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