Vladimir: What's in a Name?

By Drozd, Andrew M. | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Vladimir: What's in a Name?


Drozd, Andrew M., Germano-Slavica


The personal name Vladimir in many respects functions as the quintessential Slavic name and is often cited routinely in scholarly studies. It is typical of old Slavic dithematic names and possesses an impressive etymology (often interpreted as `lord of the world', `rule the world,' etc.) Moreover, the name gained status as the result of two talented bearers: St. Vladimir, who made Christianity the state religion of Kievan Rus', and his descendent Vladimir Monomakh. Yet this name, and/or its constituent elements, has been a source of controversy, for some would argue that there is nothing `Slavic' about it at all. It is this topic, the Slavic nature of Vladimir, which this article will examine in detail.

In order to set the stage properly, we must first take note of the tendency of Slavic studies in the West to treat the ancient (and not so ancient) Slavs as the great synthesizers of history. That is to say, in Western scholarship the Slavs are generally viewed as devoid of any culture of their own and thus consistently borrowing from their neighbors. (1) While certain exceptions do indeed exist, one cannot help noticing this disconcerting tendency of Western scholarship. Whatever the particular field of study, almost invariably Western scholars seek the sources for a phenomenon in Slavic culture from an outside, non-Slavic source. While one could hardly argue that the ancient Slavs lived in splendid isolation, hermetically sealed from their neighbors, the acute, one-sided nature of Western analyses is readily apparent to even the casual observer. Indeed, it is not too extreme to argue that Western scholarship is obsessed with reducing everything in Slavic culture to a foreign importation, with Germanic and Iranian the two favorite candidates as sources. In the field of linguistics, this obsession has been paramount. (2) Zbigniew Golab recently had to remind his readers that the idea of linguistic exchange implies the notion of reciprocity of lexical borrowing. (3) In summing up the state of scholarship into the area of Slavic-Iranian contacts, Golab states:

   In all the essays on the prehistorical relations (contacts) between
   Proto-Slavic and the North Iranian languages (Scytho-Sarmatian) so far
   published the point of view represented by their authors has always been
   one-sided: only possible Slavic borrowings from Iranian have been
   considered, i.e., the Proto-Slavs have been treated exclusively as the
   receivers in what was undoubtedly a regular reciprocal relationship. After
   all, the cultural levels of the Proto-Slavs and the Pontic Iranians were
   not so radically different as to justify only one-way influence and
   borrowing, from the Scythians and Sarmatians to the Slavs, but not vice
   versa. (4)

This mindset is so prevalent among Slavists that an obvious borrowing from Slavic into Iranian like topor (ax, hatchet) is generally regarded as borrowed from Iranian into Slavic. As Golab notes, in spite of its obvious motivation in Slavic and the complete lack of motivation in Iranian, "it has nevertheless been treated as one of the most certain Iranianisms in Proto-Slavic[.]" (5) The situation is similar with regard to Germanic-Slavic contacts as treated by Western Slavists. In summing up the state of scholarship into the area of Germanic-Slavic linguist exchange, Golab provides us with the following picture:

   But in spite of this quite obvious circumstance, most scholars who have
   investigated the problem of Slavic-Germanic relations as reflected in the
   respective vocabularies for more than a hundred years (since J. Safarik's
   Slovanske starozitnosti, 1837), have concentrated their attention on the
   Germanic loanwords in Slavic, leaving the impression that the flow of
   linguistic influence was one-way from Germanic to Slavic. (6)

In short, the Slavic lands are looked upon as a long-standing cultural vacuum waiting to be filled, with the Slavs themselves treated as a tabula rasa, to be written upon as their neighbors saw fit. …

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