known in Turkish as Üzengili is recorded as Aşnaxas in a source dated 1835 and as Aşnaxas in one dated 1910.

    Both spellings are presumably Nisanyan’s romanizations of the Ottoman Turkish names.

    Does Paul Wexler have earlier evidence for either of those names and what are the dates of the currently earliest-known use of the other places he mentions (İşkenaz ~ Eşkenaz, Eşkenez ~ Eşkens, and Aschuz ~ Hassis ~ Haza)?

    If he has no early dates, a Scottish verdict of “not proven” is in order.

    And why is “Ashkenazic endonym ashkenazi < the name of one or more of those villages” the only possible etymology? Also to be considered is the (likelier?) possibility that that endonym goes back to Hebrew ashkenaz (the currently earliest-known uses of which are in Genesis 10:3 and Jeremiah 51:27), which in turn presumably comes from one or more non-Hebrew names of Scythia or the Scythians.

  25. Thomas Shaw said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 12:21 pm

    To be fair, I think the theory is that the village names come from the endonym, not the other way around:

    "There we located four primeval villages that bear names that may derive from “Ashkenaz”".

    The paper's idea of where "Ashkenaz" came from is: "The name “Ashkenaz” is the Biblical Hebrew adaptation of the Iranian tribal name, which was rendered in Assyrian and Babylonian documents of the 7th century B.C. as aškūza , called in English by the Greek equivalent “Scythian” ( Wexler 2010 )."

    (but "not proven" still sounds right to me).

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 12:57 pm

    Re "a highly interesting semantic development but not relevant to our problem," I suppose any scholar is free to define the scope of "our problem" being written about for purposes of a specific article, but I do think that understanding how a given word got associated with a new (and perhaps surprisingly different) referent than it was associated with in its earlier stage is a legitimate and important part of etymological inquiry. Why certain medieval rabbinical writers would have conceptualized the Rhineland as part of "Greater Scythia" (if that's the best way to describe what happened) seems like it would be worth understanding. I don't *think* they were repurposing "Bible names" as toponyms in the same random fashion the early Anglophone settlers of North America were (where e.g. there was no overall/unified/coordinated/systemic approach that explains why one bit of land became New Canaan, Ct. and another bit of land Nazareth, Pa. etc etc), but maybe I'm wrong about that and there was a fair amount of randomness in the Scythia->Rhineland shift.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 1:13 pm

    Separately, I regret to say that I cannot immediately find online an English translation (there may never have been one, given the ubiquity of reading knowledge of German among the relevant scholars of the day) of A.W. Knobel's Völkertafel der Genesis, an 1850 work interpreting the Table of Nations in the light of then-current ethnographic and historical scholarship. I suspect that Knobel's reported surmise that "Ashkenaz" was etymologically related to "Æsir" is not the most out-there idea in the book.

  28. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 2:17 pm

    @Thomas Shaw. I agree with you: "To be fair…" and "not proven."

  29. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 2:50 pm

    @J. W. Brewer.

    I share your belief that a comprehensive, objective study of all the Hebrew proper nouns that underwent unexpected semantic changes is needed.

    Researchers have for several decades believed that the Hebrew proper noun sefarad, which occurs once in the Jewish Bible (Obadiah 1:20), comes from sfard (researchers’ romanization), the Lydian name of an inhabited place in Lydia on or near which the inhabited place called Sart in Turkish now stands (sfard was integrated as sefarad to make it sound fully phonotactic in Hebrew).

    Somehow, the Iberian Peninsula became known as sefarad in Hebrew and their Jewish inhabitants as sefaradim. The question of why therefore arises: was the change in referent random or was it not? Is there really such a beast as random semantic change or does it seem random only because the reason for the change eludes us?

    There is research literature in Hebrew (Brutzkus, Kraus, Mann, and probably others), which should not be overlooked.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 6:48 pm

    @D.L. Gold, just to show things coming full circle to Asia Minor, the Sephardim in pre-Castro Cuba were known in Spanish as "los turcos" (the Turks), because they had in most cases sojourned in Ottoman-ruled lands (not necessarily within the borders of post-Ottoman Turkey) during the hiatus between leaving Iberia and arriving in Cuba 400+ years later. (By contrast the Ashkenazim were "los polacos" because of their typical sojourn within some set of the shifting historical borders of "Poland.")

    As to "Sefarad," I am intrigued to see that the LXX of that verse of Obadiah just has ᾿Εφραθά (= Ephrathah) instead.

  31. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 6:54 pm

    @ Thomas Shaw

    Paul Wexler’s thesis that certain Yidish topolects lie on a Turco-Iranian substratum rests not only on his interpretation of the ethnonym Ashkenazi (Jew) but also on the etymologies he suggests for certain Yidish words.

    One of the etymologies he has suggested as possible supporting his thesis has been disproven in Gold 2017:77-80. I have not yet had time to look at his others, though I can say that I know of no Yidish word that indisputably comes immediately from some Turkic or Iranic language (which may, however, be due to my ignorance).

    That is, although instances are easy to find of etymologies such as Yidish < Polish < one or another Turkic language (which shows Turkic influence on Polish and Polish influence on Yidish but not Turkic influence on Yidish because only immediate transfer constitutes influence), I can think of no instances of Yidish < a Turkic language or Yidish < an Iranc language.

    Gold. David L. 2017. "A student of Jewish languages reads Michał Németh’s Unknown Lutsk Karaim Letters in Hebrew Script (19th–20th Centuries)." Almanach Karaimski. Vol. 6. Pp. 17-118 [fully available free of charge here:

  32. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 7:13 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer. "By contrast the Ashkenazim were "los polacos" because of their typical sojourn within some set of the shifting historical borders of "Poland."

    And in Argentina, the Ashkenazic Jews were called "rusos."

  33. R. Fenwick said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 10:30 pm

    @David Marjanović: By "that's not a thing", I didn't mean the word relexification doesn't exist. Of course it does, and I know what it means. I'm saying that what it means – that a language borrows so many words it ends up with an entirely new vocabulary – never happens.

    I agree with Aaron above. With respect, this seems as though it can only be true if you're one of those who disputes the term's use in discussing (among others) mixed languages (which is fine), or if you're using an extreme definition of the term to refer only to a complete lexical replacement rather than simply a large-scale lexical replacement. If the former, you might be interested in some of the literature that uses the term in discussing the genesis of Israeli Hebrew. If the latter, it seems to me to be an inappropriate extreme. Few phenomena in linguistics are exceptionless, and definitely there are some instances in which I, for my part, think the colossal scale of borrowing well merits the use of the term "relexification".

    And one can't help but think of the example of Ottoman Turkish, whose lexicon was so intensely pervaded by Arabic and Persian that in some Ottoman texts more than 80% of the lexical roots come from these languages. Even after the widespread linguistic reforms and lexical purges of Atatürk, generally considered a major success in terms of the modern language (at least in urban centres), massive amounts of Arabic and Persian loans have still been left behind, including a large array of lexical synonym pairs in modern Turkish reaching right down into the most basic lexicon. This is not relexification in the sense of obliteration of the original lexicon, but the extent of lexical importation without limitation to specific semantic fields might well merit the term in the sense of duplicating the original lexicon. Pairs below are given Turkic first, Arabic/Persian second, no matter what the comparative frequency in modern usage:

    Fire: yangın or ateş
    Year: yıl or sene
    Head: baş or kafa
    Heart: yürek or kalp
    White: ak or beyaz
    Black: kara or siyah
    Wind: yel or rüzgâr
    Man: erkek or adam
    Person: kişi or insan
    Name: ad or isim
    Some: biraz/birkaç or bazı.
    Other: başka or diğer
    And: ile or ve
    But: ama or fakat

    And unlike in English, where basic terms usually retain their everyday sense while the loan takes on a narrower or semantically shifted definition (for instance, year vs. annum, big vs. gross, gut vs. intestine, white vs. blank; exceptions are usually driven by some other motivator, as in pintle vs. penis), in Turkish it's very often the case that the Arabic/Persian loan is the one that has ascended to the most general sense, with the Turkic form squeezed into a narrower semantic range. Siyah "black", for example, is the basic colour term; the Turkic kara is used more narrowly to refer to dark hair or skin, and also metaphorically for "dark, evil".

  34. David L. Gold said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 11:46 pm

    @ R. Fenwick. "If the former, you might be interested in some of the literature that uses the term in discussing the genesis of Israeli Hebrew."

    I am not sure what "the former" is and what features of Israeli Hebrew you have in mind. I would appreciate some examples.

  35. martin schwartz said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 12:39 am

    The Genesis 'son of Gomer' (= Cimmeria) is 'šknz with n for the similar-shaped w in original *'škwz = "Scythia' as per the Akkadian; later Masoretic vocalization > Aškenaz.
    At this point, I'll digress to discuss similar names in Turkey, i.e. in Trebizond, Erzurum, and Bayburt. So, why, how? Let's note that these places once had VERY large Armenian populations. Armenians had a fondness for Ashkenaz, and regarded themselves his kin (I think you can find it on Wikipedia search Ashkenaz + Armenians). The only pieces of linguistic '"evidence" for his theory that Yiddish originated as a marcantile language of Iranians which I remember was Ossetic kosært/kūsært 'sacrificed animal for a meal' : Yiddish košer. The former is from Old Iranian *kauša-THra- , √kauš 'to kill', the latter the Yiddish and Judeo-German pron. of Bibl Heb. kāšer 'ritually fit' (whose pron. is still kept by Iranian Jews). Enough on this, back to *Aškuz etc. = Gr. Skuth-. Szemerényis' etym. fails,
    since the "shoot" word is Germanic, NOT found in Iranian. A more interesting origin was proposed by François Cornillot, I think in Studia Iranica and Indo-Iranian Journal; noting the Old Persian Saka Tigraxauda-s 'pointy-hatted Sakas' and the Behistun sculpture of the Saka captive Škunxa with his tall hat, FC compared Wakhi, a Saka-based Pamir language (aslo spoken in the Sinkiang area) skī∂ 'a cap' < *skau∂a- (tho the vocalism requires some finessing).
    For Saka, contra Szem. √sak 'to pass [of time, in chronology only!]', ergo 'nomad' I see Saka as an endonym *Strong', cf. OInd. √śac (śaknóti etc.)
    'be strong, able', Pers, saxt 'hard', etc. (whence Ir. *to overcome, bypass, pass' ?).

    Just as Gomer was metathetically interpreted as Germania, and Sepharad (sprd) *Sardis' OPers. Sparda) as Sp-ain, and again metathetically Tsarfat (Phoen Sarepta) as Francia, so Aškenaz as "Germany' either via the suggested Scandz- or (as I heard) = Sachsen; I won't press the latter. Finally, lets not forget that all Jewry which came out of Germany is Ashekenazic, including German-speaking Jewry, who share prayerbooks and rituals with their Est Ashkenazic Yiddish speaking correligionists.

  36. Levantine said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 2:20 am

    R. Fenwick, “ama” is also Arabic in origin.

    This may seem a very naive thing to ask, but aren’t numbers a pretty safe diagnostic for determining the family to which a language belongs? From this perspective, I find it difficult to believe that Yiddish can be anything other than Germanic.

  37. David L. Gold said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 9:49 am

    @ Levantine. Please rest assured that your question is not naive.

    When linguists classify languages ("Spanish is a Romance language," "Frisian is a Germanic language," and so on), they are applying the tree model (also called the cladistic model, family-tree model, the genetic model, and the stammbaum model) of language evolution). Details here:

    That model is not suitable for Yidish and certain other Jewish languages:

    "[…] the emergence of Yiddish cannot be conceived of as the gradual breakaway of a certain German-speaking group from its former language. A description of this kind would fit Transylvanian German in the twelfth century or Pennsylvania Dutch six centuries, and a Jewish language could be construed if we were to fancy a group of Germans in the Rhineland, pagan to begin with and afterwards Christianized, embracing Judaism […]" (Max Weinreich, "Prehistory and Early History of Yiddish: Facts and Conceptual Framework," in Uriel Weinreich, ed., The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Yiddish Language, Folklore, and Literature Published on the Occasion of the Bicentennial of Columbia University, New York, 1954, pp. 73-101; the quotation is from page 78, section 7.1).

    Therefore, you would be right in saying that of all the languages that have contributed the raw materials that have gone into the making of Yidish, German has contributed the most (more than Hebrew-Aramaic, Slavic, etc. have), but that truth does not make Yidish a Germanic language.

    If you can see Weinreich's article, his remarks before and after the passage quoted above will provide more information on why the tree model is not suitable for Yidish.

  38. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 9:04 pm

    @David Gold, Levantine, Victor Mair
    As a linguist and speaker of EasternYiddish (via my parents),and sufficiently acquainted with German, I agree with Levantine's conclusio (indeed, numbers, terms of closest kin,basic body parts, and most
    verbs, nouns, and adjectives are cognates of German), but the
    term "Germanic" bears with it some association with diachrony and a Stammbaum. Not being a historical linguistic specialist on Yiddish,
    whose origins are a complex problem (I do find difficulties with the
    Rhineland hypothesis for linguistic reasons, Eastern Yiddish seeming to be closer in its dialectal status to Southern German), I believe that,
    however this happened, E. Yiddish is synchronically/descriptively
    a German dialect with many Hebrew and Aramaic lexical elements,
    with a significant lexical and grammatical components from Slavic,
    as well as some Romance words and lexical elements from a German
    dialect other than its basic one, and words from various other languages
    (the Turkish words are a bare handful from Ottoman contacts.
    Today, independently of these considerations, I came across something relevant, A Visit with a Jewish Violinist, Leon Schwartz YouTube.
    Readers may enjoy the music as well as the Yiddish. In the part where Schwartz is talking about the Rumano-Moldavian doina genre, he refers
    to the badxn (< Heb.) or maršalik (< Slavic) as a zuger (Southenr EYid.
    = Northern "Standard" EYid. zoger 'sayer, proclaimer' cf. German Sager,
    all in ref. to the traditional-ritual wedding MC. Thereafter LS uses
    the phrase a sax 'a lot, a [great] number' < Aram. (< Parthian) 'number'.
    This is followed by phrases easily taken as German dialect: "Dus is al(t)s
    fun der reyner zax fun doyne" 'this is all from the pure thing, (from)
    the doina' … "az ix špil, špil ix yeydes mul a bisl anderš" 'when I play, I play each time a little differently'. to be continued; computer problems…

    The interviewer later asks, 'ix hob gevolt beytn fun ayx,
    shpilen dem terkishn gebeyt' 'I wanted to ask of you to play the 'Turkish prayer'…..relexicalization q-mark. vm, as to sogd-iana, see
    szemerenyi. sorry, my cap capacity is kaput.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 9:53 pm

    David L. Gold and Thomas Shaw: Thanks for the information about Aschuz. This morning I got as far as "Miller" before checking for new comments on this post.

  40. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 2:00 am

    Of course, EYid inflections are comparable, grosso modo, with German. As for Sogd-iana, it cannot be related to the Skuth- etymon. Oh, Leon Schwartz was from Bukovina. He looked like my father, tho his family was from Bessarabia (Moldova)

  41. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 2:00 am

    Of course, EYid inflections are comparable, grosso modo, with German. As for Sogd-, it cannot be related to the Skuth- etymon. Oh, L. Schwartz was from Bukovina. He looked like my father, tho his family was from Bessarabia (Moldova)

  42. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 2:02 am

    Of course, EYid inflections are comparable, grosso modo, with German. As for *Sugd- etc., it can't be related to Skuth-.Oh, L. Schwartz was from Bukovina. He looked like my father, tho his family was from Bessarabia (Moldova).

  43. martin schwartz said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 6:16 pm

    Re the possibility of EYiddish being a "relexification", a better sample of EYid. than I provided earlier to show its German dialectal core is found in a 19th cent. love song recently posted; it was remembered in the mid-20th cent. by a traditional singer,
    who performs it in the folk-style I know from my mother. My point
    (apart from sharing something beautiful which is now virtually obsolete, and these days barely known about) is that each word/phrase of the entire song is cognate with a German equivalent.

  44. martin schwartz said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 6:24 pm

    Oooops!! The song may be accessed at Yiddish Song of the Week
    Ikh bin oysgefurn di ganste velt.

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