March 21, 2004

Attila the Gothic dad

What language did Attila the Hun speak? Well, Hunnic, of course. But no one really knows what kind of language Hunnic was, which is odd considering what a big splash Attila and the Huns made across Asia and Europe in the 5th century AD. This question came up because of a silly joke about the allegedly enfeebling effects of Latin noun cases. Hunnic has an Ethnologue code (XHC), but that's just a placeholder with no real information associated with it. So I asked Don Ringe, who knows more about language history than anyone else of my acquaintance, and he wrote:

"I think the prevailing opinion is that they were probably speakers of some Turkic language--and probably not of the 'nuclear' branch, which should still have occupied a compact area in western Mongolia at the time, so possibly something more closely related to Chuvash?? But so far as I know, this is all speculation."

OK. Chuvash (otherwise known as "Bulgar") is reported to have eight nominal case forms:

nominative: -
genitive: -Vn
dative/accusative: -(n)a/-(n)e
locative: -ra/-re, ta/te
ablative: -ran/-ren, tan/ten
instrumental: -pa/-pe, pala/pele
privative: -ṣar/-ṣer
benefactive: -ṣ̌an/-šen

as well as first, second and third person possessive affixes in both singular and plural flavors.

If Hunnic was indeed Chuvash-like, this profusion of inflectional options, though greater than those available in Latin, doesn't seem to have interfered with the Huns' martial vigor

Don added something that I found very interesting:

The guy's "name", of course, is Gothic--it means "Dad"--and it's obviously what his Gothic troops called him.

This may come as news to those of you whose Gothic is as weak as mine. But it does accord with the generally multicultural and therefore polyglot practices of the Huns. Here is the Roman diplomat Priscus, reporting on his visit to the Hunnic leader Onegesius:

When I arrived at the house, along with the attendants who carried the gifts, I found the doors closed, and had to wait until some one should come out and announce our arrival. As I waited and walked up and down in front of the enclosure which surrounded the house, a man, whom from his Scythian dress I took for a barbarian, came up and addressed me in Greek, with the word Xaire, "Hail!" I was surprised at a Scythian speaking Greek. For the subjects of the Huns, swept together from various lands, speak, besides their own barbarous tongues, either Hunnic or Gothic, or--as many as have commercial dealings with the western Romans--Latin; but none of them easily speak Greek, except captives from the Thracian or Illyrian sea-coast; and these last are easily known to any stranger by their torn garments and the squalor of their heads, as men who have met with a reverse. This man, on the contrary, resembled a well-to-do Scythian, being well dressed, and having his hair cut in a circle after Scythian fashion. Having returned his salutation, I asked him who he was and whence he had come into a foreign land and adopted Scythian life. When he asked me why I wanted to know, I told him that his Hellenic speech had prompted my curiosity. Then he smiled and said that he was born a Greek and had gone as a merchant to Viminacium, on the Danube, where he had stayed a long time, and married a very rich wife. But the city fell a prey to the barbarians, and he was stript of his prosperity, and on account of his riches was allotted to Onegesius in the division of the spoil, as it was the custom among the Scythians for the chiefs to reserve for themselves the rich prisoners. Having fought bravely against the Romans and the Acatiri, he had paid the spoils he won to his master, and so obtained freedom. He then married a barbarian wife and had children, and had the privilege of eating at the table of Onegesius.

Gothic had only five cases. However, this should still have left the military "balance of inflections" roughly equal, since Latin's historical seven cases (with only four or five really distinguished by the fifth century AD) strike a rough average between the Hunnic eight (or nine, if they had not merged accusative and dative yet) and the Gothic five.

The life story of Priscus' Greek Hun is consistent with Gibbon's speculations about the multicultural attitudes and practices of pastoral invaders:

In all their invasions of the civilised empires of the South, the Scythian shepherds have been uniformly actuated by a savage and destructive spirit. The laws of war, that restrain the exercise of national rapine and murder, are founded on two principles of substantial interest: the knowledge of the permanent benefits which may be obtained by a moderate use of conquest, and a just apprehension lest the desolation which we inflict on the enemy's country may be retaliated on our own. But these considerations of hope and fear are almost unknown in the pastoral state of nations. The Huns of Attila may without injustice be compared to the Moguls and Tartars before their primitive manners were changed by religion and luxury; and the evidence of Oriental history may reflect some light on the short and imperfect annals of Rome.... in the cities of Asia which yielded to the Moguls, the inhuman abuse of the rights of war was exercised with a regular form of discipline, which may, with equal reason though not with equal authority, be imputed to the victorious Huns. The inhabitants who had submitted to their discretion were ordered to evacuate their houses and to assemble in some plain adjacent to the city, where a division was made of the vanquished into three parts. The first class consisted of the soldiers of the garrison and the young men capable of bearing arms; and their fate was instantly decided: they were either enlisted among the Moguls, or they were massacred on the spot by the troops, who, with pointed spears and bended bows, had formed a circle round the captive multitude. The second class, composed of the young and beautiful women, of the artificers of every rank and profession, and of the more wealthy or honourable citizens, from whom a private ransom might be expected, was distributed in equal or proportionable lots. The remainder, whose life or death was alike useless to the conquerors, were permitted to return to the city, which in the meanwhile had been stripped of its valuable furniture; and a tax was imposed on those wretched inhabitants for the indulgence of breathing their native air. Such was the behaviour of the Moguls when they were not conscious of any extraordinary rigour.

Gibbon calls the Hun "Scythians" because they had come to occupy the region previously inhabited by that group. The Scythians spoke an Indo-European language (a conclusion based on the handful of Scythian words recorded by Herodotus), and there were doubtless lots of speakers of Scythian dialects in Attila's multicultural army. They had at least as many noun cases to contend with as Latin speakers did, as well.

[Update: Bill Poser emails:

I have seen studies ... of the recorded names of Huns, mostly military officers, and the great majority are Germanic, which is consistent with the view that although the Huns may have had at their core a Turkic-speaking group, they absorbed all manner of other peoples.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 21, 2004 11:17 AM