November 23, 2010

Some more linguistic musings: bear and cub

I'm reading a fascinating paper (open access at Insula magazine, issues no. 3, 4 and 5) by US linguist Roslyn M. Frank (earlier mentioned in Leherensuge in relation with the Iruña-Veleia controversy), which among other things deals with the cosmological and mythological importance of the bear, preserved in the astonishingly similar carnival performances of some Basque and Sardinian towns (see in my previous linguistic musings how I strongly suspect that the name of the Mediterranean island comes from the word sardine, which has a quite unmistakable Basque/Vascoid etymology).

Bear: ursus, arctos, hartz

While reading it I realized that I had forgotten to mention another likely Vascoid widespread European (primarily Mediterranean) group of words: those meaning bear.
Bear is said hartz (nom. hartza) in Basque, arctos in Greek and ursus in Latin (and so the brown bear is known in biology as Ursus arctos). The similitude of hartz and arctos should be strikingly obvious. I suspect that ursus is also related (and this makes me think of the attested Basque deity Urtzi, which in turn relates with the divine or supernatural importance given to the bear in pre-Christian European mythologies, preserved until recently under a Christian varnish).

Update: a reader mentions that this term seems Indoeuropean, with quite clear cognates in Eastern IE and Hittite. Asian IE is generally a good control, so I accept the correction. I was surely mislead by the fact that neither Germanic nor Slavic use this word, but their specific terms seem to have arisen as taboo avoidance, meaning "brown" and "honey eater" respectively (see this).

In this case it'd seem Basques imported the word from Celtic, whose terms (art, arth) are very close in sound. Why this borrowing? Maybe taboo avoidance as well?

Of course there's always the possibility that it's a well conserved pan-European word, which would bring me to whether IE and Basque could be distantly related. But this is too complicated for what I dare to explore with my limited means.

Update (Nov. 25): There are at least some qualified opinions that do support the Indoeuropean root *h₂ŕ̥tḱos being a cognate of Basque hartz, maybe in the context of ancient pan-European cosmologies in which this animal seems to have played a major role. See this new post for a more complete explanation.

Ram and billy-goat: aries, ahari and aker

Related to this Mediterranean spread, I must mention another striking similarity and most likely Vasco-Greek cognate which is the word for ram (male sheep). As anyone minimally acquainted with Astrology knows, the Latin word for ram is aries. Curiously enough the Basque term for ram is ahari

The h is silent in the peninsular dialects (/a:ri/) but aspired in the continental ones (and that's why it's written in fact). As I have mentioned it is generally believed that this /h/ sound was once a /k/ (or /g/ maybe occasionally). What happens when you deconstruct this phonetic change? Ahari becomes akari, which is strikingly similar to the Basque word for billy-goat: aker.

I used to think this ahari word was a Neolithic loanword but maybe not after all.

Cub, kume

Anyhow what really pushed me to write these musings, this note, was to realize that English word cub could also have a Vascoid etymology. Suddenly I read hartzkume, mistranslated as "little bear". But it is more accurately "bear cub" (kume: cub, whelp, related ume: child) and, thanks to that tiny translation error, I just realized how close is that word to its Basque equivalent kume (the m<>b phonetic change is relatively common, it seems, and it has even been argued for Basque that all /m/ sounds were once /b/ - though not too convincingly, as /m/ is attested in Iberian and is a too common distinct phoneme). 

Wikitionary offers two possible etymologies: Old Norse kobbi (seal) and Old Irish cuib (whelp, modernly nest). I would think that the Irish connection seems stronger and more clear, with a likely Vascoid substrate in the end related to Basque kume.

Update: However, if the Irish etymology would be wrong, and considering that the word "cub" is first registered in English in the 16th century, it could be a case of borrowing in the context of the Hundred Years' War, in which parts of the Basque Country and Gascony were joined to the English crown.

This is also hypothesized for the English expression "by Jingo" (modernly derived into "jingoism"), which would have derived from Basque Jainko (God) in that 15th century context of the Angevin empire.


  1. Interesting article.
    Nonetheless, ursus/arktos is more likely IE :

    Proto-Indo-European *h₂ŕ̥tḱos

    They forgot one on this page : Gaulish artos (hence breton arzh, also forgotten on the page)

  2. Maybe you are right. The key in these cases are Asian IEs and in this particular case they seem to agree with a IE etymology.

    Still it is curious that Basque has this word from IE but guess it can be a Celtic borrowing.

    Alternatively it might have been a pre-IE word adopted by IE when they were still restricted to Eastern and maybe Central Europe.

    But I suspect that I was mislead by the "taboo-avoidance" Germanic and and Slavic words, which mean "brown" and "honey eater" originally, it seems (naming such a powerful creature could bring bad luck or whatever, makes total sense for what I'm reading of bears as creators of humankind and such).

    Thanks, it's a good clarification.

  3. I have updated with your correction. And also with a qualification of the word "cub" being maybe a borrowing in the context of the Hundred Years' War (as is the case with "jingoism", it seems).

  4. Vague similarities in form and meaning do not indicate a common origin of two languages unless the similar morphemes can be derived via regular sound changes from a hypothetical common ancestral language.

    For example, Japanese has kuma "bear," kami "deity," umi "birth, giving birth; natural, biological (mother); creation, founding," um- "to give birth," and umare- "to be born." I could just as easily (and groundlessly) claim that those Basque words for "cub" and "child" were related to the Japanese words for "bear (Ursus spp.)" and "birth, to bear (a child), to be born."

    Historical linguistics requires great methodological rigor in order to produce significant results.

  5. Taboo-avoidance or not, it is rather interesting that there are very few obvious cognates in Germanic languages, though. Ignoring Ebizur's rigor, here are a few German ones I can come up with:

    Atze / Aetze: feed or feeding material/ area for animals - but also: troll

    Hatz: the chase of animals for hunting - in particular, with the aid of dogs, thus often applied to dangerous animals/ carnivores

    Hart (engl.: hurst): (mountain) forest

    Haar: hair

    It is curious that all of them are related to the forest and to animals.

    Here is a paper on the little bear mythology (starting on page 41):

  6. You are being a bit too harsh, Ebizur. And incoherently so, I think.

    "Vague similarities in form and meaning"...

    Exactly the same meaning. Kume means cub and viceversa.

    "... do not indicate a common origin of two languages"...

    I am not proposing a common origin of any two languages here, just of two words, one which in English is etymologically isolate, btw.

    In other words: I'm saying that cub appears to be a Vascoid borrowing into English, either by substrate via Celtic or by more recent contact (HYW).

    Both are supported by at least one other such connection.

    You are free to disagree but I'd expect better arguments, such as the strong objection Waggg made so correctly.

    "I could just as easily (and groundlessly) claim that those Basque words for "cub" and "child" were related to the Japanese words for "bear (Ursus spp.)" and "birth, to bear (a child), to be born"."

    I would not radically discard such connections without proper exploration (specially umi).

    But in any case Japan and Japanese speakers are located in distant regions, while Britain is just over here and we have shared a long history, and very specially Prehistory (as well as genetics and similar looks much more difficult to find among Japanese, or at least more remote).

    Until we solve the issues of Basque language within Europe and West Eurasia, there's little point in exploring connections beyond, right?

  7. One thing we shouldn't forget is that IE by original construct, and as a highly sound/sound-shift-dominated and onomatopoeia-based language, and of course some subgroups of IE even more so, is a language group in which words with similar sound (even if of apparently different origin) attain similar connotations - its part of the original innate notion and architecture of the language.

  8. "Here is a paper on the little bear mythology (starting on page 41):"

    Yeah, that's one of the three papers she sent me. I did not know they were available online.

    "It is curious that all of them are related to the forest and to animals".

    Are you thinking in the fact that early Indoeuropeans lived in the steppe, so they may have lacked words for forest stuff? That would make some sense, though still the Urals and the Tundra were not too far away. Alternatively they may have borrowed them at the Caucasus or the Carpathian mountains. Certainly there are no bears in the steppe.

    I'm still puzzled that Basques would borrow a IE word for a familiar animal such as bear and not for a supposedly IE introduction such as the horse (zaldi does not have any correlation with *eqwos nor any other IE variant).

    I still wonder if early IEs would borrow the word from Caucasian languages, maybe then spoken in the Dniepr-Don area, which in turn would be distantly related to Basque. How is bear in Chechen or Lezgian?

  9. At least Finnish "karhu" (Est. "karu") seems related. It would help explain the Basque /h/ at the beginning of the word hartz (k>h, widely accepted phonetic change) certainly, which does not appear (neither in H nor K form in any IE variant). I could not find more Uralic synonyms (except Magyar medve, an obvious Slavic borrowing).

    On the other hand Chechnyan "cha" seems at best remotely related but I'd like to see some Daghestani NE Caucasian, which seems a better reference. Turkic and NW Caucasian languages are in the ayü/ayi/adig line, which again is not clearly related but not distant enough to discard either. Semitic is unrelated (bedo) and so are all other languages I have seen.

    So we may well be before an ancient widespread European word incorporated to IE early on. But it's a most difficult case to discern, really.

  10. I have to add a key correction: aries is ram in Latin, not Greek. Meh, now I feel pedantic. :(

    Still interesting connection, and more logical to be something Italian than Greek, considering abundance of Vascoid terms in Italy (but not Greece).

  11. Maju : "Certainly there are no bears in the steppe. "

    Actually, on the ancient sites of Ukraine and south Russia - according to Mallory (*) - there were remains of animals that matches the IE vocabulary such as bears, foxes, wolves, lynxes, beavers, dogs, wild boars, deers, hares, non-domesticated horses, wild cattle (but also some that doesn't, for instance reindeers and saiga antelopes).

    Apparently, the south of the area was typically steppic but the north part of this region was a wooded steppe and the river valleys of the south were wooded too.

    (*) in "In search of the Indo-Europeans: language, archaeology and myth"

  12. Important notice regarding the issue of *h₂ŕ̥tḱos/hartz: please read this continuation post, with qualified linguistic opinions which seem supportive of the adoption of the word by PIE at its early (pre-expansion) stages, in direct relation probably with pan-European cosmogonies having the bear playing a central role.


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