gaita and gajda - Musings on a Strange History of Names


Anyone interested in bagpipes and their cultural distribution throughout the world has probably at least once raised an eyebrow over a strange similarity of names: In Western Europe we find the various types of gaitas in Spain and Portugal, whereas the Balkans show different kinds of gajda (throughout the article I will use this spelling in order to denote the numerous variants). Naturally, this intriguing similarity has called on the attention of scholars every now and then – however, the outcome has not quite been satisfying, as I will show. What follows is a part of my doctoral thesis „Die Stimme des Windes“ („The Voice of the Wind“), which deals with the history of bagpipes and their names. Since it remains yet to be translated into English, I am glad and thankful to be given the opportunity to provide this small insight.

O segredo da gaita – The mystery of the gaita

Concerning the contemporary meaning of this family of terms, I would like to begin in the West. On the Iberian Peninsula gaita commonly denotes a bagpipe of the „Western type“, with conical double reed chanter and one or more single reed drones. It should be added that the single drone variant very much resembles depictions of High Middle Ages bagpipes; in fact, the instrument seems to have hardly changed over centuries. Bagpipe areas are Aragon (two drones), Asturia (one drone), Galicia (two or three drones) and the North of Portugal (all Portuguese types have one drone). In Castilian, Galician and Asturian, gaita literally just means „pipe“; indeed, there are also gaitas which are probably remnants of a far older reedpipe culture. e. g. the gaita de El Gastor of Cádiz, which features a single reed, four sound holes and a hornbell. Such hornpipes are sometimes also labelled as albogue, which is a cousin of Bask alboka – both are in fact of Arabic origin, where al-bûq means „horn“. Also, an obscene use of gaita for penis may be encountered. In Brazilian Portuguese the term has been shifted to denote the accordion (pretty much like French musette). Rarely, a use of gaita even for the hurdy gurdy is documented; the connection between both organologically unrelated instruments is, of course, the drone sound.

The Balkan group is less complex. All instruments which are named gajda (including variants of the term) are bagpipes. Interestingly, the term is applied for very different types of instruments. The Macedonian bagpipe, which is used both by Slavs and Greeks, has one single reed chanter and one single reed drone pipe; the Bulgarian low pitched kaba gaida and the high pitched dzhura gajda as well as Serbian specimen are variants of this instrument; a comparable bagpipe is the Romanian cimpoi, which is, however, less developed and often individually designed for the needs of the piper. As a plural word, gajde is used in Serbo-Croatian as a name for the multi-voice bagpipes of Banat, Slavonia and Baranya (Serbia, North Croatia and South Hungary). These bagpipes commonly have two parallel chanters, one of which only plays the tonic and dominant, the other having a compass of a sixth or octave; additionally, they have one separate drone pipe two octaves below the tonic of the chanter. In Slavonia and the Drava region another bagpipe of a similar kind, but with up to four bores in the chanter, is called dude, another plural. Similar are also Slovak, Polish and Czech gajdy; in Slovak, the name stands both for the multi-voice bagpipes and the instruments in the North West of the country bordering Poland and Moravia (Czech Republic), which exclusively feature one single reed chanter and one drone pipe. Curiously, the term has not entered the Hungarian language, where the bagpipe (also a multi-voice design) is called duda, in parallel to a Balto-Slavic family of Czech/Polish dudy, Lithuanian/Latvian dûda, Belorussian/Ukrainian duda and Croatian dude.

Early evidence

Textual records of the term gajda are only found from the 16th century onward and remain scarce until the 19th century. This lack of context makes a sound judgement about the instrument’s name and thus its history difficult, especially since older Communist ethnologists tended to overemphasize the age and uniqueness of any given regional culture. Indeed, the first undoubted record of a gajda (both in depiction and name) is to be found in a geographic work by Nicolas de Nicolay in 1552, who depicts a “Greek villager” with the instrument. Travel reports by the German authors Stephan Gerlach (1570) and Samuel Schweiger (1578) as well as by Polish traveller Hristofer Sberatski (1622) mention bagpipers in modern-day Bulgaria at dances and weddings. Similar records are provided by François Pouqueville between 1789 and 1801, and an Italian priest called Baldini speaks of a ban against the instrument in 1828 by local authorities. In Central Europe evidence is likewise not very strong before the end of the Middle Ages.

In the Romance West the name gaita is concentrated on the Iberian peninsula. One of the earliest account is to be found in the Libro de Buen Amor (ca. 1330) by the Archpriest of Hita, who mentions a gayta alongside a francés odrecillo, a “French bag”. Probably, the term denotes a kind of hornpipe here. Another contemporary source (Poema de Alfonso XI, 1328) labels the gayta as sotil, “subtle” – an indication for a sweet sounding instrument, probably not the shrill gaita of today. In Galicia and Portugal no source for the instrument name survives from the time before 1500, and only once is a gaitero (“bagpiper”) mentioned in the 13th century.

On the etymology of gaita

Juan de Corominas summarized various etymological theories concerning the name gaita in 1954 in his Etymological Dictionary of the Spanish Language. The least probable of them is that of Cobarruvias (1611), who thought it to be descended from gayo “gay, merry”; his contemporary Diego de Urrea believed it to be an Arabic loanword (he thought of ghaiz, meaning “to get angry”, literally “to blow oneself up”). Another theory links it to the verb aguaitar “to watch, to guard”, which would make the instrument a night-watcher pipe; though the English expression wait/wait-pipe demonstrates that such a naming would be possible, phonology says otherwise – from aguaitar only *guaita could arise. Corominas himself thought entirely different: His article clearly shows that in the case of gaita no Arabic origin is very likely, since the word lacks the classical three-consonant scheme of this language; he further develops the theory that gaita is in fact a loanword borrowed from the Visigoths who reigned over large parts of Iberia in the early Middle Ages. The origin would then be Gothic gaits “goat”, and gaita thus a romanized version of a term denoting the material of the bag of a bagpipe. Corominas shows some parallels for this process in Middle French chevrette “bagpipe (little goat)” or Polish koza (“goat”). In his opinion therefore, the North African folk oboe ghayta has borrowed its name from Spanish.

French scholar Pierre Bec (La cornemuse – sense et histoire de ses designations, ISATIS 1996, and Les instrument de musique d’origine Arabe, ISATIS 2004) is highly critical of this view, which is very popular since it turns the tables in the question of how much Arab influence is to be found in Spanish musical instruments. He argues that Gothic heritage here is not per se impossible, but highly unlikely due to the conformity of the name in all Iberian dialects and languages – this would very likely not be the case if gaita were such an old loanword; he further adds that an early Spanish gaita would have likely led to Portuguese and Catalan *geita and Castilian *guecha. Since the Visigoth and other Germanic loanwords are scarce in Spanish and were incorporated when the language itself was still a Vulgar Roman idiom, they are usually subjected to phonological development – gaita is not. I have to add that Corominas’ view in fact poses more questions than it answers. To make a Visigoth origin plausible, the term must have been coined before the early 8th century, before the Moorish invasion. However, in order for an instrument to be called a “goat” because of its goat-hide bag, it needs to feature such a bag in the first place; therefore, if this etymology were sound, we need to accept that the Visigoths would have had a thriving bagpipe culture already back then – there is absolutely no other evidence to back this theory. Is seems unlikely that if this were true, there would be no other evidence for the instrument (the first definitive Medieval mentioning of a bagpipe is provided by Rabanus of Fulda in his book “De universo” over a century later); furthermore, the term is exclusively used for musical instruments, since it did not replace Latin capra “goat” (Modern Spanish cabra). Besides, the use of gaita also for simple reedpipes shows that the term originally would have just meant “pipe” and all cases of its denoting a bagpipe would then be examples of pars-pro-toto naming, a semantic broadening which can also be observed in English, were bagpipes are often referred to as the pipes. Corominas proposes an inverse process, were bagpipe would have been semantically broadened or better “de-specified” to encompass any reed instrument, for which I have found no parallel cases in Europe; that e. g. French musette was also used for an oboe aside from “bagpipe” is only consistent with its original and never fully lost meaning “pipe” in general.

Finally, the chronology is what speaks most clearly against Corominas. He himself informs us that gaita is only mentioned in the 13th century – this means that there is a gap of over 600 years between the first source for the term and its alleged borrowing from Gothic, a long time in which hardly any phonological changes should have happened if Corominas’ theory was sound. Adding this to the already displayed problems in semantics, I have come to reject Corominas’ thinking entirely.

An Arabic loanword after all?

Since all approaches so far have not lead to a wholly acceptable etymology of gaita, I would like to offer an alternative. I agree with Bec, who sees gaita as a traveling polysemic term. Since a borrowing from Germanic is unlikely, the only obvious alternative remaining is an Arabic source – however, this must be viewed as equally problematic, as Bec points out. If gaita was indeed an Arabism, it would obviously come from the northwest of the peninsula, where Arabic influence was hardly present. Furthermore, it does not correspond to any Arabic tri-consonant radix, and it is absent from the instrument list of Ibn Khaldûn (14th century). However, Bec chooses not to propose a solution of his own to the problem and leaves the question to scholars of the Arab language.

We can thus conclude that gaita is very probably neither a Gothic substrate nor an Arabic superstrate – this leaves only two possibilities: The term could belong to the Pre-Roman substrate of the Celtiberians or the Basks, but in both cases ancient language documents which might give us any valuable insight in this matter are entirely absent. The fact that Modern Bask onomatopoetically uses tuta to denote the Spanish bagpipes seems to contradict the theory of an ancient piping culture. Thus, the only remaining solution must be that gaita is an outsider – but where did it come from?

To help with an answer we must first clarify the geographic distribution of the term. As an expression for an oboe-like shawm very similar to the Turkish zurna, Arabic ghayta extists mostly in Northwest Africa. The Haussa language borrowed it together with the Arabic article al-, thus calling it algayta. From Haussa the term was further transmitted into the Tuareg Berber dialect, where it commonly denotes the “Haussa oboe” or any reedpipe or even flute. Clearly, the instrument’s name was adopted into Haussa from Arabic, but since no etymology is plausible in this language, I would like to propose that we are dealing with a Berber word after all. Since no written sources about Medieval or Ancient Berber languages exist, we are limited to speculation, but it is conceivable that a Berber term for an originally foreign instrument (we know that such oboes did not originate in Northwest Africa) was adopted by the local population, transmitted to Haussa and from there back into some Berber dialects. Given the low social status of Berber languages, this is entirely possible. If we would have to look for an apt candidate, we should search for a term following the usual pattern for the naming of wind instruments – that is, describing either the shape, material or sound of the instrument. Indeed, Kabylian tagait “Doum palm” could be such a candidate - the initial t- prefix is a feminine marker in Berber, therefore either this very term or a lost cognate could have been the model for ghayta. No instruments are commonly made of this plant, but the shape of the ghayta with its wide sound bell might be viewed as tree-shaped. In that case, ghayta would be semantically comparable to French hautbois “loud wood” (oboe) or Viennese picksüßes Hölzl “honeysweet wood” (clarinet). Sometime before the 14th century, the term could have travelled to Spain and its Christian North, where runaway slaves from the Muslim regions did flee, Berber musicians among them. Even if tagait were the wrong source, any other Berber word could undergo the same process. Thus, I would like to endorse this view in spite of said difficulties.

On the way to the Balkans

What remains now is an answer to the question how to explain the obvious connection between the Iberian gaita family and the Balkan gajda group. First of all, it should be pointed out that the intervocalic /d/ which is featured in all Balkan and Eastern European variants of the name could point towards Ottoman Turkish, where weakening of intervocalic /t/ to /d/ is regular. Since even only distantly related languages as Serbian and Greek feature the exact same word, it is likely not a very old borrowing, otherwise it would have been subjected to earlier sound changes. Genuine Turkish origin of the word or a relationship to Georgian guda “belly, bag, hose” is implausible due to phonological reasons. Furthermore, Turkish gayda is only used in the far Northwest of the country in order to denote the Macedonian/Bulgarian bagpipe, therefore any Near Eastern origin seems unlikely. Persian, from which Ottoman Turkish has borrowed a great number of expressions, does not know the word. Given the distribution of the term in Iberia and Northern Africa, I am convinced to look for an answer there. But how should it be imaginable for a Spanish expression to be implanted in the Balkans so early, and for a very similar instrument?

A possible answer might be found in the early Iberian Romance presence in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean which already began with the First Crusade and continued to exert great influence at least until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. One element in these relations between East and West is the story of the Great Catalan Company which was originally a mercenary company under Byzantine emperor Andronikos II but later became renegade and conquered Thessaly, reigning over the duchies of Athens and Neopatria for almost eight decades until 1388. Additionally, it is conceivable that gaita could have travelled to the Eastern Empire by Jewish emigrants, who started to settle in Thessaloniki and Constantinople well before the 15th century. It is thus by every means possible to explain the presence of a Western Romance term in this area at that time, given the amount of opportunities.

Concerning the contemporary meaning of gaita and later gajda, we see that today the term is exclusively used to describe bagpipes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Given the fact that shawms of the zurna type, which exist in abundance in the latter region, are never called gajda, I think it safe to assume that the term was already fixed in denoting a bagpipe on its arrival. We might now go on in musing about a possible relationship not only of names, but of the instruments themselves, as Anthony Baines did back in 1960. Indeed, there is a certain similarity at least between the older types of gaitas in Iberia and the gajda of the Balkans – both have one single chanter and one single drone; however, the gajda features single reeds exclusively, whereas the gaita has an oboe-type chanter. But as we can see in the Insular Greek bagpipe name tsambouna, which is obviously an Italian influence (from zampogna), it is well possible that an already established instrument is invested with a new name, since there is no direct organological relationship between the zampogna and the tsambouna.

To summarize this maze of language borrowings I think it safe to give a small overview of relatively secure information concerning the etymology of gaita/gajda:

  • The term is likely to be of Northwest African origin, probably from a Berber language; a relationship with Kabylian Berber tagait “Doum palm” is possible.
  • A Germanic or Romance etymology is unlikely and can be excluded.
  • The semantic compass of the term in Iberian Romance languages ranges from simple single reed pipes to complex bagpipes.
  • The Balkan group goes back to a loanword which was probably spread through Turkish, given the intervocalic voicing of /t/ to /d/. This term has to be of Iberian region because only there does it carry the meaning “bagpipe”, which is unknown in Arabic. Given the numerous contacts between Iberia and the Eastern Empire during the Middle Ages there are plenty of possibilities for this transfer.

This explanation is part theory and part speculation, but I hope it helps with further developing and clarifying the story of an instrument with such vast cultural impact.

Detail from house in Evora, Portugal. Photo taken by Dave Rowlands

Detail from house in Evora, Portugal. Photo taken by Dave Rowlands

We are settling into our new website, including making available articles from our thirty year history. If you spot something inaccurate, garbled or missing, or if you want to volunteer to help us improve our site, please mail info@bagpipesociety.

Website by Joe Wass, managed by Ian Clabburn.

Website content by Andy Letcher.

All articles copyright their respective authors.

Enquiries to

Membership enquiries to