Of all the theories of Slavic origins none has been so convoluted as the “beech” theory and none has proven more resilient. We will consider it in a few separate postings.
The beech theory goes back to the speculations of Jozef Rostafinski in his 1908 article “O perwotnych siedzibach i gospodarstwie Slowian w przedhistorycznych czasach” (or “About the Prehistoric Dwellings of the Slavs”).
Rostafinski was neither a linguist nor an archeologist nor a historian but, appropriately for the theory, a botanist. Undeterred by the apparent lack of relation between his chosen pursuit and the question of the Slavic homeland, he proudly decided to stake out a claim for the botanists in this debate.
We might begin by stating that he started off rather ambitiously by first taking a position on the name “Lach/Lech” and its etymology. Having firmly established where that was from (we will not bore you with that part except to say he claims it is from “lenda” or “lyada” which meant an empty space later for cultivation – perhaps due to fire farming), he proceeded to locate the Slavic homeland by analyzing bushes and shrubs. That was, however, not enough for him so, now really reaching, he stepped onto the ornithologists’ feet (claws?) and also analyzed bird names (vultures, storks, egrets). With that done he proceeded to analyze the etymologies of the Slavic names for iron (concluding it had a Scythian origin but that that was ok because even the Greeks learned some iron making from the Scythians). He then concluded that the name of the turnip has a Slavic root (repa) and that turnips made their way to the Greeks from the Slavs about five centuries before Christ (which, among other things, according to him, demonstrates conclusively that the Slavs were way ahead of the Germans at that time civilizationally). Then it was onto grains and cereals (conclusion: initially Slavs did not know rye or wheat). Then a discussion of the pastoral lifestyle of the Slavs and the circle the wagons origin of the stable (conclusion: Slavic stables were freestanding – Germanic part of the house). In between Rosafinski threw in an etymology of the word “vend” – he claims it meant smoking (as in fish) (e.g., Polish word “wedzenie”).
Oh, we almost forgot, as to those shrubs and bushes. Rostafinski was of the opinion that the Slavs did not know (originally) the following trees: beech (fagus silvatica), larch (larix), fir (abies) and yew (taxis baccata) (or at least some of their subtypes). Incidentally, he makes the same claim about Balts.
Since, he reasoned, these trees did not (at his time) extend east past the so-called (made up) Koeningsberg-Odessa line and since the Slavs did not have their own names for these trees, they must not have originally lived in the areas where those trees grew. Therefore in his map he places the Slavs east of this line. The map follows:
Rostafinski, based on other evidence (see above), specifically places the Slavs at the edge for the steppe-forest zone somewhere in Russia – in contact with the Greeks until the Scythians came in between them. Note that most of the other points that Rostafinski made to support his thesis (see above) has been ignored but the tree stuff entered the mainstream of Slavic homeland research. (All other beech theories are derivative of Rostafinski’s).
The argument is thus based on a number of premises (one might venture, principally, that a few tree names can be highly instructive in establishing the origins of entire peoples but let’s let that one lie). Let’s list some of the more obvious ones:
1) The beech zone in antiquity was the same as the beech zone today.
That this is not true was supposedly shown already by Henrik Birnbaum in 1979 who placed the reach of the beech, so to speak, only up to the Elbe.
On the other hand, Bukovina is a historic country in Ukraine and Moldova. What that specific part of the world was called during Roman times, we do not know nor do we know whether there were any beeches growing there.
More recent studies show that the current reach of the beech was reached only between 500-1000 A.D. (Giesecke, et al.). This would be possibly consistent with Birnbaum. (On the other hand, beech pollen has also been found in the Pripyet area – which would, no doubt, suggest to some that the homeland of the Slavs is in Siberia…)
2) The etymology of the above tree names is not Slavic and, in fact, is Germanic. For example, the Germans must not have borrowed the name from the Slavs. Nor can this be a common Indo-European name (or at least not one that the Slavs could partake in).
However, the reasons for asserting this word as German are less than clear. The Gothic word is posited to be bok or boka. It has been stated that, in some cases, the German o, corresponds to the Slavic u (e.g., Donau <> Dunaj). This is obviously true except that (A) it is true in some cases only, (B) this argument says absolutely nothing about the necessary direction of the borrowing (if there were any) in the general case nor in the specific case of buk.
Alternatively, it has been stated that the old German word was buohha, i.e., with a u and that the k (as in book) shows that the Slavic is a borrowing (the u is not a problem here because the Slavic and the AHDeutsch both feature a u – now the h vs k is the problem). In this context, it is worth noting that, as per the Elbing dictionary, the old Prussian name for the tree was bucus or bukus. Now the old Prussians lived within the Kaliningrad-Odessa line so the question would have to be asked whether these forest dwellers also learned the name buk (maybe some late borrowing?) or whether they learned from the Slavs who first learned it from the Germans… (BTW German authors actually make this claim for Lithuanian – but a bit harder to do so for Old Prussian).
Incidentally, the beech is also part of an argument made by Johannes Hoops that Indo-Europeans originated in Germany precisely because the beech does not grow east of the Kaliningrad-Odessa line and because they had their own word for it. It is not clear if that would make Slavs live next to the Germans or simply not Indo Europeans (we suspect the latter).
3) The Germans lived in the “beech zone” throughout antiquity.
We can assume that this is true for some though, possibly, not all Germanics (e.g., Goths in the Ukraine).
4) Had they been able to, the Slavs would have (before they met the Germans) taken their time to distinguish and name these trees.
The German-Polish historian Brueckner, however, claimed that the Slavs have called the beech tree grab, i.e., the hornbeam. That is they either did not differentiate between the two trees or transferred grab to the hornbeam from the beech.
5) The Slavs did not, for example, have their own names for these trees which they then only changed to the German names.
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