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
[link]
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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30 comments:

  1. If "KW" segments - labialdorsals of varying realizations - are statistically common in unrelated water words, couldn't the relative fitness of such words be explained away by phonosymbolism? [kw] does look similar to the dunking sound emitted by a pool of water (compared in, say, audacity).

    It's odd to say it with my knowledge of biology but it's seeming every day like convergence is more parsimonious in historical linguistics than genetic relatedness.

    Maybe the junk data being purported by the more eccentric could be used to establish phonosymbolist data? I'm guessing it's already being done, but I'm still very fresh to the subject.

    Thank you for the wonderful series of posts and excellent commentary, by the way.

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  2. It's odd to say it with my knowledge of biology but it's seeming every day like convergence is more parsimonious in historical linguistics than genetic relatedness.

    It wouldn't be all that surprising, given how short words are, on the whole. Even accidental convergence, with no phonosymbolism involved, is something bump into all the time; mimetic effects make it still more probable. Would any lay person believe that isle and island have nothing to do with each other etymologically? The pedantic s-spelling introduced in the 16th century (the s was already mute in French at that time) shows that their "relatedness" was already taken for granted by Early Modern English speakers 500+ years ago.

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    1. Goes for show that we generally like to overestimate the power and complexity of a word, eh?

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  3. It looks like you inspired on my post, although you forgot to quote me. I think some readers would like to know your references (not necessarily printed books or articles).

    There can be little doubt *akw-ā is a substrate loanword. But simply labelling the source language as "pre-IE" can be misleading, because if it has genuine IE cognates (namely *H1ōk´u-), it has to be a relative of PIE.

    On the other hand, I think the IE verb 'to drink' could be a genuine cognate of the Afrasian 'water' word quoted by Ruhlen.

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  4. One traditionell compared word is the Russian river name Oka which would presuppose a labiovelar.
    An additional problem is long a in Oscar aapam.

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    1. Yes, I know of the suggestions concerning Oka, but it's so far from the heartland of the aqua family, so isolated, and so short, that it hardly counts as eveidence of anything (of course any meaning that we ascribe to a hydronym is conjectural).

      I hesitated whether to include the Oscan word in the discussion of ap-, but decided not to. Again, the meaning is pure guesswork depite the context. Pace de Vaan, if the word really means 'water' or 'water-cistern', a link with aqua would perhaps make more sense than one with ap-, since the latter does not normally refer to water stored in a container.

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    2. Right, of course both words do not really constitute independent evidence. If aapam means something like 'water', it is better connected to aqua also because of its stem class. In that case, the aa / a variation could point to a foreign source. Certainly Vasconic ;-)

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  5. One of the problems with *ōḱú- is the embarras de richesse: it is possible to connect it with either aqua or equus, but not with both (not that some people haven't tried by squeezing far too many laryngeals into one root). Both possibilities have been tried. *ōḱú- has been reconstructed with *h₂ by those who believe that the root *h₂aḱ- underlies both 'sharp' and 'swift' (and potentially aqua), with *h₁ by those who insist the the horse was 'the swift one', and occasionally also with *h₃ (with or without an accompanying *h₁). There is no satisfactory explanation of the unaccented long *ō, strange in a u-stem adjective. No theory predicts such a root vowel. It can't be just *Hōḱú-, but a reduplication like *Ho-Hḱ-ú- is not very elegant either even if *H = *h₃, and work for *h₁ or *h₂. An obscured prefix (perhaps Jens Rasmussen's controversial O-fix) would work nicely for any laryngeal (*O-Hḱ-ú-), but as I said it remains controversial.

    I am talking of attempts to connect these roots within IE, not via external relatives. In such an analysis, the Latin/Germanic term would not be a substrate word but a specialised derivative of an IE root.

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    1. Self correction:
      "and work for *h₁ or *h₂" should read "and doesn't work at all for *h₁ or *h₂".

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    2. "it is possible to connect it with either aqua or equus, but not with both (not that some people haven't tried by squeezing far too many laryngeals into one root)."

      And yet, maybe so. I know "dialect continuum" is a cheap wild card, but aren't we talking about continuum anyway?

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    3. I am talking of attempts to connect these roots within IE, not via external relatives. In such an analysis, the Latin/Germanic term would not be a substrate word but a specialised derivative of an IE root.
      I'm afraid this is an isolationist point of view which denies any relationships between IE proper and other language families, either living or exticnt.

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    4. As I said elsewhete, the 'horse' word can't be related to *H1ōk´u- because of its external cognates.

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    5. I'm afraid this is an isolationist point of view which denies any relationships between IE proper and other language families, either living or exticnt.

      I'm afraid this is a strawman argument.

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    6. I think I stated it a bit strong. Possibly "which gives priority to internal etymologies to external relationships" would be better.

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    7. That's a methodological principle, not denialism. It's reasonable to try down-to-earth solutions first before making extraordinary claims (for which extraordinarily good evidence should be required).

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    8. I disagree. Substrate loanwords can be anything but "extraordinary".

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    9. The problem of the mainstream model is that it sees PIE as a monolythic entity, when there's evidence of several linguistic strata in the IE family. The Old European Hydronymy belongs to an older layer than the IE languages historically attested in those areas (with the possible exception of Germanic). In fact, its agglutinative morphology could represent an older stage of the IE family, which the Spanish IE-ist F. Rodríguez Adrados calls "IE I (pre-flexional)".

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    10. Celtiberian tar akuai could be translated as 'across the river'. See P. de Bernardo Stempel's article Water in the Botorrita Bronzes and other Inscriptions (2007).

      Celtiberian akua is a substrate loanword, also responsible for the *ɑkw-ā hydronyms found in the Iberian Peninsula.

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    11. Botorrita III is essentially a long list of personal names. The opening passage containing tarakuai is the only real sentence there, but it isn't even as much as half-comprehensible. De Bernardo Stempel's interpretation is just a tentative suggestion, not a definitive reading. A hapax in an obscure context is not enough to establish akua as a Celtiberian word with a known meaning in the first place.

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    12. I think you're a bit too pessimistic about the issue. The root is found in ancient toponymy of the Iberian Peninsula (Villar), so it's reasonable to think Celtiberian borrowed it, together with other items of substrate origin. But this illustrates one of the paradoxes of paleolinguistics: despite the fact Celtiberian is a Celtic language, a family with living members, we can hardly understand it. And the situation of other poorly attested ancient languages such as Tartessian is even worse.

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  6. There is the idea of an old prefix (adverb) *h₂o- 'at' (Greek o-), cf. Schindler apud Lipp 2009: I 75; II 24. So this would be an "entheos"-compound 'at whom there is sharpness/swiftness', and we would be free to choose any laryngeal, since the *o is "uncoloured" o.

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  7. As reflexes of *h₁égʷʰ- 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’.
    Do you know of any semantic parallels for a shift from a meaning "to be(come) drunk / intoxicated" to simply "to drink"? While the inverse shift is attested so often that I'd rather assume that this is what happened in Greek and Latin (indepedently or as a European IE development): The original PIE verb for "to drink" was *h₁égʷʰ- (as attested in Anatolian and Tocharian), some derivations obtained a meaning "drunk, intoxicated>", and these derivations of *h₁égʷʰ- with its new, specialized meaning "drunk" were retained, while as a basic verb "to drink" *h₁égʷʰ- was ousted by *po(i?)H3- in most IE languages after the split-off of Anatolain and Tocharian.

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  8. It was just a loose thought and it doesn't accurately reflect my own views. I actually think that the original difference between the two roots was purely aspectual. As a root verb, *h₁egʷʰ- has a "present" (imperfective) value, while *poh₃(i)- forms an "aorist" (perfective) root verb, so it's more or less 'be drinking' versus 'drink up, swallow'. In Anatolian the contrast was lost (together with root aorists). Outside of Anatolian, the reduplicated present *pí-ph₃-e/o- (Lat. bibo, Ved. píbati, etc.), made *h₁egʷʰ- redundant, so we have only some isolated deverbal derivatives left.

    Given the primitive contrast between them, *h₁egʷʰ- could easily have developed meanings connected with getting drunk (to get intoxicated on the mead or beer available to PIE speakers, you would have had to spend some time drinking rather than just down one *póh₃-tlom).

    By the way, *poh₃(i)- is the mainstream reconstruction (in which *-i- is some sort of obscured root extension, and the pre-consonantal zero grade *pih₃- is believed to be metathetic.

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    1. A small correction. I wrote:

      Outside of Anatolian...

      I meant the Neo-IE crown group, after its separation from Tocharian.

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    2. Yes, that scenario makes much more sense to me.

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  9. I don't read Italian (at least, not without great pain), but this possibly-relevant paper just popped up in my academia.edu feed:
    "Vicus ad aquam. L'origine del toponimo Squaneto" by Francesco Perono Cacciafoco. The English abstract says:

    The contribution proposes to reconstruct scientifically the etymology of the place name Squaneto on the basis of Indo-European root *akw- in the "macro-system" of linguistic Indo-European water radicals involved in the formation of many place names in Northern Italy. The Author applies the Historical Phonetics to the empirical method of Dr. Claudio Beretta to the study of the place name, proposing a reconstruction *s-akwa-n-eto = *S-qua-n-etum, dating back to the common Indo-European. The toponymic etymology is strenghtened by the comparison with the analogous place names (concerning two...

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  10. Could be *h₁é-h₁gʷʰ- related to *h1eg^hero- "lake"?

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  11. Not without special pleading, in any case. *gʷʰ yields Baltic *g and, when palatalised before a front vowel, Slavic *ž, but never Baltic *ž and Slavic *z, as in the 'lake' word (Lith. ẽžeras, OCS jezero, etc.). Anyway, 'lake' seems to be a secondary meaning (← 'border, bank'), based on a root which has no connection with drinking.

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    1. The BSl-Greek "lake" root also appears relatable to the probably substratal Western Uralic *jäxrä (→ Finnic *järvi, etc.) "lake" though. The *j- would then seem to show that this is not identical with the "border" root (in which no *j- appears in Uralic: Finnic *ääri ← *äxVrə "border").

      We could speculate that *jäxrä represents a development of *eǵʰe-ro- in some lost IE branch where an initial *j developed here, of course, but in that case, another option becomes that *jäxrä ([jæɣra]?) was adopted from some derivative of h₁egʷʰ-, and that this was loaned back into Balto-Slavic as *eǵʰe-ro-.

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    2. I don't think so. The Uralic word is most likely related to Caucasian *järɬwī / *ɬwä(j)rī (~ -ē) 'sea' (NCED 1679), whose metathesized form would be reflected in Celtic *līro- 'ocean'.

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