Volume 41, No.1 - Spring 1995
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1995 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Algirdas Sabaliauskas. Iš kur jie: Pasakojimas apie žodžių kilmę (Where are they from: A story about the origin of words).
 Vilnius: Lietuvių Kalbos Institutas (1994), pp. 418.

In the foreword (pp. 5-6) the author writes that although the words explained here are in alphabetical order this book is not a dictionary, but rather some kind of look at the world of words, a world which is sometimes mysterious, sometimes strange and sometimes even amusing. This world is an inseparable part of our life, just as is our daily bread, our lodging, our land. Although already the Bible says that in the beginning was the word, we frequently know very little about the birth and the life of words. Sometimes we know more about distant planets, the bowels of the earth, the operation of computers and even prophecies from horoscopes than we do about the words which we use every day. The author has tried to explain everything in a popular way, although here and there mention is made of some specific linguistic phenomena.

The very first word in this book is abėcėlė (p. 7) which is also known in Lithuanian as alfabètas 'alphabet' the name of which derives from Phoenician or Hebrew aleph 'ox' and beth 'house,' although if we look at the Latin letter A it is hard to imagine an ox and if we look at the Latin letter B it is hard to imagine a house.

Although for the concept 'echo' most European languages have some version of ancient Greek ekhó (cf. Russian èxo, French écho, German Echo), Lithuanian has the word áidas which is probably of onomatopoetic origin, in imitation of some kind of shout.

Lithuanian aistruõlis 'sports fan' was created from the word aistrà 'strong attraction for something, desire' and is cognate with Greek oistros 'gadfly' and metaphorically 'sting; vehement desire, insane passion,' and Sanskrit esá — 'hurrying.' The word aistruõlis was apparently used for the first time by the lexicographer C. Lemchen in his 1955 Russian-Lithuanian dictionary to translate the Russian word bolelščik. Until recently the word sirgãlius was used for this concept, but this word, practically a loan-translation from Russian (cf. Russian bolet' = Lith. sirgti 'to be sick') is really unsatisfactory because the Lithuanian suffix -ãlius usually has a pejorative meaning.

According to Sabaliauskas (p. 33-35) Lithuanian balañdis 'pigeon,' the weed balandà 'atriplex hortensis,' Latvian balodis 'pigeon' are easily connected with the adjective báltas 'white' and the verb bálti 'to become white.' On the other hand what is the origin of the synonym karvelis? One would want to connect the word with the noun kárvė 'cow,' but what would the semantic bond be? Here Sabaliauskas mentions Jules Levin's observation that the pigeon is the only bird which feeds its young with a kind of white pap produced in the throat. It is not milk, of course, but Levin's observation does provide a convincing explanation for the name of the bird. Sabaliauskas writes further that Lithuanian taikõs balañdis is translated by 'dove of peace' in English, but that we don't use the word pigeon in this context. He is certainly correct, because pigeon of peace or peace pigeon would seem to me to be possible only with humorous or sarcastic stylistic effect.

The Lithuanian word dainà 'folk song' and the corresponding verb dainúoti 'to sing' are very mysterious words. What is their relationship to Rumanian and Moldovian doina 'elegiac song typical of Rumanian lyrical folk poetry and music'? That the near identity of the Lithuanian and the Rumanian words would be accidental seems unlikely. The Rumanians and Moldovians could have inherited such a word from the Dacians living on the Balkan peninsula who were at one time neighbors of the Baits. Or perhaps the Daco-Rumanians borrowed the word from the Lithuanians whose state boundaries in the 13th-15th centuries reached Moldavia and northern Transylvania (p. 60). Interestingly enough there is reason to believe that the Latvians probably borrowed this word from the Lithuanians, since it was first attested in Latvian in a newspaper published in Jelgava in 1822 and there it was used only to denote Lithuanian folk songs. The wealthy Petersburg merchant, H. Wissendorf, a supporter of Latvian culture, apparently took a liking to this word, so that when the father of Latvian folk songs Kr. Barons began to publish the famous collection of Latvian folk songs in 1894, apparently influenced by Wissendorf, Barons used the name Latvju dainas 'Latvian folk songs.' Sabaliauskas even quotes a stanza from the famous Russian poet A. Voznesenskij's Litovskie motivy (Lithuanian motifs) in which the latter, addressing the famous Lithuanian playwright Justinas Marcinkevičius writes: Prosti mne, Justinas, dajny pogibšie, mertvuju vodu, protokoly tajnye 39-ogo goda "Forgive me, Justinas, the dainas which have perished, the dead water (from which the parts of a dismembered person grow together, according to Russian folklore - WRS), the secret protocols of '39 (the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement dividing up Eastern Europe - WRS).'

Although today we try to elevate the concept of 'work' it was apparently not always thus. Sabaliauskas points out that Russian rabotat' 'to work' and rab 'slave' are of the same root. In Hungarian munka 'work' comes from Slavic mąka 'torture' and Latvian stradat 'to work' is a borrowing from Russian stradat' 'to suffer.' But even in Old Russian stradati had as its primary meaning 'to work, to labor' according to Sreznevskij's Materialy (Vol. Ill, p. 531). The Latin word labor in addition to meaning 'labor' also means 'drudgery, pain, suffering.' The Lithuanian word dìrbti 'to work' is probably connected with the Old English word deorf  'work, difficulties, danger.' I might add that English travail 'painful or laborious effort' and French travailler 'to work' are derived from Late Latin trepalium 'an instrument of turture' (tres 'three,' palus 'stake') according to Fowlers' Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (p. 1382).

Sabaliauskas notes (p. 82) that the famous French Indo-Europeanist, Antoine Meillet called such words as Lithuanian duktė 'daughter,' móteris 'woman,' sesuõ 'sister' díeveris 'brother-in-law, husband's brother' and šešuras 'father-in-law, husband's father' aristocratic words. And why do they deserve such an expressive title? The fact is that not one other Indo-European language through the course of thousands of years has retained the original terms of relationships as well as Lithuanian. A noteworthy feature is that these nouns all contain the suffix element -r-. Sabaliauskas writes further that if the nominative case does not contain the -r- then it appears in other cases in the declension, e.g., gen. sg. dukters '(of the) daughter,' sesers '(of the) sister.' In my view the *-r was originally there in the nominative case also, an early Indo-European nom. sg. **dhug(h)ter passing to *dhug(h)te and **s(v)esor passing to *s(v)eso, etc. with loss of the final *-r and lengthening of the preceding vowel. Sabaliauskas writes that the old name for 'daughter' passed from the Baltic languages into the Finnic languages, cf. Finnish tytär, Estonian tütar, Mordvinian t'ejt'er. Perhaps the Finnic words show the retention of the original final *-r before its loss and the lengthening of the preceding vowel. Or perhaps the Finnic words show rather a proto-form common to both the Indo-European and Finnic languages. In any case it seems clear that the Finnic words are connected somehow or other to the Lithuanian words.

Horns of the northern elk with marks of carving comprise the earliest archaeological find in the East Baltic region. Here and there on the Polish and Prussian border such horns are found which scientists date at 18,000 years B.C. Of course, at this early time there were no Poles, Prussians or any other Indo-Europeans and nobody knows how the elk might have been named by people then. Nevertheless linguists do not doubt that Lithuanian élnias, Latvian alnis, Old Prussian nine are old Indo-European names for this animal. It is true that in the Old Prussian Elbing Vocabulary alne translates German Tyer (in modern German Tier means 'animal'), but maybe at this time the word meant 'deer.' Note that the English cognate of German Tier is deer which shows a narrowing of the older meaning 'animal.' In any case Germans borrowed the word as Elen, more commonly Elentier 'elk, moose-deer' (p. 87). The former word reached French as élan and Dutch as éland. Taken then by the boers to South Africa the word came into English, so that today Webster's Third New International Dictionary (p. 729) defines eland as 'either of two large African antelopes of the genus Taurotragus bovine in form and having short spirally twisted horns in both sexes.'

Sabaliauskas asks (p. 89): "Is there some kind of connection between (Lithuanian) fakultètas 'faculty, department (at an institution of higher learning)' and dinamìtas 'explosive material (dynamite)'?" The Lithuanian word fakultètas, as well as English faculty, derive from Latin facultas which means 'capability, possibility, power, means, opportunity; skill, ability to do anything easily.' The Romans, however, used this word to translate Greek dynamis which means both 'might, strength, power,' and also 'a faculty, art' (used by Aristotele, for example, to denote medicine, logic or rhetoric). Therefore the meaning 'department, faculty (of a school)' derives from a loan translation form Aristotele's Greek. As is well known Lithuanian dinamìtas as well as English dynamite both derive from Greek dynamis. Consequently one might justifiably wonder if the faculty at one's school is really dynamite or not.

In many languages of the world the case of the direct object is called 'accusative'. This derives from a mistake made by the Roman author M. Terentius Varro who misunderstood the Greek expression aitiatike (ptõsis) as casus accusativus 'accusative case' rather than casus causativus 'causative case' as he should have, since Greek aìtia can mean 'cause' as well as 'blame.' Still following the Latin model the famous linguist Kazimieras Jaunius (1848-1908) called the accusative case the apskųstinis deriving it from the root encountered in the Lithuanian noun skuñdas 'complaint,' and the verb apskųsti 'to lodge a complaint against (someone).' Although Jaunius was a first-rate Latinist and even said that he could write Latin more easily than Lithuanian, the Lithuanian language reformer Jonas Jablonskis ([1860-1930] also a good Latinist), found it unnecessary to foist off on the Lithuanians the mistake made by Varro. At first for the 'accusative' Jablonskis suggested priekininkas, but later suggested galininkas because in such a sentence as arklys ėda šieną 'the horse eats the hay' the word šieną 'hay' is 'at the end' (=gale) of the sentence (pp. 91-92).

Curiously enough little is known about the origin of the Lithuanian word giñtaras 'amber,' adornment without which no patriotic Baltic woman could really feel stylishly dressed. It is thought, perhaps, that the word came through Hungarian where gyantár means 'amber,' cf. gyanta 'resin, gum.' Even the Chuvash word jandar 'glass, glass dish' is somehow reminiscent of giñtaras. Latvian, of course, has the form dzintars which is thought to be a Curonianism, because corresponding to Lithuanian giñtaras we should have dzitars (a form, which, however, is also known in Latvian). The personal name Gi?taras is a two-member compound deriving from the roots known in the verbs gìnti 'to defend' and tarti 'to pronounce.' To me it would seem to mean 'one who defends his pronunciation (or speech).' Perhaps such a name would be very appropriate for a linguist.

For people of our generation, writes Sabaliauskas (p. 119), the word jùngas means primarily 'oppression' but for our forefathers it meant 'yoke.' The word is obviously to be connected with Sanskrit yugám, Greek dzygón, Latin jugum, Russian igo, Gothic juk all of which mean the same thing as the English cognate yoke. The -n- in the Lithuanian word probably derives from the verb jùngti 'to join' as the result of the influence of such sentences as Jùnk jaučius į jungą 'Harness the oxen to the yoke.' The Lithuanian national awakening activist Petras Kriaučiūnas used to like to repeat the Latin phrase Viri trahite jugum 'Men pull the yoke' noting both the resemblance to its Lithuanian translation Vyrai, traukite jungą and at the same time the cruel czarist oppression which the Lithuanian nation suffered at that time. Sabaliauskas writes further that Lithuanian tráukti 'to drag' and Latin trahere are not cognate, but that the resemblance is completely fortuitous.

Following Martinet's notion that a laryngeal consonant passed to -k- if there was a following -s-(-) in 1963 I suggested that both the Latin and the Lithuanian words derive from a laryngeal stem *treH3 which passed to *trav- in pre-vocalic position and to *trak in position before *-s (cf. the Latin 1st sg. perfect traxi from trahere). In Lithuanian the stem *treH3-would have passed to 1 sg. pres. *trav-o and 1 sg. fut. *trak-s-o. A contamination of the stems *trav- and *trak- could have led to *trauk- and then to Lithuanian tráuk: Since I am no longer such a strong supporter of the laryngeal theory as I once was, I think now that my earlier explanation is probably wrong. Nevertheless for adherents of the laryngeal theory the explanation should seem possible.

The word kùmetis 'hired farm laborer' denotes a low social class, but on the other hand the word has existed in Lithuanian almost a thousand years. This was borrowed from Slavic at a time when the Old Slavic short -u- was still pronounced as such. Lithuanian has retained this old pronunciation, whereas all the contemporary Slavic languages have lost the -u- in this word, so that the word is represented, for example, in modem Bulgarian as kmet 'village elder,' Serbian kmet 'peasant, farm-hand' (p. 179).

Lithuanian kùnigas 'priest' derives from the German form kunig which today is rendered in German as König 'king.' The oldest Germanic form was *kuningaz, the first element of which was *kunja 'tribe' and the second element of which *-ing denoted 'belonging to a certain group.' The meaning 'priest' was probably adopted under the influence of Polish which has ksiąze 'kunigaikštis, duke' and ksiądz 'priest.'

It is usually thought nowadays that the name of the city of Riga, founded in 1201 by Bishop Albert, derives from an earlier form Ringa, the name of a river which flowed into the Daugava. Such a hypothesis would be supported by the existence in Lithuanian of such river and lake names as Ringà, Ringė, Ringys, Ringuvà, Ringùpis. Such names should be connected with such words as rìnga, rìngė 'bend, curved line,' 'ringiúoti 'to walk, to run in a meandering way.' The Latvian linguist Valija Dambe is inclined to think that it was the Curonians who gave the Latvian capital its name. One wonders, however, abut the origin of the expression važiúoti į Rygą 'to vomit' (literally: 'to travel to Riga'). But this expression is not confined to Lithuanians. It also exists in Russian poexat' v Rigu and Polish jechac do Rygi- Now there is also a Russian word riga (which came form the Baltic Finns) meaning 'threshing barn' and the expression to go to riga 'a barn' originally referred not to vomiting, but to giving birth, since Russian peasant women used to go to the bam to give birth. Thus the confusion of the place name Riga and the bam riga led to the origin of the curious idiom for 'to vomit.' Still the existence of the Russian verb rygat' 'to belch' and maybe even the fact that the trip to Riga was difficult for the Lithuanian farmers may have been factors in the creation of the expression.

According to Sabaliauskas (p. 343) the word šratinùkas 'ball-point pen' is one word whose inventor we do indeed know. The word was proposed by the philologist Feliksas Jukna in an article in Kalbos kultūra (Language culture) but Jukna himself confessed that he didn't invent the word. He just heard some children calling the ball-point by that name.

Sabaliauskas writes that the Lithuanian word staigmenà 'surprise' (p. 326) was invented by my former professor, Antanas Salys. I personally remember distinctly how Prof. Salys told us in class one day that he invented this word when someone wanted a movie subtitle in Lithuanian to replace the word siurprìzas. Sabaliauskas mentions other words invented by Prof. Salys, e.g., póbūvis 'party, social gathering,' póžiūris 'point of view,' tarša 'pollution,' pigmenà 'bargain,' etc. I personally remember also that at one of the meetings of the Symposium on Culture and Creativity in Chicago Prof. Salys suggested that as a Lithuanian translation for the English word 'hand-out' (i.e., the page or more aid that Americans like to give to their audiences during a lecture) one might use pãdalas, derived from pasidalìnti 'to share (something) with someone.' Unfortunately this latter word seems to have been ignored by Lithuanians and I have never seen it used anywhere except in my own papers.

The word tauras 'aurochs' has supplied many derivatives in Lithuanian, e.g., taurė 'goblet,' taurùs 'noble,' taurinti 'to ennoble,' etc. The word taurė has its origin in the old habit of drinking out of the horns of the aurochs. Beside the word taurė one has the synonym tauragė (which in turn comes from *tauraragė [rãgas = 'horn']). The meaning 'noble' probably derives from the fact that a man was compared to an aurochs. There is good precedent for that in the Old Russian epic. The Igor Tale, in which we find the collocation buj tur Vsevolod 'fierce bull, Vsevolod.' The word is known in a number of other Indo-European languages, e.g.; Latvian taurs 'aurochs,' Old Prussian tauris, Russian, Polish tur, Latin taurus, Greek tauros 'bull, ox, etc.' There is apparently a curious Semitic cognate in Arabic thaurun.

The Lithuanian bird-name zylė 'titmouse' is surely cognate with the Latvian bird-name zile, zilite, but there is some question as to why Lithuanian has an initial z- in this word. The name is surely derived from a color adjective, Lith. žìlas 'gray,' Latv. zils 'blue' (just like the Russian counterpart sinica 'titmouse' is derived rom sinij 'blue'). In the first edition and in the 1642 edition of Sirvydas' Dictionarium trium linguarum (Three Language Dictionary [Polish-Latin-Lithuanian]) the noun is given as žylė, so Lithuanian must have changed the initial consonant since that time. Sabaliauskas (p. 380) speculates that the change most likely took place under the influence of other words such as zylióti 'to run around from flies (of animals)' and zimbti "to hum, to buzz.' Since Latvian zilonis 'elephant' is derived from the color name also, there arises the curious fact that such a little bird as the titmouse shares the root of its name with the enormous elephant.

The Lithuanian word žãgrė 'wooden plough, is undoubtedly to be connected with žãgaras 'long dry branch,' since primitive ploughs didn't differ much from a long stick. The word passed into Polish as zagar 'brushwood for a fire' and in 1931 a group of Polish literati in Vilnius, borrowing from the local Polish dialect entitled their journal Zagary, quite possibly not knowing themselves that this was a word of Lithuanian origin.

The very last entry in this book is the important word žodynas 'dictionary' which was invented by Mikolajus Akelaitis who wrote in a letter to Motiejus Valančius that he wanted to write a Samogitian (Žemaitish) dictionary (žodynas) and grammar comparing this language with other Indo-European languages. He wrote that he uses the word žodynas based on žõdis 'word' just as Lithuanians have karklynas 'willow-thicket' based on karklas 'willow' or pušynas 'pine forest' based on pušis 'pine tree.' The word žodynas had been used by Jurgis Pabrėža before that time, but it is quite possible that Akelaitis did not know about that. The first time žodynas was used in print on the cover of a dictionary was in 1894 on Mykolas Miežinis ' Lietuviškai-latviškai-lenkiškai-rusiškas žodynas 'Lithuanian-Latvian-Polish-Russian dictionary.'

Following the last entry is an index of Lithuanian words (pp. 395-412), an index of collocations (pp. 412-413), a brief bibliography (pp. 414-416) and a table of contents (pp. 417-418).

This book is comparable to Sabaliauskas' many other charming popularizations of linguistics and ethnographic studies such as Žodžiai keliauja 'Words travel' (Vilnius, 1962), Žodžiai pasakoja 'Words speak' (Vilnius, 1965), Žodžiai atgyja (Vilnius, 1967 - translated into English by Ruth Armentrout and myself and published as Noted Scholars of the Lithuanian Language by the Akademinės skautijos leidykla and the Dept. of Slavic Languages of The Pennsylvania State University in 1973). In 1970 Sabaliauskas' Šimtas kalbos mįslių 'A hundred language riddles' was published in Vilnius and a second expanded edition of Žodžiai atgyja appeared in 1980. In 1986 Mes Baltai 'We the Baits' was published in Kaunas and then translated into English by Mrs. Milda Bakšytė-Richardson and published by the Science and Encyclopedia Publishers in Vilnius in 1993. The book under review here is just as entertaining and enlightening as are Sabaliauskas' other books. I might hope that some energetic Lithuanian-American would translate this book into English also, since such would certainly serve the interests of scholarship and the Lithuanian community in general. The author is to be congratulated on writing another popular and amusing book combining Lithuanistic and linguistic information.


Schmalstieg, William R. 1963. Lithuanian "tráukti", Latin "trahere." 
Annali, Istituto orientale di Napoli. Sezione linguistica. 5.59-60

Reviewed by William R. Schmalstieg
The Pennsylvania State University