Slavs (ethnonym)

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The Slavic autonym is reconstructed in Proto-Slavic as *Slověninъ, plural *Slověně. The oldest documents written in Old Church Slavonic and dating from the 9th century attest Словѣне Slověne to describe the Slavs. Other early Slavic attestations include Old East Slavic Словѣнѣ Slověně for "an East Slavic group near Novgorod." However, the earliest written references to the Slavs under this name are in other languages. In the 6th century AD Procopius, writing in Byzantine Greek, refers to the Σκλάβοι Sklaboi, Σκλαβηνοί Sklabēnoi, Σκλαυηνοί Sklauenoi, Σθλαβηνοί Sthlauenoi, or Σκλαβῖνοι Sklabinoi,[1] while his contemporary Jordanes refers to the Sclaveni in Latin.[2]

The Slavic autonym *Slověninъ is usually considered a derivation from slovo "word", originally denoting "people who speak (the same language)," i.e. people who understand each other, in contrast to the Slavic word denoting "foreign people" – němci, meaning "mumbling, murmuring people" (from Slavic *němъ – "mumbling, mute"). The latter word may be the derivation of words to denote German/Germanic people in many later Slavic languages: e.g., Czech Němec, Slovak Nemec, Slovene Nemec, Belarusian, Russian and Bulgarian Немец, Serbian Немац, Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian Nijemac, Polish Niemiec, Ukrainian Німець, etc.,[3] but another theory states that rather these words are derived from the name of the Nemetes tribe,[4][5] which is derived from the Celtic root nemeto-.[6][7]

The English word Slav could be derived from the Middle English word sclave, which was borrowed from Medieval Latin sclavus or slavus,[8] itself a borrowing and Byzantine Greek σκλάβος sklábos "slave," which was in turn apparently derived from a misunderstanding of the Slavic autonym (denoting a speaker of their own languages). The Byzantine term Sklavinoi was loaned into Arabic as Saqaliba صقالبة (sing. Saqlabi صقلبي) by medieval Arab historiographers. However, the origin of this word is disputed.[9][10]

Alternative proposals for the etymology of *Slověninъ propounded by some scholars have much less support. B.P. Lozinski argues that the word *slava once had the meaning of worshipper, in this context meaning "practicer of a common Slavic religion," and from that evolved into an ethnonym.[11] S.B. Bernstein speculates that it derives from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *(s)lawos, cognate to Ancient Greek λαός laós "population, people," which itself has no commonly accepted etymology.[12] Meanwhile others have pointed out that the suffix -enin indicates a man from a certain place, which in this case should be a place called Slova or Slava, possibly a river name. The Old East Slavic Slavuta for the Dnieper River was argued by Henrich Bartek (1907–1986) to be derived from slova and also the origin of Slovene.[13]

Last scientific opinions about the earliest mentions of Slavic raids across the lower River Danube show that they may be dated to the first half of the 6th century, yet no archaeological evidence of a Slavic settlement in the Balkans could be securely dated before c. 600 AD.[14][15][16]


  1. ^ Procopius, History of the Wars,\, VII. 14. 22–30, VIII.40.5
  2. ^ Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, V.33.
  3. ^ Stephen Barbour and Cathie Carmichael (eds.), Language and Nationalism in Europe (2000), p. 193.
  4. ^ The Journal of Indo-European studies 1974, v.2
  5. ^ Etymology of the Polish-language word for Germany (Polish)
  6. ^ Xavier Delamarre (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise. Éditions Errance, p. 233.
  7. ^ John T. Koch (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, p. 1351.
  8. ^ Slav, on Oxford Dictionaries
  9. ^ F. Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. 2002, siehe «Sklave»
  10. ^ Ф. М. Достоевский. Полное собрание сочинений: в 30-ти т. Т. 23. М., 1990, с. 63, 382.
  11. ^ Lozinski B.P., The Name SLAV, Essays in Russian History, Archon Books, 1964.
  12. ^ Bernstein 1961
  13. ^ Etudes slaves et est-européennes: Slavic and East-European studies, Volume 3 (1958), p.107.
  14. ^ Florin Curta, Archeologické rozhledy LXI, 2009
  15. ^ Koleva, R. 1993: Slavic settlement on the territory of Bulgaria. In: J. Pavúk ed., Actes du XII-e Congre's international des sciences préhistoriques et protohistoriques. Bratislava, 1–7 septembre 1991 IV, Bratislava,17–19.
  16. ^ Angelova, S. – Koleva, R. 2007: Archäologische Zeugnisse frühslawischer Besiedlung in Bulgarien. In: J. Henning ed., Post-Roman Towns, Trade, and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium, Berlin – New York, 481–508.