LINGUIST List 7.559

Mon Apr 15 1996

Sum: Slavic roots

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1., Slavic roots

Message 1: Slavic roots

Date: Sun, 14 Apr 1996 14:05:36 EDT
From: <>
Subject: Slavic roots
I posted the following query on LINGUIST:

>I've noticed that in both Czech and Hungarian the word for "world"
>also serves as the root for the adjective "light":


>svet vilag "world" n.
>svetly vilagos "light" adj.

>Was there calquing from Slavic here? (Russian and Bulgarian seem to
>use the same root Czech does, in more or less the same way.) Are
>there other non-Slavic languages in which these roots coincide?

Among the responses was this from Bernard Comrie:

>The use of the same word to mean both 'light' and 'world' strikes me as
>sufficiently unusual that the similarity between Hungarian and Slavic must
>reflect borrowing, surely from Slavic into Hungarian, given that the Slavic
>usage is Proto-Slavic, predating the arrival of the Magyars in Central

>There's been a similar development in Rumanian. Rumanian "lume",
>etymologically from Latin "lumen" 'light', means 'world'. In Rumanian,
>'light' uses a derivative, namely "lumina" (with a breve on the final "a").
>A similar redifferentiation has taken place in some Slavic languages, e.g.
>Polish has "swiat" 'world' (with an acute on the "s") but "swiatlo" 'light'
>(with an acute on the "s" and a bar through the "l").

Thus Hungarian and Romanian are the only non-Slavic languages in which anyone
knew a common root to exist for the terms for "light" and "world", and in
both, the source seems to be a Slavic substrate language. However, Philippe
Mennecier pointed out some idiomatic pairs in French:

>Just a remark : did you think about this kind of expression, e.g. French
>"venir au monde"/"voir le jour" ; "mettre au monde"/"donner le jour a`" ?

Buck's "A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European
Languages" also mentions the Romanian word as originating from semantic
borrowing from Slavic, but says that the Church Slavonic term "svetu" (sorry,
no diacritics) is used once in Matthew 13.22 to translate a Greek word for
"lifetime" or "age" that is used in the New Testament for "worldly life" or
"life in this world [as opposed to the next]". Buck says that this word
never came to be used in Greek to express other senses of world, but that its
sense had significant influence on the words used to translate it. He claims
that in Slavic the word "svetu" came to designate "the realm of light, life"
and from there was extended to more general concepts of the idea of world.
 (Thanks to Nicholas Ostler for reminding me of the Buck book.)

Thanks also to Ann Lindvall, George Fowler for their insights.

James Kirchner
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue