10 June 2013

A Water Word that Wasn’t There

The last item on Bengtson & Ruhlen’s list of “global etymologies” is ʔAQ’WA ‘water’. What can hardly escape anybody’s attention is its uncanny similarity to one of those Latin words which are the common currency of our civilisation: aqua, as in aquarium, aqueduct, or BonAqua. One knows such words even without the benefit of a good classical education. Is it possible that an ancient “global” word survived virtually unchanged in Latin? 

To be sure, Bengtson and Ruhlen don’t actually reconstruct their global proto-words. They claim that the glosses offered in the article “are intended merely to characterize the most general meaning and phonological shape of each root”. Nevertheless, the “phonological shape” looks pretty specific, complete with such fancy details as an initial glottal stop, and a medial uvular ejective. Are those segments there because there is some solid evidence for them, or are they simply ornamental? Never mind. We shall look at the global data next time. Today let’s only examine the putative Indo-European reflex of ʔAQ’WA. We have already seen how the comparative method works, so let’s apply it again. 

Bengtson & Ruhlen cite the following forms to support the PIE reconstruction *akʷā-
  • Anatolian: Hittite eku-, Luwian aku-, Palaic aḫ- ‘drink’ [somewhat sloppy and not quite correct, see below] 
  • Italic: Latin aqua ‘water’ 
  • Germanic: Gothic ahwa ‘river’ [found elsewhere in Germanic as well] 
  • Tocharian A yok- ‘drink’ [Toch. A and B, as a matter of fact] 
At first blush, the evidence looks impressive. The word (or at least its root) occurs in four branches of IE, including Anatolian and Tocharian. That should be enough to guarantee that we are dealing with a PIE lexical item. To be sure, the meaning ‘water’ occurs only in Latin; the Germanic cognate means ‘river’, and Anatolian and Tocharian only have a verb meaning ‘drink’. If the noun and the verb were related, it would be interesting to analyse the relationship and make sure that the meaning ‘water’ is indeed old and not derived within IE. That will not be necessary, however, because the words are not related in the first place. 

Hitt 3sg. ekuzi ~ eukzi, 3pl. akuanzi  ‘drink’ (+ Palaic ahu- and Cuneiform Luwian u-) may only reflect a root with a voiced consonant (a voiceless one would have become -kk-, not -k-, in Hittite). We can connect them via regular sound correspondences with Latin ēbrius ‘drunk’ and Greek nḗpʰō ‘be sober’ (= ‘not-drink’, with the IE negative particle *n(e)-). The Anatolian verb forms might go back to a plain root present *h₁égʷʰ-ti, *h₁gʷʰ-énti, but Tocharian AB yok- and the Latin adjective require a long vowel; the jury is still out on whether we should posit a PIE lengthened-grade root *h₁ēgʷʰ- or a reduplicated stem, *h₁é-h₁gʷʰ- (or even something still more complex). A couple of things seem clear, though. The root-final consonant is *gʷʰ, not *, and the initial laryngeal is *h₁ (the one that doesn’t colour an adjacent short vowel). This is enough to exclude any connection with aqua or its Germanic cognates. One might add that apart from *h₁egʷʰ- we also find the widespread perfective verb *poh₃(i)- ‘drink’ (also in Anatolian, with the meaning ‘swallow, gulp down’). As reflexes of *h₁egʷʰ- clearly refer to drunkennes at least in Latin and Greek, perhaps its original meaning was ‘get drunk’ (on something more intoxicating than water) rather than simply ‘drink’. 

Not real water
We are left with Latin aqua ‘water’ and Germanic *axʷō ‘river’ (a perfect formal match combined with a difference in meaning). Possible traces of a Celtic word reconstructible as *akʷā are few and hardly substantial: they include several European river-names ending in -apa (which might or might not be a Gaulish cognate of aqua, not confirmed by any Gaulish text), and a single occurrence of -akua as part of a longer sequence in an unclear Celtiberian inscription, where the context doesn’t rule out the meaning ‘river’ (but neither does it demand such an interpretation). By contrast, Germanic *axʷō is abundantly attested (Goth. aƕa, Old High German and Old Saxon aha, Old Frisian ā ~ ē, Old English ēa, Old Norse á). All the reflexes mean ‘running water, stream, river’, which shows that PGmc. *axʷō was roughly synonymous with PIE *h₂ap-h₃on- and possibly replaced the latter term in the prehistory of Germanic. The word-family represented by English water, German Wasser and Gothic wato was not affected. In Latin, on the other hand, aqua completely ousted *wodr̥ ~ *udōr/*udn-, etc., and became the ordinary word for ‘water’ (including “tame” water for drinking or washing). 

Germanic also displays some interesting derivatives, such as *aujō ‘island; meadow-land’ from earlier *aɣʷjō < pre-Germanic *akʷjā́ (ON ey, OE īġ ~ īeġ). This word formed the first member of the OE compound īġ-lond > ModE island (which owes its mute s to false association with Old French isle, an unrelated but acidentally similar word derived from Latin īnsula). The compound, by the way, outcompeted the free-standing word: in Middle English the element ei ~ i ~ ie was common in placenames, but no longer in isolation. As regards its further derivatives, we have OE īġoþ ‘islet, small island’ (hence modern ait ~ eyot, used mostly with reference to the topography of the Thames). Finally, Germanic *ēɣ⁽ʷ⁾ijaz (cf. the ON ocean-giant Ægir, OE ǣġ(e) ‘island, sea, sea-coast’) may be related provided that the word is old enough to reflect some characteristic “special effects” of laryngeal colouring: Lat. a- and Gmc. *a- would together point to an initial *h₂a-, but *ē-, if cognate, would imply an old lengthened grade *h₂ē-, immune to the a-colouring effect of *h₂. All this is highly speculative, especially in the absence of any uncontroversial cognates of aqua outside Latin and Germanic. The IE reconstruction *h₂ákʷah₂ is often encountered in the linguistic literature. While not impossible, it is hardly warranted by the comparative evidence. Moreover, even if the word is genuinely old within IE, neither Latin nor Germanic can tell us if we should reconstruct an intervocalic *-kʷ- or *-ḱw-. If the latter, one might attempt to connect the ‘river/water’ word with the IE adjective meaning ‘swift, fast’ (traditionally reconstructed as *ōḱú-, with an initial *ō which conceals some puzzling combination of PIE vowels and laryngeals, not yet unravelled to everyone’s satisfaction). In that case, however, we must posit an evolutionary chain like ‘swift’ → ‘rapid current’→ ’river’ → ’water’ to account for the semantics. If there’s any truth in this suggestion, the meaning ‘water’ is highly derived, and there was originally nothing aquatic about the PIE root that produced the Latin and Germanic terms. 

I have only touched upon the problems surrounding aqua and its kin. A full discussion would not change the bottom line: *akʷā (or any laryngeally revamped version thereof) is not a valid PIE reconstruction. The words we find in Germanic and Latin are regional, not common Indo-European. Their pedigree is uncertain; they may be loans from an unidentified pre-IE substrate (in which case their deeper history is unknowable for lack of data). If they are derived from an internal IE source, then in all likelihood the link with streams, rivers, and finally water as a substance is a late product of semantic evolution. The Anatolian and Tocharian words for ‘drinking’ belong to a totally different word-family despite their misleading resemblance. The famous Hittite phrase wātar⸗ma ekutteni ‘and you will drink water’ (part of the sentence that triggered Hrozný’s eureka experience) does contain a cognate of English water, but not one of Latin aqua.

[► Back to the beginning of the Proto-World thread]

05 June 2013

A Wiki-Wiki Interlude

This is not about water, but it is too good to miss.

Hawai‘ian phonology is simple, but its history is fascinating. Proto-Eastern Polynesian *k was shifted to a (phonemic) glottal stop /ʔ/ in Hawai‘ian (that is what the inverted comma in Hawai‘i stands for),  which left the coronal stop *t with a lot of free space to expand into (there were no other stops or fricatives articulated with the involvement of any part of the tongue). As a result, most of the allophones of *t migrated away from their original point of articulation, towards the soft palate, until *t basically changed into /k/, reaching the position vacated by the old shifted velar. To be more precise, today [k] is the main phonetic realisation of /k/ (former *t), but in some positions the pronunciation may still be [t], and in fact just about any non-labial and non-glottal obstruent (stop, fricative or affricate) may be employed as an allophone of /k/.

Thanks to this highly unusual place-of-articulation shift the Central East Polynesian adjective *witi ‘quick, lively’ became Hawai‘ian wiki (mind you, it can still be pronounced ['witi] or ['viti], but the shifted pronunciation ['wiki] brings it phonetically closer to English quick and increases the odds of its being picked up by an English-speaker). Thus was born one of the most successful linguistic replicators of today. For centuries the virus was more or less confined to its insular homeland, but in the mid-1990s it infected the mind of an American computer programmer visiting the islands. Before long, all major language communities had their Wikis. There is of course a Hawai‘ian one as well!

I want to thank Lara Prescott for bringing this beautiful infographic presentation to my attention, and I hasten to share it wiki-wiki.

01 June 2013

Wild Waters

I apologise in advance if what you find below is technical and hard to follow, but I am still talking of the comparative method. If you prefer something easy, I recommend mass comparison.

Old Indic ap- ‘water’ is a curious word. It is a feminine root noun (its stem is a bare root morpheme with no suffix), and Indo-European root nouns are generally interesting. They are primitive formations, inherited rather than borrowed, often charmingly irregular and likely to reveal some little secrets on close examination. To begin with, the declension of ap- is somewhat defective. Some of its case forms in the singular are not attested at all, and those that are occur exclusively in the archaic Vedic dialect, while Classical Sanskrit knows only plural forms. The stem has two variants, strong āp- (nom.pl.  ā́pas) and weak ap- (gen.sg. apás, loc.pl. apsú, etc.). A similar pattern can be seen in the Iranian languages, especially Avestan, where the nom.sg. āfš (< *āp-s) is preserved beside acc.sg. āpəm, nom.pl. āpō, contrasting with the weak stem of gen.sg. apō, gen.pl. apąm, etc. The pattern looks like a slightly reworked acrostatic paradigm, possibly *Hóp-/*Hép-, where *H is one of the PIE “laryngeals”. The original declension would have been like this:
  • nom.sg. *Hṓp-s
  • acc.sg. *Hóp-m̥
  • gen.sg. *Hép-s (→ *Hép-os → *Hep-ós, on the analogy of mobile stems)
  • nom.pl. *Hóp-es

One would expect the normal IE lengthening of the root vowel *o in the nom.sg.; in the acc.sg., voc.sg., and nom./voc. pl. the inherited *o would have occurred in an open syllable, a context in which it would have been affected by the Indo-Iranian lengthening known as Brugmann’s Law. In other case forms we presumably have something else than *o (so the laryngeal should be either the non-colouring *h₁ or the a-colouring *h₂). The presence of an initial laryngeal is demonstrated by vowel lengthening visible in compounds like Skt. dvīpá- ‘island’ < *dwi-Hp-ó- ‘with water on either side’. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, most specialists reconstruct the root as *{h₂ep-}, which, assuming an acrostatic paradigm, would have resulted in nom.sg. *h₂ṓps, gen.sg. *h₂áp(o)s, nom.pl. *h₂ópes. The Indo-Iranian word may mean not only just ‘water’ (natural fresh water in lakes or rivers), but also the “celestial waters”, i.e. the sky, as well as “the Waters” personified as deities.

Outside of Indo-Iranian, we have a nice Tocharian cognate (Toch.A/B āp- f. ‘water, river’, with a vowel that could reflect *ō or *a), and a few more doubtful ones: Old Prussian ape ‘stream’, as if from *h₂ap-ijah₂, cf. Vedic ápya- ‘aquatic’ (similar words in Lithuanian and Latvian begin with u-, which makes comparison problematic). No forms with a reflex of *e are visible anywhere, which favours the reconstruction of *h₂ as the initial.

There are also a number of possibly related words in Italic, Celtic and Anatolian, which mean ‘river, stream’ and present some characteristic problems as a group. In Anatolian, we find Hittite hapas, Palaic hāpna-, Cuneiform Luwian hāpa/i- (all meaning ‘river’), and the Lycian verb χba(i)- ‘to water, irrigate’ (plus a cognate verb in Hittite, apparently borrowed from Luwian). Together, hey would confirm the reconstruction of the initial laryngeal as *h₂ (*hwas not preserved in Anatolian, and word-initial *h₃ seems to have been lost in Lycian). Unfortunately, the medial stop in Anatolian cannot reflect *p, whose outcome would have been rendered as -pp-; a single spelling reflects a PIE voiced stop. That’s why the root underlying the Anatolian words is often reconstructed as *h₂abʰ-, not *h₂ap- (and not *h₂ab- either, since *b was vanishingly rare or even non-existent in PIE).

The wild waters of one of the British Avons (Devon)
[hat tip: Simon and Fiona]
Latin amnis ‘river’ could reflect *h₂ap-ni- (with a regular nasal assimilation), but if related to Palaic hāpna-, it would be better analysed as *h₂abʰ-ni- (which would have yielded the same Latin outcome). This seems to be confirmed by the Celtic nasal stem *abon- (Old Irish aub < *abū < *abō(n) ‘river’) and its synonymous derivative *abonā (Welsh afon), known from a number of tautological hydronyms in Britain (the River Avon is literally ‘the River River’). It would seem, therefore, that we actually have two “watery” roots, *h₂ap-, found in Indo-Iranian and Tocharian (with possible trace attestation elsewhere), and *h₂abʰ- (less likely *h₂ab-) in Anatolian, Latin, and Celtic. The distribution is puzzling and the roots are suspiciously similar, but *p and *b(ʰ) do not vary freely in the same morpheme in PIE. Are the roots different and their similarity accidental? Or is it some kind of aberrant dialectal variation in the protolanguage? Such variation is often taken for granted by etymological dictionaries, but it’s clearly a case of relaxing the sound standards of comparison. It would be much nicer to be able to unify the etymologies without special pleading.

A possible connection between the two variants was suggested by Eric Hamp in 1972. PIE had a quasi-possessive suffix first described by Karl Hoffmann back in 1955 and named after him. The shape of the Hoffmann suffix is *-Hon-/*-Hn-. Hoffmann himself supposed that the initial laryngeal was *h₁ (probably = IPA [h]), but some identify it as *h₃. There’s little evidence either way, to be sure, but it has long been known that *h₃ may be responsible for voicing a preceding obstruent (hence the idea that *h₃ was a voiced fricative, IPA [ɣ] or the like). The best example is the reduplicated present stem *pí-ph₃-e/o- > *píbe/o- ‘drink’ (from the root *{peh₃(i)-}. Hamp proposed that *abon- reflected *h₂abh₃on- ‘having/carrying water’, i.e. *h₂ap- extended with the Hoffmann suffix. The Latin and Palaic forms would be analysable as derivatives of the same word: *h₂ab(h₃)n-o- ~ *h₂ab(h₃)n-i-.

But what about Hittite hapas, which does not seem to contain the Hoffmann suffix? Well, it may contain it after all. PIE *h₂abh₃on- would have become pre-Hittite *xaban- (*h₃ was lost word-medially in Anatolian). But there was a strong tendency in Hittite for animate n-stems to adopt a-stem inflections. The pivot of the change was the nom.sg., which lost its final *-n early (already in PIE) but acquired a secondary -s in Anatolian on the analogy of other types of animate stems; cf. *h₃ór-ō(n) ‘eagle’, acc.sg. *h₃ór-on-m̥ > Hitt. nom.sg. hāras, acc.sg. hāran-an (n-stem) → hāra-n (a-stem). Indeed, the Hittite ‘river’ word is attested several times with n-stem endings, which lends credence to the hypothesis that hapa- is an original n-stem (Proto-Anatolian *xábō(-s)/*xabn-), and is in fact an exact cognate of Old Irish aub.

Thus the reconstruction of the Hoffmann suffix as *-h₃on-/*-h₃n-, with a laryngeal that triggers voicing in a preceding voiceless segment, allows us to derive all the forms under discussion from one acrostatic root noun *h₂óp-/*h₂áp-. A slightly different alternative solution, also possible though more controversial, would be *h₂ā́p-/*h₂áp-, with an acrostatic *ā/a alternation (fundamental rather than due to laryngeal colouring; some Indo-Europeanists deny the existence of such a pattern). In either case the weak stem is *h₂ap-, and we really can’t know whether the Indo-Iranian long vowel in the strong cases reflects *o lengthened by Brugmann’s Law, or inherited *ā. I’ll tentatively accept the former possibility (without ruling out the latter). The root noun itself is attested securely but less widely than its most important derivative, *h₂ap-h₃on- > *h₂ab(h₃)on- ‘river’. On the whole, the analysis sketched above is weaker than the reconstruction of *wódr̥/*wédn-. Some linguists do not find the identification of the laryngeal in the Hoffmann suffix as *h₃ convincing, and are happy with the reconstruction of alternative roots (or root variants) for ‘water/river’. To my mind, Hamp’s solution is elegant and parsimonious (it prevents us from positing extra variants beyond necessity).

Note that the gender of *h₂ṓp-s/*h₂áp- is feminine in Indo-Iranian (animate in PIE terms), as opposed to the neuter (inanimate) gender of PIE *wódr̥/*wédn-. The distribution of both words and their derivatives (in both primary subfamilies of Indo-European, sometimes in one and the same branch, and without any geographical restrictions – from Ireland to India, Central Asia and Chinese Turkmenistan) guarantees protolanguage status for both of them. The gender difference, the mythological significance of Indo-Iranian *Hap- (not shared with *udan-), and the fact than *h₂ap- seems to have been preferentially used in other IE branches to derive words with the meaning ’river, stream’, suggest that the words were not quite synonymous, and that the Indo-Europeans may have been like the modern Hopi Indians in having two separate concepts corresponding to English water: ‘tame water’ contained for human use (like Hopi kuuyi) versus ‘wild water’ as a natural force beyond human control (like Hopi paahu). It’s the latter kind that could be personified or even deified. Note the potential problem for long-range research: even “Swadesh” meanings are not necessarily as fundamental as we tend to imagine. If one wants to compare the IE ‘water’ terms with putative external cognates, the question arises which aspect of ‘water’ is more representative of H₂O. All right, then: which of the two do mass-comparatists mean when they talk of “the PIE word for water”? Surprisingly, neither, as we shall see next time.