Words carry history: how tracing the name “chess” illuminated the game’s spread across world cultures
By the end of the 19th century, chess, with its current rules and pieces, was known throughout the world. European traders and settlers had taken it along to the New World and to those parts of the Old World where similar board games could be found. In its European variety, this ancient, transnational game had become a global phenomenon. It had been widely played back in the Middle Ages, and appears in numerous paintings and manuscripts from the period. So, it was quite clear that chess was old, but how old exactly? Some historians had sought to establish the origins of chess, but their findings were far from conclusive. Europe had to wait until an aficionado of this most traditional board game decided to solve the puzzle.
Harold James Ruthven Murray (1868-1955) received his degree in mathematics from Oxford’s Balliol College before becoming a schoolmaster at preparatory schools in England. He was the eldest son of the Scottish James Murray, the first lexicographer of the Oxford English Dictionary, and had helped his father with the immense task of providing the definitions and etymologies for all the entries in the most celebrated English language dictionary, contributing with impressive 27,000 quotations for the first edition. As a consequence, Harold received solid philological training since youth.
Throughout the 19th century, the new discipline of comparative philology had thrived with many scholars demonstrating the unexpected relationships between languages widely distanced through time and land. Its method consisted primarily of the comparison of the grammar of two or more languages in order to determine their degree of proximity, as well as their proper affiliation to a parent, or proto-, language. Evolving into the more advanced discipline of historical linguistics, comparative philology was one of the chief pursuits of men of letters of this epoch.
Thus, H. J. R. Murray was equipped with the knowledge and spirit of his time to investigate the origins and "trace the development of the modern European game from the first appearance of its ancestor" (Murray, 1913, p. 5) Nevertheless, the task at hand was not an easy one. Visiting all the lands and civilizations through which chess had passed was not a viable option. In his book The Immortal Game, David Shenk wrote:
Murray was smart enough, then, to take a shortcut. Besides the many European languages he already knew, he decided to learn Arabic and pored through medieval manuscripts that bore testimony to the presence of chess in the Muslim world. Thereby he found out that early Arabic and Persian traditions concurred in attributing the invention of chess to India, with its earliest mention in Indian literature dating from the beginnings of the 7th century CE (Murray, Id., p. 26). His thirteen years of research culminated in the formidable 900-page A History of Chess, published in 1913.
The bulk of Murray's work consisted of meticulously scouring old manuscripts in a dozen of languages. Ultimately, he was able to conclude confidently that chess entered western Europe no later than the 10th century.* A previous and readier step in the reconstruction of the game's migration involved its nomenclature. For its name in English, as well as in most European languages (French échecs, Italian scacchi, German Schach, Polish zsachy), pointed clearly to the Latin plural scaci (alternatively scachi, scacci). This was a Latin rendering (probably 9th century) of shah, the title of the Persian sovereign—since its inception in Europe, then, chess has been called the "game of kings" (ludus scaccorum). So, the name of the game in most modern European languages seems to have stemmed from a confusion with the name Arabs and Persians used to designate its most important piece. Shah, the piece, was promptly translated into the local word for king in the European languages. It was only in Spanish (ajedrez) and Portuguese (xadrez) that the Arabic name of the game (shatranj) was retained, possibly due to long-standing Muslim influence in the southern Iberian Peninsula. Shatranj was a borrowing from Persian chatrang, through regular sound changes, into Arabic. The Iranian name pointed further to the Sanskrit chaturanga, the game mentioned in documents from 7th century India. Chaturanga meant "the four members", an allusion to the game’s representation of the four divisions of the old Indian army: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry.
The names of some of the other chessmen provide further evidence of the game’s ancestry. For example, "rook" is an odd name for a piece that nowadays resembles a castle. The reason for it being called so is that "rook" entered English through Norman-French roc, which in turn derives from Arabic rukhkh, coming ultimately from Persian rukh, which meant "chariot". Indeed, the corresponding piece in the Indian chaturanga represented this division of the old Indian army. Wherever the game travelled, it took on the cultural structures of the the particular societies that played it. A quintessential Medieval European development is the bishop. Before coming into the hands of Europeans, the game had never featured a member of the clergy, it was exclusively a war game. The ecclesiastical presence in the game is apparently an innovation from Northern Europe. The bishop was initially an elephant (Persian pil, Arabic alfil) and, since Islamic law prohibited lifelike artistic depictions, the oriental chess sets imported to Europe had a piece with protruding points on its top representing a pair of tusks. The name of this piece shows great variation across European languages; after all, elephants were foreign to Europe. The English interpreted the cleft as a bishop’s mitre, whereas the French, who call the piece fou (fool) seem to have recognized a jester’s hat in it. In addition, fou may be a corruption of (al)fil. Al- stands for the definite article in Arabic, and it was preserved in the Spanish word for the piece: alfil, a word also found in older Portuguese texts. The Italians made it alfiere (standard bearer). In other Germanic languages the piece is referred to by a word meaning courier or runner (German läufer, Dutch loper, Danish lober etc.).
The oriental versions of chess had no queens. The corresponding piece in chaturanga represented a counselor or general of the Indian rajah. The Arabs called it vizier, and one of renderings of the word in Middle French was fierge (alternatively vierge), which allowed some writers of the period to associate the piece with the cult of the Virgin Mary that was flourishing in Western Europe. Eventually, the vierge would become the queen, the most powerful piece in the modern game. Marilyn Yalom, in The Birth of Chess Queen, draws a relation between the queen's development in chess and the rising power of Europe’s female sovereigns in the Late Middle Ages.
In conclusion, by contrasting the name of the game, its pieces and related terms across many European languages, besides learning Arabic in order to have access to medieval manuscripts from Muslim-dominated areas, Murray was able to retrace the path taken by chess in its westward march starting in India, being subsequently seized on by Sassanid Persia, then acquired by the Muslim conquerors, going all the way through Northern Africa, until finally penetrating Western Europe, carried along with the invading Moors by way of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Saracens through Italy. Although there is a minority of historians who claim that chess was handed down to India by the Chinese, Murray’s account of the spread of the game throughout the Old World remains the most accepted theory of where and when it first appeared. His quest for the origins of chess stands out as a vivid testimony of the rich historical treasure imprinted on these colorful day-to-day items we call words.
*The game was also diffused by other routes. The Byzantine world, for example, knew it through Persian caravans coming from the East.