Neuter nouns with the suffix *-wr̥/*-w(e)n- are relatively rare in most branches of Indo-European. The only group where they can be found in great numbers is Anatolian. In Hittite, the suffix productively formed verbal nouns (names of actions), but there are also examples of nouns that had become independent lexical units, no longer bound to a particular verb paradigm. They had usually acquired a concrete meaning (referring to a thing or substance rather than an abstraction). One of such nouns is Hitt. pahhur/pahhuen- ‘fire’, evidently an ancient word, preserved in many branches of the family and showing evidence of archaic vowel alternations and mobile stress: nom/acc.sg. *páh₂wr̥, gen.sg. *ph₂wéns, etc. It may be etymologically connected with the verb *pah₂- ‘guard, protect’, but it’s doubtful if even the speakers of Hittite were still aware of any such connection: the semantic distance between the verb and its derivative was already too great.
Outside Anatolian, the suffix does not play any major role. The nouns that contain it are scattered remnants of a Proto-Indo-European pattern of word-formation. Their attestation is very uneven. They are quite well represented in Sanskrit and Greek, but only isolated examples are found elsewhere (the ‘fire’ word, which became part of Indo-European basic vocabulary sufficiently early, is exceptionally well attested). Here are a few typical *-wr̥/*-w(e)n- nouns evidently connected with known verb roots:
- *h₂árh₃-wr̥, gen. *h₂r̥h₃-wén-s ‘arable land’ (root *h₂arh₃- ‘till, plough’);
- *snéh₁-wr̥, gen. *sn̥h₁-wén-s ‘string, sinew’ (root *(s)neh₁- ‘spin, twist’);
- *séǵʰ-wr̥, gen. *sǵʰ-wén-s ‘steadfastness’ (root *seǵʰ-‘conquer, take possession of; hold, own’);
- *h₁éd-wr̥, gen. *h₁d-wén- ‘food’ (root *h₁ed- ‘eat’).
Their reflexes in the historically documented languages rarely display the whole range of vowel, consonant and stress variations, most of which were levelled out analogically in prehistoric times. Still, these alternations are reconstructible thanks to the fact that different fragments of the pattern have been preserved in different languages. They can be reassembled into a complete picture like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or the disarticulated skeleton of a fossil animal.
A four-wheeled toy from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture;
the early fourth millennium BC.
Now we can view the reconstruction *kʷét-wr̥ in this light. Supposing it was derived from our hypothetical verb root *kʷet- ‘group into pairs’, the original meaning of *kʷétwr̥ (as a nomen actionis) would be something like ‘pairing’, and its collective *kʷétwōr would mean ‘a particular result of pairing, a complete set organised into pairs’. In the Proto-Indo-European world, there were many “natural” sets of things conceptualised as consisting of two pairs: human hands and feet; fore and rear legs of animals; the wheels of a wagon; the four directions, whether cardinal (east and west, north and south) or relative (forward and backwards, left and right); paired organs of perception (two eyes and two ears). This could have provided sufficient motivation for treating ‘4’ as the prototypical case of an “even collective”. An interesting parallel can be seen in the “fraternal” numeral systems widespread in Amazonia. In the languages that employ them, the numeral ‘4’ is derived from an expression meaning ‘each has a brother/companion/spouse’. At a more primitive stage, preserved in the Dâw language, there are only three “exact” lexical numerals, ‘1’, ‘2’, and ‘3’. The values from 4 to 10 are described as ‘even’ (‘has a brother’) or ‘odd’ (‘has no brother’). The precise value can’t be expressed linguistically, but the words ‘even’ and ‘odd’ can be supplemented by clarifying hand gestures:
Dâw speakers indicate ‘four’ by holding the fingers of one hand separated into two blocks; for ‘five’, they add the thumb; for ‘six’, they place the second thumb against the first to make a third pair; and so on until for ‘ten’ all fingers are grouped into five pairs, the thumbs together.
[Epps 2006: 265]
Once established as a concrete numeral (rather than part of an even-odd tally system), *kʷétwōr (or *kʷətwṓr) was interpreted as an ordinary neuter plural, and – like the numerals ‘1’, ‘2’, and ‘3’ – formally an adjective, inflected not only for case but also for gender. This resulted in the analogical creation of the animate plural in *-wor-es (and the periphrastic feminine ‘four females’, soon univerbated and phonetically mutilated in the process). Note that if the adjective had been formed directly from the verbal noun *kʷétwr̥/*kʷ(ə)twén-, its animate plural would probably have ended up as *kʷet-won-es. In addition to the Greek and Vedic words for ‘fat’, already discussed, compare Greek peîrar (gen. -atos) ‘boundary’ < *pér-wr̥/*pr̥-w(e)n- versus the Homeric adjective a-peírōn (animate) ‘boundless, endless’ < *n̥-per-wōn.
All this suggests that the word *kʷétwr̥ (coll. *kʷétwōr) was transparently derived from a verb root and adopted as a cardinal numeral at a rather late date, perhaps in “Core Indo-European” (the non-Anatolian part of the family) rather than in Proto-Indo-European proper. It is a well-known fact that Anatolian has a different word for ‘4’, *meju- (Hittite meu-/meyau-, Luwian māwa-). Since the jury is still out on whether Hittite kutruwa(n)- ‘witness’ has anything to do with the numeral ‘4’*), we should seriously consider the possibility that the familiar reconstruction *kʷetwores is not Proto-Indo-European at all but represents a “dialectal” innovation which replaced its older synonym in the common ancestor of Tocharian and the extant branches of the family.
If this were a journal article rather than a blog post, I would now be obliged to account for every puzzling irregularity in the branch-specific reflexes of *kʷetwores and its variants. I will spare my visitors such excruciating details, but if anyone is really interested in discussing them, welcome to the Comments section.
And now back to other matters – next time.
*) A witness in court could be denoted as ‘the fourth man’ (beside the two contracting parties and the judge).
Epps, Patience. 2006. “Growing a numeral system: The historical development of numerals in an Amazonian language family”. Diachronica 23(2): 259-288. [a preprint version is available here]