Arms of Biberach an der Riß
Arthur Charles Fox-Davies
A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909)
Most etymological dictionaries, introductions to Indo-European studies, as well as online sources (including Wikipedia and Wiktionary) inform the reader that the Proto-Indo-European word for ‘beaver’, *bʰébʰrus, is a reduplicate derivative of the root *bʰer- or *bʰreu-, meaning ‘brown’. The same root is often claimed to account for the Germanic ‘bear’ word, *βer-an- (a nasal stem), as if from *bʰer-on- ‘the brown one’. There are several problems with these etymologies.
To begin with, neither *bʰer- nor *bʰreu- is attested as a stem. At best, there are several words in different Indo-European languages which contain reflexes of *bʰ and *r (and sometimes of *u) and mean something like ‘brown’; it is, however, hard to connect them formally within a plausible etymon. We can agree that Modern English brown, Modern German braun and Modern French brun (borrowed from Frankish) are “basic colour terms” and can be used to describe the colour of a beaver’s coat. It doesn’t follow, however, that the same can be claimed of their Proto-Germanic ancestor, *βrūna-. In early Germanic languages the word meant ‘dark, swarthy, dusky’ (as well as ‘shiny, bright’, often with reference to forged metal or the sea), and while it could be used to modify virtually any hue for which there was a name, it was hardly a specific colour term itself. Its extra-Germanic connections are anything but secure: although Greek pʰrū́nē (f.), pʰrũnos (m.) ‘toad’ might or might not be cognate, there is no related Greek colour adjective. The “colour conspiracy” of the modern languages of Europe, which have developed identical or very similar basic colour systems, is a case of recent cultural convergence. As late as the seventeenth century, German braun could still refer to hues in the violet/purple range (e.g. the colour of the amethyst).
|Modern version of the same|
(we know so much more about beavers today).
Lithuanian bė́ras does refer to shades of brown, but is used as a specialised horse-coat term (like English bay), not a generally applicable colour word, and can’t be directly connected with *βrūna- anyway. Vedic babhrú- means ‘deep brown, reddish-brown’ and is practically identical with the reconstructed ‘beaver’ word, but it is probably derived from the animal’s name, not vice versa. The ancient Indo-Aryans had migrated too far from the geographical range of the beaver to have retained the original meaning, but they did keep the derived descriptive adjective. Secondarily substantivised, babhrú- may refer to several rather different animals of India, from the brown mongoose to the Jacobin cuckoo.
The ‘bear’ connection is dubious too. A “weak” (n-stem) noun would presuppose an adjective like *bʰer(o)-, not recoverable as a Proto-Indo-European colour term (even the isolated East Baltic adjective mentioned above isn’t a perfect match), and there is an attractive alternative: the *βer- part can be derived either directly from the root noun *ǵʰwēr-/*ǵʰwer- ‘wild animal, beast’ (Ringe 2006: 106) or more plausibly from the corresponding thematic adjective ‘wild, savage’ (cf. Lat. ferus). To be sure, the hypothesis that word-initial *gʷʰ and *ǵʰw yield Germanic *β remains somewhat controversial (there are a small number of examples), but the etymology of bear as ‘the ferocious one’ is semantically unassailable. The substantivisation of an adjective by turning it into an n-stem is a common morphological process.
Instead of trying to guess in advance what the *-bʰr- part of the beaver’s name stands for, let’s have a look at the full reconstruction first. It’s usually cited as a stem in *-u-, perhaps primarily because of the Sanskrit ‘deep brown’ word, but the total Indo-European evidence is indecisive:
- In Slavic *bobrъ, *bebrъ, *bьbrъ (note the variation of the echo vowel) the final *-ъ may reflect *-o-s or *-u-s. Some old derivatives and toponyms plus accentual considerations suggest that the word was originally a u-stem in Slavic or perhaps vacillated between the two types, for there’s some evidence supporting an o-stem as well.
- Baltic shows both u-stem and o-stem forms – the former in Old Prussian bebrus and in the Lithuanian variant bebrùs, the latter in Lith. bẽbras, bãbras, and Latvian bȩbrs.
- Iranian has an o-stem reflex: Proto-Iranian *babra- > Younger Avestan baβra-, with the variant baβri-; cf. also Pahlavi babrag < *babraka-, with the very productive “colloquialising” suffix *-ka-.
- Latin has fiber (second declension), as if from *bʰibʰro- (with an i-echo), beside sparsely attested feber.
- In Celtic, the inherited ‘beaver’ word has been buried under layers of lexical innovations (especially *abankos ‘river animal’) and borrowings. It can be detected in some Gaulish, Old Brittonic and Old Irish toponyms, ethnonyms and personal names, but its exact Proto-Celtic form is difficult to recover: *bebro-, *bebru-, *bibro- and *bibru- possibly coexisted in early Celtic.
- Finally, the word is excellently preserved in Northwest Germanic.  We have e.g. Early Old English bebr, bebir, beber, later befer, befor, beofor; Old High German bibar, bibur; and Old Icelandic bjórr < *bjǫβurr < *beβ(u)raz. All these forms can in principle reflect Proto-Germanic *βeβraz < *bʰebʰro-, though a u-stem can’t be completely ruled out. [Afterthought]
The ‘beaver’ word has a relatively wide attestation, but since the animal itself has occurred mainly at northerly attitudes in historical times, it’s poorly attested in Indo-Iranian and Italic, and not at all in Armenian or in Greek (where we find kástōr instead, borrowed also into modern Albanian). Alas, although beavers lived in parts of ancient Anatolia, we don’t know what the speakers of Hittite or Luwian called them: they weren’t thoughful enough to write something about beavers for posterity. The Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages have preserved the word best, and it’s in Balto-Slavic that we find the greatest diversity of variants. What shall we make of this variety?
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 Cf. also Hurrian babrunnu, a technical horsey adjective borrowed from the language of the “Mitanni Indo-Aryans”.
 The echo vowel in the modern Slavic languages most often reflects *o (found in all Slavic languages today). The minor variant with *e has a wide but scattered distribution (Serbian Church Slavonic, dialectal Bulgarian, Slovene, Upper Sorbian, Old Russian) and looks like a locally surviving relic (see also the Polish river-name Biebrza, and Romanian breb, borrowed from Slavic). The modern prevalence of *o may be due to a Slavic tendency (inconsistent and poorly understood) to introduce and generalise *o in CV-reduplications. Borrowing is less likely, though Iranian influence has been suspected (as an indication of prehistoric trade in beaverskins and castoreum). Western Lithuanian bãbras seems to be Slavic-influenced. The variant *bьbrъ is rare (Old Russian, Serbo-Croatian dȁbar, with a dissimilated initial stop). It could be regarded as an aberrant local innovation, were it not for the fact that (unlike *bobrъ) it has several exact counterparts in other branches (West Baltic hydronymic *bibru-, Lat. fiber, Celtic *bibru- ~ *bibro-).
 Replaced by loanwords (some related to it) in Vulgar Latin and Proto-Romance.
 It seems that beavers never colonised Ireland after the last ice age, which of course does not mean that the Irish Celts were unaware of their existence. “Beavery” tribal names could also have been brought to Ireland from Great Britain and/or the continent during prehistoric migrations.
 Its absence from the Gothic corpus is due to the usual reason: no beavers in the Bible.
 Some East Slavic dialects preserve a uniquely specialised, evidently archaic word for ‘beaver lodge’, *zer(d)mę < *gʰerdʰ-mn̥, with a curious “hyper-satem” treatment of the root *gʰerdʰ- ‘gird, encircle, fence about’, cf. Slavic *gordъ ‘fort, town’, Lith. gar̃das ‘enclosure, stall’, Vedic gr̥há- ‘house’, Albanian gardh ‘fence’. The ‘beaver lodge’ word has been borrowed into standard Polish as żeremie (with a hypercorrect ż).