18 January 2016

Towards a More Realistic Beaver

When we consider the known patterns of CV reduplication in Indo-European, we find that different reduplicated adjectives or nouns with very similar meanings can be derived in parallel from  the same verb root. One pair already mentioned is Vedic sásni- (a cákri-type word) : siṣṇú-, both from the verb root *senh₂- ‘gain, strive after, accomplish’. Both adjectives mean, approximately, ‘constantly gaining/winning for oneself or others’. No CV-reduplicated present derived from this root is attested. It forms an Indo-Iranian reduplicated perfect (which, however, expresses a completed action and has no iterative or habitual connotations), and a Vedic “intensive” present with full reduplication (which does mean ‘gain/acquire repeatedly’ but is structurally different from the adjectives in question).[1] It is possible, however, that once a productive derivational schema became established, it was not essential that an actual CV-reduplicated present should exist. E(e)-R(ø)-i- or E(i)-R(ø)-u- adjectives, as well as E(e)-R(ø)-o- (*kʷékʷlo-type) nouns could be formed directly on the basis of a verb root. In one of the Rigvedic hymns to Indra (Book 6, 23:4b) the god is described as follows:
babhrír vájram papíḥ sómaṃ dadír gā́ḥ
carrying the vajra, drinking soma, giving cows
(doing all these things habitually, i.e. whenever he comes to attend a soma-pressing). We have no fewer than three cákri-type quasi-partciples here.[2] Note that they take accusative objects, like the corresponding verbs. And yet, although all the three verbs form CV-reduplicated presents in Vedic, the adjectives can’t be derived directly from those presents. The Vedic present of *bʰer- ‘carry’ (3sg./3pl.) is bi-bhár-ti [3]/bí-bhr-ati with an i-reduplication[4]; from *poh₃(i)- ‘drink’ we have pí-b-a-ti/pí-b-a-nti. At least in the latter case both the i-reduplication and the voiced *b (by assimilation, from the sequence *-ph₃-, with a voiced laryngeal) are very old, at least as old as the common ancestor of Vedic, Latin and the Celtic languages.[5] The adjective papí- seems to have been formed directly to the Indo-Aryan root -/-, using the cákri-type template. The type itself is probably an Indo-Iranian innovation (especially productive in Vedic), inspired by the use of *-i- rather than *-o- as the final vowel in compound stems. The precursor of the cákri-type is essentially identical with the *kʷékʷlo-type (except perhaps for an accentual contrast between nouns and adjectives, if the final accent of bhabhrí- is original and the initial one in cákri- is a Vedic innovation). Therefore the formation represented by bhabhrí- is a reworking of an older type which can be reconstructed as *bʰe-bʰr-ó- ‘(ever-)carrying’ – or, when substantivised, *bʰé-bʰr-o- ‘habitual carrier’. A parallel u-stem with practically the same meaning may also have existed, either *bʰi-bʰr-ú- (like Ved. siṣṇú-) or possibly *bʰe-bʰr-ú- (like Ved. (pari-)tatnú- ‘surrounding’).[6] Thus, both the *Ce- ~ *Ci- variation in the echo and the coexistence of stems in *-o- and *-u- can be explained with recourse to known Indo-European word-forming processes.

Two well-known Indo-European semiaquatic mammals
Conrad Gessner, De piscium et aquatilium animantium natura

But wait a moment: *bʰé-bʰr-o- and *bʰi-bʰr-ú- look exactly like the reconstructed variants of the ‘beaver’ word. If beavers owe their Indo-European name not to their coat colour but to some characteristic habitual activity, the verb describing that activity should be similar to *bʰer- ‘carry’. There are, for example, a couple of known roots of the shape *bʰerH-, one meaning ‘cut, strike, pierce, fight’ (with an unspecified laryngeal) and the other ‘move rapidly, rush, chase’ (in which *H = *h₂ or *h₃). The laryngeal would have been lost in a reduplication containing the root in zero-grade, so we would not be able  to see any difference between the outcomes of *-bʰr- and *-bʰrH-.

Stretching the imagination a little, one would be able to connect the meaning of any of these roots with the beaver’s habits. For example, the first *bʰerH- is glossed ‘mit sharfem Werkzeug bearbeiten’[7] in the LIV; and what are the beaver’s incisors if not “ein sharfes Werkzeug”? Still, I would like to defend the simplest solution, involving the most widespread and most securely reconstructed of these roots, namely *bʰer- ‘carry’. I will justify my preference in the next post. Here, let me only point out that no matter which root we choose, it makes sense to assume that there were more than one related but independently formed variants of the beaver’s name already at a very early stage – at least *bʰébʰros and *bʰibʰrús. It seems that both of them were inherited by languages ancestral to some of the branches of Indo-European. Their visible relatedness, and perhaps the existence in some branches of recognisably related reduplicated verb forms could have produced still more variants through a kind of lexical cross-pollination, hence the attested variation of the echo vowel, the stem class, and the accentuation.


[1] Reduplication in verbs will be discussed in blog posts to come.

[2] They are accented on the stem vowel, unlike cákri- itself, but the accentual variation looks random and is not correlated with any functional difference.

[3] With the root syllable accented in the Rigveda. Later the accent was shifted to the echo syllable: bhíbharti.

[4] When not reduplicated, the Vedic present (bhárati) usually has a telic meaning, i.e. ‘bring’ (a complete one-time activity) rather than ‘carry, bear, wield’.

[5] The original forms were *pí-ph₃-e-ti/*pí-ph₃-o-nti, with the second *p realised as [b].

[6] Cf. Germanic *tetru-, *tetru-ka- (or *titru-ka-?) ‘skin disease, scabies’ (OE teter, Mod.E tetter, OHG zitaroh), Sanskrit dadru-, dadrū (f.) ‘leprosy’, apparently from *der- ‘tear, flay, peel’.

[7] That is, ‘work on (something) with a sharp tool’ – a bit conjecturally, to be sure, since most of the attested meanings suggest the use of a weapon rather than a carpenter’s tool, or are figurative: ‘scold, rebuke’, etc.


  1. “Still, I would like to defend the simplest solution, involving the most widespread and most securely reconstructed of these roots, namely *bʰer- ‘carry’. I will justify my preference in the next post.”

    I must confess that after your previous piece, I was thinking especially of *bʰerH- ‘to handle with a sharp tool’, though I suppose they do spend an awful lot of time carrying sticks around, the poor devils. Looking forward to the conclusion.

    It is a pity, by the way, that we don’t use reduplication of the CV-echo type anymore, in my language at least. One could rejoice in fashioning some new ones.

    – Olivier

    1. I'm torn between what you expected and good old *bʰer-, but looking at the data I don't see much evidence for this "sharp tool" thing (and if there's any, the tools are those for drilling, boring or piercing rather than chisels). It's certainly a possibility, and would be my second choice at the moment.

    2. In cases such as these the word smith in me gets the better of me and would like to think that folks had both roots in mind when they went about fashioning the word.

      As for evidence of tools, OS barda ‘axe’, OHG barta ‘id.’ etc. come to mind, though in light of ON skeggja ‘axe; ship’ beside skegg ‘beard’ they might rather be related to OE beard ‘beard’, OHG bart ‘id’ etc., for which Kroonen and others reconstruct PGm. *barzda- with good reason. But I take it you’re looking for verbal evidence anyway.

      - Olivier

  2. I guessed *bʰer, but that's because I didn't know the others existed.

    The semantics seem persuasive, though. Lots of animals pierce stuff, but few from the likely I-E homeland carry stuff around in such a purposeful way. Apart from birds and ants. And squirrels maybe.

    You do wonder though why they didn't go with "the building one", which is more specific to the activity that sets them apart.

  3. WIkipedia:
    In Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, sub-fossil evidence of beaver extends down to the floodplains of the Tigris-Euphrates basin and a carved stone stela dating between 1,000 and 800 BC in the Tell Halaf archaeological site along the Khabur River (a Euphrates tributary) in northeastern Syria depicts a beaver.[23] Although accounts of nineteenth century European visitors to the Middle East appear to confuse beaver with otter, a twentieth century report of beaver by Hans Kummerlöwe in the Ceyhan River drainage of southern Turkey includes the diagnostic red incisor teeth, flat, scaly tail and presence of gnawed willow stems.[24] According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica, early Iranian Avestan and Pahlavi, and later Islamic literature, all reveal different words for otter and beaver, and castoreum was highly valued.[25] Johannes Ludwijk Schlimmer, a noted Dutch physician in nineteenth century Iran reported beaver below the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates in "small numbers...along the bank of the Shatt al-Arab in the province of Shushtar and Dezful."[26]

  4. The beaver (baβra-, fem. baβri-) is mentioned in the Avesta as the emblematic animal of the river/water goddess Arədvī Sūrā Anāhitā, who is celebrated in one of the longest Avestan hymns, Yašt 5. Anāhitā sports a garment made of thirty beaver pelts (the number 300, as given in the Encyclopædia Iranica is a common mistranslation, due to the similarity of the numerals). Given the scale of contacts between the steppe-belt Iranians and the ancestors of the Slavs, one can easily imagine that some of the furs and castoreum so desired by the Iranians came from places like the Pinsk Marshes (one of the few places where the Eurasian beaver managed to survive its near-extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries). This is why it has been proposed (Reczek 1985) that the strange o-reduplication in Slavic is due to Iranian influence. I have my doubts about this hypothesis. For one thing, there are other Slavic words with a similar vowel patter; for another, it's especially the o-reduplication that shows evidence of a u-stem (unknown in Iranian). By contrast, the relict forms with *e support the reconstruction of a thematic noun (details on demand). I suspect, therefore, that Slavic o-reduplications are an innovations replacing inherited *Ci- echoes, presumably because yer reduction would have led to strange alternations. E.g. something like **bʰibʰrús, gen. **bʰibʰréus would have yielded Proto-Slavic *bьbrъ, *bьbru, and hypothetical "regularly expected" Polish ˣbiebr, ˣ(b)bru (we actually have bóbr, bobra, with a stable full vowel).

    By the way, the beaver was extirpated from Poland in the early 19th century but has now made a spectacular comeback. Near the place where I live, in the River Warta system, there are plenty of beaver colonies. If you know where to look, you can find them right in the centre of the city of Poznań.

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