The first reference to the region was as the Medieval Latin expression terra ultra silvam ("land beyond the forest") in a document dating to 1075. The expression Partes Transsylvanæ ("area beyond the forest") appears in the 12th century in Legenda Sancti Gerhardi and subsequently as Transsilvania in medieval documents of the Hungarian kingdom.
The first Hungarian form recorded was Erdeuelu (12th century, in the Gesta Hungarorum) while the first Romanian form recorded was in 1432 as Ardeliu. The initial a/e difference between the names can be found in other Hungarian loans in Romanian, such as Hungarian egres ‘gooseberry’ → Romanian agriș, agreș, as well as in placenames, e.g., Egyed, Erdőd, Erdőfalva, Esküllő → Adjud, Ardud, Ardeova, and Așchileu. Note that egres is derived from Latin trough an intermediate.
According to the Romanian linguist Nicolae Drăganu, the Hungarian name of Transylvania evolved over time from Erdőelü, Erdőelv, Erdőel, Erdeel in chronicles and written charters from 1200 up to late 1300. However, N.Drăganu only takes into consideration the form Ardalos for the inherited word, dismissing it by proving that the evolution of such an etymon according to Romanian phonetics does not match the current form. In written sources from 1390, we can find also the form Erdel, which can be read also as Erdély. There is evidence for that in the written Wallachian Chancellery Charters expressed in Slavonic where the word appears as Erûdelû (1432), Ierûdel, Ardelîu (1432), ardelski (1460, 1472, 1478–1479, 1480, 1498, 1507–1508, 1508), erdelska, ardelska (1498). With the first texts written in Romanian (1513) the name Ardeal appears to be written. In the early 16th century, the Erdőség form, literally 'forest', was also used in Hungarian (Érdy-codex).
Another possible source for the name could be the Celtic word Ardal which means land or country.The region itself has been under Celtic influence at some point as there are many places with names derived from the Celtic language, e.g. Duna, Donau, Dunerea and Temesvár, Temeswar, Timișoara (Hun/De/Ro).
The consensus of Hungarian linguists and Hungarian historians on the etymology of both Erdély and Transylvania is as follows:
- The modern Hungarian form Erdély was derived from Erdő-elü, literally ‘beyond the forest’. Erdő means ‘woods, forest’, and the archaic elü suffix meant ‘beyond’ (modern reflexes: dialectal elvé ‘beyond’, dialectal el, elv ‘the place beyond’) and was applied to a type of border region (gyepű) and the associated social and economic organisation; for example, Gyepűelve (near Ungvár), and archaic Havaselve, ‘Wallachia’, lit. "beyond the snowy mountains" (Transalpina in Latin, modern Havasalföld), refers to a region lying beyond the Carpathian mountains if viewed from Hungary, and was under strong Hungarian political influence during the Middle Ages. If viewed from Hungary, Erdő-elü probably refers to the fact that the Transylvanian plateau is separated in the northwest from the Great Hungarian Plain and Crișana plains by the well-forested Apuseni mountains. Alternatively, from the point of view east of the Carpathians, the name could suggest that the Hungarian name was created in Etelköz/Atelkuzu (Hungarian homeland in southern Ukraine), prior to settling on the Hungarian plain.
- The Medieval Latin form Ultrasylvania (1077), later Transylvania (from another point of view after the foundation of Hungary in 895), was a direct translation from the Hungarian form (rather than the Hungarian being derived from the Latin). This theory is also supported by the Romanian historian Ioan-Aurel Pop.
The interpretation of the word in Romanian spans over 200 years and can be chronologically summarised as:
- The Transylvanian School published in 1825 the book titled “The Lexicon of Buda”, a dictionary in 4 languages (Romanian, Latin, Hungarian, and German). The word is spelled Ardélu and its etymology is considered to be from Ardalus: “homo inquetus, quia Dacia semper inqueti et infidi fuerunt, teste Tacito” - a restless man, because the Dacians were always restless and treacherous, as Tacitus testifies.
- In 1870, Alexandru de Cihac, publishing “Dictionnaire d'étymologie daco-romane: éléments slaves, magyars, turcs, grecs-moderne et albanais”, volume 2, says by the word Ardeal “Erdély Transylvanie ; turc Erdel,” , an etymology later confirmed by Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu in his unfinished book “Etymologicum magnum Romaniae” to which he ads “the clean Romanian name must have been Codru, which the Hungarians, settled in Pannonia, translated/transformed to Erdely”.
- Based on several documents, including a letter from around 960 from the Khazar king Joseph to Chasdai ibn Shaprut, the rabbi of Córdoba, which mentions the "Ardil country" (Eretz Ardil), rich in gold and silver., Iulian Marțian theorises that Ardi(a)l was the primary form of the name, thus "Ardeal" is an original Romanian toponym.Today, in Hebrew, Ardeal is written identically: ארדיל.
- In reply to Iulian Marțian, Nicolae Drăganu publishes under the name “Toponimie și istorie” - 1923, a complete etymology of the word. Mr. Drăganu dismisses a possible derivation from Ardalos showing that by the rules of Romanian language the word would have evolved into the forms Ardăr or Ărdar which are unattested, supporting the Hungarian origin of the word. He ads that the form Ardeal is doubled by Ardeliu in vernacular which is closer to Hungarian Erdély, yet the older form with the diftong ea is more likely from the forms Erdeel<Erdoel<erdoelv, erdoelu, used before 1390. From 1432, he writes, we find the Romanian variants (written in Cyrillic script) Erdelu, and Ierdel dat. Ardeliu.
- In 1986 Sorin Paliga establishes a connection between the word Ardeal and Dalmatia trough the PIE root *D-L/ *T-L, a theory repeated in 2007 in his book "Etymologica and Anthropologica Maiora":“The fact that Ardeal is a compound is also supported by obviously similar forms like Subdeal (also spelled Sub Deal) ‘at the foothill’ ,Pe deal ‘on the hill’, La deal ‘uphill’. All these forms are frequent in the so-called minor toponymy as well as in vocabulary. Reverting to Ar-deal, it should be also observed that the Medieval Latin form Trans-silvania and German Überwald (now replaced by Siebenbürgen) are loan-translations (calques) after Ar-deal. Hung. Erdély is also a calque but following the rules of derivation in Hungarian: noun +particle, i. e. Erdo - ‘forest’ and-elu/-elv > -ely (cf. elore‘ straightforward’, eltt ‘in front of’), as shown and accepted by all Hungarian linguists (cf. Kiss 1980 with further references).”
- In 2002 Mihai Vinereanu, in “Etymological Dictionary of the Romanian Language Based on Indo-European studies” places the root of the word in the PIE *er(ə)d meaning “to stand tall, to rise”. He then debates the analysis made by Drăganu, including the derivation of various other toponyms from erdő, and concludes the Erdély form is a folk etymology adaptation of the Romanian Ardeal. He further expanded on his view in a newspaper article: “This Romanian forms have many cognates in European languages such as av. ərədva „tall”, lat. arduus „tall, steep”, gal. arduenna (silva), old ir. ard „high”, ir. aird „country, region”, ir. airde „high”, cymr. hardd ”beautiful”, alb. rit „to rise”. The reader can see how the radical appears also in languages close to Romanian, like Latin and Albanian.”
The oldest occurrences of this form are from the 13th century:
- In the year 1241: in Annales Sancti Trudperti and in the Annals of Zwifalt: "Tartari terras Pannonie, Septum urbium, Moraviae vestaverunt”
- In the year 1242: in the notes of the friar Erfurt: "Eodem anno Tartari in Ungaria, terra scilicet Septem castrorum, civitatem dictam Hermanii villam in Aprili expugnantes, usque ad centum ibi peremerunt...”
- In the year 1285: "Eodem anno Tarthari terram Ungarie que dicitur Septemcastris, intraverunt et multos christianos captivaverunt et occiderunt” and "...quid audientes Septemcastrenses”.
- In the year 1296: a reference to a particular "maister Dietrich von Siebenbuergen”.
- In the year 1300: Ottacher of Styria mentions "Sybenburger”.
There exist a number of theories on the etymology of Siebenbürgen, the German name for Transylvania.
The most widely accepted theory is that Siebenbürgen refers to the seven principal fortified towns of the Transylvanian Saxons. The name first appeared in a document from 1296. An alternate Medieval Latin version, Septem Castra ("Seven fortresses") was also used in documents. The towns alluded to are Bistritz (Bistrița, Beszterce), Hermannstadt (Sibiu, Nagyszeben), Klausenburg (Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvár), Kronstadt (Brașov, Brassó), Mediasch (Mediaș, Medgyes), Mühlbach (Sebeș, Szászsebes), and Schässburg (Sighișoara, Segesvár).
God wanted them to move to Pannonia as soon as possible. Then they crossed mountains for three months, and finally, against the will of the said peoples, they reached the border area of Pannonia, the land now called Transylvania. When they marched into this land, fearing the attack of the surrounding peoples, the whole corps of the militants under their command was divided into seven armies, and captains, lieutenants, corporals were appointed in the usual manner to lead each army, and each army consisted of thirty thousand and eight hundred and fifty-seven armed warriors. Because at the time of their second exodus from Scythia, from the one hundred and eight tribes, two hundred and sixteen thousand armed men were reportedly brought with them, that is, two thousand of every tribe, except those of the household. Over these seven armies, a captain was assigned to lead each of them, and seven hillforts were built to protect their wives and animals and they remained in those castles for a time. This is why the Germans call this part of the land Siebenbürgen, meaning seven castles to this day.
Other theories include:
- Siebenbürgen means "Seven Castles" but does not refer to the towns of the Transylvanian Saxons. Transylvania and the Mureș valley seem to have been the first portion of land within the Carpathians where Magyars gained a foothold. According to legend, each of the seven Magyar chieftains erected an earthen 'castle' in this region.
- Siebenbürgen means explicitly "Seven Towns" or "Seven Castles". However, this etymology seems to originate in the dialectical tradition of the first, mainly Low German, Flemish and Dutch settlers, in whose homelands there are hilly regions called "Zevenbergen" (a town in North Brabant, the Netherlands) and "Sevenbergen" (east of the town of Hameln on the river Weser, Germany).
- Saxon settlement in Transylvania began in Sibiu. An early German name for the town was Cibinburg (akin to the Cibiniensis Latin name of the area). The alternate name Cibinburg was corrupted into Siebenbürgen, and became the name for the whole region.
The Slavic names of the region (Sedmigradsko or Sedmogradsko (Седмиградско or Седмоградско) in Bulgarian, Sedmogradska in Croatian, Sedmograjska in Slovene, Sedmihradsko in Czech, Sedmohradsko in Slovak, Siedmiogród in Polish, Semihorod (Семигород) in Ukrainian), as well as its Walloon name (Zivenbork), are translations of the German one.
- Lucy Mallow, Transylvania, 2nd edn. (Bradt Travel Guides, 2013), 16.
- Rupprecht Rohr, Kleines rumänisches etymologisches Wörterbuch: 1. Band: A-B, s.v. “Ardeal” (Frankfurt am Main: Haag + Herchen, 1999), 82.
- Drăganu, Nicolae (1923). Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Națională – Ardeal (PDF) (in Romanian). pp. 233–246.
- Czuczor, Gergely (1862). A magyar nyelv Szótára. New York Public Library. Pest, Emich Gusztav. p. 372-373.
- Benkő Loránd; Kiss Lajos; Papp László (1984). A magyar nyelv történeti-etimológiai szótára (in Hungarian). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó. ISBN 963-05-3810-5.
- Armin Hetzer, “Alloglotte Sprechergruppen in den romanischen Sprachräumen: Südostromania”, Romanische Sprachgeschichte, vol. 23, part 2 (Berlin-NY: Walter de Gruyter, 2006), 1843.
- Engel, Pál (2001). Realm of St. Stephen: History of Medieval Hungary, 895–1526 (International Library of Historical Studies), London: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 1-86064-061-3
- Pop, Ion-Aurel (1997). "Istoria Transilvaniei Medievale: De la Etnogeneza Romanilor pana la Mihai Viteazul" [The Medieval History of Transylvania: from the Romanian Ethnogenesis until Michael the Brave] (in Romanian). Retrieved 2013-10-03.
- Lexiconul de la Buda, p. 29, at Google Books
- Otrokocsi, F. F. (1693). Origines Hungaricae (in Latin). Vol. I. p. 27. Retrieved 2013-10-03.
- Halevi (1914). Sefer ha-Kuzari. Vilna.
- Marțian, Ion (1925). Ardealul nu derivă din ungurește (in Romanian). Bistrița.
- Nicolae Drăganu. Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Națională II, p. 237 [1923
- Paliga, Sorin (2007). Etymologica and Anthropologica Maiora. Fundația Evenimentul. p. 39-40. ISBN 978-973-87920-2-9.
- Vinereanu, Mihai (2008). Dicționar etimologic al limbii române pe baza cercetărilor de indo-europenistică [Etymological Dictionary of the Romanian Language Based on Indo-European studies] (in Romanian). Alcor Edimpex. p. 88. ISBN 978-973-8160-31-6.
- "Prof. Univ. MIHAI VINEREANU: Toponimul "Ardeal" nu este unguresc | Cunoaste lumea". 28 July 2019.
- Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores. Vol. X. Hannover. 1852. p. 59.
- Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores. Vol. XVII. 1861. p. 294.
- Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores. Vol. XVI. 1859. p. 34.
- "Annales Polonorum". Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores. Vol. XIX. p. 684.
- Urkundebuch zur Geschichte der Deutschen in Siebenbürgen. Vol. I. p. 143.
- Wolff, Apud J. (1886). "Die Landesnamen Siebenbürgens'". Programm des vierklassigen evangelischen Gymnasiums in Mühlbach (in German). Hermannstadt. p. 16.
- Johannes Thuróczy: Chronica Hungarorum http://thuroczykronika.atw.hu/pdf/Thuroczy.pdf
- Kontler, László (1999). A History of Hungary: Millennium in Central Europe. Budapest: Atlantisz. ISBN 963-9165-37-9.
- Popa, Klaus (1996). "An Outline of Transilvanian-Saxon History". Retrieved 2013-10-03.