The story behind the emergence of the Slavs is a
complicated one that is hotly contested even today. Thankfully a
study of the meaning of that name is somewhat easier.
Having evolved from a common Balto-Slavic language,
the vocabulary of satem-speaking proto-Slavic has a character
which shows various external influences. There is evidence to show a
degree of early adoption of loanwords from centum-type
Indo-European languages (those spoken by western groups such as Celts
and Italics). Given the nearness of the Vistula Venedi to the ancestral
Slav lands, it seems likely that they were a source of many
Indo-European word borrowings in early Slav vocabulary.
The probable answer
Although not provable, it seems a strong possibility
that the name 'slav' in its original form, 'sklav', derives from the
proto-Indo-European (PIE) verb 'to cut', extended to 'split in two'
(cloven) and many other variants. This makes it cognate with the
source of the name 'Saxon', as both had a common origin more then
two thousand years before they were first recorded in history.
The original name may have had a 'kh' sound rather
than a straightforward 'k' after the 's' of 'sklav'. Older Latin
(pre-Vulgar) pronounced the letter 'c' as a 'kh' in the manner of
the German or Scots 'ch' (think 'loch'). This, though, is
As the word altered from PIE, sometimes the 'k'
vanished as in 'Slav', and other times the 's' vanished, leaving
many words in existence for 'cut' or 'chop'. The original assumed
PIE word is *(s)kel- (from Pokorny), which spawned a huge number
of words, including 'half' (with the 'k' being reduced to an 'h'
The Slav name was first recorded as 'Sclavenes',
both by the Greek writer, Procopius of Caesarea, and in Latin by
the Byzantine historian, Jordanes. Old Church Slavonic first used
the word 'Slaviane' in tenth-century Bulgarian texts which are
preserved only in much later manuscripts, adding a degree of doubt
to their authenticity.
More recent linguists have been of the opinion
that the name was initially a Slavic self-designation for an
individual group on the sixth-century Danubian frontier with the
Eastern Roman empire. But that would mean 'Slav' probably being
derived from a place name, much like other ethnic Slavic names
with an '-ene' ending.
That theory only works with this particular
examination if the place name in question began with 'sklav'
or some derivative, which seems less likely. Older theories
about the name deriving from Slavic words for 'fame' or 'word'
are now largely discredited.
That early form of the name, 'Sclavenes', had
been shortened by 550. The chronicler John Malalas of Antioch
and Agathias of Myrina in Anatolia both used it, so it's clear
that Byzantine terminology for these new arrivals on the frontier
was being refined.
'Sklavos' quickly came to be represented in
Latin as 'Sclavus', which produced 'Slav' in most Romance and
Germanic languages. It also gained dominance in Greek and Latin
too after around 700.
At about the same time a derivative of the name
came to be used to describe a territory that was inhabited by
Sclavenes or which was under the authority of a Sclavene chieftain
The legendary brothers, Lech, Czech and Rus, were the eponymous
founders of the Polish, Czech and Russian nations, shown here in
Viktor Vasnetsov's 'Warriors', 1898