Yiddish-Speaking Slavs

“Austrians are basically just South Slavs who pretend to be Germans”
@DrunkAustrian on Twitter

There’s a joke in Eastern Europe about how Germans are really nothing more than Yiddish-speaking Slavs. The joke is a riff on the perceived German “superiority complex” relative to both East Europeans and Jews, the irony being not only that Germans might actually be ethnic Slavs, but even worse that their language bears an eerie and uncanny resemblance to Yiddish (at least to Slavic ears). [12]

Yet what may have started out as a snarky joke about German-speaking Jews wandering around Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages is now slowly being proven true by genetics and a better understanding of the historical record.

Administrative-Division-German-Union-1866-10-and-Germany-2009

The Cold War border between East and West Germany is already clearly visible on this 1866 map. [3]

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the New York Times recently re-published an old story named Zombie Borders about the persistence of certain political boundaries in Central Europe. [4] For example, the Cold War border between East and West Germany can already be discerned on 19th-century maps of Europe as the boundary between Saxony and Prussia to the east, and the rest of Germany to the west.

12borderlines-blog427

The ancient German-Slavic border (c. 900 A.D.) aligns nearly perfectly with the former German-German Iron Curtain border (1949-1990) [5]

In fact, this divide between east and west “Germany” goes back for more than a thousand years to the time of Henry the Fowler (876 – 936 A.D.), the first German king to successfully advance eastward out of the Rhineland and push the opposing Slavic tribes back over to the far side of the Elbe River. The resulting boundary he established — which, for the sake of discussion, we’ll call the Fowler Line — has persisted in one form or another ever since, right down to the Iron Curtain of yesteryear. [6]

What’s even more remarkable is that this thousand-year old divide running down the middle of Germany is not only an ideological, political or dynastic border, but also an ethnic one. For more than a millennium, the “Germans” living on the eastern side of the Fowler Line have been — quite literally — “Yiddish”-speaking Slavs. It’s also remarkable that it was the Russians who first proposed using these specific (ethnic and Slavic) boundaries to define the DDR, long before the Western allies had given any thought to the matter. [4]

It’s almost as if the old Soviet Bloc was some kind of grotesque, inverted parody of the pan-Slavic ideals of the late 19th-century — complete with the Slavic half of Germany included.

More on this idea in future posts..

main-qimg-b863bc39725be4dccfce63d9b548156c

Slavic R1a haplogroup distribution in the German-speaking lands [7]

Compare now the medieval “zombie border” map above to a modern map of Slavic R1a haplogroup distribution in eastern Germany. The influence of Slavic genes in the area is obvious, even today. Bear in mind too that this map indicates the modern-day borders of Germany, and excludes most of the territory once known as Prussia — that is, parts of what are now Poland, Russia and the Baltic States. Prussia was the dominant cultural and political force in Germany during the Second and Third German Reichs, and the underlying Slavic tenor of what otherwise passes for “German” would have been even more pronounced back then.

michael-schnabl-theresa-steinkellner-portret-makiiazh-retush

Theresa Steinkellner is an Austrian fashion model: German or Slavic? [8]

The eastern edge of Austria — an area which includes the capital city of Vienna — is also worth a closer look. It’s remarkable that 43% of the German-speaking residents in Graz, Austria are of type R1a, compared to a country-wide average of only 38% for neighboring Slovenia. [9] The ancient name of Graz is Gradec (pronounced “Gradetz”), which means “small castle” in Slavic. [10]

The ancient Roman name for Vienna was “Vindobona”, literally “the white city”. [11] White City, in turn, or Belgrade (Белград), is of course a name that Slavic people frequently attach to their own capital cities. It’s well-known that the modern Belgrade is located just down the road from Vienna, in Serbia. It’s less well known that the ancient name for both Kiev, Ukraine and Moscow, Russia was also Belgrade. [12]

Austria-Slavs

We can even speculate that what very nearly happened to Czechia during WWII must have already happened to Austria sometime during the Middle Ages — namely, that the indigenous Slavic population and culture was overrun and ultimately wiped out by German colonization. 

So what’s in a Name?

The fact that German-sounding Graz is really just a recent corruption of an older and originally Slavic name is a hint that we should take a closer look at toponyms across Germany and see if we can determine their origin.

brandenburg-gate-former-berlin-city-inspired-greek-propylea-hall-doric-columns-quadriga-depicting-victoria-87862471

We could just try not building capital cities on top of actual, literal swamps. [13]

That Germany is filled with toponyms of Slavic origin is well-known to many East Europeans. [14] The most politically awkward example, perhaps, is Berlin itself — the name means “swampy place” in Slavic. The same root is used in Bern, Switzerland and Brno, Moravia, also swampy regional capitals. [1516] The New York Times article above even acknowledges how the famous Berlin city flag with a bear on it is really just a sneaky German attempt to misdirect away from the city’s Slavic origins. [17] 😉

Jens Ohlig, a German blogger, made an informal study into German toponyms that end with the Slavic suffixes -ow (e.g., Moscow, Russia or Krakow, Poland) or -itz (e.g., Chemnitz, Germany, which is from the Slavic Kamenice, meaning “stony river”). [18, 19] His findings are reproduced below:

German_ow_itz

German cities and towns that end with the Slavic suffix -ow or -itz, from blog.johl.io. [20]

The results are striking, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) they correlate almost perfectly with the Fowler Line. To help provide some contextual background, Ohlig links to the following German-language resources, which have quite a bit of useful information:

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to reproduce the -itz toponym map generated by Wikipedia from the link above:

800px-Ortsnamenendung-itz

Areas of Germany where toponyms ending in -itz can be found. [21]

As you can see, the -itz toponyms (again) align almost perfectly with the Fowler Line “zombie border” map produced by the New York Times.

But there’s still more to the story.

Lusatia-2

For instance, looking at a map of Lusatia (i.e., Sorbia) — located in the east German state of Saxony at the Czech-German-Polish tri-state boundary — we can easily identify several Slavic toponyms inside Germany that have slipped past Ohlig’s filter:

  • Zittau — It’s true that -ow is a typical Slavic suffix, but so is the sneaky German misspelling -au which is pronounced identically. [22] Other examples in Lusatia using this suffix include Drebkau, Großdubrau, Hohendubrau, Löbau, Niederau, Wittichenau and many more too numerous to list. [23]
  • Bad Muskau — Presented without comment.
  • Kamenz — Literally means “stone” in Slavic.
  • Niesky — Literally means “lowlands” in Slavic.
  • Oybin — Etymology is unclear but the town was founded by the Czech Ronovec family (probably in the late thirteenth century) and the name sounds more Slavic than German. The original name was probably closer to Mojivín.

As for Dresden, yes it’s very German-sounding but in reality the name of the city and all its suburbs and geographical features all have Slavic origins. [24] We could go through the same exercise for German-sounding cities like Leipzig, Lübeck, Potsdam, Rostock, Rügen, Schwerin, etc., none of which have a canonical Slavic suffix but all of which have names of Slavic origin. [25, 26, 27, 28]

Knowing this, I decided to try my hand at some SPARQL data queries and Perl scripting, and see if I could generate some slightly more refined maps. I first wanted to split out of the -itz and -ow toponyms from Ohlig’s map.

First let’s take a look at the -ow toponyms:

Suffix_ow

German toponyms ending with the -ow suffix.

It’s remarkable that throughout the whole of Germany, the -ow toponym really only occurs in the very northeastern corner of the country. The toponyms cover the states of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern almost uniformly, but outside of those two regions — both of which border Poland — there is almost nothing.

The German-language link above about -ow toponyms indicates that many areas in the Prussian Saxony (1816-1944) that had originally used the toponym -ow were gradually (and deliberately) changed over to the sneaky and misleading -o suffix instead. [29] I decided to plot the -o suffixes alongside the -ow suffixes to see how they lined up:

Suffix_ow_o

German toponyms ending with the -ow suffix (red) and the -o suffix (green).

Clearly there are not as many, and while some examples can be found in western Germany and in Bavaria near the Austrian border, the -o toponyms mostly just form a sort of “southern border” around the -ow toponyms in eastern Germany.

A short geography and history lesson may add some needed context here — Prussian Saxony (also known as the Province of Saxony) was something different and distinct from the Kingdom of Saxony, although the two regions once shared a common border:

Map-Prussia-Saxony

Prussian Saxony (red) and Prussia (blue). The Kingdom of Saxony is wedged inbetween Prussian Saxony and the modern Czech Republic. [30]

The Kingdom of Saxony is what has now become the federal German state of Saxony.  It runs alongside the northwestern border of the Czech Republic and its capital is Dresden. Prussian Saxony, on the other hand, was a short-lived province during the Second and Third German Reichs which has now been mostly absorbed into the federal German state of Anhalt, and which was located immediately to the north of the Kingdom of Saxony. Our -o toponym map above confirms that the changeover to the -o suffix seems to have been limited mostly to Prussian Saxony.

So if Germans are being sneaky with the -o suffix, using it to disguise the Slavic -ow suffix, what about the German -au suffix? Remember we mentioned earlier that -au is often used as a sneaky German way to disguise what was originally a Slavic -ow suffix.

Suffix_au

German toponyms ending with the -au suffix.

Oww! Now that looks incriminating! 🙂

It would be a cheap-shot to say that all of these toponyms must necessarily be Slavic in origin (or would it?!) For now, let’s give our German friends the benefit of the doubt and assume that many, if not most of these toponyms are organically German.

1600px-Lustnau_Evangelische_Kirche_Nordseite_01

Evangelical church in Lustnau, Germany near the Black Forest. [31]

Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at one example in the far southwestern corner of Germany, exactly on the opposite side of the country from where we find all the -ow toponyms near Poland — that example is Lustnau, a suburb of the famous university town of Tübingen, which itself is a suburb of Stuttgart. [32]

The Wikipedia entry for Lustnau talks about how the city was founded as an Alemannic settlement sometime around the 7th century A.D., and about recent archaeological excavations in the city wherein Roman-era artifacts were discovered. What’s really interesting, though, is how in the first written records we have of the city, dating to around 1100 A.D., the city’s name is recorded using the Slavic spelling Lustnow. [33]

So here we have at least one example of the Slavic -ow toponym occurring about as far from the Polish border as you can get and still be in Germany. Moreover, it’s an example of where the originally Slavic -ow suffix has been deliberately changed over to the more Germanic -au suffix. The possibility of a Slavic presence on the Rhine in ancient times is a topic we’ve explored previously on this blog. [34]

Next I wanted to take a look at the -itz toponyms, broken out separately from the -ow toponyms. I also included -etz toponyms on this map (in green) since as we saw with the example of Graz, Austria, whose older German name Gradetz is based on the Slavic name Gradec, there are many cases where the Slavic -ec suffix is transliterated into German as -etz rather than as -itz.

Suffix_itz_etz

German toponyms ending with the -itz suffix (red) and the -etz suffix (green).

The results are not surprising — the -itz toponyms conform almost perfectly to the contours of the Fowler Line — although they are fewer in number than in the previous examples. Likewise, the -etz toponyms form a distinct cluster in northeastern Germany near the Polish border — mostly in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern — just like the -ow toponyms.

Suffix_ingen

German toponyms ending with the -ingen suffix.

Finally, I wanted to look at the -ingen toponym, which is common throughout the upper Rhine Valley and in all of German-speaking Switzerland. In fact, judging by the map, it looks like the toponym is common throughout all of western Germany, and especially so in Baden-Württemberg. We’ll note in passing that Switzerland and Swabia is where the Habsburg dynasty first got their start about a thousand years ago.

Other canonical Slavic suffixes include -gast and -anz [35], as well as those based on the Slavic root grad which means “castle” or “city”. Examples of the later in German would include variants like -grad, -gard or -gart [36]. In all these cases, though, the German maps are too sparsely populated to be of much interest and we’ll pursue specific examples individually in future posts.

Data Sets

The following data sets, generated from Wikidata, were used for this project:

The SPARQL query I used was:

SELECT DISTINCT ?item ?itemLabel ?coord WHERE {
  ?item (wdt:P31/(wdt:P279*)) wd:Q486972;
    wdt:P17 wd:Q183;
    rdfs:label ?itemLabel;
    wdt:P625 ?coord;
  FILTER (lang(?itemLabel) = "de").
  FILTER regex (?itemLabel, "(itz)$").
}

Adjust the final regex as appropriate for the suffix you’re filtering on (e.g., “itz”).

Related Articles

Update – April 15, 2020

Some more supporting imagery recently found on social media:

EVFBFAwWkAA43hG

Update – August 20, 2020

Some more supporting imagery recently found on social media:

Ef2kzqMX0AUcM11

Footnotes

  1. Spoken German differs from spoken Yiddish only in relatively small ways, especially to outsiders who are unfamiliar with either language. The major difference is that German is written using the Roman Latin script whereas Yiddish is written using the Semitic Hebrew script. During the Middle Ages — before the advent of canonical Hochdeutsch, when written literacy was low or non-existent, and at a time when dialectical differences were extreme — the two languages could have been confused easily, especially since most German speakers traveling in Eastern Europe in those days were Jewish merchants.
  2. Slavic people place great emphasis on language and instinctively regard themselves as “the people of the word” (i.e., slovo) — in the sense that they can all generally more-or-less mutually understand one another when speaking. In contrast, to this day the formal, diplomatic name for Germany in the Slavic world is still Němci or Německo — which literally means “the people who cannot speak (correctly)”. While this seems like a snarky little back-handed Euro-insult, it’s actually an important clue about Germany’s true origins and history, and is a topic that we’ll return to in future blog posts.
  3. Image reference: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Administrative-Division-German-Union-1866-10-and-Germany-2009_fig4_254404794
  4. Reference: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/zombie-borders/
  5. Image reproduced under fair use, original article is available at: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/zombie-borders/.
  6. Henry the Fowler is a prominent character in Lohengrin, Richard Wagner’s Grail Quest opera. That opera, in turn, inspired King Ludwig II of Bavaria to construct his iconic Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. On a darker note, NSDAP leader Heinrich Himmler believed himself to be the reincarnation of Henry the Fowler, and participated in an occult ceremony on July 2, 1936 at the king’s crypt in Quedlinburg, marking the 1,000-year anniversary of the king’s death.
  7. Image reference: https://www.quora.com/Are-many-East-Germans-descendants-of-the-Slavic-Wends
  8. Image reference: https://www.goodfon.com/wallpaper/michael-schnabl-theresa-steinkellner-portret-makiiazh-retush.html
  9. Reference for Austria DNA: https://www.eupedia.com/forum/threads/32728-My-map-of-haplogroup-R1a-in-Germany-and-Austria; Reference for Slovenian DNA: https://www.eupedia.com/europe/european_y-dna_haplogroups.shtml
  10. Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graz
  11. Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vindobona
  12. Reference: https://cogniarchae.com/2017/12/21/what-does-aryan-mean/
  13. Image Reference: https://www.dreamstime.com/brandenburg-gate-former-berlin-city-inspired-greek-propylea-hall-doric-columns-quadriga-depicting-victoria-public-domain-image-free-87862471
  14. It’s obvious to any English-speaker that California was settled by the Spanish, as half (or more) of the towns all have Spanish names. It’s much the same situation in Germany — the Slavic city names are literally everywhere, but they’re frequently missed by German- or English-speakers who don’t recognize them for what they are.
  15. Berlin is notoriously located on top of some of the swampiest marshland in all of Europe. [Source] Likewise, Bern, Switzerland is located at the edge of the Seeland swamp system, high in the Alps. [Source]
  16. Old habits die hard and the Americans have continued this time-honored European tradition of placing the capital city, Washington D.C. in this case, literally inside a swamp — Trump take note!
  17. Both Bern and Berlin feature a bear on their city flag. It is, of course, possible that both cities are actually, legitimately named after bears, although the fact that both cities happen to sit on top of dense swampland should raise an eyebrow or two regarding this story. Supposing that the bears really are an intentional misdirection, it’s an interesting choice of animal — bears are well-known as the iconic “totem” animal of Slavic people, it’s almost as if the cites’ origins are still “hiding in plain sight” albeit it in symbols rather than words.
  18. Reference: http://blog.johl.io/blog/2016/05/28/orte/
  19. Why the Slavic suffix -ice maps to the German suffix -tz is as follows — in Romanized Slavic, which is what you have at the western edge of Eastern Europe (i.e., in places near Germany), the symbol “c” transliterates to the Latin digraph “tz“. In Cyrillic Slavic, like what you have in Russia, the symbol “c” maps directly to the Latin “s“. Readers old enough to remember will recall that the Russian spelling for USSR is CCCP.
  20. Image reference, under fair use: http://blog.johl.io/blog/2016/05/28/orte/
  21. Image reference, under fair use: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/-itz
  22. Zittau was probably settled by the Czech Ronovec family sometime in the early 13th century. The name for the city comes from žito, the Slavic word for “rye”. Source: https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%BDitava
  23. The name Großdubrau sounds like a German-Slavic mash-up that was originally supposed to mean “large oaks”, as “dub” is the Slavic word for an oak tree. Likewise, I’m guessing that Hohendubrau was originally supposed to mean “high oaks”. The powerful Czech noble family Berka z Dubé (“Baron of Oaks”) used to own a lot of property in this area back in the 13th century — it’s possible that that’s the origin of the cities’ names, or else it’s possible that lots of oak trees just happen to grow in the area.
  24. Quoting from Wikipedia: “The name of the city (Dresden) as well as the names of most of its boroughs and rivers are of Slavic origin.” [Source]
  25. The German name “Leipzig” is derived from the Slavic root lípa, which means “linden tree”. Indeed, the Czech city Česká Lípa (“Czech Linden”) in northern Bohemia is so named to distinguish it from the (German) “Lípa” in Saxony.
  26. German name “Rostock” is from the Slavic roots “roz-tok”, which means the splitting of streams or waters (e.g., a distributary at the mouth of a river). Confusingly, it can also mean a “solution” in the sense of a chemical mixture or solution. There are no fewer than five cities in the Czech Republic named Roztoky, mostly in northern Bohemia: Roztoky u Křivoklátu, Roztoky nad Labem, Roztoky nad Metují, Roztoky u Jilemnice and Roztoky u Semil. There’s also a castle near Prague named Roztoky. Additionally, there’s another Roztoky in Slovakia and four more in Ukraine.
  27. The root “tok” — meaning “stream” or “brook” — also appears in the name of Tokaj, the world-famous East European wine.
  28. The German name “Potsdam” is a corruption of the Slavic terms pod-dub, meaning “beneath the oak tree”. [Source]
  29. Quoting the original German source: “In Gegenden, die bis 1815 zum Kurfürstentum Sachsen (vormals Mark Meißen) gehörten verschwand das stumme -w aus einigen Ortsnamen. Statt -ow wird -o geschrieben: Grabo (bei Wittenberg und bei Jessen), Dubro, Ostro, sowie mehrere Dörfer nördlich von Roßlau. Auch in der Niederlausitz gibt es eine Reihe von Orten mit dieser Schreibweise, beispielsweise Meuro, Sauo oder Horno.” [Source]
  30. Image reference: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map-Prussia-Saxony.png
  31. Image Reference: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lustnau_Evangelische_Kirche_Nordseite_01.JPG.
  32. Stuttgart, as we’ll see below, is another example of a possible Slavic toponym.
  33. Quoting the original German source: “Ursprünglich war Lustnau ein eigenständiges Dorf. Es wurde 1100 erstmals urkundlich unter dem Ortsnamen „Lustnow“ erwähnt.” [Source]
  34. Previous blog entry: The Slavic Rhine.
  35. Konstanz am Bodensee comes to mind, again referring to a possible Slavic presence on the Rhine in ancient times.
  36. Stuttgart in the modern German state of Baden-Württemberg stands out as an obvious example. Again, this area is close to both the Rhine Valley and to the ancient Habsburg dominions.

 

3 thoughts on “Yiddish-Speaking Slavs

  1. Pingback: An American in Prague | Quest for the Holy Spear

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