A Few Pre-Greek Words, Seen Through a Slavic Lens

The Greek language, with its rich history and enduring influence, still holds many fascinating secrets within its vocabulary. The elusive “pre-Greek substrate” is the unknown language spoken before the arrival of the Proto-Greeks. The scholars have been searching for the roots of this language for decades, and their search would usually end up in faraway Anatolia. But what if the answer has been hiding much closer, right under their noses, in the neighbouring Balkans?

Suffixes -inth & -ynth are the same as Slavic -nj (ɲ) sound)

According to modern scholars, the words ending with -inth and -ynth stubbornly resist explanation through traditional Indo-European roots, and everyone agrees that these words are pre-Greek.

However, when we look at Balkan Slavic languages, particularly South Slavic languages, a striking pattern emerges. Place names like Corinth (Greek) and Korinj (Slavic), Labyrinth (Greek) and Lovrinj (Slavic), Zakinthos (Greek) and Zakinji (Slavic) exhibit an uncanny similarity.

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This isn’t just a coincidence – it suggests a deeper linguistic connection.

Here is a full list:

Ancient Greek toponym containing -inth & -ynthSlavic toponym containing -nj Comments
Corinth(Veliki & Mali) Korinj, Slovenia
Korinje stene, Montenegro
Korinjak peak, Croatia
LabyrinthLovrin, Croatia & Romania
Lovrinjac, Croatia
Lovrinici, Croatia
Lovran, Croatia etc.
ZakinthosZakinji, Croatia
BisanthVisanj, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Visanja, Serbia
SinthosSinj, Croatia
Sinjevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sinjajevina, Montenegro
Sinje, Albania
Sinja Gorica, Slovenia
TerebinthosTrebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Trebinje, Serbia
Trebinje, Albania
Perhaps related to the turpentine tree – Pistacia terebinthus.
MarathonMarinje Zemlje, Croatia
BolinthosVolinja, Croatia
Volinjak, Slovenia
Volinja, Slovenia
Bolinthos was not a toponym, but a pre-Greek name for a wild ox. The Slavic equivalent is “vol”, and it appears in some toponyms.
Ancient Greek toponym containing -inth & -ynthSlavic toponym containing -ch, -lj, -sh and -n
RadamanthusRadmanici, Bosnia and Herzegovina
ProvalinthouProvalije, Serbia & Bosnia and HerzegovinaProvalija relates to a place between two mountains, a gorge. This fits the decription of the Greek Provalinthou’s location.
OlinthosOlimje, Slovenia
SaminthosSamin, PolandNot in the Balkans but still Slavic.
LebinthisLebina, Serbia
Lebane, Serbia
Labin, Croatia
KoskynthosKoshkina, RussiaNot in the Balkans but still Slavic.
PerinthosPerucac, SerbiaFrom “per” – rock. See also Perugia, Italy,

This list shows that the pre-Greek words ending with suffixes -ynth and -inth have clear matches in the Balkans, where they usually end with -nj or -n.

Now, while it could be possible that the suffix -nj, which can be difficult to pronounce, was swapped for -inth/-ynth, the opposite is highly unlikely. In other words, the Slavic pronunciation of these words must be closer to the original.

A few more matches between Pre-Greek substrate and Slavic languages of the Balkans

There are some words that do not end with the suffixes -inth and -ynth, but are usually listed as pre-Greek. Here are a few examples:

Krēmnós, ‘edge of a trench, cliff’ – this word matches the Serbian toponym Kremna. In Slavic languages kremen designates flint, and I believe that this was the real meaning of this word. The toponyms that have this root are numerous, from the Italian Cremona to Anatolian Kremona, and they all date to the earliest of times, when flint was an essential comodity.

Speîos, ‘cave, cavern’ – This word is listed as pre-Greek, but in modern Serbo-Croatian it still has the same meaning. Spilja means “cave”. The same is true from the Anatolian mount Sipylus – an ancient holy place known for its caves.

Pergam – An ancient Grek city, in western Anatolia, near modern Bergama. First attested in the book of Illiad as The fortified citadel of Troy. A cognate with Slavic ‘berg’ – hill. Some scholars have indeed suggested an influence from an ancient Balkan language.

Polis – city, citadel – In Slavic languages “polje” means “field”. This word is shared by many Slavic toponyms. However, modern scolars would say that the Slavic word ‘polje’ is unrelated.

Thermopylae. Officialy, the etymology of this name comes from thermo-, “warm, hot”) +‎ πῠ́λη (púlē, “gates”) – because the Slavic word ‘polje’ – field is not considered by linguists. However, even the Pre-Greek word púlē – gates doesn’t have a know etumology. It is more likely that this Thermopylae means “warm field”, in other words where “an area with hot springs”. In Serbia, there are two villages called Topli Do – “warm field”, and they both lie near hot springs.

Moreover, as ‘polje’ is exclusively a Slavic word, this would mean that Thermopylae is a a calque or a loan translation from a Slavic language.

Hodós – road, path. Considered to be of Paleo-Balkan origin and a cognate with Slavic ‘hod, hodati’ – to walk.

thálassa, ‘sea‘ – In Serbo-Croatian language the word “talas” still translates as a “wave”.

Kêtos, ‘Whale’ – of Pre-Greek origin. Besides Latin ‘cetus’, appear only in all Slavic languages as ‘kit’.

Mólybdos ‘lead‘, from Mycenaean mo-ri-wo-do, from *morkʷ-io- ‘dark’, as in Lydian mariwda(ś)-k ‘the dark ones – The name of this metal is listed as Anatolian. However, the first part “mori” – also means “dark” in Slavic, while the word “wodo” is the same as the Slavic “voda”.

Eiren – In Sparta, this was the name for young people in their twenties. In Bosnia, the word “jaran” (yaran) still designates a body, pal, young man. This word could be further related to Turkic “ergen” – unmarried man, bachelor.

Tresante – In Sparta, this was a word for a coward who trembles and shakes before the battle. See here. In Serbo-Croatian “tresti se” still means “to shake, to tremble”.

Homole was an an ancient town in Thessaly, Greece. The etymology of its name is unknown. However, a quick glance at the Wikipedia shows us that there are other similar toponyms in Slavic countries, four in Czech Republic and one in Poland. There is also a mountain Homolje, located in Serbia, that Wikipedia fails to mention.

While the Greek etymology of Homole is not known, the Slavic one is very clear. It is derrived from the word homila/gomila, meaning “a lumo, heap, mound”, which is quite an appropriate name for a hill.

Thaumacia – another ancient city in Thessaly. Its name sounds like Timok river in Serbia, or Timochka krajina, the region through which it flows.

A few examples of Pre-Greek names of some mythological characters

Skylla – Homer portrays Scylla as a monstrous being, equipped with twelve flailing limbs and six elongated necks, each capped with a frightful head that boasts three layers of razor-sharp teeth. Her eerie sounds are compared to the yelping of dogs.

The etymology of the name “Scylla” (Greek: Σκύλλα) is uncertain. One suggestion is that it may derive from the Greek word “skyllo” (σκύλλω), meaning “to tear apart,” which reflects her destructive nature in mythology as she tears sailors apart when they pass her cliff. Another theory links her name to the word “skylos” (σκύλος), meaning “dog,” which could reference the dog-like heads around her waist or her fierce, animalistic nature. However, even the etymology of this word for dog is problematic, and the only cognate is Russian “skulit” – to whine, to whimper.

Pegasus – unknown etymology. Traditionally linked to the Greek word πηγή (pēgḗ), meaning “spring, fountain, or a fountain fed by a spring”. However, the word “pega” means “freckle” in Slavic, hence “a freckled horse”. In Serbian medieval poetry, the famous horse of Prince Marko is named “Sharac”, which is quite a similar meaning, especially if we consider that the “freckles” are in fact starts of the Pegasus constellation.

Semela – Originally a Thracian goddess. Her name is universally accepted to be a cognate of the Slavic “zemlja” – earth. See here.

Gaia – Another name for Mother Earth. Pre-Greek and “probably” related to γῆ () – earth. The only cognate in any language is Slavic gaj – “grove”.

Pan – The goat-horned lord of the forest. The etymology of his name is disputed, but only in Slavic languages such as Polish and Ukrainian, the word “pan” means “lord”. See here. Pannonia is an ancient name of the fertile lands in Northern Serbia.

Had – The god od the underworld, often depicted with snakes. Possibly and allusion to the Ophiuchus constellation. In Slavic languages “gad/had” means “snake”. See here.

Prometheus (meaning forethought) – This name is interesting because only in Slavic languages there is an equivalent – an ancient city of Przemyśl in Poland, as well as the Přemyslid dynasty.

Boreas – god of the north wind and storm – From Proto-Slavic ‘bura’, storm. This is still the name of the north wind in the Slavic languages of the Balkans (but it isn’t in Greek).

Deucalion – son of Prometheus. Just like the myth of the Prometheus, his story must be trully ancient as it talks about the great deluge. However, his name sounds like a toponim Duklja in Montenegro (Roman Dioclea), whch was also a Serbian state in Midlle ages. But even before the Romans, an Illyrian tribe Docleatae lived there. Interestingly, there is one more Dukla, but this one is in Poland, confirming that this toponym is not Greek, Illyrian or Roman, but Slavic.

On the side note, the Montenegrian Duklja lies high in the mountains, and not far from the Lake Skadar, which was created some time in a remote past by overflowing of the sea water. But that is a topic for another article.

Greek Sirens and the Russian Sirin bird – Most scholars believe that the word ‘sirin’ originates from a language that predates Greek. In Russian folklore, there is a mythological creature called Sirin. Both Sirin, and the original sirens in antiquity were depicted as birds with a face of a beautiful woman.

The Sirin, a creature from Russian mythology, has roots in ancient tales. Although many scholars believe that the Slavic depiction of the Sirin was shaped by Greek mythology, the existence of similar mythical creatures in Persian and Vedic traditions challenges this view. Additionally, I believe that the term ‘Sirin’ originates from a Kartvelian language, where it simply translates to ‘bird’—a reference that might be linked to the constellation Aquila. If this interpretation holds, it suggests that the Slavic pronunciation of Sirin may actually be more authentic to its original form than the Greek version.

So there you go. I wrote this short list directly from memory. I will continue updating it in the future, as there were many more interesting words that I have now forgotten.

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