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The Language of the Thracians, Ivan Duridanov

I. Introduction.

The Thracian language was the language of the ancient population of the modern Thracia and several adjacent regions. The newest studies point out that, besides Thracia, Thracian was also spoken to the west of the Ossogovo mountain, along the upper course of the Bregalnica river and further to the west of the lower course of the river Vardar (Axios) including the modern city of Thessalonica and its environs. The northern branches of the Balkan mountains (approximately to the south of the line Montana – Devnja) probably also belonged to the Thracian linguistic territory. The ancient name of the city of Varna – Odessos is not Thracian, however, therefore in Varna and its environs was spoken another language - the Dacian.

The Thracians had no literacy which hinders significantly the study of their language. Some words of their language were transcribed with Greek and Latin letters. Even before the coming of the Slavs a significant number of Thracians were Hellenised or Romanized, especially in the towns. It is difficult to determine when the Thracian language disappeared. Jordanes in his Gothic history, written in the middle of the VI-th c. provides one of the final accounts. Thus, speaking about the Danube river, he informs us that this river is called  Ister in the language of the Bessi (a Thracian tribe): “Qui [=Danubius] lingua Bessorum Hister vocatur”. It is accepted that lingua Bessorum for him and his contemporaries meant “the language of the Thracians”.

An interesting and not completely resolved problem is the survival of Thracian words in the language of the Bulgarian Slavs. Such are river names: Iskr, Panega, Osm, Etr (Jantra), Ibr (the upper course of Marica), Marica, Strjama, Tundzha, Arda, Struma, Nestenica (Mesta’s tributary), Bregalnica; names of mountains: Ossogovo and Rhodopes. The ancient name of the Balkan mountains – Hemus, has survived in the rare form of Im(-planina), attested by N. Gerov in his “Dictionary of Bulgarian language” (vol. II, p. 32). Thracian are also the names of some settlements: Nessebr, Plovdiv, Silivrija (transmitted via the Greek), etc. There are reasons to believe that Thracian are also some geographical names, which were not attested in the ancient sources: Véleka (a river), Nésla (a village, named after the neighbouring river), Batkun (a village near the town of Pazardzhik), Pirdop, etc. A number of words in the modern Bulgarian are also Thracian in origin, although there are no special studies on this question up to now.

The study of the morphology and syntax of one language, however, requires texts long enough. Unfortunately, the longest text in Thracian is an inscription, consisting of 8 lines (61 letters), engraved on a golden ring. There are ambiguities in reading this text. The other inscriptions, most of them very short, also do not allow the drawing of more definitive conclusions about the grammatical system of the Thracian language.

Thus, the Thracian linguistic material currently available includes:

1. Words, attested in the ancient sources and in one inscription – 23 words altogether.
2. Inscriptions, of which four are most important, while the rest (around 20) are very short.
3. Geographical names.
4. Personal names.
5. Tribal names.
6. Names of deities.

To this list we can add a number of geographical names which, although not occurring in the ancient texts, still belong the pre-Slavic, Thracian layer of the Bulgarian place names. Such limited data explain our fragmentary understanding of the Thracian language (as well as the other paleo-Balkan languages – Illyrian, Dacian). Nevertheless, science was able to reconstruct in general terms the phonetics of the Thracian, a part of its vocabulary and also to understand a number of its word-construction patterns. These advances in the last one hundred and twenty years were due to the work of A. Fick, W. Tomaschek, P. Kretschmer, N. Jokl, St. Mladenov, D. Detschew, Vl. Georgiev, V. Beshevliev and others. The comparative studies with the Baltic languages were very helpful in the case of some unclear personal and geographical Thracian names and provided new insights into the Thracian vocabulary. It turned out that the Thracian language is in close genetic links with the Baltic languages [For more details see my work: Thrakisch-dakische Studien, I. Teil, Balkansko ezikoznanie, XIII, 2, Sofia, 1969].

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