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UPDATE: After posting the question, I found out, to my great disappointment, that Manhunt Unabomber is only loosely based on real events, so I'm rephrasing the question:

Where is the Slavic homeland, according to linguists, and how do they know that? Is there any truth to the story relayed in Manhunt Unabomber (below)?


Original question:

In the Unabomber season of Manhunt (presumably based on real events), a Stanford linguist explains the origin of Slavs. Her story goes:

Around the year 600, Slavic peoples suddenly appeared all over Europe: Germany, Poland, Serbia, Russia, but nobody could figure out where they came from. It was a huge historical mystery, until they started looking at language, and they realized that Proto-Slavic was missing words for certain kinds of trees -- they had to borrow words for "oak" and "beech" and "pine"... The Pripyat river valley in Ukraine, it's basically this huge swamp, the only place in Europe where there are no trees!

It's an interesting theory, but there is one problem with it. Pripyat is surrounded by trees. You can't find pictures of Pripyat (a city on the Pripyat river, evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster), without trees in them.

enter image description here

enter image description here

What happened? Did trees appear where there weren't any in 500AD?

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    I’m voting to close this question because it asks to support or deny a conspiracy theory claimed by an unknown/unlinked source. The entire question has nothing to do with linguistics or history of languages. Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 22:06
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    @bytebuster I disagree; my recollection (from an undergrad historical linguistics class) is that the Common Slavic homeland was determined by noting that there was Common Slavic vocabulary for lots of trees, but not for e.g. coastal features or saltwater fish, or for mountain plants. If I (or someone else) can find a source on that, it seems like it would answer the question well in a way that's relevant to linguistics.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 22:13
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    (That answer, of course, being "the show got the details wrong, as there clearly are trees there, but linguistics was used to answer this question by looking at these words instead".)
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 22:14
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    @Draconis, the quote calls it "the only place in Europe where there are no trees" (exclamation mark). The Pripyat river valley is located in Polesian Lowland. The very name "Polesian" is derived from les which stands for — believe it or not — forest. ;) Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 22:45
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    @bytebuster a conspiracy theory who conspired with whom?
    – MWB
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 5:25

3 Answers 3

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I want to point out that there are a lot of tree names in Slavonic languages with clear cognates in other branches of Indogermanic, e.g., the words for birch and ash tree—the analysis goes down to the level of tree species and where those species can be found historically.

Beeches are indeed absent in the proposed Slavic homeland, see this distribution map of two species of beeches for a reference. The cognate word to English beech is transferred to the elder tree in Slavic.

Modern tries to locate a Slavic Homeland recur to extra-linguistic methods to locate it, like linking it with archeological artefacts or doing analysis of Y chromosome haplogroups.

EDIT: The quoted trees "oak" and "pine" in Manhunt Unabomber are bogus, both species exist in the proposed Slavic homeland and both species have inherited names in the Slavic languages.

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  • I do not understand your claim with the beech tree - *bukъ, buk. It is very similar to German Buche and close enough to English beech. One could certainly question whether it is inherited or borrowed, but it is clearly cognate. *bъzъ may come from the same root, but that is nothing unprecedented. Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 12:14
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    @VladimirF: buk is a borrowing from Germanic as witnessed by the consonant k exhibiting the first consonant shift. The term cognate is often used with some leeway including borrowings, but in my answer I mean the inherited cognate and I think my expression is clear enough. Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 12:58
  • I know it is a borrowing, firstly it is really extremely close to the German word and secondly I checked wiktionary before commenting. But an old - still a (Classical?) Proto-Slavic one. There are loanwords for many basic concepts. Some with Iranian origin and very old. The word for a cow - korva, is possibly a borrowing too, probably a Celtic one. Did old Proto-Slavs not know cows? The borrowing shows there was a need for the bech word at the time of the extensive contact with Germans and before the spread of Slavs into a large territory and split to branches there. Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 5:25
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I'm struggling to find a true statement in that story :) Let's take it apart:

Around the year 600, Slavic peoples suddenly appeared all over Europe:

At least one Slavic tribe had settled in Europe well before 600 - the Wends/Veneti, in the 1st-2nd century CE.

They started appearing in larger numbers as part of the great migration together with many other tribes pushed westwards by invasions from the east, notably Mongol invasions. This was far from "sudden", it lasted a century or two.

Slavs didn't appear "all over Europe", but only in the eastern and maybe central parts (depending on your definition of Europe).

Germany, Poland, Serbia, Russia,

Of course, none of these existed as political entities, so they should be understood only geographically.

but nobody could figure out where they came from. It was a huge historical mystery, until they started looking at language,

I'm pretty sure people at the time knew :) Modern historians have an approximate idea too. Linguistics plays a role but let's not exaggerate it.

and they realized that Proto-Slavic was missing words for certain kinds of trees -- they had to borrow words

Missing words for common species of trees?! - extremely unlikely.

Sometimes common species are referred to as a combination of words, which might later merge. It wouldn't be fair to conclude that there must be no bears in Russia just because in Russian "bear" = "honey eater".

Sometimes in the evolution of a language, a borrowing could replace an existing word, leaving a blind spot for us. For instance this is believed to have happened with the original Slavic word for "bread" (which we don't know), it got replaced with a borrowing from Proto-germanic.

for "oak" and "beech" and "pine"...

Proto-Slavic does have native reconstructed words for oak=*dôbъ and pine=*borъ.

Beech=*bukъ is indeed most likely a Germanic loanword.

The Pripyat river valley in Ukraine, it's basically this huge swamp, the only place in Europe where there are no trees!

Utter nonsense, but it could make an interesting scene in a movie plot :)

EDIT:

A likely origin of the idea is mentioned in The Making of the Slavs, page 8:

enter image description here

enter image description here

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  • +1 but you don't seem to address the first part of the Q (or the title)
    – MWB
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 1:14
  • As far as I know there is no evidence that the historically attested Veneti on the Baltic Sea shore spoke a Slavic language. Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 8:47
  • More about "Veneti" all around Europe and beyond: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/36118/9781 Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 10:21
  • @MaxB To answer the title: we don't know :) Even if the origin of such a large ethnic group was a single place, linguistics couldn't produce high-quality evidence of it, as Slavs didn't have literacy before the 9th century, and there's no known record of their whereabouts before contact with the Romans.
    – ngn
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 16:14
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    Well. Pliny and Ptolemy describe where they live, and if I remember right at least one of them describes their language as different from the language of the Germanic people. Neither of the two describes them as Slavs or gives any hints to that interpretation (e.g., through the names of gods or notable persons or places). It is only Jordanes 4 centuries later who connects Veneti to Slavs. Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 19:38
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Wikipedia seems to have a source for the claim, in this article

The Common Slavic words for beech, larch and yew were also borrowed from Germanic, which led Polish botanist Józef Rostafiński to place the Slavic homeland in the Pripet Marshes, which lacks those plants.

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    This adds nothing to @ngn's answer below. Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 8:37

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