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Valentyn Stetsyuk (Lviv, Ukraine)

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The Names of Metals in the Turkic, Indo-European, and Finno-Ugric Languages


Common names of metals are absent in Indo-European languages. The Indo-European community was being formed during times when people yet didn't know any metals. The Turkic languages have common names for almost all used metals, though Turks as ethnos were being formed simultaneously with Indo-Europeans. As it is shown by our studies, in the 4th – 3rd mill BC the Turks occupied the territory between the Dnieper and the Don Rivers to the south-east of the Indo-Europeans and were more closely related with the metallurgical and metal-working centers of that time. Archaeological evidence suggests that the development of metallurgy in Eastern Europe began under the influence of the more advanced cultures in the Balkans:


Copper Age was characterized by forming the Balkan-Carpathian Metallurgical Province. This system of related manufacturing hotbeds occupied mining and metallurgical centers of the Northern Balkans and Carpathians, where extremely bright farming and cattle-breeding Eneolithic cultures of Gumelniţa–Karanovo, Vancea-Pločnik, Tisapolgar-Bodrogkerestur, Petreşti were located. Widely known Trypilla culture in the south-west of the USSR was only the eastern province of this block and did not know their own industry: its masters used imported copper. Since the time of forming the province a large proportion of products from the Balkan and Carpathian centers was sent further to the east in the Eastern European Steppe and Forest-Steppe (CHERNYKH E.N., KUZMINYKH S.V. 1990: 136.)



Distribution of metallurgy in Europe in 6th-2nd mill. BC.
The map was compiled according to "Atlas for History" [BERTHOLD LOTHAR (Leiter). 1973, 5.I]. The map shows also the territory of the settlements of Nostratic peoples in Eastern Europe in the 5th-2nd mill. BC.

Thus, the Turks became acquainted with metals through the Trypillians. At that time, words for the names of silver and copper were spread among them and became common. As for the copper, the Turkic languages had for it two words which were used in various ways for the name of the copper, brass, and bronze. Thus, the Turks got acquainted with the metals through Tripillian people and at the same time borrowed their names from them. We assumed that Tripillians was a tribe of Semitic origin, which came to Right-Bank Ukraine through the Balkans and settled the territory south from the Indo-Europeans in the Southern Bug and Dniester river basins. At this time, the Turks spread the words for the names of gold, silver, and copper, which became common to them. G. Ramstedt found it possible to associate the common Türkic name of gold with Ar. lätün "brass", which for the convenience of pronunciation the Türks turned into altyn [RAMSTEDT G.J. 1957: 36]. Transferring the names of some metals to others is a typical phenomenon. Pretty much the same altan means copper in the Yakut language, while gold is called a word, meaning silver in other Türkic languages. There are many similar examples, therefore, we will keep in mind this phenomenon in our research. The names of silver and copper will be discussed below, but we note that the Turkic languages have two words for copper which are used differently for naming copper, brass, and bronze. It is also important for establishing the origin of the names of metals to observe that they have long served as a commodity, just like livestock or artificial products. A common word for tin needed for bronze production was absent in the Turkic languages and even closely related of them used different words for this metal. However, copper metallurgy was adopted by the Turks due existing of copper ore deposits in the Donets Basin. It is evidenced by archaeological founds of ancient mines within the Bakhmut tectonic zone. The chemical composition of metal products from Donbas suggests that the metal was obtained not from imported but from local ore [KLOCHKO V.I., MANICHEV V.I., BONDARENKO I.N., 2005: 111].

While a great bulk of the Turks has departed eastward in the 3rd mill. B.C., ancient Bulgars (the ancestors of modern-day Chuvash) crossed the Dnieper River and have made contact with Indo-Europeans. This fact is testified by numerous Chuvash-Indo-European lexical correspondences and Bulgarish place names in Western Ukraine. Already having some experience, the Bulgars developed metalworking craft based on imported metal from the Carpathian region and exported their metal products to northern neighbors. Thus some of the Indo-European ethnic groups obtaining together with hardware also names of some metals from the Bulgars sometimes used them for other metals.

The name for the ore in the Germanic languages (Ger. Erz, etc.) is considered to be borrowed from Sumerian urudu "copper" by unknown way. Obviously, the intermediaries were the Trypillians, by origin Semites, who occupied area to the south of Indo-Europeans along the Southern Bug and Dniester Rivers. There is arad "bronze" in Hebrew. Whether also Slavic names of the ore (ruda) can be concerned here, is not clear.

The names for the silver and sulfur. Most of the Indo-Europeans had long been familiar with silver and had for it own name which originated from PIE ar(e)-g "glittering, white" (Lat. argentum a.o.) Those of them who populated the north-western part of the total territory of Indo-European (Germanic, Baltic, and Slavic tribes) met silver later. At first the Indo-Europeans have borrowed from Bulgars the name of sulfur which could be called by them according to its yellow color sarpur “yellow chalk” (Chuv. sară "yellow", pură "chalk", ă – a short vowel which could fall out at pronouncing). The Latin name of the sulfur sulpur is considered as “Wanderwort” of Mediterranean origin (WALDE A.1965) but it originates from Bulgarish word. Similar names are presented in Germanic names of sulfur (Ger., Schwefel, Eng. swefl, Goth. swibl etc) which were developed from *sarpur. The Germanic words could be borrowed from some unknown language (KLUGE FRIEDRICH. 1989: 659). The origin of Slavic names of the sulfur (sera, sira, siara, etc.) is not clear. Probably, they are reduced forms from sară “yellow”.




Left: THe native silver, right: crystals of the native sulfur.


The native sulfur has pale color and is like silver on appearance (cf. above) therefore the name of sulfur has been transferred on silver in some languages. The similarity of OE seolfor "silver" and Lat sulphur "sulfur" confirms this fact fairly well. In other languages, the name of silver could be formed both by borrowing, and by modifying own names of sulfur – Ukr. sriblo, Bulg. srebro, Pol. srebro, Laus. slobro, slabro, Ger. Silber, Eng. silver, Goth. silubr. Probably Alb. sёrma "silver" belongs here too. The Germanic and Slavic names of silver and sulfur are not being connected with each other by specialists and the name of silver is told to be borrowed from some Middle Eastern language. For example Assyrian sarpu “refined silver” from sarapu "to refine" is considered as a primary source. However, the Assyrian word stays further from the Indo-European names of silver and sulfur phonetically and semantic as *sarpur.

The other name for the silver. Turks called silver kümüĺ and this word was also borrowed from the Trypillians. Commercial and cultural exchange existed between Turks and Trypillians without of doubt. The tracks of Trypillian influence can be found among the words having sense “commodity”, “goods”, “payment”. Widely spread word tovar in different forms had many senses in Turkic, Indo-European, Finno-Ugric languages – “salt”, “linen”, “ax”, “cattle”, “sheep”, “goods” etc. The correspondence to it exists in Hebrew – toar “product, ware”, davar “a word, a thing, something”. The Trypillians could have also the word *kemel, corresponding Hebrew gemel “to pay”, as the Chuvash language has a similar word kěměl “silver”. The silver was used as money at that time and therefore Hebrew word changed its sense in the Proto-Turkic language. This word was borrowed by the Ancient Italics and used for the name of the silver dish or plate (Lat caměl-la “plate for liquids”).

The name for the iron. Turkic peoples use words jez, zez, čes (Chuv. yěs) calling copper or brass. It is orinated from ancient form *jEř. The Nostratic fricative trill ř almost was not kept in the Turkic languages though it exists in Czech till now and existed in Polish (it was kept in a spelling rz). In most cases this consonant has been transformed to z in the Turkic languages. Anna Dybo thinks that the Proto-Turkic name of the copper was borrowed from the Tocharian (Toch. B yasa, Toch. A wäs "gold") (DYBO A.V. 2007: 125). But Latin words aes, aeris (obviously both originate from *ears) “copper, bronze”; "copper ore") indicate the existence of an ancient form jeř. This root can be referred to a common Nostratic stock and it was used for the name of both gold and copper. Indo-Europeans were modified it only for the name of the gold (Lat. aurum, Old Pr. ausis, Wel. awr). Since the Turkic people mastered the metallurgy and metalworking of bronze before the Indo-Europeans, the latter became bronze tools and weapons from the them, and together with items borrowed the name of the metal used for the manufacture. Later this name was transferred to the name of the iron in some Indo-European languages. Germanic people (Lat. Germani) have added the attributive suffix -an to the root jerz and an Old-Germanic word got the form *jerz-an and later it has turned to isarn in North-Germanic, to eisarn in Gothic, to Eisen in German, to iron in English. The primary Turkic form for the name of copper is kept in the word zerz “rust” which exists in Lusatian (Sorbian) languages. This form was transformed in Slavic *zelz-o with the meaning “iron” (Ukr zalizo, Rus żelezo, Bulg, Pol żelazo, etc). On the other hand, the ancient Turkic word zerz in lightly altered form has kept in Ukr. žers-t’ “tin-plate” (the similar Russian word žes-t’ has lost r). Baltic names of iron were obviously borrowed from Slavic (Let. gelezis, Lit.dzèlzs). Some linguists connect also Greek calkos “copper, bronze” to last words but this seems to be doubtful. Most likely, the Greek word ιοσ "rust" can be corresponded to the root jerz. The homonym of this word means "poison" and it gave grounds for A. Fick consider their common but vague origin (FRISK H., 1970)

The name for the gold. In etymological dictionaries, the Indo-European names of the gold (Old-Slavic. *zolto, Germ. *gultha) are deduced from the root *ghel “yellow, green” (KLUGE FRIEDRICH. 1989: 271-272. VASMER M. 1964: 103-104). This is very doubtful as Indo-European front vowels e were not changed usually in labialized back vowels o or u. We shall consider the assumption, that Germans and Slavs have borrowed the name of gold from the Bulgars. The Chuvash call gold yltan. Initial vowel y was difficult for pronunciation therefore it became prothetic consonant gh, what is typical for the Indo-European languages. The new word ghyltan has received the form of an adjective, and obviously was used in such function (cf. jerz-an). Later the noun ghulta was formed from the adjective which have been developed to Old Eng gold, Goth gulth, Germ Gold. Slavic word for gold could not be borrowed directly from Bulgarish as then it would have the form vylto as the prothetic v is typical in the Slavic languages. On the contrary, the transition gh to z is possible. The name of the gold has been borrowed from Germanic also by the Iranians, but they have transferred it on the name of yellow color. The closest to Germanic form was kept in the Ossetic language – zäläd. Other Iranian languages use for the name of the yellow color the word zard. Most Iranians calls gold zar though the other word tilo/telo also exists but its origin is not clear at present.

The name for the copper, brass. The German language has a word of not clear origin Messing "brass" (KLUGE FRIEDRICH, SEEBOLD ELMAR. 1989: 475). Similar words are presented in other German languages. Many Slavic languages have the word misa “a bowl”. One can relate it to the German word as there is dialectic form midnycia “copper bowl” in Ukrainian (mid’ “copper”). Maybe, both Slavic and German words are borrowed from Iranian languages where words mes, mis "copper" are presented. Iranians borrowed this word from Finno-Ugrians which call different metal by such words: vask, vas, veš’, bes etc. The origin of these words can be connected with Sumerian guskin “gold”, also they must be primary. The word for the name of copper was borrowed from Iranians by Turkic, Slavic and Germanic peoples. Maybe, the German word Messer “a knife” has the same origin.

The other name for the copper. The Turkic languages have their own word baqyr (Chuv pǎxǎr) for copper which can be associated with a hypothetical Tryp. *vakar “bull, ox” or “cow” [Ar. بقرة (bakara) "cow", Hebr. בָּקָר (бакар) “cattle”]. It is clear that copper, like cattle, was a commodity and the Turkic herders exchanged cattle for copper from the Trypillians. The ancient Italics borrowed this word from the ancestors of the Chuvash and used it for the name of the copper beaker (Lat. bacar “goblet”). Similar words are present in English and German, but they were borrowed from Latin.

The explanation of the Turkic name for the iron is very difficult. Turkic peoples use the word demir/temir calling so iron and ironware. According to its meaning, this word had to appear later as the names of other metals. But satisfactory etymology of the word demir doesn’t exist. The Hebrew language has the word demis “money”. The Trypillians could borrow and used it in the form *demirz in the same sense. The first things of iron were considered by people as some costly thing, therefore, we can suppose that the borrowed from the Trypillans word meant just “a costly thing” for a long time but after the emergence of iron, this sense was transferred on the iron things. Attention is drawn to the similarity of the Türkic word demir/temir to gr. θέμερος "solid, strong, hard", without a reliable etymology. It can be assumed that the Türks had a broader meaning for this word, and the ancient Greeks borrowed it from the Türks in their ancestral home precisely in the meaning of "solid", which they developed in another direction.

It is also difficult to give explication of Turkic name of the lead. It has different but similar forms in individual languages. Some of these words can be near to the initial form – Kaz qorğasyn, Karach.-Balkar qorğašyn, Tat korgošun, Uzb korgašin, Kirg korgošun and other similar. Perhaps the word is compound and consist two partial words kur/kor and gošyn/gašyn. Hebr kur “a forge, melting pot” suits good for the first part therefore the second partial word must have appropriate sense. Nothing better as košer “applicability, suitability” was not found in Hebrew. Thus, the name of the lead can have meaning “suitable for fusing”.

Finno-Ugric languages



In contrast to the Indo-European, the Finno-Ugric languages practically have no borrowing from Turkic, despite the fact that their territories were adjacent. For various reasons, there were no close contacts between the ethnic communities of the Turks and the Finno-Ugrians at the economic level. The Finno-Ugric languages together with Samoyed constitute one language family, which is called Uralic, which is a historical misunderstanding. The modern speakers of these languages had common ancestors, the original homeland of which was not somewhere in the Urals, but around Lake Urmia in north-western Iran in the highlands. Their southern neighbors were the ancient Dravidians, the language of which, together with the Uralians, was part of the Nostratic macrofamily, that is, it had some common features with Uralic. Some parts of the Dravidians can be associated with the ancient Sumerians. In the 6th millennium BC, both the Urals and the Dravidians should be familiar with gold, whose nuggets could be found in the surrounding mountains. It was the first metal with which people are well acquainted. The Sumerians called gold guškiu, obviously, the Uralians called it with a similar word, and then after meeting with other metals, they transferred this name to them: Saam. vešš'k, Est. vask, Fin. vaski "copper", Mord. us'ke "iron", Khant. wax "metal, iron, money", Nenets wies’s’ä "iron, money", Selkup kwǝs "metal" a.o. The common Uralic form of these words is restored as *was’k [ALATYREV V.I. 1988: 57]. The Indo-European and Turkic languages have no similar words of this root. How was the transfer of the name of gold to other metals, can be clearly seen in the example of the Udmurt language.

The old Uralic root preserved in the Udmurt language for the name of silver azves'. The first part of this word has no clear explanation [ibid]. However, the word * existed in the Proto-Uralic language. Its meaning can be restored after Erz. ašo, Mari "white" and the words of the Baltic-Finnish languages used to denote a bird of white color. This Nostratic word is well preserved in the Turkic languages as aq "white" and less in Indo-European – Slav. jas-, Iran. ašk (Pers. ašekar a.o.) "clear". We see it in the name of silver in the Udmurt language, where the second part ves' means metal, since it is also present in the name of the lead (uzves'). For the first part of the name of the lead, nothing suitable was found in the Udmurt language, except for the word vuz "commodity". However, the idiom "commodity-metal" suits better for silver, which has long been the subject of trade, money. One may think that originally the Udmurts called the silver both “white metal” and “trading metal” and after meeting with the silver-like lead, one of its names was transferred to it. Later the name of the lead was transferred to the name of the tin as tӧdy uzves', that is the "white lead", and the lead itself for clarity got attribute s'ӧd "black" in other name s'ӧd uzves'. Komi names ezys' "silver" and ozys' "tin" were borrowed from Udmurt. Among the specialists (V.I. Abayev, Nikolai Anderson, Yrjö Wichmann, V.I. Lytkin) the prevailing opinion these words as Hung. ezüst "silver" were borrowed from Ossetian [ibid, 58]. In fact, the Ossetian ævzist "silver" is a Hungarian loan-word, which the original form was ezvest, and the first part of this word had the same origin as the Udmurt az-.

In Hungarian, the final consonant k of the Uralic *was'k was not lost, as in Udmurt, but turned into t, and the original form was transformed over time into ezüst. In the etymological dictionary of the Hungarian language, the origin of the final t is considered unclear, as well as the prefixes ez-, and the Finno-Ugric origin of the word ezüst is considered unlikely, although, nevertheless, its second part is associated with Hung. vas "iron". A Hungarian linguist notes the kinship of this word with other Uralic ones, but their initial form see as *β as'ke, although this is almost the same as *was'k [ZAICZ GÁBOR. 2006]. As in the Hungarian language, in Mari the last sound of *was'k turned into t and in this way the resulting word vašt, like as in Hungarian, got the meaning "silver", but without the definition of "white". In modern Mari, it took the form of vaštyr.

None of the Finno-Ugric languages did't preserve the original name of gold and borrowed words are used to define it. Fin. kulta, Est., Veps. kuld are loa-word fron Sw. guld "gold". The most of other Finno-Ugric languages have loan-words from Iranian (Mok. syrne, Udm., Komi zarni, Mansi sorni, Khanty sarn’e, Hung. arany out of Iran *zaranya – all "gold").

The names of the sivler do not have a satisfactory etymology in the Baltic-Finnish and the Saami languages. The origin of the Fin.hopea, Est. hōbe, Veps. hobed, Saam. suohpe (all "silver") is derived from the meaning "soft" or "flexible", but it is not indicated what language has such a word. [HÄKKINEN KAISA. 2007, 209-210]. In fact, the name of silver in these languages was borrowed from some Iranian having sense "white". The most convincing evidence of this is the similarity of Veps. hobed to Afg. saped, Pers. sefid and Gil. sǝfid "white". The Veps were the closest neighbors of the Iranians.

The name copper in several Finno-Ugric languages is derived from Lat. argentum "silver": Mari. vürgine, Komi yrgön, Udm. yrgon, Mansi äргин – all "copper". Hung. värheny "scarlet fever" correspond them, obviously because earlier this word meant "red".

Several metal names in the Finno-Ugric languages still need to be explained, in particular, in the Khanty and Mansi languages.