[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]
Lat. sĕrvus: Eng. serf ~ Sp. siervo
As we have seen, the word for ‘Slav, Slavic person’ in Medieval Latin, sclavus, came to be used for a person who was the property of another, a ‘slave’, both in Medieval Latin and in all European languages, whether they descended from Latin—the Romance languages, such as Spanish—or not—mostly the Germanic languages, such as English. But, as we saw earlier, slavery was also practiced in the Ancient Roman world, which was actually a slave society, not just a society that had slaves. So, what were these slaves called in classical Latin?
The word for ‘slave’ in Latin was masc. sĕrvus – fem. sĕrva (sĕrv‑us/a), which is the ancestor of the Spanish word siervo/a and of the English word serf, and is also at the root of the cognates Eng. servant ~ Sp. sirviente. In this section and the following ones, we will explore these words and a few others that contain the Latin root sĕrv‑. The genitive wordforms were masc. sĕrvŏs / fem. sĕrvae, and the accusative masc. sĕrvum / fem. sĕrvam. In addition, Latin had a related adjective sĕrvus/a/um that has bee defined as ‘slavish, servile, subject’ and, in legal speech, ‘liable to certain burdens, subject to a servitude’ (L&S), as in the expression homo sĕrvus ‘servant man, slave’.
Dictionaries define Lat. sĕrvus/a () in a number of ways, e.g. ‘a slave, servant, serf, serving-man; a female slave, maid-servant’ (L&S). Lat. sĕrvus/a has been translated into English though the years as either slave, servant, or serf, even though servant and serf do not have the same connotations of the individual in question being the property of another the way that the word slave does, or Lat. sĕrvus had, as we shall see. Lat. sĕrvus/a is usually translated into Spanish as either siervo, which is a patrimonial word that descends from Lat. sĕrvus, or as esclavo.
It is not clear what the source of Lat. sĕrvus/a in Proto-Indo-European was, though some have reconstructed it as *ser-wo-s, meaning ‘guardian’, which was perhaps formed from the verbal root *ser‑ ‘to watch over, protect’. This etymology is by no means uncontroversial. We will get back to this topic when we discuss the two verbs that are presumably derived from this root.
As we just said, Spanish inherited the Latin word sĕrvus/a as siervo/a, a patrimonial word, that is, one that was transmitted by word of mouth, not borrowed from Latin later on, which is how Spanish got half of its Latin vocabulary (cf. Part I, Chapter 1). Actually, the masculine siervo came from the accusative wordform sĕrvum of the Latin word, not from the nominative sĕrvus, and the feminine sierva came from the accusative wordform sĕrvam, not from the nominative wordform sĕrva. The sound changes we see are the expected ones. The most noticeable one was that the stressed Latin short ‑ĕ‑ changed to the diphthong ‑ie‑ in Old Spanish, as it always did without exception in patrimonial words (cf. Part I, Chapter 10; when Latin short ĕ was unstressed, it became Sp. e, a contrast that we can observe in many stem-changing verbs). The pronunciation of the letter 〈v〉, which was [w] in Latin, also changed, to [β] in Spanish, even though the spelling did not. The accusative inflection ‑ŭm, as always, changed to ‑o in Spanish, by the loss of the final consonant and the lowering of short ŭ to o, two other very regular and totally expected sound changes in the transition from Latin to Old Spanish.
Sp. siervo continued to mean ‘slave’ in the early Middle Ages, while the practice of slavery lasted, though at some point it started to compete with the synonym esclavo, as we saw earlier in the chapter. After the word esclavo fully took over the meaning ‘slave’, siervo continued to be used in a few specific contexts such as the Biblical one, the medieval bondage condition of ‘serf’, and in particular, religious submission to God, since there was a long tradition of Christians seeing themselves are God’s slaves, as in the expression siervo de Dios which refers to a ‘person who serves God and keeps his precepts’ (DLE). Another common term in Spanish Catholic tradition is sierva de María ‘Mary’s slave/servant’ and there are many female religious orders whose name includes the phrase siervas de María.[i]
One specific type of siervo was known in earlier times more specifically as siervo de la pena ‘servant of punishment’, which referred to people sentence to life working in mines or other public works. Sp. siervo was used in the latter Middle Ages with the meaning ‘serf’, that is ‘a member of the lowest feudal class, attached to the land owned by a lord and required to perform labor in return for certain legal or customary rights’ (AHD). To specify this sense of siervo one may use the phrase siervo de la gleba ‘serf’, a legal term that the DLE defines as ‘slave attached to estate who remained attached even if the owner changed’. These were rural slaves of local extraction, not imported, who thus did not look different from non-slaves. In other words, one crucial difference between medieval serfs and the slaves of ancient Rome or the American slaves of later times is that medieval serfs (Sp. siervos de la gleba) were locals and physically and culturally identical to non-serfs. The English word serfdom (Sp. servidumbre), developed in English from the noun serf, referred to ‘the state of being a serf or the system by which the serfs worked on the land’ (CALD) in the Middle Ages under the system of feudalism or the feudal system, which was ‘a political and economic system of Europe from the 9th to about the 15th century, based on the holding of all land in fief or fee [Sp. feudo] and the resulting relation of lord to vassal and characterized by homage, legal and military service of tenants, and forfeiture’ (AHD).[ii]
Serfdom and feudalism are most strongly associated with medieval France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire (approximately, modern Germany and northern Italy), not so much with other European lands, including the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. The practice of tying tenant farmers to the land actually goes back to the late Roman period, the 4th century, but feudal serfdom did not start in Europe until the 9th or 10th century, after the breakup of the Carolingian Empire. In Medieval Iberia, and in particular Castilian lands, most workers were free workers, not serfs, so serfdom was not as big a part of society in Iberia (what would become Spain and Portugal) as it was in other parts of Europe. One idea that was borrowed from French feudalism in Hispania was that of regarding the various lands of a king as patrimonial possessions, something which resulted in many divisions of territories during the Middle Ages.[iii]
The Spanish word siervo/a was not used to mean ‘slave’ in modern contexts after the introduction of the word esclavo/a, such as to refer to the slaves of the colonial period of the Spanish Empire. For that, only the word esclavo/a is used, as we have seen. Even to refer to slaves in the ancient world, the word esclavo/a is the one preferred except in contexts in which the word siervo/a may be used, either to keep with tradition or else in order to sanitize the practice in the Bible, for instance.
The cognate of Sp. siervo/a in French is the patrimonial word masc. serf [ˈsɛʀ(f)], fem. serve [ˈsɛʀv]. This word only has the medieval ‘serf’ meaning, and by extension it is also used to refer to the serfs in Russia and other European countries, whose serfs were not emancipated until well into the 19th century (e.g. Russia: 1861; Spain: 1812, 1837; Austro-Hungarian Empire: late 18th century; France: 1789).[iv] Only rarely is the French term serf used to refer to other slaves (synonymous with esclave, ilote), and even less commonly for other figurative senses in which the meaning is more like ‘servant’. For those senses of Sp. siervo/a, French uses derived the terms serviteur or servante, as we shall see, cognates of Sp. servidor and sirviente respectively (see below).
English borrowed the word serf from French in the late 15th century to refer to feudal peasants tied to the land at a time when there were pretty much no such serfs in Great Britain anymore. As we saw earlier, the main meaning of this word in English refers to the Middle Ages, as in the first sense given for this word in the American Heritage Dictionary: ‘a member of the lowest feudal class, attached to the land owned by a lord and required to perform labor in return for certain legal or customary rights’ (AHD). As in the case of this word’s French source, this meaning can be extended to similar practices in modern times, such as in 19th century Russia: ‘an agricultural laborer under various similar systems, especially in 18th- and 19th-century Russia and eastern Europe’ (AHD). The third sense for the word serf to be found in this dictionary is a more general one, which is also a less common one, namely ‘a person in bondage or servitude’ (AHD). Note, however, that the word serf is not used in English to refer to a person in bondage or servitude in the Bible, for instance. Most dictionaries only give one single meaning for this word, the medieval, feudal sense, as the following one from the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary: ‘a member of a low social class in medieval times who worked on the land and was the property of the person who owned that land’ (CALD).
As we mentioned, the word serf was introduced into English from French at a time when the practice of serfdom had all but disappeared from England. During the time of the practice the primary words for a serf in Anglo-Latin were nativus, villanus, or servus, and in Middle English, bond(e). The word bond(e) meant ‘serf, tenant farmer, slave’, and it comes from Old English bonda ‘householder’, which was either a native English word or else it came from an Old Norse cognate bondi or boandi ‘free-born farmer’, a noun derived by conversion from the identical present participle of the verb boa ‘to dwell’. An extended term for a male serf was bondman and for a female one, bondwoman. These words are now obsolete with those meanings, but one compound that has survived is bondservant, a combination of bond and servant created in the 16th century to translate words for ‘slave’ in the English translation of the Bible (see below).
From the word serf, English derived the word serfdom by means of the suffix ‑dom to name the practice, whose legal underpinnings as we said go back to the Roman emperor Constantine in 332. As we will see below, the Spanish equivalent of Eng. serfdom is servidumbre, which is also a possible translation of Eng. slavery. The word serfdom, however, is not attested until the middle of the 19th century (OED), when it replaced an earlier coinage made with the suffix ‑age, serfage, in the previous century. The Britannica Encyclopedia describes the practice of serfdom as follows:
condition in medieval Europe in which a tenant farmer was bound to a hereditary plot of land and to the will of his landlord. The vast majority of serfs in medieval Europe obtained their subsistence by cultivating a plot of land that was owned by a lord. This was the essential feature differentiating serfs from slaves, who were bought and sold without reference to a plot of land. The serf provided his own food and clothing from his own productive efforts. A substantial proportion of the grain the serf grew on his holding had to be given to his lord…
The essential additional mark of serfdom was the lack of many of the personal liberties that were held by freedmen. Chief among these was the serf’s lack of freedom of movement; he could not permanently leave his holding or his village without his lord’s permission. Neither could the serf marry, change his occupation, or dispose of his property without his lord’s permission. He was bound to his designated plot of land and could be transferred along with that land to a new lord. Serfs were often harshly treated and had little legal redress against the actions of their lords. A serf could become a freedman only through manumission, enfranchisement, or escape.[v]
As we saw before, the word sĕrvus was common in the Latin Bible, which was the only version of the Bible available in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. The official translation of the Bible into Latin that the Western European (Catholic) Christian Church in use until the 16th century (before the rise of Protestant Christian groups) used the word sĕrvus to translate the words for ‘slave’ in the original Biblical books written in Hebrew and Greek, primarily Hebrew עֶבֶד (‘éved) and Ancient Greek δοῦλος (doûlos). When the Bible was translated into the modern languages in the 16th century, Spanish translations used the word siervo, the descendant of Lat. sĕrvus, and English translations typically used the word servant, a loanword from French (see below). To this day, however, there is controversy as to how to best translate these terms from the Bible. The ESV (English Standard Version) Translation Oversight Committee met in the summer of 2010 to discuss how to best translate these two Hebrew and Greek terms and the following is part of the resolution they came up with:[vi]
A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context. Where absolute ownership by a master is in view (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, “bondservant” is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), “servant” is preferred. Footnotes are generally provided to identify the Hebrew or Greek and the range of meaning that these terms may carry in each case.
As we can see here, these modern-day translators of the Bible use three terms to translate the traditional Ancient Greek and Hebrew terms for ‘slave’, depending on the type of slavery they think is meant: slave, bondservant, and servant. One unmentioned problem that these translators probably have with using just one term, slave, is the negative connotations that this word has today and the fear that people will see too clearly that the Bible approves of slavery. That is why a term like servant that does not have the meaning that the person in question is owned by another, is often preferred to refer to servitude (slavery) that was presumably ‘voluntary’, although how voluntary it was is quite questionable, or not as cruel as modern slavery was in the Americas, which is the type of slavery most modern people are familiar with. The same thing is true of the term bondservant which is according to these ‘experts’ the best way to translate the Ancient Greek word for a ‘slave’ who might have some rights and whose term of servitude is not necessarily their full natural life.
The question of how to translate the words in the Bible that mean ‘slave’ is not new and the solutions have varied over time. The early 17th century King James version of the Old Testament used the word slave only once for all the about 800 instances of the word for ‘slave’ in Hebrew. In the translation of the New Testament, the word slave is used in only a few of all the instances of the word for ‘slave’ in Greek, namely doulos, even though this word only means ‘slave’ and not anything else like ‘servant’, ‘hired hand’, ‘helper’ or anything like that, as the King James translation would have us believe. There have been dozens of English translations of the New Testament since the King James version of 1611 and very few have consistently or even mostly translated Ancient Greek doulos into English as slave. A major reason for this has been said to be the stigma associated with slavery in the 17th century, for the images the word slave evokes in modern times, such as people in chains, are not the same as those ancient people had about slaves, since, after all, the Jewish people were themselves slaves in Egypt, for example. Related to this is the fact that in the 17th century, slavery was a brutish and racist institution that dehumanized the slave in ways that were different from the normalcy with which slaves were seen in ancient times (even if they weren’t always treated much better). There is also the fact that modern Bible translators for the most part were not translating from the original ancient Greek, but from its Latin translation, which was sĕrvus, and it may have felt natural to translate this word as servant, a cognate word, even though the meaning was not the same. After all, as we will see below, the main meaning of the word servant in English is ‘one who is privately employed to perform domestic services’ (AHD).
The issue of slavery and its use as a metaphor of the relationship of Christians to Christ is pervasive in the New Testament, but readers of most English translations cannot see it as could readers of the original. There is plenty of evidence that early Christians saw themselves as slaves, not just mere servants, of Christ. The Ancient Greek word κύριος (kyrios) that meant ‘lord, master, guardian, ruler, owner’ and even ‘slave owner/master’, is the word used in the original New Testament Koiné Greek to refer to Jesus Christ. This was translated into Latin as domĭnus, which had an equivalent meaning, namely ‘the master of a house, head of the household, lord, master’ (Cassell), and was derived from the root of the word domus ‘house’ (Lat. domĭnus is the source of Sp. don, and the feminine Lat. domĭna is the source of Sp. doña). Lat. domĭnus was later translated into English as lord and into Spanish as señor (cf. Part II, Chapter XX). This master-slave relationship of Christians to God was not new to Christianity, however, for in the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible), the Jews were also considered to be slaves of the Lord God, as when God is said to have told Moses: ‘The Israelites are My slaves whom I brought out of the land of Egypt’ (Lev 25:55).
In the preceding section we mentioned that the greeting ciao derived in a variety of Latin from a very particular use of the word for ‘slave’, namely schiavo. It seems that the usage of this word in this particular way may have had a precedent in European languages in the Middle Ages, one that persists today in some varieties of these languages. In central European languages that were at one time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, variants of the word sĕrvus came to be used as a greeting or parting word, much like ciao did in Venetian. Thus, we have German Servus, Slovak Servus; Slovene, Serbian and Croatian Serbus or Servus (in Cyrillic: Сербус or Сервус), Hungarian Szervusz (often shortened to szevasz, szeva, szia, or szió), Polish Serwus, Austrian German Servus or Seavas, Romanian Servus, Slovene: Serbus/Servus, Czech Servus, and Ukrainian Сервус (Servus). The use of this word as a greeting is more popular or widespread in some countries than others, and even in some regions of some countries than others.[vii] It is thought that this use of the Latin word sĕrvus in these languages stems from an ellipsis of the Latin expression servus humillimus, that meant ‘(your/I am) most humble servant’, to which the phrase domine spectabilis ‘noble lord’ could be added. The word may have arisen as an extremely polite formula, though there was probably an element of facetiousness involved in its becoming a common expression.
 The original says: ‘m. y f. Persona que sirve a Dios y guarda sus preceptos’ (DLE).
 The DLE defines this phrase thus: ‘siervo de la pena. m. El que para siempre era condenado en juicio a servir en las minas u otras obras públicas’ (DLE).
 The original says: ‘Der. Esclavo afecto a una heredad y que no se desligaba de ella al cambiar de dueño.’ (DEL). The word gleba is a rare term today that basically means ‘cultivated land’ or ‘fields’. It comes from Lat. glēba, earlier glaeba, that meant ‘a small piece or lump of earth, a clod’ and, by extension, ‘land, soil’, just like its Spanish descendant gleba, which is a 15th century loan from Latin.
 Hebrew of עֶבֶד (‘éved) is a masculine noun. In Biblical Hebrew, there are also two other terms for ‘slave’ that are used only for female slaves, אָמָה (‘amá), the female counterpart of עֶבֶד (‘éved), and שִׁפְחָה (šip̄ḥā) ‘maidservant’. According to a recent study by Edward J. Bridge, ‘אָמָה predominates in legislation and marriage contexts; and שִׁפְחָה predominates in Genesis and when generally designating female slaves’, cf. Bridge, E. J. (2012). Female slave vs female slave: המאand החפש in the Hebrew Bible. Journal of Hebrew scriptures, 12, 1-22. . https://doi.org/10.5508/jhs.2012.v12.a2 (retrieved on 2020.11.18). Some have argued, however, that shifcha refers to a non-Jewish female slave, whereas amah refers to a Jewish female slave. Although this may be true in some contexts, matters seem to be quite a bit more complicated, cf. https://ohr.edu/8234.
[vi] Source: http://static.crossway.org/excerpt/bibles/esv2011preface.pdf (2020.11.18). For a very interesting condensed video version of the deliberations, see ESV Bible Translators Debate the word “slave” at Tyndale House, Cambridge https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mx06mtApu8k (2020.11.18).