27 Nov 2010

The bear taboo

According to The linguistics encyclopedia (2002), p.237:
"Taboos may even cause the loss of a word, as in the classical Indo-European case of the word for 'bear'. [...] Avoidance of the term is thought to have occurred in the northern Indo-European regions, where the bear was prevalent, and another name, (employed, perhaps, not to offend it), was substituted in the form of *ber- 'brown'; that is, 'the brown one'."
Now, upon reading accounts like this, the first question that comes to me is this: How can one know with any degree of certainty that this word had been displaced in Germanic, Baltic and Slavic because of taboo and not because of garden-variety lexical replacement? In Slavic, 'bear' is replaced by a new word meaning 'honey-eater', unrelated to Germanic's choice of 'brown one'. This is exaggerated as a 'circumlocution' in keeping with the assumption of taboo but if these sorts of creative epithets constitute in themselves evidence for taboo replacement, then could we not then claim that any new word coined is a "circumlocution" or "taboo" for the original term? Should we start insisting that Latin aqua 'water' is a taboo replacement for *wódr̥ too? It's rather convenient to pin taboo explanations on the vocabulary of obscure northern cultures that lacked written records.

Sure, no one can deny that the bear was a powerful symbol to northern European cultures for millennia, but if we replace 'bear' in the above quote with 'pickle', the emptiness of this taboo assumption becomes a little clearer.


  1. It is indeed difficult to prove that a given word for 'bear' substituted a previous one, especially if we've no idea what that supposed word was. However, there are strong reasons to believe that zoonyms are particularly susceptible of variation, in a higher degree than other vocabulary areas. This can be seen, for example, in the wide variety of words for 'weasel' in European languages. What is the cause of this variation? One logical explanation is that those animals must have played some kind of role in the societies that coined the words. Religious taboo? Shamanic interdiction? Maybe the key to all this lies in dialects, rather than standard languages.

    It is difficult to imagine a taboo afecting the word for 'water', and probably there are other, more logical ways of explaining Latin 'aqua', or English 'island' (from Old English 'igland'). Sometimes the reasons for language change may be quite unexpected. In Valencian, there is a word 'ma' which is used by children to refer to 'water'. The origin may be onomatopeic, from child's speak, but there is also an intriguing element in the story: the fact that 'ma' is the word for 'water' in Arabic, a language which has had considerable influence on Catalan and other romance languages of Iberia. I have even read some articles about the issue and there doesn't seem to be general consensus.

  2. Jesús Sanchis: "One logical explanation is that those animals must have played some kind of role in the societies that coined the words."

    The issue was never whether any particular claim is technically "possible" no matter how improbable. The issue is the irrational reification of assumptions as facts, even in academic literature.

    Those who assert taboo must justify said taboo. To suggest otherwise is to admit a fundamental corruption in reasoning.

    "However, there are strong reasons to believe that zoonyms are particularly susceptible of variation,[...]"

    If there were any "strong reason", you failed to state it. Lexical replacement is common enough in the majority of a vocabulary set by way of simple statistical distribution, regardless of how we arbitrarily assign words to deceptively black-and-white categories like zoonym.

    "In Valencian, there is a word 'ma' which is used by children to refer to 'water'."

    This has no relevance to taboo replacement. Perhaps you were looking for the term bilingual interference.

  3. I don't see the problem here. The "true" name of the bear being taboo is in fact attested (as in, a circumlocution is generally used but the "true" name only in rituals) in many Siberian languages. This isn't the case for "water", or "pickle".

    Extending this to the PIE word without direct evidence would of course be extrapolation, but what lends plausibility here is that Germanic, Baltic and Slavic are exactly the PIE branches in close interaction with Uralic, where the bear taboo is well-attested.

    (And perhaps the taboo is indeed attested in some of these IE groups too? You might want to look up the original sources here - an encyclopedia can hardly be expected to provide the evidence for every result in detail.)

  4. General 'bear taboos' (if one must lump such divergent cultures, languages and religions into one ignorant and ahistoric pile) exist not only across Siberia, or across general Eurasia, but across the entire northern hemisphere including North America.

    Since Proto-Algonquian *maθkwa 'bear' is well demonstrated despite, we are told, existent 'bear' taboos, the absurdity of a 'taboo word' surviving an astonishing 2500 to 3000 years is clear. Many published taboo claims are exaggerated and misunderstood, even exploited by some linguists.

    So I urge people to become *specific* about these prehistoric taboos or stop asserting the unproven.

    I want people to answer questions like: What *exact* taboo in Germanic- or Balto-Slavic-speaking cultures has led directly to this lexical replacement? What CONCRETE proof for said prehistoric taboo? How did this alleged taboo impact differently on European vocabulary than, say, that of Algonquian languages?

  5. I wonder if anyone has "run the numbers" so to speak to investigate what the expected outcome of the presumed Proto-Indo-European word for "bear" (I seem to recall it's *artkos or *arktos, but I don't have any books with me right now and Glen can probably shed more light on this than I can) would be in Germanic and Balto-Slavic. Lexical variation can be motivated by a word becoming too similar to another, and that's something we do have the tools to investigate because we can project sound changes forwards.

    Flippant comment: what would the Latin cognate for *wodr look like?

  6. What is an example of a word which was definitely lost due to taboo, with a well-attested cultural taboo? I agree that specific evidence of a taboo is not only important ... but also really cool and interesting. We may yet lose Voldemort in modern English ;>

    (The only one I can think of is the loss of the Hebrew name for G-d, for which even this spelling demonstrates a modern taboo. I bet there's far more interesting and comprehensive examples of which I am ignorant ... )

  7. Of course we don't assume here that a taboo word survived for three millennia; that would imply that the original word still remains as well! The assumption would be that, at some point, that the taboo provided the motivation for the complete replacement of the original word with the new (at which point it would no longer be a taboo circumlocution, but a perfectly ordinary word for "bear").

    I agree however that this would remain an assumption. The point I'm making here is, as many times before, that while there isn't sufficient evidence to conclude replacement due to taboo, there also isn't sufficient evidence to prefer "garden-variety" replacement. (Replacement stems from the existence of synonyms, which stem, aside from taboo circumlocutions, from loanwords, diminutives, slang, etc. We are not dealing with loans here, and I do not see sufficient motivation for inventing a pet name for a feared predator.)

    Kim: Eg. older Finnish oksi "bear" (an IE loan, incidentally, so perhaps it too is a taboo replacement originally) is generally considered to have been replaced for taboo reasons by karhu "the ruff one". This has in most dialects become the "proper" name, and in later Finnish acquired taboo circumlocutions of its own. There are marginal attestations of the original word and its taboo status, however.

  8. There are examples of other animal names being replaced in Europe, but it's spotty. The Irish word for fox is 'sionnachan', and even it is probably not all that old, but you don't say that, you say "madra rua' - "red dog". Words for rabbits are all over the map in languages in that part of the world. It looks like something is going on, maybe some kind of taboo, maybe not, but there's not enough of a pattern to allow you say much more.

    Oddly the Irish word for bear is 'art', so no replacement there, although it seems to come up mostly as personal name. "Arthur" is one exapmle, so I guess it's in Welsh too.

    "What is an example of a word which was definitely lost due to taboo, with a well-attested cultural taboo?"

    In China thee is a very well-attested taboo on saying the personal name of anyone you defer to. When Liu Bang established the Han dynasty, the word 邦 bang1 - 'country/state' became taboo for the entire empire, and by the time the Han finally fell, the word had passed out of common use and survived only in texts.

    The taboo is very much alive. Lu Xun made fun of it in his story "The True Story of Ah Q" in the 30's. That story brings out another aspect of the taboo - it's the sound of the word that is taboo, whatever that happens to be at the time. And you see that with all words pronounced 'bang', so maybe this taboo had the same form even then. In all four tones there are fewer that 20, nothing like what you find for similar syllables. Perhaps those 20 were different enough in Han times to escape the ban.


  9. Kim - thought of some in English:

    'Donkey' has replaced 'ass' (the animal). And here we see the mechanism in plain view - one homphone just edged out anoutherr, bad money chasing good money out of the market.

    Then there's the whole list of deity name avoidance. This is different from what Tropylium is referrng to in Finnish, because the replaced word isn't replaced at all, it is just avoided under certian circumstances, the way 'bang1' was avoided but only in speech, in that case.

  10. Something Jim said has sent me off on an interesting tangent.

    RE: "bear" names as personal names ...

    We've got Art / Arthur.

    We also have Ursa / Ursula.

    I know at lease one person who's middle name is Dov, which is bear in Hebrew, but I don't know if that's common.

    How often is bear (or for that matter, other potential animal taboos) a personal name? Wouldn't using it as a personal name significantly contradict a taboo? -.^ It might be an interesting way to actually argue against animal taboos in specific cases?

  11. "Wouldn't using it as a personal name significantly contradict a taboo? -.^ "

    Only if the taboo is still active. Bjoern 'bear' is a typical name in Sweden, but I bet if you went looked at trends in anming, ssy looking at baptismal records, you would find it doesn't come into use until the late 1800's. It probably was intended to sound all primal and pahagn, but I doubt there were many Viking era people carrying that name.

    Likewise "Thor" has become mariginally popular in the US. There are dozens of Norse mens' names with Thior as a first element, but none consisting of that name by itself, and for an obvious reason.

    "It might be an interesting way to actually argue against animal taboos in specific cases?"

    Yes, where the taboo has lost its power. It's just that these things aren't static in a langugae and culture, usually. The Chinese name taboo thing though old, is not static. during the Cultural revolution people delighted in criticizing Confucius using his personal name. In fact thta was part of the denunciation.

  12. Ketsuban: "(I seem to recall it's *artkos or *arktos, but I don't have any books with me right now and Glen can probably shed more light on this than I can) would be in Germanic and Balto-Slavic."

    Due to Hittite hartagas, the PIE root is reconstructed with an initial laryngeal. Therefore: *h₂r̥tǵos.

    We could speculate that the word in western Europe would have been *arktos in general before loss.

    "Flippant comment: what would the Latin cognate for *wodr look like?"

    Flippant? Hunh? Not at all. I'd think something like *voder but perhaps I've missed a sound change rule somewhere. The point regardless is that while we may say that the "water" word was lost to taboo just like the "bear" word, it's all theory until we can prove it.

    Tropylium wants to insist on exploring theories regardless of Occam's Razor but I've since discovered from his Wikipedia page that he's a solipsist and is therefore philosophically opposed to logic. (He won't be commenting here anymore as a result.) The rest of us can see that a theory without taboo is the default answer until a taboo and its details can be firmly established.

    If we merely speak of unmotivated and unproven theories, then we'll get nowhere and run around in circles. In other words, analysis paralysis.

  13. Jim: "Only if the taboo is still active."

    This brings up another excellent point that when we're dealing with large spans of time like millennia, how can we be sure whether a taboo is "on" or "off" at the time we theorize?

    Another problem to address is that to speak of IE taboo is to speak of an "IE culture". Yet Indo-European speakers could never have been a single culture or language. When we reconstruct IE, we create an artificial language that merely represents the averaging-out of IE dialects of that time. To think it's a single language and by extension a single culture is to completely miss out on what linguists are really trying to do here when they reconstruct Proto-Indo-European. The reification of theories into facts is always psychologically fascinating to me.