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 *kʷ, 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.
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