Etymology of Soul

The oxford dictionary describes soul as the eternal and ethereal portion of a man or woman or child or animalThe word soul has Germanic origins. It comes primarily from the Old English sáwol and sáwel. Several modern languages use a word that is similar to the Old English, most notably German (seele). However, where did the word sáwol come from?

Sáwol was, in fact, derived from the Gothic saiwala. The word soul has some particularly complicated origins. You may want to check out An Introduction to the Gothic Language By Thomas O. Lambdin. You will find the word saiwala written in Gothic and Anglo-Saxon gospels (and, most likely, with a good dose of the word amen spattered across just about every page; enjoy!).

Curiously, the word saiwala (soul) is very similiar to saiwaz (sea) in Proto-Germanic. This can probably never be confirmed, and different books offer different explanations (none of them are fact), but perhaps our old friends in Magna Germania believed that the spirits of the sea would save them from the Romans, and their culture of mysticism united the two very similar words. What we really do know is that these old cultures treated the sea as the resting place of the spirit.

The word soul is widely used in the English language and has many variants, such as soulfulsoulmate, soulless, etc. Sophocles said that the soul that has conceived one wickedness can nurse no good thereafterEdward Dahlberg wrote that ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.

In Spanish, Portuguese and Galician you say alma; in Catalan, Latin and Italian: anima; in Czech: duše; in Dutch: ziel; in Esperanto: animo; in Estonian: hing; in Filipino: kaluluwa; in Finnish: sielu; in French: âme; in German: seele; in Hungarian: lélek; in Indonesian: jiwa; in Japanese: 魂 (tamashī); in Lithuanian: siela; in Norwegian: sjel; in Polish: dusza; in Romanian: suflet; in Turkish: ruh.


Gamillscheg, Ernst, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Französischen Sprache, Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1928.

Klein, Dr. Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1971.

Ringe, Don, From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, Oxford, 2006.