The oldest written sentence in Polish

Polish—alongside Czech, Slovak, and Sorbian—belongs to the West Slavic family of languages, which began to diverge from each other towards the end of the first millennium. Polish is the largest member by far of the Lechitic subgroup, which also includes Silesian and Kashubian.
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The Great Seal

Epic poetry is everywhere.

The Great Seal of the United States, found (among other places) on the back of the one-dollar bill, contains two Latin mottoes on its reverse, which is on the left side of the bill. The seal was officially adopted by the U.S. government in 1782.
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Some Old High German vocabulary for ‘intoxication’

There is an 8th-century Latin-German glossary (named Abrogans after its initial entry) that presents a large number of Latin words along with their Old High German meanings. The vocabulary is largely religious and/or biblical, but there are such occasional flights of whimsy as the following:

cit · Inprinnit · Crapula ·
ummazzi · Ebrietaſ · upar
trunkhani · Nauſia ·
uuillidho · poſt potum ·
aft̃ drankhe · Crapu
latuſ · uparhlatan ·
Subituſ · kahun · (Cod. Sang. 911; p. 67)

Here are the correspondences, in Latin and a standardized form of Old High German:

crapula ‘drunkenness’—un-māzī, lit. ‘immoderation’ (fem. īn-stem); cf. messen ‘measure,’ das Maß ‘measurement’

ebrietas ‘inebriation’—ubar-trunkanī lit. ‘over-drunkenness’ (fem. īn-stem)

post potum ‘after drinking’—aftar dranke

crapulatus ‘drunk’—ubar-hlatan, lit. ‘overladen’ = ‘overloaded’ (VI (h)ladan past ppl); cf. laden ‘load’

An ancient word for ‘earthling’?

Many Indo-European languages exhibit a word for ‘human being’ that is built off of PIE *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth, ground.’

  • Celtic *gdonyo- (Irish duine ‘person,’ Welsh dyn ‘man’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo-
  • Germanic *guman- ‘man’ (Old English guma ‘man,’ English [bride]groom; Old High German gomo ‘man,’ German [Bräuti]gam) < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-mon-
  • Latin homō, –minis ‘person’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm-on- (whence also hūmānus)
  • Phrygian ζεμελως ‘man (dat. pl.)’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-

This underlying root is also well-attested with its original meaning.

  • Albanian dhe ‘earth’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Celtic *gdon- (Old Irish , don ‘place’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Greek χθών, -νός ‘earth’ (an English derivative of which is chthonic) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-; χαμαί ‘on the ground,’ χαμᾶζε ‘earthwards,’ χθαμαλός ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-
  • Latin humus ‘ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-o-, humilis ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-i-
  • Sanskrit क्ष kṣa ‘field’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-
  • Slavic *zemja (Polish ziemia; Bulgarian земя, Russian земля) < *dʰɡ́ʰem-yh̥2

Although Greek derives no explicit word for ‘person’ from this, ἐπιχθόνιος ‘on (ἐπί) the earth (χθών)’ is an occasional epithet of humans in Homeric verse:

“οὔ τινα γὰρ τίεσκον ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων,
οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ὅτις σφέας εἰσαφίκοιτο” 415
“Not one of the people on earth did they respect—
not wicked and not noble—whoever came to them.” (Od. 22.414–415)

Sometimes it even occurs on its own, without ἄνθρωποι ‘people’ or βροτοί ‘mortals,’ and we are expected to fill that meaning in ourselves:

“εἰ μὲν γάρ τίς μ᾽ ἄλλος ἐπιχθονίων ἐκέλευεν, 220
ἢ οἳ μάντιές εἰσι θυοσκόοι ἢ ἱερῆες,
ψεῦδός κεν φαῖμεν καὶ νοσφιζοίμεθα μᾶλλον.”
“For if some other one of those on the earth had told me,
either those who are diviners or priests who make sacrifices,
we would rather call it a falsehood and distance ourselves from it.” (Il. 24.220–222)

The derived meaning of ‘person’ from ‘earth’ is not exclusive to these Indo-European examples. Hebrew, too, seems to derive אָדָם ɔādām ‘man, Adam‘ from אֲדָמָה ɔădāmâ
‘ground.’ (The underlying root ɔdm means ‘red.’)

Why these languages would have derived words for ‘human being’ from a word meaning ‘earth’ is an interesting question. I see several possibilities:

  1. the sense of earth-denizen is in opposition to sky-denizens, or the gods;
  2. there is a common myth in the Indo-European and Semitic mythologies (and elsewhere?) that humans were created out of clay or dirt;
  3. humans called themselves earthling to differentiate themselves from otherworldly visitors.

Seriously considering #1 and #2, I am inclined to think that #1 is the likeliest. To be sure, the notion that humankind was created from clay is a common belief across many world mythologies. On the Semitic side of things, in Genesis (2:7), Adam is created from the “dust of the ground”—just like in the Enûma Eliš—while the Qurɔān (55.14–15) mentions that God also created the jinn from smokeless fire. Thus the connection between ɔādām ‘man, Adam’ and ɔădāmâ ‘ground’ fits this theory very nicely.

Elohim Creating Adam 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
And Elohim Created Adam by William Blake

But in these many Indo-European derivations from *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth,’ a parallel creation story wherein humans are wrought out of clay seems too good to be true; it would certainly be asking a lot of comparative mythology. For this reason I prefer #1. The Greek ἐπιχθόνιος ‘[living] on the earth’—as opposed to something like *ἐκχθόνιος ‘[sprung] from the earth’—in particular suggests that the noteworthy aspect of humankind’s relationship with *dʰéɡ́ʰom- is that it is our home. Whether or not it is also the ur-material of our bodily composition is not the central issue.

There are plenty of ancient Indo-European sources that drive home the opposition between earth-dwelling mortals and sky-dwelling immortals. Here is one of my favorite examples:

A monument (2nd cent. BC) with a dual-language inscription sums up in more concise Gaulish a dedication that has already been written in Latin:



Akisios Argantomaterecus gave the area (?) for gods-and-humans.

This TEUOX/TONION—for which David Stifter reconstructs the pronunciation dēwoγdoniyon—is the Gaulish equivalent of deis et hominibus ‘for gods and humans’ in the Latin text. The word is apparently a dvandva compound (which are not common in Celtic) that breaks down into dēwo– ‘god’ and γdoniyo– ‘human,’ with a plural inflectional ending. The first half is from Indo-European *deywó- ‘god’ (cf. the Germanic god *Tīwaz), which is probably an ablaut-variant of *dyew- ‘sky, day,’ and therefore related to *dyēw- ‘sky god’ (frequently with the epithet “Father”; cf. Ζεὺς Πάτηρ, Iuppiter, Dyauṣ Pitā, etc.). The second half of the compound, γdoniyo-, is our old friend *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo- ‘earthian, earthling,’ and therefore exactly cognate with Irish duine ‘person.’

Therefore this single word TEUOXTONION dēwoγdoniyon ‘for gods and humans’ perfectly encapsulates the opposition between sky-dwelling immortals and earthbound mortals. For these reasons it makes the most sense to me that, at least for the Indo-European terms, the original sense must have been ‘earth-dwelling’ (and not, say, ‘made from earth/dirt’). But perhaps the answer does not have to be one or the other.

And option #3 is always available.

Etymology: archaic English sweven ‘dream’

An obsolete word for ‘dream’ in English is sweven. Here is an example of it “in the wild,” at the beginning of Book I of Chaucer’s House of Fame (c. 1380):

God turne us every drem to goode!
For hyt is wonder, be the roode,
To my wyt, what causeth swevenes
Eyther on morwes or on evenes,
And why th’effect folweth of somme, 5
And of somme hit shal never come;
Why that is an avision
And why this a revelacion,
Why this a drem, why that a sweven,
And noght to every man lyche even. 10 (House of Fame 1.1–10)

The word comes from Old English swefn ‘sleep, dream’ and is related to two verbs, swefan ‘sleep’ (*swebaną) and its causative swebban ‘put to sleep’ (*swabjaną), which also has the meaning ‘kill’:

forþan ic hine sweorde swebban nelle
for I do not wish to kill him with a sword. (Beowulf 679)

These terms go back to the PIE root *swep- ‘sleep,’ which has some very familiar reflexes outside of Germanic:

Greek ὕπνος ‘sleep’ (cf. hypnosishypnotism; also Ὕπνος Hypnos, the personification of Sleep and brother of Θάνατος Thanatos, ‘Death’)

Sleep and His Half-brother Death by John William Waterhouse (1874)

Latin sopor (cf. soporific) and somnus (cf. insomnia, somnambulate) < *sopnos < *swép-nos (the same formation that gives us OE swefn via Proto-Germanic *swefnaz); cf. Spanish sueño

In Persian, where PIE *sw- > xw-, the noun is خواب xwāb ‘sleep, dream’; this word is loaned into Hindi/Urdu and some other languages in the same region. Internet lore—tough to confirm, however—maintains that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Inception character Dom Cobb gets his surname from this word.


Franks Casket (Rear Panel)

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The rear panel of the Franks Casket depicts the Siege of Jerusalem of 70 CE, when the future Emperor Titus sacked the city of Jerusalem and famously destroyed the Second Temple. The Jews who inhabited the city are put to flight by the Roman forces.


ᛏᛁᛏᚢᛋᛖᚾᛞᚷᛁᚢᚦᛖᚪᛋᚢ    HICFUGIANTHIEᚱUᚴALIM
titusendgiuþeasu    hicfugianthierusalim


Bottom-Left Corner

Bottom-Right Corner

The text of the rear panel, including the words in the bottom corners, with the Roman characters in italics:

Her fegtaþ Titus end Giuþea su.
Hic fugiant Hierusalim afitatores.

1   fegtaþ III feohtan 3 pl pres ind ‘they fight’—Giuþea su may perhaps be for Giuþea su[mæ] ‘some of the Jews’ or Giuþea su[na] ‘the sons of the Jews’

2   fugiant fugiō 3 pl pres subj ‘may they flee’—Hierusalim with a rune ᚱ for R and ᚴ, which looks like the Norse kaun rune but obviously stands for S here—afitatores = habitātōrēs ‘inhabitants’; a Latin word written entirely in runes; this erroneous spelling without initial h- suggests that h- was not pronounced in the local variety of Medieval Latin; f for b is a hypercorrection characteristic of Anglo-Saxon spelling (cf. the writing agof for agob in Exeter Book Riddle 46), a result of the fact that the intervocalic allophone of /b/ is [v], spelled f

3   dom ‘judgement, fate’ cf. doom < PIE *dʰóh₁-mos ‘that which is established,’ from *dʰeh₁- ‘put’ (cf. Gk τίθημι ‘to put, make,’ Eng do)

4   gisl ‘hostage, pledge’

The bottom-left corner, labeled dōm ‘judgement,’ shows a judge decreeing that the Jews of Jerusalem be taken as slaves. The bottom-right corner, labeled gīsl ‘hostage,’ depicts the defeated Jews as hostages.

Here Titus and the Jews do battle.
Here may the inhabitants flee Jerusalem.

All the birds have begun their nests …

These two lines (ll. 3–4) of Old Low Franconian, which we may call “Old Dutch,” together with the Latin text that precedes them (ll. 1–2), date from the 11th century. They are the result of a monk’s attempt to break in a new quill—called a probatio pennae ‘test of a pen’:


               quid expectamuſ nunc
Abent omneſ uolucreſ nidoſ inceptoſ niſi ego & tu
Hebban olla uogala neſtaſ hagunnan hinaſe hic
enda thu uuat unbidan uue nu

3   olla ‘all’; note that the vowel has rounded to o before syllable-final luogalafogala ‘birds’ cf. fowl, Ger Vogel; take olla uogala as the subject of hebbanneſtaſ ‘nests’; take as the object of hebbanhagunnan III a-ginnan past ppl ‘begun’; hagunnan and hebban together work as an early periphrastic perfect, a structure that was becoming increasingly common in this time period; cf. have begun as opposed to beganhinaſe ‘except’ < hit ni sī ‘(though) it not be,’ which omitting the first element is exactly cognate to Latin nisihicik ‘I’ with an excrescent h- (see below)

4   thu ‘thou’—unbidan I on-bīdan ‘wait for’—uue ‘we’ cf. Dutch wij, we

The first interesting linguistic feature of this short text is the masculine a-stem plural endings on l. 3 olla uogala ‘all the birds (nom.)’ and nestas ‘nests (acc.).’ It is rather rare that a West Germanic dialect retains a distinction between these cases in the a-stem plural (Old English uses -as for both, Old Saxon -os, and Old High German -a), and yet the dialect of the scribe appears to use -a for the nominative and -as for the accusative. Hebban olla uogala nestas is especially surprising because the -as ending (generalized in OE and OS) actually reflects the older Germanic nominative, and the -a ending (generalized in OHG) the Germanic accusative, contrary to their usage here. We have obviously caught this dialect in a period when there is significant confusion between which of the inherited endings to use, and when—not unlike the struggle some modern English speakers have in remembering when to use who as opposed to whom!

Something else that is obvious, not only from the Franconian text but from the Latin too, is the scribe’s total inability to decide which words start with h- and which do not. Latin habent ‘they have’ is noticeably missing its initial consonant, written Abent; on the other hand, hagunnan and hic are written with an h- that does not etymologically belong there. We may deduce from this that the scribe did not pronounce /h-/ anywhere (just like the neighboring Romance dialects). Therefore he was forced to memorize—albeit imperfectly—which words were supposed to be written with h- and which were not. Thus, the writing of ic as hic is a classic example of hypercorrection.

Hebban olla uogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic
enda thuuuat unbidan uue nu?

All the birds have begun their nests except me
and you—what are we waiting for now?