What is the meaning of the obscure verb belgicare or belgico?


Notker Balbulus of St. Gall (c. 840 to 912) writes this verb in a letter/epistle to a certain Lantbert, wherein Notker defines for him each of the famous Romanine letters: letters of the alphabet superscribed onto the early musical notation of Gregorian chant, in order to annotate the melody with reminders of its shape, in an age before the advent of diastematic notation.

Here are five lines from the letter, to give you a sense of Notker's word usage:

A ut altius elevetur admonet.

B, secundum litteras quibus adjungitur, ut bene id est multum extollatur vel gravetur sive teneatur belgicat.

C ut cito vel celeriter dicatur certificat.

D ut deprimatur demonstrat.

E ut equaliter sonetur eloquitur.

Sources: Gerbert's Scriptores, Migne's Patrologia Latina, Froger's 1962 critical edition

If Notker had written this in English, it might have read something like this:

A admonishes that it [the melody] be elevated aloft (i.e. a high note).

B begs that it be raised, lowered, or lengthened bountifully (bene = well), i.e., very much, according to the letters to which it is adjoined.

C certifies that it be said concisely or with celerity (i.e. a short note duration).

D demands that it be down-pressed (i.e. a low note).

E expresses that it be sounded equally (i.e. on the same pitch as the note before it).

But my question does not concern the musical meaning or signification of these five letters in Gregorian chant. Rather it concerns the verbs Notker uses, apparently to reinforce Lantbert's memory by also starting with the same letter.

"A admonet", "C certificat", "I insinuat", "N notificat", "O ordinat" "P predicat", etc. Or, in English, "A announces" its meaning, "T tells" its meaning, "S signifies" its meaning, "N notifies", "R reminds" and so forth.

But B? B 'belgicates' its meaning.

The Question

What the heck does 'belgicare' mean, and whence does that word hail? Any translator could say "B begs that the note be ..." and be done with it. But I want to know the origin of this word 'belgicat', found in no Latin dictionary.

B, secundum litteras quibus adiungitur, ut bene id est multum extollatur vel gravetur sive teneatur belgicat.

B, after (or according to) the letters to which it is adjoined, 'belgicates' that it [the musical note] be raised, lowered, or held [lengthened] bountifully [lit.: well, that is, much].

(The musical matter is not dubious. The music has combos of TB, AB, etc. meaning "raise or lengthen the note well".)

Some of the books I've seen, and available online information, and citations or quotations by authors commenting on this passage by Notker, admit that the word "belgicat" is of obscure origin. Although I've not examined either Froger's critical edition or the writings of Joseph Smits van Waesberghe on the Romanine letters, I haven't otherwise yet found anyone who has dared to explore the etymology of this word.


  • Could it be a mutation of or a neologism based on some other similar word in Latin?
  • Is it even a Latin word? Perhaps a Latinization of a foreign word, such as from whatever Notker's contemporary native language was? (He was late 9th-century Alemanni.) Or perhaps related to the Germanic root belganą?
  • Or might it be of some obscure continental Medieval Latin colloquialism that indeed had something to do with the Belgian people?

I want to ask the Latin network first. If we are confident here that this word has no legitimate Latin ancestry, then I may turn to the Linguistics network.


To clarify, when compared to the verbs in the other sentences, it is clear Notker chose "belgicat" over another word like "significat" for no other reason than that it begins with a B. It could have alternately been rendered as

B ut ... belgicat.

B ut ... bucinat.

B ut ... balat.

B begs that it be ...

B bellows that it be ...

B beseeches that it be ...

Yet it's hard to find Latin verbs beginning with B that could substitute for "it means" or "it signifies", aside from onomatopoetic animal sounds. Maybe that was a factor in his choice of this word "belgicare".

  • On second reading, the mention of the musical contents might be superfluous, since the question is not about a word unrelated to the music. I will leave it for now, but feel free to propose an edit if you think the question ought to be more concise. – Coemgenus Jun 16 at 13:16

Wonderful alphabet; thanks for introducing it.

Nothing conclusive; and if you've thought of all this before, apologies. In case it prompts thoughts from others with sharper insights, I offer three thoughts A,B,C.

A: belgicat, as you say does not appear in the dictionaries, but belgicas and gallicas are found and they look as if they could come from gallico to 'frenchify,' and belgico, to 'belgicise,' along with belgicam ?'let me belgicate'/?'I shall belgicate.' (You can find the same sort of terms used disparagingly of foreign styles of singing by Charles Burney in 1800, even 'bleating like goat;' although I can't remember which country's singing that described.) (source Rees Cyclopedia, 1813 which co-opted Burney as music critic)

B: In the ABC, the first few are straightforward (though by G it is getting pretty silly)

G. Ut in gutture gradatim garruletur, genuine gratulatur.
(to gradually growl in the gullet, genuine con-gratulations)

But, among the sensible ones at the beginning, B is the odd one out. .1. it is twice as long; .2. it is twice as complicated; A,C,D are simple instructions but B is "sustained or emphasised or attenuated," and .3. (in case any reader missed it) there's much the same in the special mention of B at the end of the alphabet, 'extremely so,'

quam de B. dixi "as I said about B"

And B also stands for 'Balbulus,' the descriptive name of Notker, referring to something odd about his voice. Not necessarily a stammer; did he warble or yodel? Was he exaggeratedly emphatic or did he mumble? Balbulus, according to his name, created Babel. Was he implying 'balbulat,' but never quite explicitly?

C: Notker (circa 900) is a real scholar. Even if he had not read 'Etymologies' by Isidore of Seville (circa 600), he would have shared the common prejudices on which it was based: that all people of Gaul are very pale, and the area is mountainous. Pliny also 4: 31: 17 mentions Belgica " From the Scaldis to the Sequana" i.e. From the Scheldt to the Seine. He says the Gauls are called "comata" meaning 'noted for their hair-styles')

"The whole of Gaul, that is comprehended under the one general name of Comata, is divided into three races of people,.."

On this evidence 'belgicate' could mean 'to make tripartite' (and there are three terms in the B entry) or 'mountainously' up and down, or 'extreme,' the furthest part of Gaul.

  • 1
    Notker is indeed considered to have stuttered, if modern scholarship reads his near-contemporary biographer Ekkehard IV correctly. – Coemgenus Jul 4 at 13:30
  • 1
    I realize this answer is highly speculative, and could be organized with a bit of purpose, but it does offer some good food for thought. Thanks. I've also updated my answer with clarity on the musical matter (which is tangent to the main question). – Coemgenus Jul 4 at 14:16

Where does belgicare come from?

A bit of research turned up this proposed etymology, which, though uncertain, is not unlikely:

Latin bēlgicāre, from Greek βήλγει (bēlgei) = to "bleat", from βῆ λέγειν (bē legein), to say "baa".

This onomatopoetic origin is suggested by Charles Dufresne DuCange, in his 1840 edition, Glossarium mediae et infirmae latinitatis, volume 1, page 640 (translation below is mine):

BELGICAT. Vide B. Littera. Fortasse ex imitatione vocis ovium confictum verbum. Vide H. Stephan. Thesaur. Ling. Gr. voce Βήλγω, edit. Didot. vol. 2. col. 228.

BELGICAT. See B, Letter. Perhaps a made-up word from imitation of the voice of sheep. See H. Stephanus, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, word Βήλγω, publ. Didot, volume 2, col. 228.

Notker's "bēlgicāre" is thus linked to a well-studied Greek word "βήλγω" ("bēlgō"). This word is probably an abbreviated or syncopated variant of "βὴλέγω" ("bēlegō") (more on this in a moment).

Definition of Βήλγει or βὴλέγει

Hesychius of Alexandria's Lexicon (5th or 6th century AD) has this entry, derived from a fragment of Aristophanes which we will see in a moment (transliteration is mine):

βὴλέγει [ bēlegei ] = βληχᾶται, ἦ θύειται

The first definition, "βληχᾶται", a verb from the Ancient Greek "βληχή", shares a Proto-Indo-European ancestor with English "bleat", and likewise, in its various forms, signifies the bleating of sheep (translation is mine):

βληχά = φωνὴ προβάτων = the sound/cry of sheep

βληχᾶται = φωνεῖ = to sound/utter/cry

βλήχημα = μωρός, προβατώδης = slow, sheeplike(?)

βληχήματα = βοαὶ προβατώδεις = sheeplike(?) cries

βληχήσασθαι = ὡς πρόβατα βοῆσαι = to cry out, as sheep

Etymology of βὴλέγει

Concerning the actual morphology of "βήλγει" (bēlgei) or "βὴλέγει" (bēlegei), see this entry by the 1830-1865 Didot publication of Henricus Stephanus' (Henri Estienne's) Thesaurus Musicae Graecae, Volume 2, page 228, which is referenced above by DuCange in his connection with Latin "bēlgicāre" (translation is mine):

Βήλγει ac Βηλήσσει, quod Hesych. exp. βληχᾶται, ab ead. profectum esse origine (a Βὴ) existimo : quemadmodum ipsum quoque βληχᾶσθαι et Balare ap. Latinos videntur ead. vocis μιμήσει ficta esse. Unde etiam colligi potest quae vera fuerit τοῦ η pronuntiatio, medium nimirum sonum habens inter α clarum et ε, proxime accedentem ad αι. Βήλγειν forsan per sync. dictum pro βὴ λέγειν.

"Βήλγει" and "Βηλήσσει", which Hesychius defines as "βληχᾶται", I estimate to be developed from the same origin (from "Βὴ"): in like manner this too, "βληχᾶσθαι", and also "balare" among the Latins, are seen to be likewise formed for a mimicking (μίμησις) of the voice. Hence it can also be gathered what the true pronunciation of the 'η' would be, undoubtedly having a middle sound between a clear 'α' and 'ε', nearly approaching 'αι'. "Βήλγειν" is perhaps so-called for "βὴ λέγειν" [= to say "baa"], via syncope.

And so this sense of 'baaing' or 'bleating' might conceivably have been usable in the more general sense of 'uttering' or 'crying', as we saw from Hesychius above. Following are some other places where "βὴ λέγειν" appears not as one word (translations taken from this blog).

Cratinus, 519 – 422 BC (Source: Cratinus fragment 43 in Theodor Kock's Comicorum atticorum fragmenta):

ὁ δ᾿ ἠλίθιος ὧσπερ πρόβατον βῆ βῆ λέγων βαδίζει.

The last one walks forward saying "baa baa" like a sheep.

Aristophanes, c. 446 – 386 BC (not to be confused with Aristophanes of Byzantium, who authored a Lexicon), has the following in one of his fragments (Source: Aristophanes fragment 642 in Kock; and also here):

θύειν με μέλλει καὶ κελεύει βῆ λέγειν.

He is about to sacrifice me and is commanding [me] to say "baa".

There is also the Suda, a well-known 10th-century compilation from a variety of earlier sources, containing words and definitions from Greek lexicons going back through prior centuries, including those by writers nearly contemporary with Notker, such as Saint Photius the Great and the chronicler George Hamartolus. This blog article, which I linked earlier, quotes from the Suda, s.v. Βή (beta, 240):

Βή τὸ μιμητικὸν τῆς τῶν προβάτων φωνῆς, οὐχὶ βαὶ λέγουσιν Ἀττικοί. Κρατῖνος Διονυσαλεξάνδρῳ: ὁ δὴ λοίσθιος ὥσπερ πρόβατον βὴ βὴ λέγων βαδίζει.

Bē: the mimicking of the voice of sheep, since the Attics do not say "bai". Cratinus in the Dionysalexandros: "The last one walks forward saying "baa baa" like a sheep."

Possible sense of pleading?

The above quotes by Cratinus and Aristophanes touch on the sacrifice of sheep, which bleat before their slaughter. For Notker, perhaps the notion of begging or bleating for one's life is comprehensible enough to justify describing the significative letters of Early Medieval Gregorian chant notation as pleading or bleating for the singer to heed the meaning of the notation.

Employing a word of such meaning would not be uncharacteristic of Notker, who employed a word of similar meaning "mendicando" in his entry on the letter M.

I suspect this proposed sense of pleading might be somehow related to the meaning of Hesychius' other definition for "βὴλέγει": "θύειται", which we saw above. This word looks and sounds related to "θύειν", the word we saw in Aristophanes above, meaning to sacrifice.

However, I hesitate to speculate any further. I leave these entries to be deciphered by those who know Ancient Greek better than I do:

θύει = μαίνεται; ἀπάρχεται, ἐνθουσιᾷ

+θύειται = ἐνθύνει, εὐφραίνεται, θύηται

Spelling of βῆ λέγειν, bēlgicāre with a long ē

Regarding the spelling of the "baa" itself:

In any case, eta (η) translates through convention into a Latin long ē. Although the macron would be superfluous in Early Medieval times, it still helps to reveal this proposed lineage of "bēlgicāre" from "βήλγειν" ("bēlgein"), ultimately from "βῆ λέγειν" ("bē legein").

Meaning of "bēlgicāre", in light of all the above

If DuCange's etymology is justified, linking 'belgication' to the crying of sheep, then Notker's quote can be understood thus (I have rearranged the words, and omitted some, to make the sense more clear):

B ut bene extollatur vel gravetur sive teneatur belgicat.

B 'belgicates' that [the sound] be extolled, gravened, or held well [bene].

B 'bleats' that [the sound] be extolled, gravened, or held well [bene].

Hence I find "beg" to be a suitable English translation, considering the connotations of the sheep bleating in the face of certain death, as discussed above. On the other hand, 'belgication' is quite catchy in English, if you ask me.

Why did Notker choose this word?

Here is my speculative answer.

What is certain is the paucity of alternative Latin verbs available to him for the letter B, as I said in the "Addendum" in my original post. In English we could say the letter B "bespeaks", "beseeches", "begs", "badgers", or "bellows". But in Latin see how few verbs of similar meaning are at one's disposal (source):

Other B verbs exist, but they would not meet Notker's criterion for verbs whose meanings connote to call for something (e.g., "benedicere" = "to bless", "bellare" = "to wage war"). As for the B verbs above, almost all of them connote various noises and sound imitative. By comparison, the verbs for the other letters in Notker's list ("admonet" = "admonishes", "eloquitur" = "speaks", "expetit" = "petitions", "ordinat" = "orders") seem to have a bit more 'class'.

So it seems Notker had not many good B verbs to choose from. We can see him stretching his diction in other letters too:

L ut levare laetat. [= L elates (or enthuses) to lift up.]

S susum vel sursum scandere sibilat. [= S sibilates (hisses) to scale upwards.]

Y nihil apud Latinos ymnizat. [= Y hymnizes (sings) nothing among the Latins.]

"Bēlgicāre", on the other hand, is found nowhere else in the entire transmission of the Latin language (as far as I can tell). It is likely, then, that Notker borrowed the word straight out of Greek, and gave it a Latin formation. (I suppose "bēlgere" might have sufficed as well.)

But why then a foreign word? Perhaps because the word's foreignness takes off any edge that the more native words might carry. Maybe Notker's rationale for coining this word was simply to mitigate a potential awkwardness of "bēbāre" and an arguable excess of "boāre" or "būcināre", by choosing a foreign root instead. Compare, in English, the awkwardness of

B baas/babbles/blathers that the sound be lifted, lowered, or lengthened well ...

with the following, where the use of a foreign word, despite its animalistic meaning, is more likely to come across as poetic and philological:

B belgicates that the sound be lifted, lowered, or lengthened well ...

For another example of this cognitive phenomenon, compare a translation of "Y hymnizat" with a native English Y verb to that with a simple Anglicization from the original verb's Greek root:

Y yodels/yells nothing among the Latins.

Y hymnizes nothing among the Latins.

The former diction is vulgar and jarring. The latter, albeit strange, is understandable and acceptable because of its familiar root and its technopoetic Greek morphology in the context of the whole letter. "B belgicat", although it may lack a root familiar to Latin speakers, is nevertheless acceptable to a reader of Notker's letter, because it is Tolkienesque wordplay.

Now, I don't know Notker's vita, whether he was learned in Greek, or if he was a linguist or philologist. "Belgicat", after all, is a farther stretch of diction than "hymnizat", whose Greek root was at least recognizable to first-millennium Latins.

Still, in defense of my hypothesis, I posit these two facts:

  • Notker's whole letter is wordplay. From A to Z, each line is an attempt to define a letter's signification in the notation of Gregorian chant with nouns, verbs, and adjectives that begin with that letter, in order to mnemonically reinforce the significative meanings in the mind of his reader.
  • One might also consider Notker's profound role in the establishment of the sequence hymn in Latin liturgics: a form of hymn that was quite unusually constructed, by fitting new lyrics, one note per syllable, to the notes of a pre-existing melisma in Gregorian chant, such that the text accent corresponded to rhythmic downbeats and high neighboring notes, and the word boundaries to the neum divisions in the melisma's musical notation.

I think it should be no surprise to us, then, if Notker was perhaps indeed creative enough to have intentionally formed such a word in the manner I traced above.


Confidence in this hypothesis might come from a better knowledge of Notker's life, as well as of his experience of language as manifested in his works. For now, we can summarize the hypothesis as follows:

"bēlgicāre" = to 'belgicate', to cry out = Latinized from Greek "βῆ λέγειν" = to bleat, to say "baa"; may have a connotation of begging or pleading. Coined perhaps for the scarcity of appropriate Latin verbs beginning with B that mean "to signify" or "to call for".

I hereby also propose a new word for the English language.

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