Friday 20 November 2015

From knee to knee

In this post I would like to talk about the word "knee" and the special meaning that this word has in Serbian and Irish language and culture. 

The word knee has these meanings in English:

1, The joint or the region of the joint in the middle part of the leg between the thigh and the shank.
2. A piece of timber or metal formed with an angle somewhat in the shape of the human knee when bent. Any knee-shaped item or sharp angle in a line, "the knee of a graph", an inflection point.

The etymology of the word knee says that the word knee comes from Middle English kne, from Old English cnēo, from Proto-Germanic *knewą, from Proto-Indo-European *ǵnéwo-, a thematic derivative of Proto-Indo-European *ǵónu. Compare Hittite genu, Latin genū, Tocharian A kanweṃ (dual), Tocharian B kenī, Ancient Greek gónu, (knee), gōnía (corner, angle), Old Armenian cunr, Avestan žnum, Sanskrit jānu.

It seems that all Indoeuropean languages have words for knee which come from the root "kn, gn". Well all except Slavic and Celtic languages where the words for knee come from the root "kln, gln".

In Celtic languages the words for knee are:

Old Irish: glún
Irish: glúin
Scottish Gaelic: glùin
Breton: glin
Welsh: glin

In Slavic languages the words for knee are:

Old East Slavic: колѣно ‎(kolěno)
Belarusian: кале́на ‎(kaljéna)
Russian: коле́но ‎(koléno)
Ukrainian: колі́но ‎(kolíno)
Old Church Slavonic: колѣно ‎(kolěno)
Bulgarian: коля́но ‎(koljáno)
Macedonian: колено ‎(koleno)
Serbo-Croatian: koljeno, koleno, kaljen, kalino, kolino, golino
Slovene: koléno
Czech: koleno
Polish: kolano
Slovak: koleno
Slovincian: kʉ̀ɵ̯lanɵ
Lower Sorbian: kóleno
Upper Sorbian: koleno

A possible cognates are also:

Lithuanian: kelys, kelénys =  knee
Latvian: celys = knee

But it is not just the root of the Celtic and Slavic words for knee that is the same. In Gaelic and South Slavic languages the word knee has additional meanings appart from the "joint in the middle part of the leg" and "something bent in a shape of a knee". These meanings are:

Serbian (koleno, koljeno, kaljen, kalino, kolino, golino): generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house

Gaelic (glúin): generation, step in descent, step in pedigree

Serbian: Tri kolena = Three generations
Irish: Trí ghlúin daoine = Three generations of people

Serbian: Markovo prvo koleno = The first descendant(s) of Marc
Irish: An chéad ghlúin ó Marc = The first descendant(s) of Marc

Serbian: Oni su braća u trećem kolenu = they are related in the third degree; they are second cousins.
Irish: Is iad an treas glúin iad = they are related in the third degree; they are second cousins.


poklon - bending, bowing, gifting, gift
klanjati se - bend, bow, prostrate, kneel in front of someone
klečati - kneel
pokoljenje = Po + koljeno = generation 
oni su iz istog kolena = They are from the same klan
on je od odlična koljena = He is from a great stock, clan
nakolenče - baby boy which is placed on the brides knees (lap) during the wedding ceremony to ensure that the first child is a boy.


bean ghlúine = woman knee = midwife

Again we see strange similarity between the Slavic and Celtic languages and cultures.

What is very interesting about the above meanings of the word for knee in Celtic and Slavic languges is that this can shed a new light on the etymology of the Irish word "clann".

Serbian: Oni su iz istog "kolena" = They are from the same "clan"

The Irish word "clann" meaning children, family, offspring, followers, plant comes from Middle Irish: clann, Old Irish clann (alternative form cland). The official etymology says that this is a borrowing from Old Welsh plant, from Latin planta meaning plant, shoot, twig, sprout.

This is all great except that we need to explain how the Slavic word koleno with its meanings fit into all this. Is it possible that the Irish words "clan" (children, family, offspring, followers) and "glúin" (generation, step in descent, step in pedigree) and the Serbian word "koleno, koljeno, koleno, kaljen, kalino, kolino, golino" (generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house) all come from the same root "kln, gln" meaning knee? In this case "clan" would be just a specialisation of the word "glúin". We can see that in Serbian we have both koleno and golino, so it is possible that the Irish also retained both "k" and "g" variant of this word.

In Serbian we also have these words: član, čljan, člin, člen, čljen, šljen, Sijan, Síjén, cjen, iklân, ikljen. These are all dialectic versions of the same word  which means "member, part, generation" and are directly linked to the notion of group, family, clan. They all also come from the same "kln" root as "koleno" (knee, bend, generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house).

What is interesting is that this link between the knee and the generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house can also be found in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Latin:

Sanskrit: jānu = knee and janas = race, class of beings
Ancient Greek: γόνυ =  knee and γένος = offspring, descendant, family, clan, nation, race, gender, any type or class
Latin: genu = knee and genus = birth, origin, kind, type, class, species (of animal or plant), race (of people), set, group (with common attributes)

I was just made aware that the same link exists in Basque, Finish and Saami languages too:

Basque: In Basque the word for generation (belaunaldi) is also formed with "knee" (belaun). It can be used directly with "belaun", too, as in "belaunez belaun" (from generation to generation)

Saami: The word for knee and generation is also the same in all Saami languages, cf. the phrase "Aerpien maahtoe boelveste boelvide" (ancestral knowledge from knee to knee/ from one generation to the next) in South Saami.

Finish: The semantics of 'generation' and 'knee' are also connected in Finnish (related to Saami). The word for generation, 'sukupolvi,' is suku (family) + polvi (knee), and the word for 'to descend from (genealogically)' is 'polveutua,' a verbalised form of the nominal 'polvi.' The verb is strictly used for genealogical descent, not physical descent of any kind.

But this link only becomes visible through Slavic and Celtic words for knee and their meaning.

But where does this link between the knee and generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house comes from? 

The English word genuine comes from Latin genuinus ‎(“innate, native, natural”), from gignere, from Old Latin genere ‎(“to beget, produce”), from genus meaning birth, origin, kind, type, class, species (of animal or plant), race (of people), set, group (with common attributes). The related word is gens which means Roman clan, related by birth or marriage and sharing a common name, tribe; people, family. 

The English etymological dictionary says something interesting though about the etymology of the word genus. It says that there is a possibility that the etymology of this word could come "from Latin genu "knee," from a supposed ancient custom of a father acknowledging paternity of a newborn by placing it on his knee."

So is this where the link between the knee and the offspring, the next generation, family, clan, race, house comes from? In Irish the word clann doesn't mean any children. It means paternally acknowledged, legitimate children. Was this custom of acknowledging that the child is yours by placing it on your knee once widespread among the Indoeuropeans? I believe so. During the tribal expansions and wars a lot of men died. This left a surplus of "available" women both from the victorious tribe and from the subdued tribes. Judging by the current paternal genetic map of Evroasia, the victorious warriors used this situation to their advantage, having sex with as many of these women as they could. This was done partially out of lust, but mostly as way of claiming the dead warriors' property. The one who lay with a women laid a claim to her and her property. The final seal of ownership was stamped by the acknowledgement of the children produced from such unions. And that acknowledgement was done by father placing (laying) the child on his knees.  

My offspring, my next generation, family, clan, race, my "koleno", "glún", "clan", "gens" are the the children that sat on my knees. I acknowledge them and I give them my name. And I take their property as mine too.

Another clue why there is a link between the knee and generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house can be found in Serbian saying that the knowledge and tradition are passed "sa kolena na koleno". This literally means "from knee to knee" but it also means from one generation to the next generation, from grandparents and parents to their grandchildren and children. 

One of my favorite childhood memories involve sitting on my parent's or my grandparent's knees and listening to their stories. My mother, a primary school teacher, told me fairy tales and taught me how to read using old battered "Bukvar" (Alphabet primer). My father, technical education teacher, told me stories about strange animals and strange faraway lands and taught me how things are made and how they work. My maternal grandmother, who was a housewife, told me stories about saints and taught me how to say prayers and curses and how to cook jams and preserves. My maternal grandfather, who was a baker, told me stories about the war and taught me how to make bread and cakes and play card games poker and tablić. My paternal grandmother, who was a housewife, told me stories about vampires and karakondžulas and other mythical creatures and taught me everything there is to know about farm animals, how to make cheese and how to feed silkworms. My paternal grandfather told me stories about the wild animals and birds and plants and taught me how to recognize animal tracks, how to make animal traps and how to hunt using a hunting rifle,  how to use farm tools and how to make brandy and wine. 

This is the way the knowledge and tradition was passed in the past. And this is how the family bond was built and preserved. 

After all these years, the stories that I heard while sitting on my parents' and my grandparents' knees are still as fresh and as clear as if I heard them yesterday. And the things that I learned from them as a child I still remember today. And when my son was born, I held him on my knees and I told him some of the old stories that were passed down to me through time "from knee to knee". And I added few new ones of my own. I hope one day he will have children of his own and will sit them on his knees and tell them some of the stories that he heard from me, and a lot of nice stories of his own...


  1. Beautiful! I too remember sitting on Baka's knee as a child with my brother, listening to her tell stories about her life in Serbia and when my mom and uncles were children. Thanks for writing about this tradition.

  2. Basque: "belaun" = knee, "belaunaldi" = generation (aldi means "time period").

    1. Thank you Maju. This is very important

    2. gen.era.tion = kin = = =
      mongolu(Mbuti:mother's dome hut) is the root.
      We are the children of forest leprechauns/pygmies, our dialects prove it every time.

  3. In Armenian a knee is ծունկ (tsunk), which originates from the root ts'n, g'n meaning the birth, than the generation

  4. you can read (in French) :

  5. The Hungarian word for knee is könyökcső, also térd.

  6. I like the idea of paternal acceptance, but I don’t believe it, it’s too abstract for a concept this important and old. I think there most be a more concrete etymological link. Perhaps the knee - the angle - is an instrument of counting. In German we also use the term “glied”, which means member or element in a row, also in the more anatomical sense of bone or extremity, and the biblical expression is to punish descendants “bis ins vierte Glied” (2 Mosis, 34: 6.7), i.e. the forth generation. As we are talking always of descent on one hand and knee or angle on the other hand as core meanings of the root, my guess is angle is older as it is more concrete, and angles added to a line are the visualization of counting and descent, like in a genealogical tree. In an alternative reality or other language group, descent, clan, people, Generation might have a common root with “knot”, or with “branch” as alternative images of counting or descent in a line. I have thought about this for a long time, and I find this more convincing. What do you think?

  7. Love this article.
    I'm inclined to agree with the author as the old-old words tend to have emotional links over more "logical" links, as proposed by Kuenzi above.
    And my favorite word from this article was nakolenče!
    If that doesn't cement the meaning for us, I don't know what does.