The Wonderful World of *Walhaz
(This article is an adaptation of one I wrote for the brilliant interdisciplinary magazine Porridge, which you can find out more about at porridgemagazine.com)
I would like to tell you the tale of a headlong tumble down a rabbit hole of etymology and European history, that has at its centre a wandering word with a reach wide enough to unite a continent.
It begins, like all good stories, with a map. The map, shown below, gives the (spoken) words for Italy across modern European languages.
When I first came across this map, one glaring anomaly stood out for me. While I was not (and am never) surprised by the uniqueness of Hungarian, Polish Włochy seemed an unexpected and inexplicable name for Italy. The little voice that lurks at the back of the etymologist’s brain immediately piped up to ask, quietly but firmly, ‘but where does that come from?‘
Part I: Slavic
My go-to sources suggested an origin as far back as Proto-Slavic, the reconstructed ancestor of all of the Slavic languages, which today include Czech, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian and many others. The original word in the ancestral language was *volxъ (note: the letter ⟨x⟩ here represents that fricative sound at the back of the mouth found in loch). Having been dated to that far back in time, I expected there to be Slavic sister-words of Włochy with the same origin. Sure enough, I found several, such as Russian volóx and Bulgarian vlah, as well as those that had migrated during the medieval period out of the Slavic family and into neighbouring languages, such as Hungarian olasz and Greek vlákhos.
However, unlike Hungarian olasz and Polish Włoch, some of these other Slavic words do not mean ‘Italian’, but rather ‘Vlach’, a term with a long and complex history. In current English at least, to be a Vlach is to be a speaker of a Romance language (i.e. a linguistic descendant of Latin) east of Italy and south of the Danube. This excludes Romanians, but historically it could refer to the Romance speakers on either side of the river. The word led to the exonym Valahia, the land of the Vlachs. Today Valahia is a region in Romania, the English word for which is Wallachia, and which was ruled in the fifteenth century by the (in)famous Vlad III Dracula. Many Vlachs lived nomadic lives, following their flocks of sheep over the Balkans and Carpathian mountains; indeed, they reached so far west that the traditional name of the easternmost part of the Czech Republic is Valašsko. In Slovak, profession evidently eclipsed ethnicity and language, as valach now simply means ‘shepherd’.
But what links Italy to the Vlach people? Language must be the key, since both Vlachs (at least traditionally) and Italians speak Romance languages. Was ‘Romance speaker’ then the meaning of *volxъ? This must be our intermediate conclusion – far from satisfactory, as we still lack the origins of *volxъ itself. To do so, we must go much further back.
Part II: The Evidence of Julius Caesar
It is the middle of the first century BC. Gaius Julius Caesar is waging war against the inhabitants of Gaul and sensationalising the events for the audience at home. He records the (Latinized) name of one people, the Volcae, who we presume would have spoken a language of the Celtic family, and who seem to have inhabited a large territory across modern-day France, Switzerland, Germany and into the Czech Republic. The name that they themselves used would have been something along the lines of *wolka-. Though many believe this in turn to derive from an earlier etymon meaning ‘wolf’ or ‘hawk’, let us take simply *wolka- as our point of departure.
To the north at this time were people whose language was the ancestor of the Germanic languages (today including English, German, Dutch, Swedish and others). We therefore call their language Proto-Germanic, and it was into an early stage of this language that *wolka- crossed over as the name for their southern Celtic-speaking neighbours. We must presume an early stage, because the word undergoes the same sound changes that would affect the rest of the language. These changes, captured by Grimm’s Law (the work of Jacob Grimm, better known for collating fairy tales), include the shift of an original [k] sound into [x]. This affected *wolka-, resulting in, with the addition of case endings, the Germanic noun *walhaz.
Part III: The Meaning of *Walhaz
Though only a reconstruction and necessarily a conjecture, we can at least feel confidently about the form of Proto-Germanic *walhaz. Its meaning, on the other hand, is a matter of some debate.
If we accept its original reference to a Celtic-speaking people, we must also believe that its meaning would go on to change – namely, from ‘Celtic’ to a widespread use as ‘Latin speaker’ or ‘Roman’, since this is how the word’s descendants so frequently enter the historical record. One theory is that this was a simple switch, Celt to Roman, caused by the Romanization of the Volcae and other Celtic-speaking peoples of the Alps and southern Germany. The strong and popular alternative is to suggest a semantic expansion from ‘Celt’ to ‘foreigners’ more generally, which would naturally include the Romans. These two theories of meaning, exclusive ‘Roman’ versus broader ‘foreigner’, are well established and must be borne in mind when discussing each descendant of *walhaz.
Personally, I have come to think that both the linguistic evidence and Occam’s razor support the former, the meaning of simply ‘Roman’ or ‘Latin/Romance speaker’. I believe that what has traditionally been translated as ‘foreigner’ could equally, without tenuity, be translated as ‘Roman’. To do so coheres with the evidence and renders the ‘foreigner’ stage unnecessary. That famous Franciscan’s razor can then be deployed – ‘Celt into Roman’ is certainly a simpler argument than to say that ‘Celt’ changed into ‘sometimes Roman, sometimes not, though cases of the latter are ambiguous’.
Part IV: *Walhaz in Britain
Let’s examine some examples. *Walhaz travelled with the Germanic migrations of the later imperial period. By means of the Goths and their own Germanic language, the word passed from Proto-Germanic into Proto-Slavic. That language recast it as *volxъ, a word whose descendants we have already seen to have the restricted meanings of ‘Romance speaker’ and of people who would historically have regarded themselves as Roman-ish.
Wealh, another of the descendants of *walhaz, was an Old English word applied to the Romano-British population of Britannia. Its plural form, wealas, would become Wales; moreover, the adjective that Proto-Germanic derived from *walhaz was *walhiskaz, and it was from this that English gets Welsh. In contrast to this, the Welsh use variations on Cymr- to describe themselves (e.g. Cymru ‘Wales’, Cymraeg ‘Welsh’), from an older Celtic word meaning ‘compatriot’. Furthermore, the element Wal- that is present in many English place names, such as Walton, Walpole and Walworth, is likely a form of wealh, which we can take as evidence of the survival of distinctly Romano-British communities. The Romano-British in the south-western extremity of Britain may have additionally gone by a local name like *Korno-, with the possible meaning of ‘the people of the peninsula’. Resultantly, in Old English, these people would have been the Cornwealas, whose descendants inhabit Cornwall today.
Perhaps it is the old narrative of a British underclass and a ruling Roman elite, who abandon ship in 410 AD and take all the culture with them, that has led scholars to propose that Old English wealh meant ‘foreigners’ in general, since the story assumes that the Britons were still proudly Celtic at this point, not Roman. This narrative is nowadays rightly besieged on all sides; the people of fifth-century Britain would have certainly thought of themselves as Romans and Latin would have been widely spoken. Germanic-speaking migrants would also have recognised this. On this basis, it is not necessary to expand wealh beyond ‘Roman’ and into ‘foreigner’. In favour of ‘foreigner’ however are a handful of words like Old English wealhstod ‘translator’, perhaps very literally ‘the one who stands on behalf of the foreigner’. The humble walnut, from Old English wealhhnutu, could possibly support either meaning, as ‘the foreign nut’ or ‘the Roman nut’, i.e. the nut from Roman lands. As a final note, I do not deny the idea that wealh had other meanings; in some sources, such as Old English translations of the Bible, wealh means ‘slave’, which might reflect an unequal relationship between the Germanic and British social groups. My opinion, however, is that this was an Old English innovation, changing sometime after the language’s arrival in Britain.
Part V: *Walhaz on the Continent
Elsewhere in Europe, other terms derived from *walhaz gained currency. The Franks, a Germanic-speaking people who built up an enormous empire on both sides of the old empire’s border, applied their derivative of the word to the Romance speakers of western Europe that they would eventually rule. Their word crossed over into the Romance family itself, specifically Gallo-Romance, creating French wallon ‘Walloon’ and Wallonie ‘Wallonia’ (the Romance-speaking part of Belgium), as well as Gaule, whence comes English Gaul, the ancient home of Astérix. In a coincidence that defies belief, although the term Gaul refers to the exact same region known to the Romans as Gallia, Gaul and Latin Gallia are not in fact etymologically related – a very rare accidental similarity. While Gaul comes from Frankish and ultimately *walhaz, Latin Gallia and Gallus ‘a Gaul’ have a Celtic origin, likely the same one as Celt and Galatia.
Moving back to predominantly Germanic-speaking lands, *walhaz produces Old Norse valir ‘the French, Gauls’, whose country, Valland, appears in Norse legend. Valland could translated as the ambiguous ‘land of foreigners’, but, assuming the alternative, narrower meaning, it could simply refer to the Roman Empire or its successor states. To the south, the adjective welsch crops up in many varieties of German; though once used more widely, welsch is now limited to Swiss German and is typically taken as derogatory. It is used for those parts of the country that are, once again, Romance-speaking (in this case French, Italian or Romansch). The term also survives in both current and defunct place names, a curious one being Welschbern, an archaic German name for Verona in Italy (with Welsch– probably prefixed to Bern to distinguish it from the Swiss Bern to the north).
Walnuts, Vlachs, Wallons, Welsh and Gauls – this is a lot of information, and yet I could include more descendants of *walhaz. In terms of usage and distribution across space and tongues, *walhaz has been surprisingly successful. After all, the word is not a personal pronoun, common verb or some other vital piece of morphology, but simply a noun with a limited ethnolinguistic reference. This prolificity is, I suppose, what comes of attaching oneself to a concept as potent as romanitas.
While I hope I have provided good evidence and discussion to support my belief that *walhaz had an exclusive meaning (namely, ‘Celtic speaker’ then ‘Roman’, but not ‘foreigner’), I am aware that the theory is not without its flaws. My real hope is that the examples above will help you, the reader, to make up your own mind. I must also admit this theory is not the principal idea behind the creation of this piece.
What I really want to impart to you are not half-baked historical ramblings, but genuine joy. The journey into the world of *walhaz that began with Polish Włochy was exciting in its surprises and delightful in the reticular picture of links and patterns that emerged. Experts, lay language lovers and even the apathetic would never dispute the interconnectivity of words across countries – but to focus on a word so prolific (and yet with offspring still infrequent enough to be interesting) is surely the best means of appreciating this phenomenon. Each descendant of *walhaz is a thread that, though unique and interesting in its own right, helps to tie Europe together; what a pleasure it is to appreciate how they connect Wales to Romania, Italy to Poland, and France to walnuts. In my mind at least, *walhaz is a word able to make Europe feel that little bit more united, and far-off affairs that little bit less foreign.
Faull, M. L. (1975). The Semantic Development of Old English wealh. Leeds Studies in English 8; 20 – 44. University of Leeds.
Mills, A. D. (2003). A Dictionary of British Place Names. Oxford University Press.
Schrijver, P. (2013). Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages. 19 – 20 Routledge.