Replacement: genes and language

In historical times, sometimes you see conquest followed by elite dominance: the winners are outnumbered by those they’ve conquered, but rule them for some time.  Usually they eventually dissolve into the majority population.  Sometimes the top dogs lose their language (Bulgaria, Mitanni, Rus), sometimes they manage to impose it on their subjects (Ottoman Empire, Hungary) .

Other times, the invaders come close to completely replacing the previous owners.  In a case like that, I would be seriously surprised if they adopted the language of those they rolled over. Sure, they’d pick up a few place names, maybe some specialized words: but they wouldn’t adopt the losers’ language.

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58 Responses to Replacement: genes and language

  1. Joel says:

    Alabama: From the Alibamu, tribe of Indians, members of the Creek Confederacy. The name may have come from words in the Choctaw language, “Alba ayamute” meaning “I clear the thicket.”

    Alaska: From the Aleut word “Alakshak”, meaning “peninsula”; used by the aleuts in referring to the part of the mainland that is now known as the Alaskan peninsula.

    Arizona: Not yet really proved, but possibly from Papago Indian words for “small springs,” which the Spanish fitted to their own pronunciation.

    Arkansas: From local Indians, The Quapaws, meaning “downstream people”. Called arkansa by the French.

    Connecticut: From the Indian expression “quinnitukg-ut”, meaning “at the long tidal river.”

    Hawaii: Possibly from “Havaiki” or “Hawaiki,” which according to legend was the name of the original homeland of the Polynesians.

    Idaho: The New Book of Knowledge 1983 states: “According to the Idaho Blue Book, a settler corned the name and proposed it for the U.S. Territory created in 1861; it was rejected in favor of “Colorado” for that territory, but it became popular and was given to the territory (Idaho) created in 1863.”
    In the book, “How we Name our States” Pauline Arnold, 1965, says that the word might be derived from the following:

    Comanche “Idahi”
    Shoshone “ee-dah-how” which means something like “Good Morning”
    Salmon River Tribe of Indians “Ida” means salmon and “ho” means tribe so we might be saying “Salmon eaters”.
    Illinois: From the Indian word “ilhiniwek” or “illiniwek”. “Illini” meant “man” and the ending made the word plural. The French changed the word to illinois. Indiana: From the word “Indian” plus the “a” ending used in many geographical names.

    Iowa: From a Dakota Indian word: the name had many different spellings until it became “Ioway” and the “Iowa”.

    Kansas: From “Kansa”, the name of a tribe of Indians who once lived in the area; first applied to the river, then to the state.

    Kentucky: Probably related to the Iroquois Indian word “Kenta” — “level” or “Meadow-land” referring to the level land in the south central part of the state.

    Massachusetts: From Massachuset Indians, who lived around the Blue hills near Boston, meaning “about the big hill”.

    Michigan: Chippewa – “Michigama” meaning “Large lake” or “big water”.

    Minnesota: Dakota – “Minisota” meaning “White water”.

    Mississippi: Indian word meaning “big river”. (Choctaw meaning “Great water” or “Father of Waters”.)

    Missouri: Indian mis meaning “big”. “Owners of big canoes”.

    Nebraska: Oto Indians “Nebrathka” meaning flat water.

    New Mexico: Named after an Aztec god named “Mertili”.

    Ohio: Iroquois – “Oheo” meaning “beautiful”.

    Oklahoma: Chocraw – “Oklahummaa” or “Oklahomma” meaning “red people”.

    South & North Dakota: “Dahkota” meaning allies or friends — tribes who joined together in friendship.

    Tennessee: Cherokee village “Tanasi” meaning “unknown”.

    Texas: Caddo Indians – “Techas” meaning allies or friends.

    Utah: Ute Indians called themselves “Yuta” meaning people who live high in the mountains”

    Wisconsin: “Wishkonsing” — place of the beaver.

    Wyoming: From Indian words meaning “On the Great Plain.”

    • sarcomere says:

      New Mexico: Named after an Aztec god named “Mertili”.
      lol … how about Nahuatl … “Mexico”?

      Edward Vajda sees lots of Yeniseian hydronyms in south Siberia.

  2. Anonymous says:

    See also England, where the top dogs (Normans) may have lost their language after several centuries, but in the process converted Anglo-Saxon into by far the most latinised of the Germanic languages.

    • Sandgroper says:

      Have you noticed that the words for domesticated animals herded by Anglo-Saxons are called Anglo-Saxon words, and the meat from those animals for human consumption derive from Norman French words? Sheep – mouton. Cow – boef. Pig – porque.

      • anon666 says:

        And likewise, Germans don’t use separate words for cattle and beef or pig and pork, but “Rinder” and “Rindfleisch”, as well as “Schwein” and “Schweinefleish” I think if somebody referred to their meal in English as “cattle flesh” or “pig flesh”, they would be regarded as somewhat disgusting.

  3. j3morecharacters says:

    Hungary was depopulated twice in the last millenium and repopulated by new settlers that adopted the oldtimers’s language.

    • reiner Tor says:

      Hungary was never completely depopulated. The Mongol invasion caused a 25-50% loss (most historians now think that although there will never be conclusive evidence, the lower limit is more realistic, and it could have been well below that number), and even though there was some settlement by others invited by the king, these involved mostly urban populations, which matters very little.

      The Turkish wars (16th and 17th centuries) caused much larger losses, mostly because they were sustained. The central plains of the country and many other areas were thoroughly destroyed (all mostly populated by Hungarians), whereas the mountainous areas (mostly populated by Romanians in the southeast and Slovaks in the north, also Germans in the West) were mostly spared.

      Apparently even the genetic composition of the ethnic Hungarian population changed a lot (not to mention that the ethnic Hungarian share of the population decreased to a very large extent), and we now have very little to do (genetically speaking) with the original Hungarians 1100 years ago. Strangely the language changed probably less than English during the same timespan. (I’m not mentioning the utterly unscientific theories of Hungarian-Turkish-Hun-Sumerian etc. relatedness, which some nationalist zealots are proposing and which correspond to reality not any more than the theory of the Green Spaghetti Monster.)

      • Patrick Boyle says:

        I give up. Who are the Hungarians? Einstein said they must be from Mars because they were all so damn smart.

      • reiner Tor says:

        I am always happy to read things like that, but most of the Hungarian intellectual achievement Einstein was referring to was actually contributed by Hungarian-speaking Ashkenazi Jews.

        There were a few indigenous Hungarian Nobel prize winners (Albert Szent-Györgyi, Georg von Békésy, you might count Richard Adolf Zsigmondy, athough the latter grew up in Austria and finished schools there as well), at least one great composer (Béla Bartók, the more famous Franz Liszt was of German blood), a few inventors etc., not bad for a nation of about 10-15 milion people, but it’s not extraordinary.

      • sarcomere says:

        Apparently even the genetic composition of the ethnic Hungarian population changed a lot

        The invasion-era Magyars were not homogeneous either, and it seems from (limited) ancient DNA evidence and physical anthropology that this was conditioned by social status, with the elite more pronouncedly East Eurasian.

      • reiner Tor says:

        Since the elite usually reproduced more than the rest, and since present day Hungarian population looks really white European (not different from peoples of neighboring countries), it implies even more population change – very few traces of Eastern Eurasian ancestry remain.

  4. norkuat says:

    What about South America (minus south cone countries)?

    • misdreavus says:

      Paraguay is the only Latin American country where an indigenous American language (Guaraní) has been widely adopted by the European elite.

      ln fact if I’m not mistaken, there are more people fluent in Guaraní than Spanish in Paraguay.

      • anon666 says:

        I’ve wondered about the ethnic composition of Paraguay. The population is officially 95 percent mestizo, but given that the War of the Triple Alliance wiped out somewhere between 60 to 90 percent of the population, and that the country had to be replenished through European migration, how Amerindian can the population actually be? And how did Guarani manage to maintain dominance as a language?

  5. Jamais Bogart says:

    There are few Celtic borrowings in English (“whiskey” is one), but lots of Celtic place- and river-names (Carlisle, Thames). And names like Tardebigge (a village) and Humber (a river) may date from before the Celts. Pendle Hill in Lancashire says the same thing thrice:

    In the 13th century it was called Pennul or Penhul, apparently from the Cumbric pen and Old English hyll, both meaning “hill”. The modern English “hill” was appended later, after the original meaning of Pendle had become opaque, although traditionalist locals insist on “Pendle”.

    • Ian says:

      In Spain, there are several rivers with names starting with “Guad-“: Guadalquivir, Guadarrama, Guadalix, Guadix. “Wadi” is Arabic for river. Regarding “Guadalix”, most etymologies relates “al” and “ix”/”is” with Celtic roots meaning “flow” and “water”.

      • That Guy says:


        The Gaelic name for town/city is “Baile”, which is usually pronounced “Balla” in Eastern and Southern Ireland

        I’m sure Valladolid, and other such Spanish cities have Celtic or Celto-Iberian roots. Of course people will say that the Latin for town was “Villa”, and Valladolid get its name from Latin…

        Same goes for many other English words that are derived from “Latin”… there’s a reason people speak of Celto-Italic, as both language groups split from a common founder, so the “missing” Celtic words in English are there, just labelled as Latin…

        The only words that most English speakers like to ascribed to Celtic are those that don’t have a Latin cognate.

        Take a very obvious and simple example, the word “Car” is written the same in Gaelic and English and pronounced the same – in fact the Irish Gaelic pronunciation is identical to the American English pronunciation. My father would refer to going to town in the 1930’s with a “horse and car”, as the original meaning of car was a light 2-wheeled vehicle pulled by a horse. But of course people will say that the same vehicle in Latin was “Carrus”, so the English word Car must be Latin, rather than the obvious Celtic?!

        • Ian says:

          Car is obviusly Celtic. Indoeuropean *k- transformed into h in Proto-Germanic. Thats why we have heart/corda or hound/canis. Of cours, it could also be a borrowing from French…

      • Wadi (وادي) means valley, nahr (نهر) means river.

    • Jamais Bogart says:

      Other times, the invaders come close to completely replacing the previous owners. In a case like that, I would be seriously surprised if they adopted the language of those they rolled over. Sure, they’d pick up a few place names, maybe some specialized words: but they wouldn’t adopt the losers’ language.

      For losers, read “Neanderthals” and for language read “genome”?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Cochran, did the original Indo-aryans replace the former populations of the iranian plateau and the northern gangetic plain? These places were densely settle by agriculturalists before that, right? If they were replaced, how come we don’t see high northern european admixture in indians and iranians?

  7. Staffan says:

    The Finns have more or less replaced the Sami, but their language is some sort of Sami variant, nothing indo-european about it except for a few germanic words.

  8. Staffan says:

    It’s odd though that the Finns are so blonde when the Sami have (or used to have) dark hair. Blonde hair seems to be an adaption to living in forests, and Finns and Sami have been neighbors for a long time. They could hardly have become blonde in Sibiria, no Uralic people did, as far as I know. And if it was an adaption to the Scandinavian conditions, why didn’t the Sami adapt in the same way? Look at old pictures of Sami from the 1800s – the have practically black hair.

    • reiner Tor says:

      Black hair is the default condition of humans in general, whereas blond hair is a European “invention”. So this only means that there was no admixture between the Sami and the Finns, so no way for the Sami to pick up the genes. I’m also not sure if it’s an adaptation, or if it simply spread through sexual selection.

      • Staffan says:

        But that in itself is weird; people always tend to mix when they live next to each other And did this trait just happen appear through sexual selection in the region in the world where it’s the most beneficial? Blonde hair comes with fair skin which is helpful in this region. Everyone seems to like fair skin so if it was only a matter of sexual selection we’d all be blonde by now.

      • reiner Tor says:

        Depends. Gypsies did live among Europeans and yet almost never mixed. Jews only mixed in the beginning.

        Fair skin and blond hair correlate, but I’m not sure if one is caused by the other. Japanese have quite fair skins, yet it comes packaged with black hair only. Snow White of the fairy tale also had black hair and a very fair skin. I’ve seen European people with light complexion and dark hair. The opposite is also possible, blond people with very dark tans. (I’m not sure if such a tan would even be possible for some very fair-skinned people.)

        Or it could be a combination of the two, some small advantage in terms of a somewhat fairer skin, plus sexual selection.

        Everyone seems to like fair skin so if it was only a matter of sexual selection we’d all be blonde by now.

        It’s a fairly recent invention, and I don’t think everyone likes it. Also if it comes slightly lighter complexion, you would expect the disadvantages (in terms of skin cancer) to outweigh the advantages as you move closer to the equator.

      • Sideways says:

        They like it in females. Not so much in males. And it takes a long time or a very strong selection pressure for sexual dimorphism to evolve.

        Must take a lot of mixing to get significant numbers of blondes popping out in a population that didn’t have any light hair genes before, too.

  9. athEIst says:

    Wasn’t Italy almost depopulated by the Byzantine Gothic wars? After that Italy was invaded by the Lombards who adopted the degenerate Latin(Italian) of the now almost non-existant remaining Romans.

  10. athEIst says:

    From Wikipedia
    The Kingdom of the Lombards (regnum Langobardorum), later the Kingdom of (all) Italy (regnum totius Italiae) was an early medieval state established by the Lombards, a Germanic-speaking people, on the Italian Peninsula between 568–69.
    The Lombards gradually adopted Roman titles, names and traditions. By the time Paul the Deacon was writing in the late 8th century, the Lombard language, dress and hairstyles had all disappeared.[1]

  11. In reference to a few comments above, hydronyms of the settled culture seem to be more commonly kept by invaders than even other place names. The River Tyne, for example may be from the same root meaning “river,” as the D-n in Danube, Dneistr, Don, Dniepr. You will notice that none of our ancestors were all that creative in naming: “We call it The River.” Efficient, I suppose. They sound much more romantic when it’s in the old language. Rio Grand, Lake Superior – Big River, Big Lake.

  12. agnostic says:

    East Germany. Not too many Slavs left in the former stomping grounds of the Wends. The (Ostro)Goths had been in parts of eastern Europe before, but didn’t really hang around long. Northeastern Europe was settled more by Balto-Slavic peoples. Then a series of raids, crusades, and settlements (Ostsiedlung) gradually stripped the land away in favor of Germanics.

    There’s always been a minority of Slavic folks and their language in eastern Germany, but the cultural and AFAIK genetic Germanicization of that area is a fait accompli. The Balts managed to get back their territory from what used to be eastern Prussia, and the Slavs managed to take back Silesia in central Europe, but that’s it. Berlin and Leipzig aren’t going back any time soon.

    Berlin — Slavic berl- (“swamp”)

    Leipzig — Slavic Lipsk (“linden tree settlement”)

    Dresden — Slavic Drežďany (“people of the forest”)

    Potsdam — Slavic Poztupimi (“beneath the oaks”?)

    Chemnitz — Slavic Kamjenica (“stony brook”)

    Lübeck — Slavic Liubice (“lovely”)

    Rostock — Slavic Roztoc (“broadening of the river”)

    Cottbus — Slavic Chotebud (Sorbian personal name)

    Also, German surnames ending in “-itz” bear the Slavic suffix seen in “-ic” / “-ich” / etc. — von Clausewitz, Nimitz, and so on.

    Although the eastern Germans don’t seem to be very linguistically or genetically Slavic, they do have that whole dark, brooding Sturm und Drang mindset that is more (Balto-)Slavic than Germanic. Admittedly, Nords are somewhat that way, but more in a resigned suicidal way — not in a resentful, revenge fantasy way like the narrator of Notes from Underground.

  13. agnostic says:

    Those East German place names sound about as Germanic as Massachusetts and Minnesota sound English. Yet unless we read into the history, we don’t stop and think, Gee, those city names sure don’t sound like Krauttenhammer, Neumannerfetting, Gedorfenbacher, Schlausbund, or whatever our naive ears would have expected. Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s right under our noses.

  14. That Guy says:

    Austrian scientists have found that 19 Tyrolean men alive today are related to Oetzi the Iceman, whose 5,300-year-old frozen body was found in the Alps.

  15. Rex May says:

    John McWhorter theorizes that Old English/Anglo-Saxon picked up a couple of Celtic grammar traits from the conquered people in England. 1. The use of the word ‘do’ in concert with other verbs in a way just not done in other Germanic languages to form negatives and questions. “I do not know.” “Do you see him?” “Did you see him?” 2. Common use of the progressive instead of the simple verb: “I am eating.” “I was going.” If I remember right, he also says that English’s violation of the basic German rule that the verb always is the second element of the sentence in a statement was probably influenced by Celtic. (“Morgen werden wir….”) He also has a notion that that Germanic vowel-changes in verbs and nouns — foot, feet, get, got — to indicate plural and tense was picked up from Phoenician, but THAT I’m really skeptical about. Anyhow, I’m reblogging this to try to attract some of my own linguistically-inclined readers here:

    • Ian says:

      The original theory is from Theo Vennemann (the one about a Semitic superstratum for Old Germanic). When I read it first, some years ago, I automatically classified it as a crackpot theory. But now, I’m not so sure:

    • John McWhorter is a creolist, so he’s probably inclined to see interesting developments as resulting from language contact. But I don’t think historical linguists who’ve studied this in depth have found much reason to abandon Alvar Ellegard’s thesis that it arose out of “causative do”, already attested in Old English.

      Some Germanicists believe that the common Germanic past-tense suffix, in English written “-ed” but found in similar forms in German, Dutch and Scandinavian, is also a shorted form of the same root “do” (which is itself is cognate with the Greek for “put”, the Latin for “make, do”, and the Sanskrit for “put”.

    • And Germanic ablaut from Phoenician? It is well-established in Germanic linguistics that the ablaut patterns can be understand as the outcomes of regular sound change operating upon similar patterns in Proto-Indo-European, together with various analogical changes. Vowel gradations of the root in different morphological forms are found in practically every ancient Indo-European language.

      In a paradigm like “sing, sang, sung” the present tense form can be traced back to the so-called e-grade of the PIE root, the past tense to the o-grade, and the participle to the zero grade. Each PIE verbal root had the basic form CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant), but which vowel you used depended on the syntax (i.e. tense, number etc): you could have CeC (e-grade), CoC (o-grade), or CC (zero-grade, i.e. no vowel at all).

      It’s not that unlike the “templatic morphology” of Semitic languages, that’s true, where each three consonant root can have many forms with different vowels inserted in different places. The PIE system was much simpler than Semitic though, and Germanic follows the PIE pattern, not the Semitic.

  16. Reiner Tor,
    Grandpa Jacobi, a poor boy from Timisoara/Temesvar, met Grandma Paulina, maiden name Schizmutz or Schismutz (my records are stored away) in Lugos, Austria Hungary, circa 1890’s. I never met my grandfather but was told he spoke German (plattdeutsche). Also heard mention of some family members speaking Hungarian. On my two trips to the old country I never could pin down the ethnicity of Grandma’s maiden name. Do you have any info or ideas?

    • reiner Tor says:

      Was it not Schmutz? I have never heard Schizmutz or Schismutz, but Schmutz does exist. The way it’s written, it sounds like a German name (Schmutz would be German, for example), because both sch and tz are mostly German-sounding (tz could also be Polish Jewish, with the -itz ending coming from the Slavic -ich ending, meaning -son), with the caveat that the large majority of Jews also had German names in Hungary at the time. Temesvár was at the time a mostly (over 50%) German city, but by the end of the 19th century many other ethnicities moved in, including of course Romanians, Hungarians and Jews, among others. It certainly doesn’t sound like a Hungarian name. (Although many Hungarians now also have German-sounding names, because of some German ancestry.)

      The Plattdeutsch (Low German) dialect could have been a Donauschwäbisch dialect, because around Temesvár it was mostly Danube Swabians who lived. (They were mostly not Swabians, but were called as such anyway.)

      Unless she was Jewish, because Jews also spoke Yiddish and some kind of German in addition (usually normal High German, not Low German), and they also had German names. Moreover, most Danube Swabians left the region after 1945, and many of them adopted the Hungarian language even before that – but the same is true of Jews. But I guess you wouldn’t ask if you already knew she was Jewish. (Also there were many more Banat Swabians than Jews in the area at the time.)

      From what you told me I would bet both your grandparents were Banat Swabians. They were the majority (or at least a plurality) of the population around the area anyway, the name sounds so, and the Plattdeutsch dialect also points in that direction.

    • reiner Tor says:

      I’m now having second thoughts. It could have been something like Guzmics or Kuzmics, which would be a Hungarian transliteration of a Slavic (probably Southern Slav, most likely Serbian) name. In Hungarian the double letter cs is very common, and is pronounced like ch in cheese. So maybe the name didn’t contain any sch, only a cs, and you just remember incorrectly. In that case, the name is definitely Slavic (probably Serbian), and she could have been a Serb or possibly (not necessarily) a Hungarianized Serb (because of the transliterated name – although at the time non-Hungarianized Serbs were also pressured to write their names in a Hungarian way) or of part Hungarian and part Serbian ancestry (this to me is the least likely explanation).

      Another possibility is that it was written with a ch instead of a cs, like Guzmich, it has basically the same implications, except that ch is only common in Hungarian names, and is never used anywhere else.

      • Reiner Tor,
        It was definitely a two syllable name, so not Schmutz. But as I read your conjecture about the -itz ending, it sounded familiar; the name may have been Schismitz. Grandma was small and dark haired.

        Yes, Swabian was what a librarian at the Romanian State library in Bucharest posited as the most likely ancestry of Grandfather, probably from a family who migrated to the Banat under Empress Maria Theresa, who was said to have wanted to repopulate that corner of her empire. He was actually born not in Temesvar, but in the hamlet of German St. Michael, now part of Sanmihaiu Roman commune. I found a cemetery in a town a little north of there which had a plot devoted to a Jacobi family, but could not determine if there was any kinship connection.

        Many thanks to you for your time, and to the site owners for their hospitality.

      • reiner Tor says:

        I looked up some two-syllable Serbian names starting with S, and I give you their most likely Hungarian transliterations in brackets (Serbian names were often transliterated by Hungarian authorities in late 19th century Hungary). In most cases the “cs” ending in the Hungarian transliteration could also be “ty”, because the Serbian sound for “ć” is in between the Hungarian sound for “ty” and “cs”. It could also be a “ch” because earlier “cs” was also written as “ch” in names only. I suspect it could have been a Hungarian transliteration of a Serbian name, starting with “Sz” and ending “cs”. Although I sometimes gave the beginning as “S” and not “Sz”, I have seen some of these names in Hungarian written with an “Sz”, even though that would imply the wrong pronunciation. Like Šabić would normally be transliterated as given Sabics, but I have seen the name Szabics, so probably some people, as they lost the language, forgot how to pronounce their names either, and then transliterated the names with an “Sz” beginning. Of course, letters could get lost in the process: Hungarian doesn’t like too many consonants together, so names like Sztojcsics could easily have simplified to Sztojics.

        Švabić (Svabics)
        Šušnjar (Susnyár, Susnjár)
        Šujić (Sujics)
        Sudar (Szudár)
        Stupar (Sztupar)
        Studen (Sztuden)
        Stolić (Sztolics)
        Stojšić (Sztojsics)
        Stojčić (Sztojcsics)
        Šterić (Sterics)
        Stević (Sztevics)
        Štimac (Stimac, Stimacs)
        Stanić (Sztanics)
        Srbović (Szrbovics, or more likely three-syllable transliteration Szerbovics)
        Srdić (most likely two-syllable transliteration Szredics)
        Srskić (most likely two-syllable transliteration Szerszkics)
        Stajić (Sztajics, Sztaics)
        Stakić (Sztakics)
        Sokić (Szokics)
        Spasić (Szpaszics)
        Srbić (most likely two-syllable transliteration Szerbics)
        Šokčić (Sokcsics)
        Sivić (Szivics)
        Škrbić (two-syllable transliteration Skribics)
        Šesto (Sesztó)
        Simić (Szimics)
        Šantić (Santics)
        Šapić (Sapics)
        Šašić (Sasics)
        Šabić (Sabics)
        Šakić (Sakics)

      • reiner Tor says:

        From my list, Szivics or Szimics look probably the closest to what you gave.

  17. Steven C. says:

    I would imagine that place-names, and the names of unfamiliar plants, animals and landforms are more likely to survive complete population replacement. But if the invaders are from some considerable distance, rather then being next-door neighbours, then at least a few members of the earlier population have to stay in place to point at things and name them for the newcomers.

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