2 Nov 2010

Taking away another root

Ever since I began distinguishing between well-grounded Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots and mistaken ones built on historical confusion and an unhealthy denial of a non-IE Mediterranean-centered language family[1], I can't stop finding more issues to write about! I sometimes wonder if the methodology used by Indo-Europeanists truly contrasts that by a Nostraticist or Proto-Worlder, but I try hard to suppress this rebellious, philosophical notion. I'm convinced now that many beloved PIE roots are in reality nothing more than a mirage built on a package of loanwords diffused from an Etrusco-Rhaetic language in the bustling Po Valley of early 1st millennium BCE. The previous reconstructed etyma that I've suspected openly on this blog show specific distribution patterns that imply such a geographical origin. I dare now suspect another cherished root: PIE *h₁em- 'to take'.

First of all, Julius Pokorny's 1950's work is online showing his pre-Laryngeal-Theory reconstruction, *em-, justified by evidence found in Celtic, Italic, Baltic, Slavic and Anatolian. At first blush, my skepticism appears too sensational. Yet we can first quickly peck away at the falsely segmented Hittite word *u-emiyami based on *actual* wemiyami 'I find'. The word has been connected with a quite different root, *gʷem-(ye-) 'to come', which happens to be a more convincing etymology.[2] The habit of spelling the syllable we with two symbols, ú and e, instead of just one was a normal Hittite practice, it turns out.[3]

So now we're just left with comparanda from Celtic, Italic, Baltic and Slavic - precisely the language groups easily accessible by trade from the Po Valley around 1000 BCE. The meaning of the verb also lends itself well to the language of trade and we may note the coincidence of Latin emere 'to buy' (hence caveat emptor 'buyer beware').

For the purposes of this revision, an Etrusco-Rhaetic verb *em 'to take' is in order to provide the source for the surrounding Indo-European forms. Etruscan evidence is rather easy to find. It's long been noted, thanks to the numerals expressed in the Liber Linteus, that numbers between 10 and 100 whose last digit is higher than 6 are conveyed by subtractive terminology. So while 13 in Etruscan is ci-śar (simply a compound of 'three' followed by 'ten'), 17 on the other hand is ci-em zaθrum, literally meaning 'three minus 20' much like Latin duo-de-viginti '18', literally '2-from-20'. Yet how do we analyse the grammar of this expression? Considering that the infinitive is expressed as the bare verb stem itself as in many other languages, this element em may very well not just mean 'minus' as the Bonfantes suggest but more specifically 'taking away from'. Thus ci-em zaθrum is literally 'taking away three from (ci em) twenty (zaθrum)'. Just like a proper SOV language is supposed to do, the infinitive verb is placed after the noun phrase and thus we know that 'three' is what is being taken away. Its simple preterite form, eme, is written twice in the continuous script found on a cup (TLE 366): nacemeuruiθalθileniθaliχememesnamertanśinamulu. In both these instances, in fact, the verb happens to follow two very common adverbs, nac 'when' and 'thus', guaranteeing that I've properly divided these words.

We now need to explain what this root is doing in a non-IE language and the easy answer would be to blame it on loaning from an IE language into Etruscan, perhaps from a language like Umbrian (cf. emantur) or Latin (cf. emere). Yet lacking other evidence outside of this Po Valley trading circle, how can I be sure that this IE root even exists? Lacking further evidence, Occam's Razor guides me to the simplest answer, that it was my aforementioned Etrusco-Rhaetic root *em that spread throughout the northern territory into surrounding Indo-European languages. In a manner of comical speaking, these early IE peoples would not only have taken in novel goods from afar through exchange, but also would have taken the very verb 'to take' as well!

[1] Surely at the very least it's undeniable that the non-Indo-European language, Minoan, was positively influential on local languages up to 1400 BCE. Study of such a Mediterranean language family is abundantly warranted yet so entirely neglected.
[2] In Hittite historical phonology (1999), p.297 (see link), Kimball must assume a compound dependent on a preverbal particle *u preceding an Anatolian root *em-, however note the original etymology given that doesn't require such a faith-based word-slicing in The Classical journal, vol 31 (1936), p.452 (see link) and Sturtevant, A comparative grammar of the Hittite language (1933), p.90 (see link) where the verb is derived squarely from *gʷem-ye-, a construction further attested outside of the Anatolian branch. As per the next note, the division of we- into u-e- based solely on spelling constitutes unnecessary assumption.
[3] Melchert, Anatolian historical phonology (1994), p.25 (see link).


  1. Semantically, I can certainly understand the shift from "to come" -> "to come upon" -> "to find" for wemiyami.
    However, the *gW -> /w/ - I thought that a Luvian trait, not a Hittite one. Are we to understand this word to be Luvianism or a Luvian borrowing?

  2. This ran through my mind too.

    Also, it should be noted that Melchert:1984 explains "It happens that for some verbs such as wemiya- 'find' we thus far have only OH examples with ambiguous spellings: [...]". If correct, it doesn't sound like its association with *h₁em- is very guaranteed.

  3. Once again I find myself wanting to ask about something and struggling to find a halfway appropriate place to mention it.

    My journey began when I found a dubious-looking *h₁ad on Wikipedia (supposedly the source of Latin ad, English at, etc.) adorned with the legend "citation needed" and with nothing to support that particular reconstruction over, say, **h₂ed.

    So off I went looking for my **h₂ed. The best I could find was *h₂ed-es- "cereal", so I looked for other words with -es-. I got *h₂ey-es- "metal" and *bʰar-es- "spelt, barley". *bʰar-es- looks all-too-tempting to link to *bʰer- "brown, shining", but I'm drawing a blank for the other two.

    Essentially, I don't know if I'm on to anything here, or if there's even anything to be on to. Two minds being better than one, do you see anything I don't?

  4. Vit Bubenik does cite *h₂ed in On the expression of spatio-temporal locations in Late Proto-Indo-European (2003).

    As for the etyma in *-es-, note *h2ei- 'to burn'. We might compare PIE *bʰar(e)s- to Semitic *barr- 'grain' - evidently in some way this must be a borrowing into Proto-Indo-European or its daughter languages.