What is a city?

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post, originally published in April 2012, examimes the etymologies of the words for ‘city’ and ‘town’ — Many thanks to Vitaliy Rayz for excellent photography]

Carcassonne_Cite_Defences-WestThe etymologies of the words for ‘city’ or ‘town’ are interesting in their own right, especially where related languages use non-cognate words, highlighting different aspects of what it means to be a city.

For example, the toponym Carthage contains the Phoenician root for ‘city’, qart. A cognate word qarta is found in Aramaic, but other Semitic languages use a different root for ‘city’. For example, the Hebrew word for ‘city’ – ir – is found in the toponym Jerusalem, or in Hebrew Yerushaláyim. This toponym translates variably as ‘the city of peace’, ‘foundation of the god Shalem’, ‘dwelling of peace’, or ‘founded in safety’ (there several additional etymologies). Some scholars connect this word to the Sumerian yeru meaning ‘a settlement’ (and even to the Sumerian city of Ur) or the Semitic root yry meaning ‘to found’. Thus, ir is a settlement that has been founded. The Arabic word for ‘city’ is again different, and the settlement known simply as ‘the city’ is Medina (Saudi Arabia). The full name of this city is alternatively al-Madīnah al-Munawwarah ‘the radiant city’ or madinat al-nabi ‘the city of the prophet’. Unlike the Hebrew ir, the Arabic medina highlights a different aspect of a city, its self-governance. In fact, in Hebrew medina means ‘state’, as in medinat-Israel ‘the State of Israel’, the official name of the country. Interestingly, while the connection between ‘city’ and ‘state’ has its roots in antiquity, the expression city-state in English is first attested only in 1893.

And what of the English city, town, and borough? The word city appeared in English in the early 13th century and was used to refer to a cathedral town, but originally it meant any settlement, regardless of size. The word itself is a borrowing from Old French cite ‘town, city’, ultimately deriving from the Latin word civitatem (nominative: civitas) which meant ‘state, polity, political entity’, not unlike the Arabic medina. The Latin word for ‘city’ was urbs from which we get both urban ‘characteristic of city life’, and urbane ‘having the manners of townspeople, courteous, refined’. Civitas seems to have replaced urbs as Rome, the ultimate “urbs”, lost its prestige. The progeny of the Latin civitatem in modern Romance languages also mean ‘city’: Italian città, Spanish cuidad, Catalan ciutat, Portuguese cidade, and (older forms of) French cité. The history of this word in French is particularly interesting as it has changed its meaning from ‘polity’ to ‘city, town’ to the modern meaning of ‘citadel’ (as in Cité de Carcassonne, see picture), a meaning to which we will return below. The modern French word for ‘city’ is ville related to the words village (a loanword from Old French village ‘houses and other buildings in a group’) and villa (a loanword from Italian villa ‘country house, villa, farm’), both deriving from the Latin villa ‘country house, farm’.

The English word town refers to a settlement that is larger than a village but smaller than a city, although actual usage varies. The distinction between city and town appears to date from the 14th century. The word town descends from the Old English tūn meaning ‘enclosure, village’, which in turn derives from the (reconstructed) Proto-Germanic word *tūnan meaning ‘fence’. Its relatives in other Indo-European languages include the Dutch tuin ‘garden’ and Irish dún ‘fortress’. What do ‘garden’ and ‘fortress’ have in common? Both were originally enclosed, fenced, or fortified places.

The word borough developed from an earlier form burg which too meant ‘a dwelling or dwellings within a fortified enclosure’ (its dative singular form byrig is found in many place names as ‑bury). A number of older Germanic languages has a similar word: Old Frisian burg ‘castle’, Old Norse borg ‘wall, castle’, and Old High German burg and buruc ‘fortified place, citadel’. Modern German Burg ‘castle’ is another relative. The ultimate source of these words is the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form *bhrgh which meant ‘high’ and had derivatives in numerous languages referring to hills, hill forts, or fortified elevations: Old English beorg ‘hill’, Welsh bera ‘stack, pyramid’, Sanskrit bhrant– and Avestan brzant– meaning ‘high’, and even Greek Pergamos, name of the citadel of Troy. In English the meaning of burg and later borough shifted from ‘fortress’, to ‘fortified town’, to simply ‘town’ (especially one possessing municipal organization or sending representatives to Parliament). The Scottish English form is burgh, as in Edinburgh.

The connection noted above between ‘city’, ‘garden’, and ‘fence, enclosure’ is discernible also in the Russian words gorod ‘city’ (as in Novgorod) and ogorod ‘vegetable garden’, as well as in ograda ‘fence, enclosure’ and grad – the archaic word for ‘city’ found in such names of Russian cities as Leningrad, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, and many others. The form grad, which in Russian derives from Old Church Slavonic, is also the word for ‘city’ in South Slavic languages such as Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian. Another Slavic root for ‘city’ is mesto: forms of Serbo-Croatian have mjȅsto and mȉsto, Slovak and Slovenian have mesto, Czech and varieties of Sorbian have město. These words all derive from the (reconstructed) Proto-Slavic *město, meaning ‘place’.

So what is a city? It is a place, where a settlement has been founded, often enclosed and fortified, and sometimes – though not always – a self-governing polity. And the words for ‘city’ reveal as much.



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