The path of cheese-making through European linguistic and cultural history

Milk and dairy products have played an important role in human nourishment since ancient times. Unfortunately, our knowledge about how these products developed historically and spread geography is quite sparse, and archaeology can only occasionally furnish us with information about the development from the ancient Middle East through Greece and the Roman Empire into mediaeval Europe.

Quite a few words describing domesticated animals and dairy products are common to a lot of Indo-European languages, witnessing a long tradition of dairies. Looking at the development and distribution of these words, as well as at their etymology, gives us an opportunity to further our knowledge on which types of dairy products would have been produced in different geographical areas, and how they’ve spread.

Ostefremstilling efter traditionel schweizisk metode

The Danish word ost is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *i̯uHs-, meaning ‘liquid produce (like soup or gruel)’, and it seems likely that the Germanic people originally used the word to designate a kind of thick milk-porridge or some condensed dairy product, probably soured. An early Germanic form of the word, *jūstaz, was borrowed into Finnish to make their word for cheese: juusto—a word which is still used today of dairy and cheese products that are made through concentration by steam or through drying, either in an oven or over an open fire. This word, along with other food-related Germanic loan words into Finnish, indicates that there must have been close relations between the Balto-Finnic tribes and the early Germanic-speaking peoples, not least throughout Sweden, by way of the Bay of Bothnia.

Similarly, the presence and history of the English word cheese, derived from Latin caseus, makes it likely that the Northwest Germanic peoples have borrowed both words and knowledge about Roman cheese-making before the exodus of the Anglo-Saxons to England in the sixth and seventh centuries, a fact that is corroborated by a number of early English place names that include the word cheese. But the question remains how much the Germanic peoples knew about cheese and dairy products prior to their contact with the Romans. In order to shed some light on this, as well as to understand why only the West Germanic (and not the North Germanic) peoples borrowed the Latin word, we must take a closer look at the relationship between the Romans and the Germanic peoples in the borderland around the Rhine.

The talk will touch upon these subjects:

  1. A brief introduction to dairy, dairy products, and dairy technology
  2. The earliest written sources: cheese and dairy products in Greek literature, amongst Roman writers, and in Nordic manuscripts
  3. The origin and spread of Indo-European dairy words, mainly ost and cheese
  4. The exchange, migration, and development of a dairy culture in Northern Europe


About the lecturer

Nicolai Peitersen is a civil engineer (biochemistry) by education, and obtained his Ph.D. in 1975. He has worked in the food industry for three decades, primarily in the field of dairy product additives. Within the past few years, he has found interest in the topic of how linguistic exploration can teach us about the development of dairy products in particular, and how the knowledge and culture of cheese-making and dairy products may have spread throughout the peoples of Europe.