Historical linguistics blog - even thursdays

2018 > 12

Currently, at least if you are in the northern hemisphere, the darkest time of the year is approaching. This is also when we celebrate one of our most awaited festivities, which in English goes by the name Christmas. How old is this custom? It is highly likely that a festival during the darkest time of the year, the winter solstice, has a very long history, earlier than the introduction of Christianity, probably all the way back into Neolithic times, when the return of the sun was important for the preparation of the growing season. The festival has many forms in various cultures, among Jews it is represented by Chanukka, a feast of light, which is celebrated somewhat earlier than Christmas.

In some northern cultures, the winter solstice marks the beginning of the winter, in other Central European cultures, the winter period begins earlier. In Indo-European languages, winter, the cold and rainy season goes by the name of *ǵh(e)im- 'winter', also 'snow', a root that is found with the meaning 'cold season' in most languages, including Indo-Aryan. Germanic languages use another word for the cold season, *wintru-, which has two possible origins, either it is related to Latin unda 'wave', referring to 'the wet time of the year', or it is related to Gaulish vindo 'white', meaning 'the white time of the year'.

The festival that marks the winter solstice, 'Christmas' goes by different names in different languages. However, the symbols and the cultural habits show striking similarities between cultures. Important components in festivities are, besides excessive eating and drinking and giving of gifts, also the presence of death and the return of dead ancestors, equality of humans, and a celebration of light. In ancient Rome and other parts of the Mediterranean, the winter solstice festival had the name Saturnalia, which was a festival devoted to the god of the earth, Saturnus. An important component of the festival, besides excessive eating, drinking, visiting of friends and giving of gifts, was that the slaves were supposed to sit and eat in company of their masters. This is paralleled by the habit in northern cultures, where servants and houseowners were supposed to eat together in the kitchen during Christmas.

The words for 'Christmas' are different in various languages. Even though we have little information about celebrations of the winter solstice in older culture without written sources, the words may give us important indications of the purpose of the feast.

Many Germanic languages have preserved an ancient and obscure word for the feast, jul, Swedish jul, Old Swedish iūl, Icelandic jól, Danish jul, Old English, geohhol, géol, English yule, Gothic (fruma) jiuleis 'the month of Christmas'. From Proto-Norse, the word has also been borrowed into Finnish joulu, Estonian jõulud. The meaning of this word is uncertain, but there are two alternatives: either the word is derived from a root related to Old Icelandic él 'storm', referring to the time of winter storms, or it is derived form a root of Indo-European *jek- 'speak out loud', which in many languages, such as Latin iocus 'joke', has the meaning of 'joke, amusement'.
The word for Indo-European 'winter',  *wintru-, recurs in Latvian Ziemassvētki.

Another group of words relate to meanings of 'holiness', such as German Weinacht, Middle High German wīhenahten (known since the 12th century), meaning 'holy night', or the word for 'God', in Slavic languages bȏgъ, Polish Boże Narodzenie, Bosnian Božić, Croatian and Serbian Božić, Macedonian Božiḱ. Lithuanian has preserved an ancient word in their term Kalėdos, which is from the name of the pagan god Koliada, who personalizes the newborn winter.

An important set of Christmas words relate to meanings of 'new' and 'birth' or 'rebirth'. We have derivations of Latin natīvitas in Spanish Navidad, Latin nātalīs in French Noël, Portuguese Natal, Italian natale, borrowed into many languages, such as Marathi Nātāḷa, or Turkic Noel, also Irish nollaig, Welsh nadolig, Scots-Gaelic nollaig (borrowed from Latin natalicia 'nativity'). Alternatively, we have Russian rozhdestvo, Belorussian roždiestvo, derived from ród 'birth' and borrowed into, e.g., Kazakh Rojdestvo, Uzbek Rojdestvo.

Another group - to which we count the English Christmas - refers immediately to the birth of Christ: Greek Χριστούγεννα, Dutch Kerstmis, Frisian Kryst, Luxembourgish Chrëschtdag, Albanian Krishtlindje. From English, the word has been borrowed into many languages, such as Hindi krisamas, Nepali Krisamasa, Malayalam krismas, Japanese kurisimasu, Samoan Kerisimasi, Tamil Kiṟistumas, Talugu Krismas, Swahili Krismasi, Thai Khris̄t̒mās̄, Xhosa Krisimesi, and so forth.

And with this little overview of Christmas words, I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas!

-The text has been updated 2018-12-15-


 
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