Sunday 14 June 2015


On the way to town today I passed by the Greek embassy. I looked at the sign on the wall and saw that the Greek word for embassy was "πρεσβεία" pronounced "presvia". The Greek word for the consulate was "προξενείο" pronounced "proksenio". When I came home I looked these words up in the etymological dictionaries. Then I started looking into the history of diplomacy. What I discovered was very interesting and surprising. But it also opened huge number of questions about what we think we know about the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age Balkan history. 

The word πρεσβεία is an ancient Greek word. You can see all the occurrences of this word in classical texts here.

The Thayer's Greek Lexicon says that the word "πρεσβεία" means "age, dignity, right of the first born, the business normally entrusted to elders, spec. the office of an ambassador, an embassy".

What is interesting is that this word has no known etymology.

I would like here to propose a potential etymology. 

If we look at all the meanings of this word we can see that they all have the same root meaning:

Age (old age) - Born before all others.
Dignity - the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. Being honored and respected before all others.
Right of the first born - Having rights for being born before all others.
The business normally entrusted to elders - The business entrusted to the ones who were born before all others.
Ambassador - The representative of all of us in the enemy camp. The one who goes to the enemy before all others.

All the meanings of the word "πρεσβεία" pronounced "presvia",  are related to the concept of being "before all others".

In Archaic South Slavic dialects "before all others" is "pre svija" = "before all (others)" = first, oldest,  advanced, representative. Also the expression "pre sve (svi) ja" means "before all me (I am)" = I am before all others. These South Slavic expressions produce all possible meanings of the Ancient Greek word "πρεσβεία". This means that this word is most likely a borrowing from Slavic languages into Ancient Greek. Except that according to the official history and linguistics this is not possible. According to the official history and linguistics there is no way that Ancient Greeks could have been in contact with anyone speaking Slavic languages at the time when this word, or more precisely this expression, was recorded for the fist time, which is well before the 5th century BC. So how did the Greeks acquire this word and from whom? Who spoke Slavic languages in early Iron Age Balkans?

One other thing.

The article entitled "History of Diplomacy" from Encyclopedia Britannica says this about Ancient Greek diplomacy:

Greek diplomacy begins with the city-states, where diplomats were sent for specific negotiations and would return after their mission concluded. The earliest evidence of Greek diplomacy can be found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Sparta, which was actively forming alliances in the mid-6th century BCE, and by 500 BCE it had created the Peloponnesian League.

Greek diplomacy took many forms, both historical and mythological. Heralds were the first diplomats sent on short-term visits to other city-states whose policies they sought to influence. They were protected by the Gods with an immunity that other envoys lacked and their protector was Hermes, son of Zeus and associated with all diplomacy. Interestingly, Hermes was also known as the protector of travelers and thieves due to his persuasiveness and eloquence but also for knavery, shiftiness, and dishonesty, imparting to diplomacy a reputation that its practitioners still try to live down.

So it was the elders that were sent as diplomatic representatives and their protector was Hermes, the messenger of Zeus. Do you remember the knobstick, the staff carried by the elders from my knobstick article

Now have a look at the staff carried by Hermes. It is represented in two ways.

Like this:

Or like this:

Does it remind you of the knobstick the symbol of the Elders?

It was the elders who were sent as ambassadors, messengers, the same elders who carried knobsticks as signs of their authority. It is then quite possible that these knobstick carrying elders were the inspiration for the anthropomorphic representation of Hermes, the divine ambassador, messenger of Zeus.

Questions questions questions....

The article entitled "History of Diplomacy" from Encyclopedia Britannica also says this about Ancient Greek diplomacy:

Commercial relations in ancient Greece were instead conducted on a continuous basis by an arrangement, or proxeni, where by the citizen of the city-state represented the economic interest of another city-state. A Proxenos, the citizen involved in the activity of proxeni, would use whatever influence he had in his own city to promote policies of friendship or alliance with the city he represented. Although proxeni initially represented one Greek city-state in another, Herodotus, in his famed work History, indicates that there were Greek consuls in Egypt in about 550 BCE. Commercial conventions, conferences, treaties, and alliances became common and in 4th century BCE, and for a period of 25 years there were eight Greco-Persian congresses, where even the smallest states had the right to be heard.

The Greek word "προξενη" pronounced proxeni means consul, but literally it means "among the foreigners", It comes from the Ancient Greek word "ξένος" meaning foreigner. 

The Greek word ξένος (pronounced ksénos) means: of parties giving or receiving hospitality: host and much more commonly guest, stranger, one who is hired: hired worker, mercenary, foreigner. The word is an Ancient Greek word first attested in the 5th century BC. The official etymology says that this word comes from ξένϝος, from Proto-Indo-European *gʰóstis (“guest, stranger”), whence also Proto-Germanic *gastiz, Proto-Slavic *gostь, Italic: *ɣostis. I agree the the Germanic, Slavic and Italic words come from the same root meaning guest which probably comes from the root *gʰes- (“to eat”) from which we have Sanskrit ghasati and Slavic jesti. But I believe that the Greek word ξένος comes from a completely different root. 

The article entitled "History of Diplomacy" from Encyclopedia Britannica also says that: 

"the earliest diplomatic negotiations occured during the time of the earliest tribal societies which had to negotiate marriage, trade and hunting rights." 

This is a very important piece of information. In patriarchal tribal societies marrying within the clan was strictly forbidden. Therefore the women had to be brought from outside of the tribe. These women were either stolen in so called "wolf raids" or marriage agreements were made between friendly tribes which allowed men from one tribe to take women from the other tribe and vice versa. In The Balkans this tradition still persists in rural areas. Where I come from in South of Serbia, the men from the villages from our side of the river always married women from the villages from the other side of the river, where people were "not of our tribe". People who were "not of our tribe" were not us and were therefore foreigners. And it was among the foreigners that men looked for women to become their wives. But it was not the young men who were sent to the foreigner's village to negotiate the marriage deals. It was the elders. They were sent to the foreign tribes to negotiate acquiring of women for their sons or grandsons, which is still the case in many parts of the world where the family, clan or tribe elders are still sent to negotiate these types of deals even today. Theses tribal elders probably carried with them their knobsticks, as symbols of their power. Is this why the knobstick is the stick carried by Hermes, the protector of messengers and diplomats?

I believe that this association between foreign and getting a woman to marry her was strong enough to give us the Greek word for a foreigner "ξένος". 

I lived in Greece for a year. One thing that I noticed was that Greeks were unable to pronounce Slavic harsh consonants like "ž" which is the first sound in the Slavic word "žena" meaning both woman and wife. The word "žena" is an ancient word which comes from the Indoeuropean root gʷḗn

If we look at the words which are derived from this root we see that all the words are split into three groups: 

dj, ž,s group (all the words for woman, wife start with dj, ž or s sound) 

Slavic: *žena
Proto-Indo-Iranian: *ǰanH- (pronounced žan or djan)
Sanskrit: जनि (jani)
Avestan: (jə̄ni), (jaini), (jąni)
Baluchi: جن (jan)
Kurdish: jin / жьн / ژن
Middle Persian: NYŠE / zn' (zan)
Persian: زن (zan)
Ossetic: зӕнӕг (zænæg, “children, offspring”)
Pashto: جنۍ (jinëy)
Tocharian A: śäṃ
Tocharian B: śana

k,g group (all the words for woman, wife start with k or g sound) 

Old Armenian: կին (kin)
Armenian: կին (kin)
Old Prussian: genno (vocative singular)
Germanic: *kwenǭ, *kwēniz
Mycenaean Greek: (ku-na-ja)
Ancient Greek γυνή (gunḗ)
Phrygian: [script needed] (knaika)
Sanskrit: ग्ना (gnā)

b group (all the words for woman, wife start with b sound) 

Celtic: *benā
Old Irish: ben, bé
Irish: bean
Manx: ben
Welsh: ben
Cornish: ben
Beotian Greek: βανά (baná)

I believe that the above division shows clear linguistic dialectal split on genetic lines. The ž,s group of words comes from languages linked to R1a population.  The b group group of words comes from languages linked to R1b population. Where does the k,g group come from? Another subgroup of R1b or I2? I am not sure.

It is very interesting to note that Sanskrit contains both "g" word and "ž, dj" word for woman showing that Sanskrit is a composite language and that both so called "kentum" and "satem" dialects speaking tribes were present in Indus Valley during the formation of the Sanskrit language. It is also very interesting to note that Beotian dialect has "b" word for woman, just like Celtic languages. Is there a link between the Beotians and Celts? I believe so. Remember the article about the bo, vo words being the root for the words for cattle? I will talk about this soon. 

So back to Greeks and the word "ξένος" meaning foreigner. As I said Greeks are unable to pronounce Slavic harsh consonant "ž". So they pronounce the word "žena" like "zena" or "sena". In South Slavic languages the word to marry is "ženiti". This verb comes from Locative form of "žena" meaning woman. As the name implies, the basic meaning of the locative case is to show the location or position of an object represented by a noun or direction of movement towards the object. Locative of the word "žena" is "ženi" meaning towards, to the woman. This would mean that "ženiti" = "ženi + ti" literally means to "go to the woman + you", to "go to get the woman + you", "go to the woman's tribe to get the woman + you". 

The South Slavic words "ga, gu, go, gi" are used for pointing and mean him, her, it, them. If you wanted to say in South Slavic languages "you can marry him, her, them" you would say "ženi + ga, gu, gi" =  "marry + him, her, them" or "ga, gu, gi + ženi" = "him, her, them + marry". As I already said in patriarchal tribal societies it was a taboo to marry someone of your own kind. So the people you were allowed to marry "ga, gu, gi + ženi" the ones who were not "of our tribe", foreigners. If pronounced quickly this expression becomes "gženi". Greeks would pronounce this as "kseni" which is exactly the pronunciation for the adjective "ξένη" meaning foreign, not one of us, someone you can marry. 

So back to the Greek word "προξενη" pronounced proxeni meaning consul but literally meaning among the foreigners. In South Slavic languages the word pro means through, between, among and the word pri means with, next to, at. A man who moves to live with his wife's family or clan is in South Slavic languages said to be "pri ženi" meaning with the wife, with the wife's family, with the people who are not of our tribe, with the foreigners....

So how did this word enter Greek language? How did this happen when according to the official history and linguistics this is not possible, because there is no way that Ancient Greeks could have been in contact with anyone speaking Slavic languages at the time when this word, or more precisely this expression, was recorded for the fist time, which is well before the 5th century BC. So how did the Greeks acquire this word and from whom?
Who spoke Slavic languages in early Iron Age Balkans? 

But maybe I am asking the wrong question. Maybe I should ask if the Ancient Greeks were, as most people think, a genetically , culturally and linguistically homogeneous "nation". Or were they a bunch of genetically, culturally and linguistically disparate tribes living side by side. Of which some spoke a language which will later become known as Slavic. And were the "Ancient Greeks" just a product of hundreds of years of cooperation, intermarrying and conquest, a result of complex, often forced mixing. After all all the other European "nations" were created like this, why would the "Ancient Greeks" be any different?

So what do you think about all this?


  1. No one seriously doubts that there were Balkan languages spoken other than Greek in areas adjacent to back in the Bronze Age. No one believes that Slavic languages materialized out of nowhere in the 5th century when the Slavic people expanded. But, the question, properly poses is when, where, in which direction and how were the words shared?

    1. Did Greek borrow words from a language ancestral to Slavic? If so, where?
    2. Did Slavic borrow words from Greek? This could have happened much later in the Southern Balkans.
    3. Did Slavic and Greek both borrow words from another language which may have been a sister Balkan language to Greek and an Indo-European Balkan language substrate language to South Slavic?
    4. Is Slavic a Balkan language, perhaps adopted by conquering Slavs in much the same way as the Eastern Roman Empire adopted the Greek language of the people it conquered?
    5. Is Slavic a language of the classical era of a people with origins in what is now European Russia who conquered territory from the Baltics to the Balkans starting around the 5th Century, and picked up borrowed and substrate words along the way?
    6. Were words borrowed by Greek borrowed when it was spoken in the Aegean region, or did Greek and pre-Slavic word borrowing take place closer to a proto-Indo-European Urheimat from which both expanded at differing times?

    The Indo-European cognates that you identify seem to disfavor the possibility that these words have roots in non-Indo-European substrate languages that existed before Greek arrived in the Aegean and also before the Indo-European Balkan languages that were spoken in the Balkans before the Slavic languages were spoken there. In other words, you don't seem to be picking up on non-Ind-European pre-Greek Pelasgian or Tyrrhenian substrate words. Otherwise they wouldn't have cognates in so many remote Indo-European languages.

    1. This is indeed is a very complex question Andrew. And I don't think there is one answer to it. Language and culture mixing is a continuous process, which often has loops and intersected branches. It is also never a one way process. All of the above could have happened and probably did happen. But I am particularly interested in these words (and many other from the same period of which I will talk in other posts) because they appear in writing in the 5th and 6th century BC Greek writings already mangled and without root in Greek. This points to already old borrowing from another language. As I said Balkan was always the place where people mixed, not replaced each other. I believe that Ancient Greeks were just such mixture. I don't believe that Pelasgians spoke an unknown lost language. I don't believe that any of the old European languages are truly lost. They are all now mixed into our modern Languages. This is where I don't agree with the current Indoeuropean languages theory which talks about language replacement. I believe in language merging. Like in any merging it is all about percentages and sometimes the proportions are such that one language disappears leaving only traces in the mixture, but again we are talking about merging not replacement.