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Autor: Sorin Paliga
Piae memoriae Demetrii Dečev

At the beginning of 2013, Cătălin Borangic—who at that time was preparing a study regarding the chain mails spread in the Thracian area—asked my opinion about the origin of Rom. zale, usually in the plural, ‘chain mail’, also in the singular za, a newer form derived from plural, as we shall see below. Some years ago, when I compiled the etymological lexicon of the indigenous (Thracian) elements of Romanian, I skipped this form. I will try to prove that I should have included it in the list.

The Forms
DEX, which continues to be the reference dictionary of Romanian, records sing. form za, and pl. form zale. The suggested origin would be Neo-Greek záva, in fact just noting ‘cf. ngr. záva’. The problem is, Neo-Greek záva does not seem to really exist, the authors of DEX rather projected into Neo-Greek the Byzantine (very rare) form ζάβα. I express my gratitude to my colleagues Tudor Dinu, Alexandru Popp and Ionuţ Vasile, who sent me the required references in order to minimally clarify the origin of this term. The Byzantine forms are therefore:
ζάβα, -ας} ή,Θώρακας L. lorica, cuirass. Justinian. Novell. 8δ, 4. Mauric. 1, 2. Chron. 625, 13. Mai. 322, 19. Zeo. Tact. 6, 2. 25.
ζαβαρείον, ου, το, (ζά£α) Αποθετήριο ζαβών (θωράκων). Σουϊδα
ζαβάτος, η, ον, (ζαβά) Ο θωρακοφόρος, Λατ. loricatus. Mauric. 10, 1. Chron. 719, 14.
This would therefore be an etymologically obscure, military term specific to this area. According to an old, unverified tradition, the term would be of Persian origin, even if there is no proof in this sense, just a guess, based on the assumption that it must come from somewhere. It seems that referring to Persian or other Oriental, even Altaic, languages was once a common behavior, e.g. to explain Rom. boier would reflect Altaic root baj-, boj- ‘high; great’; see the discussion in Paliga 1990. There are other examples as well, but they are not directly relevant to this analysis.
At this point, it seems research turns into a vicious circle: 1. Byzantine term zaba, rare anyway, completely vanishes after the 9th century C.E. It is not preserved in Neo-Greek. 2. Romanian is the ONLY modern language, which preserves this form, being—in fact—isolated, without any related form in a neighboring language.
Even if seemingly a locus desperatus, the situation is quite clear: the word is specifically Romanian, with a brief glimpse of existence in the Byzantine period.
Reverting to DEX, to note that the basic form would be za, from which plural form zale would be derived. We think DEX is (again) wrong: the oldest form and etymologically analyzable (see below) is zale, with definite article zálele (preserving the stress on the first syllable), from which a singular za was later created by association with a very frequent form like zi – ziua – zile – zilele ‘day’ – ‘the day’ –‘days’ – ‘the days’. Therefore the derivation pl. zale > sing. za, with definite article zaua repeats the derivation of the Latin element zi, with the def. article ziua < old dzi < Lat. dies. Such forms are extremely rare in Romanian. Another example is stea < Lat. stella (with weak ll, which vanishes in the colloquial Latin of Dacia).
The third most interesting example is şa < Lat. sella ‘saddle’, with a new plural form şei, against the old plural form şale ‘loins’, with a very obscure evolution of meaning, making some linguists to reject this explanation, i.e. assuming that şale ‘loins’ would rather reflect an indigenous origin. We think that Lat. sella has in fact TWO representatives in Romanian: 1. *şa, pl. şale, used in the plural only: ‘loins’; 2. şa, pl. şei (used in both sing. and pl.): ‘saddle’. The first form, şale, may be of substratum origin, though (see the addendum).
This derivational pattern is also met in newer, borrowed forms like sandá (current form, also sandálă), pl. sandále < French sandale, adapted after Lat. sandalium. Similar adaptations are e.g. lalea ‘tulip’, art. laleaua, pl. lalele, art. pl. lalelele, N-Gr.. λαλές, usually labelled a ‘Balkanwort’: Bulgarian and Serbian-Croation lale, from Turkish.
Our interim conclusion would be therefore that Byzantine ζάβα simply reflects Romanian articled singular form zaua ~ za as derived from zale. Let us now attempt to explain the root *zal-. As the term is restricted to Romanian, with rare records in Byzantine texts, it would be at least logical to look at some Thracian forms, because—as stated above—it is logical to assume that this word and term comes from somewhere: from the substratum as a typical Thracian military term.
In Dečev (Detschew) 1957: 175 we note the gloss ζαλμός (zalmos) ‘animal fur’, i.e. ‘animal fur used for protection, for military purposes’; Dečev translates the form (German) Fell, by invoking older studies of Tomashcek and Jokl. His conclusion is that Thracian zalmos should be analyzed together with Gothic hilms, modern German Helm ‘helmet’ and ‘protector, defender’ (Beschützer), English helmet, all from Indo‑European *ǵel‑, g̑el‑ ‘to cover, to protect’ (the German forms used are verhüllen and bergen), with the expected evolution IE ǵ, g̑ > Germanic h (in initial position) and Thr. z, as a satem language.
The same root may be identified in some Thracian compound personal names, in which the second part of the compound is -zelmēs, -zelmis, -zelmos etc. (again in Dečev, p. 181). The Old Greeks thus explained the name of the supreme god of the northern Thracians, Zalmoxis: this god would use a bear fur-coat, zalmos. In this way, Zalmoxis (metathesis of Zamolxis, see Dečev on pp. 173–175) might be interpreted as the ‘protector, defender’. Disregarding the ultimate meaning of Zamolxis ~ Zalmoxis, it is clear that a Thracian form zalmos did exist, and reflects IE root with the basic meaning ‘to protect, to defend’, hence ‘helm, helmet’ (with this meaning also in Germanic) and ‘tunic, fur-coat’ (in Thracian) and a parallel form *zal‑ ‘chain mail’, which is again a military term, as in Germanic and closely related to it. This latter form, given its importance in a militarized society, was preserved in East Romance and, with a short life, in the Byzantine terminology.
Romanian zale, with a later derived singular form za, articled zaua, reflects this old Thracian term. Its archaic origin was doubted because of intervocalic -l- which should have been rotacized. This is valid for the Latin elements of Romanian only, NEVER for the indigenous elements. Some clear examples support our conclusion: Romanian forms bală, balaur ‘a dragon’ (cf. the ancient tribal name Tri‑balloi ‘three dragons’), căciulă ‘a fur-cap’ and many others, of Thracian origin, clearly indicate that intervocalic -l- in the Thracian elements NEVER rotacizes. See other examples in Paliga 2006 and also the Appendix to this text.

Archaeological Proofs
There are numerous studies supporting the basic idea that chain mail was spread in the Thracian world, both south and north of the Danube. Beside the studies of Borangic, already quoted, we may invoke various other studies, notably the one of Torbov 2004, in which the author analyzes the technique, spread and origin of the chain mail. One quite common hypothesis is that this technique may have been of Celtic origin, but the proofs are feeble. Other two interesting studies are those of Ognenova-Marinova 1961 and 2000. Tsurtsumia 2011 tried to analyze the spread of armors in Georgia (Gruzia).
It is clear, in our view, that the term accompanied over centuries a specific technique of manufacturing chain mails together with other military equipment. From the linguistic point of view, zale, sing. za reflects an indigenous, Pre-Romance element in Romanian, disregarding its ultimate origin. The term is obviously of satem character, therefore it cannot reflect a Celtic influence, debatable anyway from an archaeological point of view too. If another satem language may be possibly invoked as the origin of the term, then we may think at the Iranic idioms of the North Pontic area, but there is no archaeologic proof in this sense. If such a proof may possible be invoked, then we may also consider such an origin. Until then, the data converge towards a Thracian element integrated into the military vocabulary of post-classical times.


A list of indigenous (Thracian) elements in Romanian witnessing intervocalic ‑l‑
The list is excerpted from Paliga 2006. Some forms are now largely accepted as ‘indigenous’ (e.g. căciulă, bală, balaur etc.), others are analyzed in this context in our book. The main purpose of this list is to show that intervocalic ‑l‑ is regularly preserved in the indigenous elements of Romanian, therefore zale is a normal, expected form, not an exception. The same happens with intervocalic ‑b‑ and ‑v‑ in the indigenous elements. The reason of this different phonetic treatment, against the situation of the Latin elements, is due to different status of these phonemes in post‑classical colloquial Latin v. their position in the Thracian phonetic inventory. In any case, it is NOT acceptable to extend the rules of phonetic evolution of the Latin elements to the indigenous elements, facts must be first analyzed, then conclusions drawn based on the required analyses, not vice-versa.
The explanations are minimal, the full analysis is in Paliga 2006.
The abbreviations used are those in our book, i.e. NFl = nomen fluminis (river-name); NL = nomen loci (place-name); NP = nomen personae (personal name); NPp = nomen populi (ethnic name).

bală, balaur ‘a dragon, a monster’; NP Balaur, Balaure. Must be related to Alb. bollë ‘a (big) snake, a serpent’ and bullar ‘a water snake’. Cf. Thr. Balas, Bales, Tri‑balloi ‘three dragons’ (name of a Thracian ethnic group), Baleos (epithet of Jupiter), Balis (epithet Dionysos) etc.
căciulă ‘a fur-cap’. Alb. kësulë, with similar meaning, is rather borrowed from Romanian; anyway, the correspondence Rom. č (spelled ci) ~ Alb. s has not been explained. The ultimate origin seems IE *kadh‑ ‘to cover, to protect’, as in Eng. hat. The archaic, Proto‑Thracian form must have been *kadh‑keu‑l‑ā.
căfălie, scăfălie. Dialectal and expressive. Seems related with ceafă, even if the alternating ce [č] ≈ c [k] is not comfortable, and would indicate that some Thracian dialects had a centum‑like, not satem‑like, phonetic evolution. This requires a larger analysis, which cannot be developed here.
Călan NL (HD). At. 1387, kenezius de villa Chalanteluch. Intervocalic l, still commonly held impossible in the indigenous elements, has impeded further analysis. As this assumption is erroneous, see NP Călin, NL Călacea, NM Căliman etc. Probably archaic, Preie. origin, root *K‑L‑, related with *K‑R‑ ‘stone, cliff’.
Căliman NM. Built as Caraiman, in both situations with suffix ‑man (also in archaic place names south of the Danube, e.g. Igman, Lexicon A). Related with Călan, Călata, Preie. *K‑L‑ ‘stone, cliff’.
căluş ‘a typical, male only, folk dance’. Der.: căluşar ‘a dancer of căluş’. There seems to be a general consensus that the relation with cal ‘horse’ < Lat. caballus is a result of hazard. Beside this, there have been numerous attempts to plausibly explain the meaning, all of them starting from the erroneous idea that intervocalic ‑l‑ cannot be accepted for a substratum word.
ciuléi A small plant (Ceratocapus arenarius) with thin and thorny leaves. Derived, together with ciulín (see), from the same root as in ciul and ciulín.
ciulí ‘to prick up (about animals)’, mainly in the expression a ciuli urechile (with frequent reference to dogs). Closely related with ciul, further with its co‑radical forms. Cf. ciufuli.
ciulín ‘thistle’ (the plant Carduus). Related with ciulei, both derived from ciul.
Ciuleándra A specific dance. In expressions: a umbla ci(u)leandra ‘to tramp about’. Related with ciul, ciuli and suffix ‑andr‑a.
colibă, ‑e ‘a small house, a hut’. Southeast European ‘technical’ term: Alb. kolibë and kalivë (in the latter case with Neo‑Greek phonetism); S.‑Cr. kòleba, koliba (also in place‑names); Bulg, Mac., OCS koliba; also Czech, Slovak koliba; always the meaning is ‘small house’. The forms are archaic, and refer to a traditional type of dwelling, usually explained from Gr. kalybe ‘id.’ related with kalypto ‘to cover’, hence also Kalypso. Typical term of the Balkansprachbund.
culíc The bird Numenius, with a long and curved beak and with brownish feathers.
dăulá ‘to exhaust, to get rid of physical power’. Obscure, very probably archaic.
dăulí ‘to bewail, to lament’. Var. dăolí. We may think that this form is built with prefix de and aoleu, an interjection of bewail or lament. Even if the derivation is newer, interjection aoleo, aoleu may be indigenous, and the form may be archaic.
dolofán ‘fat, plump’. An expressive equivalent of durduliu (see). The root dol‑ ‘fat’ is isolated, and intervocalic ‑f‑ indicates an original velar spirant (laryngeal). It is possible to see in dol‑ a variant of dor‑, dur‑ as in durduliu, which are semantically identical. See also duluţă.
dulắu, dulăi s.m. ‘(big, wicked) dog’. Held by Haşdeu for a Thracian element by comparing it with Lydian Kan‑daules ‘dog killer’, Thracian Kandaon, Kandaios ‘epithet of Ares’. The approach may be doubtful, but most linguists have denied its obvious archaic origin, disregarding the etymon, on the erroneous ground that intervocalic l would show its newer origin.
dulúţă Only in expressions like a se duce duluţă ‘to roll down like a ball’. Must be from the same root as dolofan ‘fat, plump’, root dol‑, dul‑ ‘round, ball‑like, fat’.
gălăgíe ‘noise, hubbub’; also dial. hălăgie. Archaic form from IE *ghel‑1 ‘to shout, to yell’, hence Eng. yell and nightin‑gale. Note preservation of IE *gh to Rom. g. Related as an initially onomatopoeic form to ga-ga, the noise specific to geese (Eng. goose, pl. geese is derived from this root too).
gîdilá vb. ‘to tickle’. Alb. gudulís ‘id.’ (See also s.v. gîde). Seemingly related to a (se) gudura ‘to fawn upon somebody’ (basically the word refers to dogs, ironically to people who flatter their boss); these forms must reflect IE *ghed‑, *ghend‑ ‘to get, to catch’, zero grade *ghṇd‑ > Thr. *gud‑il‑, *gud‑ur‑. The evolution IE *> Thr. u, un > Rom. u is normal.
mălái̯ ‘maize flour’, replacing the old meaning ‘millet flour’. Obviously derived from the Preie. root mal‑, with the basic meaning ‘hill, mountain’, hence ‘ground stone (as on a hill‑side)’ = something resembling ground stone, i.e. flour. For the construction, cf. vătrai < vatră. See also NFl Măleia, which helps in clarifying the archaic mentality, which led to associations of this type: hill – ground stone on a hill‑side – flour.
Măléia NFl (Parîng Mts., a tributary of Jiu). From the same root of mal and mălai.
mălígă Dialectal variant of mămăligă.
mắlură ‘smut’. Closely related with mal, mălai and măldac (see all these). The construction is măl‑ur‑ă as in mắg‑ur‑ă, mắt‑ur‑ă etc.
mămălígă ‘maize flour bread’; initially ‘millet flour bread’. An essential term related to traditional cook. The modern form is a reduplication of *măl‑măl‑ig‑ă > mămăligă, by haplology.
mele̯ág ‘a land, a region’ (traditional and colloquial; frequent in folk tales). The explanation from Hung. mellék, in its turn unclear and unexplained, is debatable. It seems rather related with mal ‘river‑side’ and Alb. mal ‘hill, mountain’; if so, as we believe, then the original meaning was ‘mountainous land’, hence ‘land, region’ in general. The hypothesis of a Hungarian load-word is erroneous.
mele̯án ‘tall, young man’. Seems derived from the same root of mal, the initial meaning was ‘hill’, i.e. ‘man like a hill’, i.e. ‘tall and healthy’.
melegár A wooden basin used for collecting ground ore extracted from a mine. Seems to be the same root as in mal ‘river‑side’ < ‘rocky (i.e. ground gravel) river‑side’. The original meaning of root mal‑ was ‘hill, mountain’. See mal, mălai, meleag, melean.
molíd ‘a spruce tree’. Preie. origin, root *M‑L‑ ‘elevation; hill, mountain’. Akin to mal. Both molid and brad reflect archaic terms related with the specific flora of the Carpathians.
olog ‘lame’. Alb. ulok. Der. a ologi ‘to make someone lame; to break someone’s leg/arm’. Isolated in Romanian and Albanian, etymon unknown, probably indigenous. Alb. form seems borrowed from Romanian.
pálă1 1. a small heap of hay (i.e. the quantity taken by a scythe once); 2. a blow of wind. Related with Alb. pale ‘fold, plait; pleat’. The initial meaning may be reconstructed as ‘hillock of hay’, therefore the root must be Preie. *P‑L‑, also *P‑R‑ ‘hill, hillock; elevation’. See Paleu, pălărie and the numerous forms with root par‑.
pálă2 ‘a whim, a caprice’. Seemingly related with pală1, but the evolution is not clear, perhaps an association like ‘an elevation in thought or thinking’.
pălăríe ‘hat; the upper part of some mushrroms looking like a hat; the upper part of sunflower’. The root pal‑, păl‑ derives from Preie. *P‑L‑ ‘elevation, peak; hill’; see pală 1, Paleu.
pele̯ágă, also pelég ‘hill, hillock, elevated location’. Possibly related with Alb. pellk ‘marsh, moor’. Closely akin to Peleaga, Peleş etc., ultimately Preie. root *P‑L‑ ‘hill, rock’.
răgălíe Specific meaning: ‘thicket or bush made up of underwater trees or parts of a tree in a running water, e.g. a river’. Archaic and isolated.
schilod, also schilav, schilăvos ‘cripple; maimed, mutilated’. The root schil‑ is isolated. The forms seem archaic and indigenous, probably related with Lat. claudico, NP Claudius etc.
sculá vb. 1. tr. ‘to wake up (someone)’; 2. refl. ‘to wake up, go up’; 3. vulg. ‘to be in erection’. Alb. shkul ‘(he, she) raises’. From IE *skel‑ ‘to curve, to bend’, o grade *skol‑, the alternance o/u being met in other cases too. The basic meaning must have been ‘to bend after waking up, to go up’; the vulgar sense is secondary.
sculă, ‑e s.f. ‘a tool (in general); hence ‘penis’ (only contextual and colloquial). IE *(s)kel‑ ‘to cut’, hence also Lat. scalpere ‘to cut, to scratch’, sculpere ‘to cut, to sculpture’, culter ‘a knife’ (from *kel‑tro‑). The reconstructable form in Thracian is *skul‑ or *skāl‑ (Thr. ā results in Romanian u, sometimes also o, cf. mumă, Moma, Mureş etc.). The basic meaning must have been ‘a tool for cutting wood’, then ‘a tool in general’. Cf. (a se) scula, from another IE root.
[şale ‘loin(s)’. Alb. shalë ‘hips; legs’. Many linguists associated the form with şa < Lat. sella ‘saddle’, which rather seems the result of hazard. Lith. šlaunis ‘hips, lower part of the body’ seems closest to Romanian and Albanian (even though Albanian word is borrowed from Romanian, rather than an archaic, independent heritage).]
ştiuléte ‘corn cob’. Obviously an archaic, indigenous term, even if now used for defining a cereal of American origin. It seems related with the root in tuleu, tulei, Tulcea with prefix ş‑ (in other instances ‑s), quite frequent in the indigenous elements. Also pronounced ştuléte, which is closer to the original etymon.
[Tulcea NL Dobrudja. Cf. Thr. Tuleus, Tylis today Tulovo in Bulgaria and Rom. NL Tulca, also tuleu ‘a tree‑trunk’ and tulei ‘undeveloped part of a bird’s wing; a young man’s beard’. Preie. *T‑L‑ as in Talma.]
tuléu ‘undeveloped part of a bird’s wing; a young man’s beard; maize stem’. Same etymon as Tulcea.
úliu The bird Accipiter; ‘sparrow‑hawk, goshawk’. Currently held for a borrowing from Hung. ölyv, in its turn difficult to analyse; some Hungarian linguists assume a borrowing from Old Turkish, which is – we may be sure – impossible. Related with the numerous forms with root ul‑ analysed here, ultimately from Preie. *OL‑, *UL‑ ‘high, prominent’ (akin to *OR‑, *UR‑ with a similar meaning). Form uliu may be generic for all the forms with radical ul‑, and should be included in the large category of substratum words referring to specific birds and animals of the area; cf. erete and şoim, among others. • Hung. ölyv is borrowed from Romanian, and adapted to the Hungarian specific phonetics. See Ulea, Ulieş, ului.
uluí ‘to astonish; to get astonished, shocked’. Akin to uliu, and confirming the archaic meaning of Preie. root *OL‑, *UL‑ ‘high, prominent’. The passive form, most used, uluit literally means ‘be up’, i.e. ‘shocked, astonished’. Closely related to uliu (even if some may suspect a homophonic similarity as a result of hasard).

Essential References
Dečev (Detschew), Dimităr 1957. Die thrakischen Sprachreste. Wien: R.M. Rohrer.
Buttin, François 1971. Du costume militaire au Moyen Âge et pendant la Renaissance. Barcelona: Real Academia de Buenas Letras.
Borangic, Cătălin 2011. Armuri de zale, meşteri şi ateliere în Dacia Romană. Acta Musei Porolissensis (Zalău) 33: 123–146.
Borangic, C. 2011–2012. Războinici sud-dunăreni în armuri de zale. I: Acta Musei Sabesiensis (Sebeş) 3: 171–228; II: Acta Musei Sabesiensis (Sebeş) 4: 179–209.
Ognenova-Marinova, Ljuba 1961. Les cuirasses de bronze trouvées en Thrace. Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 85: 501-538.
Ognenova-Marinova, Ljuba 2000. L’armure des Thraces. Archaeologia Bulgarica IV, 3:11-24.
Paliga Sorin 1990. Este boieria o instituţie împrumutată? Revista Arhivelor 67, vol. 52, 3: 250–260.
Paliga, S. 2006. An Etymological Lexicon of the Indigenous (Thracian) Elements in Romanian. Ed. Evenimentul.
Torbov, Nartsis 2004. Chain-Mails from Northern Bulgaria (III-I C BC). Archaeologia Bulgarica VIII, 2: 57-69.
Tsurtsumia, Mamuka 2011. The evolution of splint armour in Georgia and Byzantium. Lamellar and scale armour in the 10th-12th centuries. BYZANTINA ΣΥΜΜΕΙΚΤΑ 21 (2011) 65-99.

Web Sources


Autor: Sorin Paliga,
Titlu complet: Rom. zale ‘chain mail’. The Origin of a Fundamental Military Term