32

I wonder why in all Romance languages the word "war" ("guerra", with their multiple intonations) is a term that comes from Germanic languages, and that no modern language resembles the Latin "bellum". In English it actually came from Old French, which in turn came from Frankish.

It seems to me particularly curious since "war" is a term so significant for Latin tradition, and also the contrary, "peace", is inherited in almost intact form in all Romance languages and even in English from the Latin "pax".

4
  • 13
    The Romanian război is a loan from Slavic. I say this because you ask about "all Romance languages".
    – fdb
    May 18 at 8:55
  • 8
    And Aromanian polim is from Greek.
    – fdb
    May 18 at 9:20
  • 3
    I posit without a shred of Googling or etymonline consultation that "belligerence" comes from "bellum".
    – Kaz
    May 20 at 3:34
  • 1
    @Kaz. That is a good point. Romance languages do have more or less formal derivatives of bellum, but lack a reflex of the simplex.
    – fdb
    May 20 at 16:46
41

A why-question is almost unanswerable, the answer is "because it happened so". But there was a strong trigger for the replacement of bellum, namely the homophony with the word for "beautiful", in Latin bellus, bella, bellum. So for the stem bell- the meaning "beautiful" won over "war", and the word for war was replaced with a borrowing from Germanic or, as in the case of Romanian, other languages.

10
  • 9
    The OED supports this theory, saying the Romance-speaking people "were obliged to avoid the Latin bellum on account of its formal coincidence with bello- beautiful" (the entry is dated 1921).
    – Stuart F
    May 18 at 10:20
  • 13
    The Romans were a very warlike people. I can easily imagine that they regarded "war" as "beautiful".
    – fdb
    May 18 at 15:03
  • 12
    They are homophones because they have the same spelling and there are no other hints that they aren't homophones. But they have different etymologies and were different in earlier stages of the Italic languages. May 18 at 18:30
  • 5
    @jk-ReinstateMonica; Actually, there are reputable scholars (e.g. de Vaan) who believe that bellus "beautiful" and bellum "war" are etymologically the same word.
    – fdb
    May 18 at 20:56
  • 2
    @posfan12: Asking this as a separate question is a good idea. And there is Latin Language dedicated to the Latin language. May 18 at 21:12
18

The basic meaning of the Germanic *wirr is “disorder, chaos” etc. The shift in meaning to “warfare” originated in Frankish and is attested since the 9th century, spreading to French and then to other Romance languages. So this really has nothing to do with Roman soldiers. It bears witness to the fact that in the Frankish kingdom Latin was the language of religion and administration, but Frankish was the language of the army.

4
  • 2
    Well, after the collapse of the Roman empire the fighting stopped being an orderly organized affair -- bellum! -- and instead became an ugly threshing about. May 18 at 14:20
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica. I think that is a very dubious statement. Unlike the Romans, the armies in mediaeval Europe did not usually slaughter and enslave non-combatants. It was mainly army against army.
    – fdb
    May 18 at 15:46
  • 4
    german has "Kriegswirren", a tautology then. "Wirren" alone is still found in contemporary news, as a weaker synonym of war, or unrest.
    – dlatikay
    May 18 at 21:11
  • 5
    @fdb: I think you may have a rose-tinted view of medieval Europe's warfare; the idea of chivalry came late in the medieval period, and it was always more aspirational than actually followed in practice. Actual warfare involved laying waste to the countryside. Admittedly, slavery did decline over that period, but I'm not sure "We burned your town, raped your women, and killed whoever didn't run fast enough, leaving the rest to die of hunger since we also stole your food stores" is a huge improvement. May 19 at 4:20
8

My Latin book in high school contained the theory that bellum referred to the well disciplined style practiced by the roman legions, while warra was the less disciplined fighting style adopted by the german tribes.

With the fall of the empire, warra was the mainly adopted style, and thus also the word took over across the former territories of the empire.

2
  • 2
    Could this also explain why the period after the US Civil War is called "antebellum"? Did they consider this an "orderly" war?
    – Barmar
    May 18 at 14:31
  • 10
    @Barmar, the war happened in the waning years of the Neoclassical period, when the elites of the US and Britain borrowed heavily from Latin and Greek for all kinds of cultural references and neologisms. According to Merriam Webster the term was coined in the 1840s and later applied to the pre-Civil War period. I'm guessing that the style of the war was not relevant, but rather the people likely to use the term were of the social and academic classes that would esteem Latin over Anglo-Saxon terms. Further speculation may lead us into the murky waters of white supremacy tied to Neoclassicism.
    – wordsworth
    May 18 at 15:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.