Yule Is Not The Wheel

by Raven Kaldera

Iím going to add even more confusion to your ongoing debate over the origin of the word "Yule". As a part-time linguist (I do it as a hobby, not as a professor, so no one is paying me) Iíve studied some Indo-European and Old Germanic, and the story of that word is rather complicated.

Letís start with our linguistic ancestors, the Indo-Europeans. At first it was thought that these were the fierce, horseback-riding Kurgan tribes that conquered the settled farming tribes everywhere form Europe to India, but now it seems that the original Indo-Europeans were actually the farmers that were being conquered by the (later) horsemen, as their word for "horse" referred to a meat animal, and they had no word "to ride" that horse. They did, however, have words for plow, oxen, barley, beans, etc. And they had a word, "kwel", meaning "to turn", and its derivative "kwekwlo", meaning "circle".

Nope, before you get carried away, Iím afraid this is not the root word for Yule. It is, however, the root word for "wheel". However, when the Indo-Europeans left their homeland (putatively the Danube river valley, from what we can tell from their words for trees and animals and climate) and pushed northwest, they reached Scandinavia around 3800 B.C. And they didnít have wheels, using wagon sledges instead. There they found two peoples already living in the area. The first bunch, which they passed and kept going, was the Finnish/Saami people, whose language comes from the Finno-Ugric language tree and is unrelated. The second folk - and thatís what they called themselves, the "folkam", meaning "people" - were apparently aboriginal Scandinavians.

We have little idea what they were like, although their pottery and artifacts have turned up in archaeological digs in Denmark. They are referred to as the "Ertbolle people", named for a dig site, and they were part-time farmers and reindeer followers, hunting and gathering to supplement their meager crops. And they were vastly outnumbered by the migrating Indo-Europeans, whose plows and oxen could farm more land and feed more people.

We know that our linguistic ancestors settled in and borrowed a few dozen words from them, such as "folkam", and "husam" (house) and "skuldar" (shoulder) and many others. Since they also integrated the words "wif" and "kiltha" (child), it is likely that they intermarried with them. At any rate, some time later, the aboriginal language had died out and everyone was speaking altered Indo-European, in its "new" form Old Germanic, which eventually spawned German and English and all the Scandinavian tongues.

OK, OK, Yule, Iím getting to it. We donít know much about what these aboriginals believed - the Norse gods are all Indo-European as far as we can tell. Tiw comes from the same root as Zeus, etc. Even the Vanir names seem to be Indo-European. We do know that the aboriginals had a creation myth that was different from everyone elseís, as it said that the world was created from a frozen well of ice, which was melted by warm winds from the south. Some experts believe that this would imply that they had been there since the Ice Age, since that pretty well describes what it must have been like to watch it melt away. One thing we do know, though: They celebrated the winter solstice more thoroughly than their Indo-European counterparts (which makes sense in their more northerly, cold climate) and they called it "Yehwla", from whence cometh "Yule".

Wheels, I am afraid, did not reach Europe until about 2500 B.C., when they were introduced by southern neighbors coming up from the Mediterranean. Then they were referred to as "hwehulaz", from the Indo-European "kwekwlo" (Old Germanic turned all the Ks to H). So the word Yule is actually older than the word Wheel. There are other instances of similarly absorbed aboriginal words which sound like I-E words but arenít, such as the I-E "ker", meaning horn, from whence cometh horn, uni/corn, cornucopia, and Cernunnos; this sounds like the aboriginal "ker" meaning "bent", from which we get crooked, crook, criminal, creek, and cripple. The two words sat side by side in the language and developed differently.

So thatís what I can find out. The word Yule is older than Christmas, or Odin, or wheels, or any of that, and we have no evidence of any word that it came from that meant anything other than The Winter Solstice. It may actually go back to the Ice Age, although thereís really no existing way to prove or disprove that. For a good read on the history of Indo-European and Old Germanic, I recommend Robert Claiborneís "Our Marvelous Native Tongue"; itís the least boring and academic of the linguistic books I can recommend to amateurs who donít have time to decipher texts in old foreign languages. If you want more, his bibliography is awesome.

In hopes of understanding all around,

Raven Kaldera