World in a Word

My friend Nikola, who hails from Sveti Filip i Jakov, to the south of Zadar, Croatia, tells me that in his local Dalmatian dialect there is a word for “open sea” that only applies to the Adriatic: kùlaf.

When I first heard him pronounce it and looked at the spelling he provided, I thought it might derive from Greek or maybe Turkish, since it sounds and looks so different from any of the possibilities in either Croatian or Italian. Similar words have been preserved nearby, such as the kùlah of the Kornati Islands, as recorded by Vladimir Skračić in his 2021 Kornati kad su bili Kurnati: Intimni leksikon prošlosti arhipelaga). But Nikola, who is a specialist in onomastics, quickly explained that the word comes from golfo, as in the Golfo di Venezia (Gulf of Venice). That is a real phrase for a real place that exists on maps of the water around Venice today, but it has been hundreds of years since the part of the Adriatic near Sveti Jakov i Filip has been called that.

Predrag Matvejević mentions the word in his Mediterreanean, though one needs to read the passage where he brings it up carefully to avoid an easy confusion:

And the word [Ancient Greek] kolpos has not only left a trace in the dialect of the Elafit and Jelenji islands (where to go on a kulaf means to go fishing on the open sea) but also gave the word gulf first to Italian (il golfo di Venezia) and thence to all Mediterranean languages.

Predrag Matvejević, Mediterranean: a Cultural Landscape, tr. Michael Henry Heim, p. 150.

The potential misunderstanding comes from what it meant for the Ancient Greek word to have “left a trace” and “given” the word gulf to these others languages. Matvejević (a bit lazily) mixes etymology and usage. It’s not that the inhabitants of the Adriatic used to use Greek to communicate and this usage left a remnant in current dialectal forms. It’s that the word in question can be traced back to an Ancient Greek word, which originally meant something like a hollow space or pocket, including in a body of water, and so a bay or gulf.

The usage that seems to have been imprinted on local idioms and that has stuck around even amidst the predominantly Slavic-derived language of contemporary speakers is that of the Venetians, who wanted to claim the entire Adriatic as theirs, and for this they employed the intimate, almost quaint word golfo.

So this old Venetian word, from when Venice was a major power and basically controlled the open sea of the Adriatic, was transformed under local conditions over the centuries, coming to designate something unique that neither of the major regional languages has a single word for: the open sea of the Adriatic.

In the process, the “g” of Golfo lost its voicing, the long stressed “o” became a short, downwardly intoned “u,” the “l” and “f” basically remained their former selves, but the ending unstressed “o” moved forward, taking up an important place between the two final consonants and creating its own, unique, locally inflected music.

In a word: sound, sense, nature, history.

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