Brabant and other bants

Translated by Olivier van Renswoude from his original Dutch piece.

In Brabant and other, lesser-known regional names of the Low Countries and abroad, we come across the peculiar word bant. We may learn from the dictionaries that this means as much as ‘region, shire’, but that is usually all. The further origin is, in a manner of speaking, obscure. But it just might have something to do with cattle…

Bants everywhere
In light of the attestations –the oldest dating to the seventh century AD– Brabant is probably a corruption of Braak-bant, wherein the first element braak can be understood as ‘uncultivated, unploughed’ or otherwise as ‘thicket’. In both cases we may think of a neglected land. And that fits well, for at the end of the third century AD the Low Countries south of the Rhine were largely forsaken, before they were settled again by Germanic farmers from the Northern Netherlands and Westphalia (Germany). They must have given the name, since Westphalia too had a shire named Brabant.

Other well known bants were the medieval Testerbant, which covered a large part of the Dutch river region, and the Swifterbant, which lay farther north – indeed tester and swifter are old, Germanic words for ‘right, southern’ and ‘left, northern’ respectively. In France, to the east of Arras, there was an Ôsterbant (French Ostrevant) and off the coast of East-Frisia lay an island named Bant until just a few centuries ago. The word could also refer to smaller stretches of land, like the place Bant, which was swept away by the Zuiderzee (‘Southern Sea’) around 1700, or the hamlet Bant (now Terband) near Heerenveen, both in Frisia.

It is furthermore found in derivations like Old Dutch elibento, Old High German elibenzo ‘dweller of another land, stranger’ and Middle High German benz ‘lout, boor’ (properly ‘yokel’), and in a name or two like Old High German Banzleib, wherein leib means ‘son, descendant’ and is cognate with the Norwegian given name Leif. But the oldest instance of bant is in the Old Germanic ethnonym *Tūbantīz (latinised as Tubantes). This tribe is first mentioned in the first century AD and was apparently spread over two regions, since *tū- is an old prefix related to two. The ending *-īz was used to form ethnonyms.

But what is a bant really?
The connexion of bant with the cardinal directions gives an impression of officiality or legality, as if it did not pertain to just any region, but to a stretch of land that was explicitly under the authority of or in the ownership of a lord. It is therefore worth considering that bant belongs to Dutch binden ‘to bind’ like want ‘mitten’ belongs to winden ‘to wind’. For the semantic relationship we may draw a parallel with both Latin pāgus ‘shire; village’ to pangō ‘to fasten, fix’ and medieval Latin districtus ‘district, jurisdiction’ to distringō ‘to keep apart’ (a joining of dis- en stringō ‘to press, bind’). A bant would then properly be a land that was bound, as it were, by or to a lord.

It is a possibility, but perhaps a better interpretation could be devised. And provided that bant was not borrowed from a foreign language, but directly inherited from Old Germanic (the precursor to Dutch and English), the form in that language would have been *bantō – a feminine word.

Baltic relations
Since the Germanic languages and therewith Old Germanic are closely related to the Baltic and Slavic languages, it makes sense to look there for possible cognates of *bantō. And indeed, there are a few words in the Baltic languages which fit our word in both form and meaning. (On the understanding that the Germanic /t/ developed from older /d/, so that for instance Old Germanic *nautan ‘cattle’ is closely related to Lithuanian naudà ‘property’.)

For Lithuanian has bandà, meaning ‘cattle, herd of cattle’ and ‘cowshed’, and furthermore the derivation bandiniñkas ‘herdsman, cow-boy’ and ‘servant to whom a lord has given a plot of land as pay’. Latvian has –probably borrowed from Lithuanian– the words bañda and bañds, both ‘part of a field or its sowing given by a lord to his servant as pay, extra earnings’. And in a third Baltic language, the now extinct Prussian, we find the expression ni enbāndan ‘useless’. We may surmise that the basic meaning of these Baltic words was ‘benefit, usefulness, good’, and in particular ‘movable or immovable goods’ in the form of a ‘herd of cattle’ or a ‘plot of land or the benefit thereof’.

A similar semantic relationship can be found in the group of Middle Dutch noot ‘cattle’ and note ‘cultivation of land, yield of the land’ and Dutch genieten ‘to enjoy’, nut ‘use’, nuttig ‘useful’, benutten ‘to utilise’ and genoot ‘fellow, companion’ (properly ‘co-user’), all from the Old Germanic root *neut- ‘to make use of’.

An objection to the connexion with the Baltic words is that Old Germanic *bantō is apparently only attested with regard to land, not to cattle. It is therefore good to know that in Germanic many an animal name had a variant with the sa-suffix (which could denote familiarity, for one). Some examples:

*fuhō (Middle High German vohe) – *fuhsaz (Dutch vos, English fox)
*luhō (Old Swedish ) – *luhsaz (Dutch los, German Luchs) ‘lynx’
*berō (Dutch beer, English bear) – *bersaz (Middle Dutch bers)

In principle, therefore, beside *bantō there could have been formed a *bantsaz – or actually *bansaz, since the /t/ would automatically disappear in those surroundings. And there was in fact a *bansaz in Old Germanic, though only attested in the sense of ‘cowshed, barn’, like in German Banse, South-Hollandic boes, Scottish boose, Norwegian bås and Gronings baans- in baansder ‘large, often two-part barn door’. (Gronings is a Low German dialect spoken in the northeast of the Netherlands.)

Behaving like cows
But just like Lithuanian bandà only meant ‘cowshed’ by extension, so too Old Germanic *bansaz seems to have originally referred to (a herd of) cattle, and not to their accomodation. For there are derivations of the word in the regional languages of the Netherlands that seem to refer to the behaviour of cattle, like Kempens banzen ‘to walk about, walk through everything’ and Oerlian, Middle Limburgian banzele ‘to walk to and fro aimlessly’, as well as Gronings benzen ‘to low, moo or howl continually; to bark’, bìnzen, bènzen ‘to trot’ (e.g. kòien bènzen deur ‘t laand ‘the cows are trotting across the field’) and bìnzeln, bènzeln ‘to walk and trot (around)’; to chase away by force’. (For the vowel alternation, compare the derivation of Gronings hìnzen, hènzen ‘to initiate’ from hanze ‘guild’, or that of English men beside man.)

Moreover, Gronings might have traces of the s-less *bantō with regard to cattle instead of land. For beside the aforementioned baansder there are forms like baander, and there is a verb bentern ‘to drive wildly; to romp or frolic wildly; to walk at a brisk pace’ (e.g. kòien bentern in ‘t laand ‘the cows are romping in the field’), for which it is hard to think of a different origin. Beside that, English to banter might possibly be derived from it, if we might assume an earlier sense ‘to romp, frolic’. (Cf. Low German kenteren ‘to turn’ and its variant kanteren beside kant ‘edge, side’.)

There was, by the way, a third word in Old Germanic, fashioned with the locational sta-suffix: *banstaz ‘cowshed’ (Gothic bansts ‘barn’) is derived from *bantō like *awistaz ‘sheepfold’ (Old High German awist) from *awiz (English ewe). This word is sometimes identified with Middle Dutch banste ‘round basket, made of straw or rush’, but that is better kept separate.

In summary we can say that Old Germanic *bantō, like its cognate Lithuanian bandà, originally referred to good(s), both immovable (land and/or the benefit thereof) and movable (cattle). Through or thanks to the Germanic tendency to extend animal names with the sa-suffix, over time a distinction was made between *bantō ‘land, (real) estate’ on the one hand, and *bansaz ‘cattle’ on the other. In turn the former shifted its meaning to the more general ‘land, region’, ending up in many a regional name, while the other shifted to ‘cowshed’ and ‘barn’.

Finally, we may consider for the further origin of *bantō ‘benefit, usefulness, good’ that it is a so-called nasalised form to the root *bat-, *bōt- ‘to avail, be of use, be good’, which is amply present in Dutch: baat ‘benefit’, baten ‘to benefit’, beter ‘better’, best ‘best’, boete ‘penance, penalty’, boeten ‘to atone’ (properly ‘to make good again’) and the ethnonym behind the regional name Betuwe.

Postscript (February 20)
In various English dialects to banter may also mean ‘to cheapen, haggle’ (i.e. ‘to get a better price’), and with an adverb to banter down ‘to beat down in price; to get the better of in a dispute of any kind’ and to banter about ‘to potter about, bustle about’. In Yorkshire and Lancashire, moreover, we find to bant ‘to conquer, achieve, manage; to beat down in price’ and… bant ‘vigour, strength, endurance’ (he’s good for nowt, there’s no bant in him). This noun, through a meaning ‘bodily good, well-being’, may have developed from our *bantō ‘good’.

Just like Proto-Indo-European *dlh1ghús ‘long’ (Old Germanic *tulguz ‘lasting’) had a nasalised cognate *dlonh1ghos ‘long’ (*langaz) (see Kroonen), *bhHdús ‘beneficial, useful, good’ (*batuz) might have had a nasalised cognate *bhonHdos ‘beneficial, useful, good’. In Proto-Indo-European the feminine form of the adjective could also serve as an abstract noun, so that the feminine *bhonHdeh2 could develop into Old Germanic *bantō and Litouws bandà. There is, finally, a possibility that the precursor to Lithuanian bandà was borrowed from Old Germanic *bantō, but that has no consequences for the interpretation given here.
“River landscape with cows” (1640-50) by Aelbert Cuyp.

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