History of the written word: On some principles of 16th century etymology

Keywords: history of linguistics, history of philology, etymology, 16th century, humanism, German, Latin


The article covers some of the new tendencies in 16th century etymology, comparing them with the practice of ancient and medieval authors. These novelties were called forth by the expanding linguistic horizon of European scholarship, the emergence of “neo-philologies”, and the application of classical philological methods to the study of vernacular languages and their history. Remarkable evidence of the influence of humanist philology on linguistics is provided in 16th century reconstructions of the earliest testimonies of vernacular vocabulary in the heritage of Roman authors (i. e., Caesar, Pliny the Elder and Tacitus). Their texts contained a number of German and Gaulish “glosses”, as well as terms and names of presumably Germanic origin, which required etymological explanation. The “etyma” were sought in the vocabulary of modern Germanic languages and among historical forms available to scholars at the time, while the formal discrepancies between the reconstructed and the attested forms were often explained by the deteriorated state of written testimonies or circumstantial interferences that might have accompanied the composition, recording, and copying process of the literary text under consideration. Thus, etymologies relied on philological arguments based on the principles of humanistic editing, which included a collation of several manuscripts or emendation “ope ingenii” in the cases of text corruption. The author discusses this type of argumentation based on several examples of 16th century etymologies, namely the explanation of Gaulish personal names ending with -rix and the term “siloduni” by Swiss and German humanists (Aegidius Tschudi, Conrad Gessner and the author of the anonymous dictionary of German proper names).



Aliquot nomina propria Germanorum ad priscam etymologiam restituta. (1537) Vitembergae: s. n., [16] fol. (In Latin)

Bovelles, C. (1533) Liber de differentia vulgarium linguarum, & Gallici sermonis varietate <…>. Parisiis: R. Stephanus, 107, [1] p. (In Latin)

Caesar, C. (1544) C. Iulii Caesaris commentariorum libri VIII. Quibus adiecimus suis in locis D. Henrici Glareani doctissimas annotationes. Basileae: N. Brylinger, [32], 741, [41] p. (In Latin)

Dubois, J. (1531) In linguam Gallicam Isagωge, una cum eiusdem Grammatica Latinogallica, ex Hebraeis, Graecis, et Latinis authoribus. Parisiis: R. Stephanus, [16], 159, [1] p. (In Latin)

Gessner, C. (1555) Mithridates. De differentiis linguarum tum veterum tum quae hodie apud diversas nationes in toto orbe terrarum in usu sunt. Tigurini observationes. Tiguri: Excudebat Froschoverus, [2], 78 fol. (In Latin)

Junius, H. (1556) Animadversorum libri sex, omnigenae lectionis thesaurus, in quibus infiniti pene autorum loci corriguntur et declarantur, nunc primum et nati, et in lucem aediti. <...> Basileae: M. Isengrin, [56], 432 p. (In Latin)

Lipsius, J. (1614) Iusti Lipsii Epistolarum selectarum centuria tertia ad Belgas. Antverpiae: ex officina Plantiniana, [4] fol., 118 p. (In Latin)

Tschudi, A. (1538) De prisca ac uera Alpina Rhaetia, cum caetero Alpinarum gentium tractu, nobilis ac erudita ex optimis quibusque ac probatissimis autoribus descriptio. Basileae: Apud Mich. Isengrin, [8], 134 p. (In Latin)


Delamarre, X. (2003) Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise: Une approche linguistique du vieux-celtique continental. 2 éd. Paris: Errance, 440 p. (In French)

Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm. [Online]. Available at: http://woerterbuchnetz. de/DWB/ (accessed 07.06.2019). (In German)


Buridant, C. (1998) Les paramètres de l’étymologie médiévale. In: L’étymologie de l’antiquité à la renaissance. Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, pp. 11–56. (In French)

Burke, P. (2004) Languages and communities in early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, XIV, 210 p. (In English)

Céard, J. (1980) De Babel à la Pentecôte: La transformation du mythe de la confusion des langues au XVIe siècle. Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 42 (3): 577–594. (In French)

Considine, J. (2017) Small dictionaries and curiosity: Lexicography and fieldwork in Post-Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 336 p.

Copeland, R., Sluiter, I. (eds.). (2009) Medieval grammar and rhetoric: Language arts and literary theory, AD 300–1475. Oxford: Oxford University Press, X, 972 p. (In English)

Doronin, A. V. (2016) Brat’ya Tuiskon i Gomer, druidy i pes abbata Tritemiya: kak nemetskie gumanisty rodnilis’ s drevnimi grekami. In: O. F. Kudryavtsev (ed.). Iskusstvo i kul’tura Evropy epokhi Vozrozhdeniya i rannego Novogo vremeni. Moscow; Saint Petersburg: Tsentr gumanitarnykh initsiativ Publ., pp. 269–289. (In Russian)

Droixhe, D. (1984) Avant-propos. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 6 (2): 5–16. (In French)

Dubois, C.-G. (1972) Celtes et gaulois au XVIe siècle: Le développement littéraire d’un mythe nationaliste. Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 205 p. (In French)

Enenkel, K. A. E., Ottenheym, K. (2017) Oudheid als ambitie: De zoektocht naar een passend verleden 1400–1700. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 349 p. (In Dutch)

Haßler, G. (2009) Etymologie. In: G. Haßler, C. Neis. (Hrsg.). Lexikon sprachtheoretischer Grundbegriffe des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. Bd. 1. Berlin: De Gruyter, S. 625–658.

Kibbee, D. A. (1992) Renaissance notions of medieval language and the development of historical linguistics. The journal of medieval and renaissance studies, 22 (1): 41–54. (In English)

Muller, J.-C. (1984) Quelques reperes pour l’histoire de la notion de vocabulaire de base dans le précomparatisme. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 6 (2): 37–43. (In French)

Muller, J.-C. (1986) Early stages of language comparison from Sassetti to Sir William Jones (1786). Kratylos, 31: 1–31. (In English)

Müller, R. (2003) Konzeptionen des Sprachwandels in der Antike. Hermes, 131 (2): 196–221. (In German)

Nellen, H. J. M., Bloemendal, J. (2014) Philology: Editions and editorial practices in the early modern period. In: Ph. Ford, J. Bloemendal, Ch. Fantazzi (eds.). Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Neo-Latin World. Leiden: Brill, pp. 185–206. (In English)

Rizzo, S. (1973) Il lessico filologico degli umanisti. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, XXIV, 394 p. (In Italian)

Rochette, B. (1997) Grecs, Romains et Barbares: À la recherche de l’identité ethnique et linguistique des Grecs et des Romains. Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, 75 (1): 37–57. (In French)

Sallmann, K. (2004) Etymology. In: H. Schneider, H. Cancik (eds.). Brill’s new Pauly. Vol. 5. Leiden: Brill, columns 123–126. (In English)

Sergeev, M. L. (2011) Kommentarij k spisku “gall’skikh” slov v “Mitridate” K. Gessnera [The list of “Gaulish” words in C. Gessner’s “Mithridates”: A commentary]. In: N. A. Bondarko, N. N. Kazanskij (eds.). Acta linguistica Petropolitana. Vol. 7. Pt. 1. Saint Petersburg: Nauka Publ., pp. 386–408. (In Russian)

Sergeev, M. L. (2018) Sopostavlenie yazykov v XVI veke (na primere “Mitridata” (1555) Konrada Gessnera). PhD dissertation (Philology). Saint Petersburg, Institute for Linguistic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 234 p. (In Russian)

Tavoni, M. (1986) On the Renaissance idea that Latin derives from Greek. Annali della Scuola normale superiore di Pisa. Serie III, 16 (1): 205–238. (In English)

Tavoni, M. (1998) Renaissance linguistics: Western Europe. In: G. Lepschy (ed.). History of linguistics. Vol. 3: Renaissance and Early Modern linguistics. London; New York: Longman, pp. 1–108. (In English)

Van Hal, T. (2013–2014) From Alauda to Zythus. The emergence and uses of Old-Gaulish word lists in early modern publications. In: Keltische Forschungen. Bd. 6. Wien: Praesens Verlag, S. 219–277. (In English)

Making the Complicated Simple