15 June 2008

The name of the bear

What is a bear for us?

Basically, a bear is an animal. We can see them at the zoo, in a circus, or in the form of toys or cartoons for children. If we want to get a glimpse of them in their natural habitat we need to go to remote mountainous areas (for example the Cantabrian Mountain Range in northern Spain). On the other hand, we don’t have any mythology or religious thoughts concerning them, and they don’t play a relevant role in our economy or everyday life. For us, a bear is just the member of a given animal species.

In the Paleolithic Age, the situation was quite different. Humans had a much closer relationship with nature. Their economy was based on gathering and hunting, and their ideology reflected the way they organized their society. Nowadays there are still some hunter-gatherer societies in the world, in places like Australia, South America or northern Siberia, and anthropologists have described their way of life and ideology. In most cases this ideology can be understood in a totem-taboo framework. As far as Paleolithic populations are concerned, the evidence from archaeology also seems to point in this direction. Present-day hunter-gatherer groups usually have an animal as their ‘totem’, which is the animal that they identify with. At the same time, they have a set of rules, or ‘taboos’, governing the various elements of nature that surround them or the set of relationships established among the members of their community. A taboo is a prohibition. In same cases a taboo establishes that it is forbidden to utter the name of a given animal, or to touch a given object, etc. Let’s imagine one of these hunter-gatherer groups with a taboo on the name of the bear. In this case, the members of the group would need to refer to this animal using other expressions, or euphemisms. We can imagine they would say things like “the big one”, “the brown one”, “the father”, “the grandfather”, “the strong one”, etc. As I said, anthropologists have found thousands of examples of this type of word substitution in hunter-gatherer societies all over the world.

Needless to say, in our modern societies we see things quite differently. What brought about this radical change? It was during the Neolithic Revolution, with the emergence of agriculture and a whole new way of organizing society, that human groups started to change into what they are today. As for ideology, we see the appearance of new religious thoughts which reflect the new patriarchal, more complex, male-dominated societies. On the other hand, the Bronze Age (a continuation and further development of the Neolithic) brings about the rise of highly-stratified, warlike societies, which are basically the ones we were born in.


Bears in Indo-European

If we take a look at the dictionaries, we see that there is a wide variety of names for the “bear” in Indo-European (IE) languages. It seems that the most common root is
*rkto-s or *rkso-s, which is the basis of Latin ursus, Avestan arša, Greek árktos, etc. However, there are many other forms: in the Germanic group, words like English bear, German Bär or Swedish björn; in the Slavic group, Russian medved’, Czech medvĕd, etc.; in the Baltic area, Lithuanian lokys, Latvian lācis, etc.; in the Celtic area, Old Irish mathghamain, etc. Why are there so many different names for this animal? What do the linguists say about it?

Traditional IE linguistics has established that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) started to expand and divide into the subsequent IE groups at the late Neolithic Age (in any case, not earlier than approx. 4,000 BC.). The speakers of PIE left their homeland (located somewhere in the Ukraine or in the Caucasus) and set out on their planetary journey of expansion, which took them to Scandinavia, India, the Greek Islands and even some areas of present-day China. Everywhere they went, they succeeded in replacing the old language with their own and settling in the new territories as the new influential power... In my opinion, this incredible
Völkerwanderung exists only in the imagination of some linguists. But incredibly enough, this absurd chronology and chain of events is still generally accepted in mainstream linguistics! Let’s go back to the initial question: “Why are there so many names for the bear in IE?” Quite clearly, traditional linguistics has no reasonable answer to it.

In the new chronology proposed by the Continuity Theory, however, PIE had already split into the various IE branches as early as the Late Paleolithic Period. That is why we have different names for the bear, the wolf and many other animals. The people who coined these words lived in the Paleolithic and had the ideology that I have described above. Let’s take a look at some examples. Germanic words like English
bear or German Bär are possibly connected with the word for “brown”; the Slavic terms (medved’, etc.) mean “eater of honey”; the Baltic ones, “furry”; the Old Irish one (mathghamain) is a compound which means “good calf”.

Reference:
- Mario Alinei, 1996,
Origini delle lingue d'Europa I. La Teoria della Continuità. Bologna, Il Mulino, pp. 568-570.

9 comments:

JoseAngel said...

I disagree when you say that bears don't play a part in our everyday life. There are as many Teddy bears in my children's rooms than you may find in the whole of Spain, whether freer-ranging or in zoos. So we still live with them, at least in an imaginary dimension. I've heard that my surname, "Garcia", is related to the word for "bear" in Basque. Now Basque is not an indo-european language, but does someone say whether it is related to brown colour, or to honey, or to some other quality of bears? I suppose the reason for choosing one quality or another for the name is in the last analysis chaotic and random.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello joseangel, and welcome to this blog.

The point I want to make in this article, based mainly on Mario Alinei's discoveries, is that the various names for the bear in IE languages look like euphemistic susbtitutions of previous terms. The root *rkto-s or *rkso-s seems to be the older form, whereas the other ones, as I said, would be substitute names (adjectives, periphrases). Comparing linguistic data with anthropological and archaeological evidence it looks quite reasonable to think that these terminological developments took place in the Paleolithic. As you know, this is absolutely against traditional IE chronology, hence the importance of Alinei's theory.

Yes, bears are common in our everyday life as toys, etc., but the role they played or still play in hunter-gatherer groups is radically different from the merely iconic, playful use of bears in our western culture.

Octavià Alexandre said...

In fact, Basque hartz 'bear', is of IE origin. This word is linked to a root 'marten; otter' found in a few North-East Caucasian (NEC) languages, so this is most definitely a Paleolithic root.

But the Baltic word for 'bear' have nothing to do with a taboo-word hairy'. This is a common Balto-Slavic root *t-la:k related to other wild animal mames in several languages:
Semitic *dalak’/g- ~ *dVk’al- 'marten; wild cat; lynx',
Altaic *t`ule(kV) ‘fox; wolf’,
NEC *dVlVgV ‘a small wild animal’

Poor mastering of comparative linguistics is lethal for any "continuity theory".

Jesús Sanchis said...

Octavià, I know you're fond of comparing distant 'proto-forms' and 'proto-languages'. Be careful: one day you might reach the conclusion that a dog is a cat...

Octavià Alexandre said...

Don't be silly, Jesús. It's precisely upon these long-range comparisons where historical linguistics is founded.

How could otherwise ascertain the etymology of Spanish perro?

I can see PCT/PCP proponents (including you among them) aren't generally experts on the field, so they lack the necessary knowledge to make a solid theory about such a complicated language family as IE.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Octavià, it is obvious that we don't share the same views about historical linguistics.

And please, refrain from using expressions such as "Don't be silly". This is not the place for such language.

And yes, it's true: among the members of the PCP workgroup you won't find many 'experts' in historical linguistics in the traditional sense of the word, i.e. you will not find people who use linguistic comparison with the aim of reconstructing proto-languages. This is all that traditional comparative linguistics is about: inventing proto-languages. I think there are other possible ways. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it's worth the effort. And in fact I'm already working on my PhD project. Blogs are just an informal medium for debate and discussion, and they're quite interesting indeed, but there's a BIG DIFFERENCE between proposing or suggesting things in a blog (as you do) and carrying out real research.

Octavià Alexandre said...

you will not find people who use linguistic comparison with the aim of reconstructing proto-languages. This is all that traditional comparative linguistics is about: inventing proto-languages.

I disagree. As I said before, proto-languages are a useful tool (and in fact the only real one) which help us to ascertain genetical relationships between languages.

The problem is the (ab)use some linguists may make of them. For example, for many Indo-Europeanists, the PIE they recontruct was complete "package" (using your own terminology) including hundreds of roots which I can show aren't IE-native.

Perhaps you don't like proto-languages, but one can't live without. If you know of another way of making REAL historical linguistics and not **crackpot** science, I'll be glad to hear of it.

Blogs are just an informal medium for debate and discussion, and they're quite interesting indeed, but there's a BIG DIFFERENCE between proposing or suggesting things in a blog (as you do) and carrying out real research.


Jesús, but I'm making REAL reasearch, even if my work isn't sponsored by any academic institution.

And also I do offer ACTUAL linguistic data, something your blog and and the PCP/PCT web lack of.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Obviously, linguistic comparison is an essential tool in historical linguistics. Even the use of reconstructed forms with an asterisk, or even proto-forms or proto-languages, can be acceptable in practical terms, especially when the data are recent enough, or abundant enough. The real problem starts when proto-forms are given a reality status, i.e. when thay are considered 'real' linguistic material used by 'real' people. The problem, of course, gets bigger the further back we go in time. The various proto-languages (PIE, Paleo-Eurasian- proto-Basque, etc.) are mere abstractions. Comparing these proto-languages can only create a bigger abstraction. I have already expressed my doubts about PIE. I have also commented on 'proto-Basque', and one day I'll write about Nostratic. This proto-material is so detached from any sort of reality that I don't think many conclusions can be reached by trying to establish systematic comparisons between them. It is true, however, that long-range comparisons can be applied and they might as well bring about interestng results, why not?, but that is an extremeliy difficult task, one that can only be carried out by coordinated teams of highly specialized scholars who can interpret the data in the right context and who are aware of the limitations of their own approach. I don't think you're in a position to offer such results.

I don't know what you mean by "offer actual linguistic data". In my blog I comment on language theories and give my opinion about several linguistic topics, as well as suggesting possible hypotheses. I don't 'offer' linguistic data, i.e. I don't 'create language data', and I don't propose proto-forms. As for the members of the PCP workgroup, some of them have written extensively about historical linguistics and are used to handling linguistic comparison and proto-forms. The PCP is a hypothesis about a new paradigm in the understanding of prehistoric languages, especially IE. It's a general framework, not a collection of dogmas. My opinion about proto-languages is just my opinion, influenced by some PCP authors (e.g. X. Ballester) and by other sources. The members of the PCP workgroup apply a variety of approaches; what they have in common is a set of alternative ideas about the chronology, genesis and expansion of IE languages.

Octavià Alexandre said...

It is true, however, that long-range comparisons can be applied and they might as well bring about interestng results, why not?, but that is an extremely difficult task, one that can only be carried out by coordinated teams of highly specialized scholars who can interpret the data in the right context and who are aware of the limitations of their own approach. I don't think you're in a position to offer such results.

You're undereestimating me, Jesús.

The biggest problem is a socio-economical one: the best brains on the world specialize on "productive" sciences such as physics, biology, etc., and what's left for historical linguistics isn't precisely what's need.

I've got a degree on Computer Science at the University, but by my own admission, I've found my brain is better employed on this research.

If you read my blog, you'll see I said that although I use comparative data from Nostratic specialist in my work, I'm not a believer in such big macro-families.

And, remember, opinion alone doesn't make science, it only can direct your research. I don't know how can historical linguistics be made without proto-languages.

About PIE itself, I can tell you there're are tons of substrate and adstrate loanwords in it which await to be identified. If we don't even know what is the native PIE like, how can we formulate any theory about the IE family?

Without this kind