In this post I would like to talk about the word “knee” and the special meaning that this word has in Serbian and Irish language and culture.
The word knee has these meanings in English:
1, The joint or the region of the joint in the middle part of the leg between the thigh and the shank.
2. A piece of timber or metal formed with an angle somewhat in the shape of the human knee when bent. Any knee-shaped item or sharp angle in a line, “the knee of a graph”, an inflection point.
The etymology of the word knee says that the word knee comes from Middle English kne, from Old English cnēo, from Proto-Germanic *knewą, from Proto-Indo-European *ǵnéwo-, a thematic derivative of Proto-Indo-European *ǵónu. Compare Hittite genu, Latin genū, Tocharian A kanweṃ (dual), Tocharian B kenī, Ancient Greek gónu, (knee), gōnía (corner, angle), Old Armenian cunr, Avestan žnum, Sanskrit jānu.
It seems that all Indoeuropean languages have words for knee which come from the root “kn, gn”. Well all except Slavic and Celtic languages where the words for knee come from the root “kln, gln”.
In Celtic languages the words for knee are:
Old Irish: glún
Scottish Gaelic: glùin
Lithuanian: kelys, kelénys = knee
Latvian: celys = knee
Serbian (koleno, koljeno, kaljen, kalino, kolino, golino): generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house
Gaelic (glúin): generation, step in descent, step in pedigree
Serbian: Tri kolena = Three generations
Irish: Trí ghlúin daoine = Three generations of people
Serbian: Markovo prvo koleno = The first descendant(s) of Marc
Irish: An chéad ghlúin ó Marc = The first descendant(s) of Marc
Serbian: Oni su braća u trećem kolenu = they are related in the third degree; they are second cousins.
Irish: Is iad an treas glúin iad = they are related in the third degree; they are second cousins.
poklon – bending, bowing, gifting, gift
klanjati se – bend, bow, prostrate, kneel in front of someone
klečati – kneel
nakolenče – baby boy which is placed on the brides knees (lap) during the wedding ceremony to ensure that the first child is a boy.
bean ghlúine = woman knee = midwife
What is very interesting about the above meanings of the word for knee in Celtic and Slavic languges is that this can shed a new light on the etymology of the Irish word “clann”.
Serbian: Oni su iz istog “kolena” = They are from the same “clan”
The Irish word “clann” meaning children, family, offspring, followers, plant comes from Middle Irish: clann, Old Irish clann (alternative form cland). The official etymology says that this is a borrowing from Old Welsh plant, from Latin planta meaning plant, shoot, twig, sprout.
This is all great except that we need to explain how the Slavic word koleno with its meanings fit into all this. Is it possible that the Irish words “clan” (children, family, offspring, followers) and “glúin” (generation, step in descent, step in pedigree) and the Serbian word “koleno, koljeno, koleno, kaljen, kalino, kolino, golino” (generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house) all come from the same root “kln, gln” meaning knee? In this case “clan” would be just a specialisation of the word “glúin”. We can see that in Serbian we have both koleno and golino, so it is possible that the Irish also retained both “k” and “g” variant of this word.
In Serbian we also have these words: član, čljan, člin, člen, čljen, šljen, Sijan, Síjén, cjen, iklân, ikljen. These are all dialectic versions of the same word which means “member, part, generation” and are directly linked to the notion of group, family, clan. They all also come from the same “kln” root as “koleno” (knee, bend, generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house).
What is interesting is that this link between the knee and the generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house can also be found in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Latin:
Sanskrit: jānu = knee and janas = race, class of beings
Ancient Greek: γόνυ = knee and γένος = offspring, descendant, family, clan, nation, race, gender, any type or class
Latin: genu = knee and genus = birth, origin, kind, type, class, species (of animal or plant), race (of people), set, group (with common attributes)
I was just made aware that the same link exists in Basque, Finish and Saami languages too:
Basque: In Basque the word for generation (belaunaldi) is also formed with “knee” (belaun). It can be used directly with “belaun”, too, as in “belaunez belaun” (from generation to generation)
Saami: The word for knee and generation is also the same in all Saami languages, cf. the phrase “Aerpien maahtoe boelveste boelvide” (ancestral knowledge from knee to knee/ from one generation to the next) in South Saami.
Finish: The semantics of ‘generation’ and ‘knee’ are also connected in Finnish (related to Saami). The word for generation, ‘sukupolvi,’ is suku (family) + polvi (knee), and the word for ‘to descend from (genealogically)’ is ‘polveutua,’ a verbalised form of the nominal ‘polvi.’ The verb is strictly used for genealogical descent, not physical descent of any kind.
But this link only becomes visible through Slavic and Celtic words for knee and their meaning.
But where does this link between the knee and generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house comes from?
The English word genuine comes from Latin genuinus (“innate, native, natural”), from gignere, from Old Latin genere (“to beget, produce”), from genus meaning birth, origin, kind, type, class, species (of animal or plant), race (of people), set, group (with common attributes). The related word is gens which means Roman clan, related by birth or marriage and sharing a common name, tribe; people, family.
The English etymological dictionary says something interesting though about the etymology of the word genus. It says that there is a possibility that the etymology of this word could come “from Latin genu “knee,” from a supposed ancient custom of a father acknowledging paternity of a newborn by placing it on his knee.”
So is this where the link between the knee and the offspring, the next generation, family, clan, race, house comes from? In Irish the word clann doesn’t mean any children. It means paternally acknowledged, legitimate children. Was this custom of acknowledging that the child is yours by placing it on your knee once widespread among the Indoeuropeans? I believe so. During the tribal expansions and wars a lot of men died. This left a surplus of “available” women both from the victorious tribe and from the subdued tribes. Judging by the current paternal genetic map of Evroasia, the victorious warriors used this situation to their advantage, having sex with as many of these women as they could. This was done partially out of lust, but mostly as way of claiming the dead warriors’ property. The one who lay with a women laid a claim to her and her property. The final seal of ownership was stamped by the acknowledgement of the children produced from such unions. And that acknowledgement was done by father placing (laying) the child on his knees.
My offspring, my next generation, family, clan, race, my “koleno”, “glún”, “clan”, “gens” are the the children that sat on my knees. I acknowledge them and I give them my name. And I take their property as mine too.
Another clue why there is a link between the knee and generation, step in descent, offspring, family, clan, race, house can be found in Serbian saying that the knowledge and tradition are passed “sa kolena na koleno”. This literally means “from knee to knee” but it also means from one generation to the next generation, from grandparents and parents to their grandchildren and children.
One of my favorite childhood memories involve sitting on my parent’s or my grandparent’s knees and listening to their stories. My mother, a primary school teacher, told me fairy tales and taught me how to read using old battered “Bukvar” (Alphabet primer). My father, technical education teacher, told me stories about strange animals and strange faraway lands and taught me how things are made and how they work. My maternal grandmother, who was a housewife, told me stories about saints and taught me how to say prayers and curses and how to cook jams and preserves. My maternal grandfather, who was a baker, told me stories about the war and taught me how to make bread and cakes and play card games poker and tablić. My paternal grandmother, who was a housewife, told me stories about vampires and karakondžulas and other mythical creatures and taught me everything there is to know about farm animals, how to make cheese and how to feed silkworms. My paternal grandfather told me stories about the wild animals and birds and plants and taught me how to recognize animal tracks, how to make animal traps and how to hunt using a hunting rifle, how to use farm tools and how to make brandy and wine.
This is the way the knowledge and tradition was passed in the past. And this is how the family bond was built and preserved.
After all these years, the stories that I heard while sitting on my parents’ and my grandparents’ knees are still as fresh and as clear as if I heard them yesterday. And the things that I learned from them as a child I still remember today. And when my son was born, I held him on my knees and I told him some of the old stories that were passed down to me through time “from knee to knee”. And I added few new ones of my own. I hope one day he will have children of his own and will sit them on his knees and tell them some of the stories that he heard from me, and a lot of nice stories of his own…