From Singapore to Khabarovsk: The Far Eastern Dimensions of a Eurasian Wanderwort

Janhunen Juha Antero (Helsinki, Finland)

From Singapore to Khabarovsk
The Far Eastern Dimensions of a Eurasian Wanderwort

(57th Annual Meeting of the PIAC Vladivostok, 2014)

All over Eurasia there are many cities, towns and other settlements whose names incorporate an appellative noun with the generalized shape -PVL(V)(-), in which P stands for a labial consonant (ph p b w) and L for a liquid (r l). Some historical and modern examples include Gothenburg ‘the city of the Goths’, Ventspils ‘the city of the Wends’, Constantinople ‘the city of Constantine’, Saranpaul ‘the village of the Zyrians’ (in northwestern Siberia), Magyarfalu ‘the village of the Hungarians’ (several localities in Slovakia and Roumania), Karabalgasun ‘the Black City’, Khanbalik ‘the Imperial City’, Rajapur ‘the Royal City’ (several localities in India, Nepal and Bangladesh), and Singapore ‘the Lion City’. In some cases, the appellative alone functions as a toponym, as in Pori (in Finland, from Swedish Björneborg ‘the Bear City’) and Buri (the Nanai name of Khabarovsk), and it is possible that the names of several historical localities in Asia Minor, notably Pergamon~ Pergamos and Pargasa ~ Bargasa, also belong here.

There is extensive literature concerning the etymology of these names and, in particular, of the appellative nouns in them. The basic question is: do they represent a single ancient settlement term that has spread across Eurasia, or are they separate items with independent etymologies in the individual languages and language families? Both views have found support, and the truth may, of course, also lie somewhere in between. However, without venturing a final answer to this issue we may at least group the items in etymological subfamilies and try to see whether these might have mutual connections. We should also estimate the time level of each etymological subfamily. One thing that will be immediately obvious from this examination is that there is a lot of variation even among related languages, suggesting that we are, at least in some cases, dealing with Wanderwörter that have been transmitted both within and between language families. With this methodology we arrive at the following list of etymons:

(1) BRG: Germanic *burg-~ *borg- ‘town, city’ < ‘castle, fort’, with irregular and basically unexplained variation in the stem vowel, as in Gothic baurgs, German Burg, Swedish borg, English borough, burgh. A possible, but unconfirmed, internal etymology connects this term with the noun *berg ‘mountain’, German Berg etc., with a presumed Indo-European background. Verifiable dating with Gothic: c. 2 ky.

(2) PRG: Greek púrgos ‘tower, wall’ > ‘city’, also attested in the irregular variant phúrkos id. This has been connected with Late Latin burgus ’fort, castle’, but the latter is more likely a borrowing from the Germanic item (1). The Greek data has, however, also been compared with Urartu burgana ‘palace’ and Arabic burj ‘tower’ (also attested in place names in the Near East and Central Asia). Verifiable dating for Greek: c. 2.5 ky.

(3) BLK: Turkic balïk ‘town, city’= Mongolic bal(a)ga-su/n id. These two items are clearly identical and may be derived from Pre-Proto-Turkic *bal(a)ka, from which the term was borrowed into Pre-Proto-Mongolic in a time depth of c. 2.5 ky. An internal etymology in Turkic, though unlikely, connects this word with balcïk ‘mud’ and, more recently, even with balïk ‘fish’ (Stachowski). A more obvious connection exists with Manchu falga ‘clan, tribe, neighbourhood, village’ (Sinor), which must be a relatively early borrowing from Mongolic or Para-Mongolic *balaga, with later Mittelsilbenschwund in Jurchenic, though the correspondence of Mongolic *b to Manchu *p>f is irregular.

(4) PLK: Hungarian falu : falva- ‘village’ = Mansi paawl etc. id. = Khanty puughl etc. id. These data suggest a Ugric item with the shape *palkV and a dating of, at least, 2.5 ky. A further Finno-Ugric comparison has been made with Finnish (archaic and marginal) palva ‘village’, but the phonetic relationship is irregular.

(5) PL: Greek pólis~ ptólis ‘city’, which is attested already in Mycenean Greek as †ptoli-, allowing a dating of c. 3.5 ky. The word has apparent Indo-European cognates with the meaning ‘city’ in Baltic (Lithuanian pilìs) and Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit púr-), but the vowel relationships are irregular and the items may actually represent three (with ptoli- four) separate variants of the same theme. On the other hand, it is possible that there is a connection with Greek púlon and Hittite puhla- ‘gate’ (Pyysalo), which would increase the time depth to, perhaps, 4-5 ky. It may be noted that the Indo-Aryan data with –r(púr- etc.) are secondary and represent the regular development from *-l– to –r-.

(6) BR: Nanai (and Ulcha) buri ‘Khabarovsk’ (or the settlement once located on the same spot). Thistoponym is also attested in Udeghe in the shape beli (Girfanova). The relationship between these forms can only be explained by assuming that the Udeghe item passed through Manchu and Chinese: *buri> Manchu *beri → Chinese *beli (Pinyin *boli). The Tungusic item has been internally connected with *beri ‘bow’, but the connection appears unmotivated and it is much more likely that the original meaning was ‘fort, town’. This meaning is probably also attested in Korea in the toponyms Seoul< *se-pül and Seorabeol = †sera-pel (the capital city of Shilla). Assuming that there is a connection between Korean -pVl and Tungusic buri (< *büri or *böri), these Far Eastern items could have a time depth of, at least, 1.5 ky, perhaps more.

Looking at the six etymological subfamilies, it appears likely that, at least, Ugric *palkV (perhaps: *palka) (4) is a borrowing from Turkic *balga (3). An areal connection between Greek púrgos (2) and Germanic *burg (1) appears also possible. From the Far Eastern point of view it is tempting to see in Korean *-pVl and Tungusic buri a reflex of the Indo-Aryan item *pur-. Chronologically, this would be entirely possible, and the word could represent a borrowing that entered Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula in connection with the introduction of Buddhism in the first centuries AD. Phonologically, the issue is connected, among other things, with the prehistory of stops and liquids in Korean. The relevant details and implications will be discussed more extensively in the full paper.