The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers


Þat scal fé bæta en eigi flein rióða. --- Gríða mál.

Identities and parallelisms between those older Latin and old North-Teutonic words which touch legal and constitutional ideas seem to present a likely field of investigation.

Some years ago, Professor Bugge of Christiania pointed out the identity of Lat. son-s, in-sons and Icel. sann-r, ú-sannr, and other equations have been long known.

It is a law-word, perhaps of even more representative value, that one would here deal with –- fas, with its train of nefas, nefarius, etc. The common etymology of these words from fari (to speak), and their connection with infans, fama, etc., may be relegated to the limbo of all those worn-out attempts to explain Latin entirely from Latin, with which Lexicons have hitherto been too much crowded. An explanation must be sought elsewhere.

There is, as far back at least as the time of which Tacitus had knowledge, a legal division of injuries and wrongs among the Teutons, of which we still find open traces in the English commonlaw classification of treason, felonies, and misdemeanours. This division is founded upon the way in which certain misdeeds were considered as apart and different from the rest, by not being atoneable as others misdeeds were, but bootless as Beowulf puts it.

All the rest were bootable, or to be atoned for by compensation payed in chattels, so many cattle as Tacitus has it. See the articles úbóta-mal, úbóta-verk, in the Dictionary (p. 658 b) for instances of this phraseology in Icelandic. Now the Old Norse word for compensation paid is BÓT (gild is properly a payment in which other men share and by which the payer benefits, rather a cess or tax than a fine or compensation). This bót is precisely the word which is equivalent to the Latin fas.

As to the form --- Lat. f, d and Icel. b, t correspond, as do Latin a, and Teutonic o : e.g. Icel. blot and Lat. *flad-men, later fla-men (Bugge), is an exact parallel to our bot, *fad-s, later fas.

And, this admitted, the real meaning of the fas series in Latin becomes clear: nefas is a deed 'boot-less,' 'fee-less,' as the Old English said, and not a deed 'not-to-be-spoken-of.' The morality which would admit such a meaning is of later growth, both in Latium and in the North. So might St. Paul well speak to debased slave converts, but the ancient Law speaker or praetor knew no such scruples, for they were not needed.

 'facta nefantia' is exactly equal to the O.N. úbóta-verk, Dict. 658 b.

In nefandus, nefant- one may fancy that the d of the original form still survives, and that nefandus stands for nefa(n)dus, nefadnus: the intrusive n is not unfrequent in Latin. There has been, as in other cases between words of like scope, a confusion in the popular mind between the two stems fa- and fad-. The old Roman grammarians knew fasti, fama, fatum were from fa-, and why not fas? This folk-etymology was so plausible, that it has hitherto prevailed without a sceptical voice raised against it.

Another word deserves brief mention. In the Northern KUIÐJA i.e. kvithja (not, as we once fancied, connected with kueþa), one has the parallel to the Latin ueto which is for the older *gueto (as in the parallels, uenio and quiman). The forms agree and the sense of proclaiming a ban seems the earliest in both.

Such material as this is of course very fragmentary, but it is also richer than might be supposed; for the Scandinavians seem, like the Romans, to have been singularly legal-minded. And it is not impossible from the fragments that remain to reconstruct, after the fashion of palaeontologists, the extinct forms of a long-dead archaic society.

And among these few morsels are found words that point to the existence of common legal ideas at a very remote period. There are so many words in which Latin and Teuton coincide closely, that one cannot help fancying that, after all, the kindred of mind between these two Aryan peoples is a witness of closer relationship than the difference in tongue would imply; that, in short, if the Roman had Keltic affinities in tongue, he had Teuton affinities in institutions, and that the archaic histories of these three western branches of the Aryans must be treated together if one would get full knowledge of the military, legal, and constitutional peculiarities and development of each.

Note how conservative languages are in these matters of law. Take in hand the article on kviðja in the Icel. Dict., and put it beside veto in the Latin Lexicon, and one is astonished at the resemblance, as it were but in twin dialects. And yet, how many generations must be told to get back to the times when the ancestors of the Claudii and Julii and those of the Norse kings lived within one Moot, under one law?

A full list should be drawn up of equations between old Norse and Latin law-terms. They agree either (a) both in sense and form like the above instances, or (b) they are parallel in meaning, as Lat. judicium, judex, and Old Norse, log-saga, logsogo-madr.

                                                                                        G. V.
Oct. 2, 1885.

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