19 January 2016

The Root Question: Why *bʰer-?

The verb root *bʰer- has several paradoxical properties. On the one hand, it’s one of the most securely attested Indo-European roots, documented in Tocharian, Armenian, Greek, Phrygian, Albanian, Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Italic and Celtic. On the other hand, it’s conspicuous by its apparent absence from Anatolian, which means that despite its ubiquity in the rest of the family its Proto-Indo-European status is insecure (but see below on possible Anatolian reflexes). The present stem *bʰér-e/o- is a widespread “simple thematic present”, so familiar as a handbook example that the whole class is often referred to as the *bʰéreti-type.[1] Still, several languages (Latin, Greek, Vedic) show traces of an alternative athematic stem without the *-e/o- suffix – probably a so-called “Narten present” with an underlying long vowel: *bʰḗr-ti, *bʰér-n̥ti). Despite being so common, and despite having such a basic meaning as ‘carry, bear’, the verb lacks some conjugational forms in some Indo-European languages, so that *bʰér- has to team up with other roots to form a complete paradigm. In Latin, for example, the present (ferō), the imperfect (ferēbam) and the infinitive (ferre) are derived from *bʰer-, but the perfect tense (tetulī or tulī) and the perfect passive participle (lātus < *tlātos) are provided by the root *telh₂- ‘lift, raise, support the weight of’. In Greek, we again have reflexes of *bʰer- in the present and the imperfect, while most other forms come from *h₁neḱ- ‘take, acquire’ (and the suppletive future oísō does not even have an established etymology). In Slavic, imperfective *bьrati, 1sg. *berǫ ‘take’ is paired with perfective *ęti, *(j)ьmǫ, from PIE *h₁em- (Lat. emō).

Always collecting stuff...
Photo: Jacek Zięba, CC BY-SA 3.0
The meaning of *bʰer- is quite variable. In many branches its reflexes can be glossed as ‘carry, bear’ (of course English bear is a good example), with connotations of movement rather than static support, and of personal physical effort rather than vehicular transport (in the latter case *weǵʰ- ‘cart, convey’ is used). But the root has developed a large number of secondary senses: ‘take, take up, take away, collect, lift, bring, yield, produce, bear offspring, endure’, etc., and in some branches the core meaning has undergone a considerable semantic shift. Thus, Slavic *berǫ means ‘take’, while *nesǫ from the root *h₁neḱ- (originally ‘take, acquire’) has come to mean ‘carry’ (as if the two roots had swapped meanings). Lithuanian also has nèšti (1sg. nešù) for ‘carry’, but the meaning of Lith. ber̃ti, Latv. bḕrti is ‘scatter’ – so distant from ‘carry’ that doubts have been raised as to whether the Baltic words really derive from *bʰer- (though a development like ‘carry/take around’ > ‘circulate, distribute, disperse’ is quite natural, cf. Latin circumferō).

The oldest reconstructible present, *bʰḗr-/*bʰér- probably meant ‘carry’ in a “telic” sense (as an action with an endpoint: ‘bring or remove by carrying’). The verb gave rise to a root agent noun, *bʰṓr ‘one who takes away’ → ‘thief’ (Latin fūr, Greek pʰṓr). The widespread simple thematic *bʰér-e/o-, which probably originated as the “mediopassive” voice of the original present (with self-benefactive or passive senses), basically inherited its semantics but emphasised the durative shade of the verb and its imperfective character (hence the need to employ some other root to express the perfective and stative aspects).

Vedic alone documents a clear contrast between telic *bʰér(-e/o)- (bhárati, also Rigvedic bhárti) and atelic (iterative, habitual) *bʰi-bʰ(é)r- (bíbharti, Rigvedic bibhárti, 3pl. bíbhrati), but given the fact that CV-reduplicated presents are generally a recessive class of stems in Indo-European, reducing rather than enlarging its membership in the historically known languages, we are probably dealing with an archaism rather than a local innovation.[2] In other words, the distinction between *bʰḗr-/*bʰér- and a reduplicated present (indicating, respectively, events with an endpoint and without one) may be at least as old as the Core Indo-European subfamily. It might even be Proto-Indo-European in the strict sense, assuming that the absence of the root *bʰer- from Anatolian is accidental and due to its having been ousted by (near-)synonyms such as Hittite arnuzi ‘brings, sends, delivers’ or pē-dai ‘carries’.

... and piling it up.
Actually, isolated derivatives of *bʰer- may exist also in Anatolian. The Hittite word for ‘small rodent, mouse’, kapart-, has been etymologised as *ko(m)-bʰr̥-t- ‘gatherer, collector’ (of “stolen” grain).[3] There’s also a possible Lydian cognate, kabrdokid ‘steals’, a verb derived from an abstract noun supposedly meaning ‘hoarding away, stealing’.

The notion of collecting, gathering or bringing together often accompanies the use of *bʰer-. Greek pʰóros (from *bʰór-o-) means ‘earnings, tribute’, and one of the meanings of pʰorā́ (*bʰor-áh₂) is ‘crop’. The abstract noun *bʰr̥-tí- (Ved. bhṛtí- ‘carrying, bringing, support, maintenance’) acquires a concrete meaning in Armenian bard ‘pile, sheaf (of corn)’. Assuming hypothetically that the reduplicated iterative present could form a noun like Hitt. mēmal ‘groats’ (the product of grinding), we might expect *bʰé-bʰr̥ (of perhaps collective *bʰé-bʰōr) ‘the effect of continual collecting, a growing pile’. Like, say, a beaver’s construction – a dam or a lodge. The builder or inhabitant of a *bʰébʰ(o)r- would have been a *bʰébʰros (or possibly *bʰibʰrós, or both; the accent in nominals of this type is hard to predict), and an appropriate epithet referring to the same animal’s prominent behaviour – the assiduous collection and transport of building materials to repair, strengthen and enlarge its constructions – would have been *bʰibʰrús (or *bʰebʰrús) ‘one that’s always gathering stuff’ (timber, twigs, mud, etc.). I think the reduplication makes more sense with the root *bʰer- than with any other similar verb that might refer to something that beavers habitually do. The ability to cut down trees, for example, could be expressed by forming a simple agent noun; iterativity would not need to be emphasised. The male beaver’s legendary defensive stratagem – biting off its testicles and throwing them before hunters – would of course be a one-time trick; and “being brown” is not even eventive, let alone iterative.
So much for beavers, and for the topic of Indo-European nouns showing CV-type reduplication. The next post will be about reduplication in verbs.

[REDUPLICATION: back to the table of contents]


[1] The simple thematic presents arose in the Core Indo-European group and are absent from the Anatolian languages, as far as we know. Only a small number are known from Tocharian; *bʰér-e/o- is one of them.

[2] The alternative iterative stem, *bʰor-éje/o-, is attested only in Greek as pʰoréō ‘carry around, wear, possess (a feature)’.

[3] See Lat. conferō ‘bring together, collect’, and compounds like Vedic iṣu-bhṛ́-t- ‘arrow-carrying’ (describing an archer).


  1. Is bhibhárti possible in Sanskrit? We only have bibharti, I guess, due to Grassmann's law.

  2. The male beaver’s legendary defensive stratagem – biting off its testicles and throwing them before hunters

    I understood that story to be an entirely fanciful outgrowth of the folk etymology relating Latin castor and castrō (invented by Aelian or one of his sources?), so that it wouldn't've existed at the PIE date anyway.

    1. I agree. I wouldn't even have mentioned this story if it hadn't been so widely circulated, e.g. by Persian and Arabic authors (who knew it from Greek sources). Also, it offers a nice example of an activity which can't be repeated ;-)

      Or perhaps it can, but only once. Here's an interesting elaboration of the "castor dicitur a castrando" story:

      He has four testicles: two outer/apparent ones and two inner/hidden ones... When he sees that the hunters are after him to obtain the castoreum, which exists in his two apparent testicles, he flees, and if they persist in pursuing him, he cuts [his outer testicles] off with his mouth and throws them to the hunters... After having cut off the apparent two, he brings into view the two invisible ones in their stead. -- Damīrī (742-808/1341-1405)

  3. I don't find the etymology 'to carry' very compelling, among other things because it's a transitive verb. A possible alternative would be *bhu:r- 'to move quickly' (cfr. Sanskrit bhuráti).

    1. Speed is not the defining characteristic of beavers :-)
      I don't think that the fact that the base verb is transitive is a problem for this etymology, which I personally find very elegant (and unexpected). As a reduplicated form meaning "the one which is always carrying things around", the object is understood as indefinite. For a similar effect of reduplication (with a quasi-antipassive meaning), see the work of Alex François on Mwotlap, where reduplication, among other meanings, precisely has this antipassive value.

    2. I don't find the etymology 'to carry' very compelling, among other things because it's a transitive verb.

      So what? Does it make *bʰṓr 'thief' impossible?

    3. Alex François on Mwotlap

      See also Antoine Guillaume's work on Cavineña (a Tacanan language in northern Bolivia). It's the only known language in the Amazon with an antipassive voice, and guess how it's expressed? A transitive verb gets reduplicated; its object is omitted (but understood) and the meaning of the verb may become more specific:

      utsa- 'wash (sth.)'
      utsa-utsa- 'do the laundry'

  4. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is a triumph of etymology. I kindly thank professor Gąsiorowski for his generous effort.

    - Olivier

  5. In Portuguese we have corre-corre, literally "runs-runs" meaning panic, situation that provokes hurrying. Pula-pula "jumps-jumps":the elastic bed for kids playing.


  6. Semantically I agree that 'beaver' is better ascribed to the verb 'bear, carry (sticks)' than to 'brown (animal)' or 'scharfes Werkzeug'. Morphologically I have trouble with a Narten verb whose mediopassive *bʱer- somehow acquired active inflection. This seems to be pushing the Narten formalism beyond its useful limit. I also don't agree with regarding *bʱer- as originally telic. I think it was inherently atelic, and telicized by postposing *-h₁, as with other verbs during the stage of PIE which utilized root-extensions.

    Post-Vedic sutaḥ 'son' suggests an aniṭ-root beside the seṭ-root of Vedic sūnúḥ 'son', sū́te 'brings forth'. The son is 'pressed out' (Ved. sutá-) in the act of birth. Germanic *buri- 'son, child' (Go. baur, OE byre) also requires a seṭ-root in *bʱṛH-i-; Aeolic φέρενᾱ 'dowry' (evidently an archaism against Attic φερνή) requires *bʱerh₁-. Lith. bérnas 'boy, servant' also points to a seṭ-root. (Smoczyński's explanation of an acute through syncope of *be͂rinas, SEJL 54-5, is ad hoc and unwarranted.) Indeed since pre-industrial women simply squat on the ground to give birth (as witnessed by the Discovery Channel), *ĝenh₁- 'to beget' can be regarded as a parallel extension of *ĝen- 'to bend, flex (the knees), squat', originally applying to mothers, later extended to fathers and more remote ancestors. While *bʱer- signifies 'to carry', *bʱerh₁- is 'to carry to completion' (a baby to term, a dowry to its recipient, a corpse to the grave in Latin feretrum 'bier', not ˣfertrum). Presumably *sewh₁- 'to press out to completion' was not simply redundant but expressed the length of the birthing process. If *sutáḥ 'son' existed in the Vedic language, it was probably considered too vulgar for literary use. And *ĝen- likely took on an obstetric sense 'to genuflect, squat in order to give birth' which became obsolete when *ĝenh₁-, denoting the whole birthing process, replaced it.

    The Homeric imperatives κλῦθι and κλῦτε are not well explained by verse-initial metrical lengthening (thus Beekes, EDG 719), because the dactyls κέκλῠθι and κέκλῠτε were available. More likely they involve an archaic distinction, κλῦθι 'hear (me) out!' against *κλύθι 'hear (me)!', reflecting *k̂lewH- 'to hear out, hear completely' against *k̂lew- 'to hear'. If κλῦθι was earlier oxytone *κλῡθί, only *h₁ agrees with Francis' Law. Greek abandoned *κλῡ- with the exception of the formal imperatives preserved by Homer (and used by Pindar and tragedians), while Germanic generalized *xlūda- < *k̂luH-tó- 'heard out, heard well, well-heard, loud' as an adjective but retained other aniṭ-derivatives like *xlewþa- '(act of) listening' < *k̂léw-to-.

    It's worth noting that Skt. bhṛ- and śru- are two of the eight verbal roots which must omit the connecting vowel -i- before consonant-initial endings in the perfect system. This -i- appears to have been generalized from seṭ-roots and creates no ambiguity when the language doesn't have contrasting seṭ- and aniṭ-forms of a given root. Its absence with bhṛ- and śru- suggests that Proto-Vedic did contrast reflexes of *bʱerH- and *k̂lewH- with their aniṭ-forms, so that (for example) babhártha 'thou hast carried' differed from *babháritha 'thou hast carried to completion, carried out', preventing the former from acquiring connecting -i-, even as the latter was going out of use.

    I'm pushing the character limit, so I'll comment on 'beaver' morphology another day.


    1. Beside Skt. babhrú-, dadrú-, and pari-tatnú- I would place the base of 1/3sg. perf. act. forms of the papráu-type. These can be regarded as periphrastic locatives of reduplicated u-stems; thus from *paprú- 'fulfillment' vel sim. we have papráu (asmi, asti) 'in fulfillment (am I, is he)' = 'I have/he has (ful)filled'. These are characteristic of roots continuing *-eH, like *pleh₁-.

      'Fulfill' is conspicuous by its absence from the list in the earlier blog-post which included 'pee-pee', 'bye-bye', 'hip-hop', and the like. In my opinion it is highly significant in illustrating perfective reduplication by preposing the result. 'Fill' is aspectually ambiguous, but 'fill full, fulfill' is not.

      Rather than stuttering, I would suggest a regular method by which perfect reduplication might have arisen in PIE. An aspectually ambiguous root like *pleh₁- could prepose its result (formally a passive root-adjective?), something like *plh₁e-pleh₁- 'fill full, fulfill'. The first *h₁ would vanish prevocalically, which is trivial; the first *l by a regular dissimilation *C₁R₁VC₂R₁- > *C₁VC₂R₁- (evident in the noun 'tear', IEW 179, and a few other places where the first R₁ wasn't analogically restored; cf. ἔκπαγλος). At a later stage of PIE, reduplicating the first consonant of a root with *e could have been generalized to form perfect stems to other classes of roots.

      In this view papráu is the loc. sg. of an abstract u-stem *peplh₁ú- < *plh₁e-plh₁ú- 'fulfillment', while dadrú- 'leprosy, tetter' is a concretized abstract 'tearing, peeling' based probably on the seṭ-form *derh₁- (also *dreh₁-?) reflected in dṛṇā́ti, dīrṇa-. And babhrú- 'brown (animal)', before the Aryan Invasion 'beaver', was even earlier a concretized abstract to *bʱerh₁- (also *bʱreh₁-?) 'carry to completion, bring to a place, collect' meaning among other things 'collection of sticks, beaver-work, beaver-dam, beaver-mound'. Like the mole, the beaver is actually seen much less often than his works, and we do find the word for 'mole-hill' becoming 'mole' in some Romance dialects (REW 8545; also a monograph by Friedrich Schürr in a volume of Romania, which I've misplaced). The attested forms of 'beaver' apparently reflect this *bʱebʱr(h₁)ú- along with *bʱíbʱr(h₁)o- and their contamination products. Since the first (in this view) referred originally to a beaver-work, presumably the second identified the actual beaver, and can be regarded as the deverbal agent of the frequentative 'carry (things) repeatedly or continually'. Proverbs might have involved both nouns (possibly 'it takes a beaver to build a beaver-work', praising the industry of this animal, the busy beaver). But with the decline in productivity of both formations would come confusion and contamination.

      I don't find it plausible that perfective *e-reduplication and presentic *i-reduplication have the same origin, or belonged to one paradigm that split. If *i and *e were once the same, then so must have been *u and *o, and then we're down to one vowel before the ablaut-stage. No known language has fewer than two, and W.P. Lehmann and Rich Alderson had to abandon their one-vowel models of pre-ablauting PIE.

    2. and then we're down to one vowel before the ablaut-stage.

      But why would there be a time before ablaut? Is there any reason to think ablaut is an IE innovation? Apart from the zero grade, ablaut is also found in the possibly genetically related Afro-Asiatic and Kartvelian families, and in the geographically related Northwest Caucasian (I forgot about Northeast). Personally, I think ablaut was already there before the vowel system shrunk.

  7. "Now, reduplication is somewhat uncommon in Quinault and its neighbor Lower Chehalis. And this specific kind of reduplication — copying the first consonant of a word, throwing in the stressed vowel — is unknown in these ‘Tsamosan’ Salish languages.

    However, precisely this type of reduplication exists, and is frequent, two doors down. In the next-nearest neighbor languages in this family, the southern Coast Salish speech known as Twana (Skokomish) or Lushootseed, you’ll find it in spades."

    From this blog post which provides examples. (Underlining in the original instead of italics; the <u> tag isn't allowed here, bizarrely.)