26 May 2011

A hairy little hair root

I've been looking back recently at my deviations and notice that my attention has veered away from Proto-Indo-European for quite some time as I obsessed over the separate topic of all things Etruscan, Rhaetic and Minoan. No particular reason for this, really, it just happened that way. Sometimes one's learning journey can be quite meandering like that, much like a spider weaving her web, connecting the dots of a large area, slowly filling in the spaces one thread at a time. Recently though I came across something that gives me cause to come back to that topic.

Among the pile of unlikely roots Julius Pokorny had attempted, *kais-[1] (that is, *qais- in the revised PIE notation) is an ugly one but an interesting one. Just the three following cognates are indicated:
Lumping words for 'lion' in with 'hair' is just too easy so, rejecting the Tocharian outliers, we are left with what was surely the only real impetus for the comparison, Latin and Sanskrit. Yet it's not enough to compare look-alikes blindly and many things need to be considered at once - sparse evidence, the unanalysable grammar of the root, the suspicious presence of rare *a[2], etc. This alleged root then remains more a set of questions than a single, decisive answer. Because of this, I for one don't accept it as part of genuine Proto-Indo-European vocabulary. A better solution to explain these terms seems to involve non-Indo-European substrate.

Simultaneously, Proto-Aegean *zira 'hair' (presumably from Old Egyptian *θīra 'hair, thread', later written sr) explains away Greek kithara through Minoan *ki-zera 'three-stringed', exactly parallel to Persian seh-tar (سه تار), Chinese san-xian (三弦) and Japanese san-gen (三絃) which all mean the same. That Greek term has long been suspected to be a Minoan term anyway so I'm not saying anything terribly deviant. I can only expect that the proper reflex in Etruscan is *zir /tʃir/ which looks nice beside Latin cirrus 'tuft of hair, a lock, a curl' whose etymology otherwise appears unknown.

And so, addressing the unlikely PIE root above, in light of our collective ignorance on the matter, would it hurt to suggest an Aegean alternative, something like **kai-zera 'hair on head', for consideration?

[1] Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959), *kais- (see link); Wyatt, Indo-European /a/ (1970), p.31 (see link).
[2] Upon some reflection, it's of course possible that, under the revised notation, the [a] is a uvularized allophone of *e in underlying *qeis- (ie. traditional "vowel colouring"). Nonetheless this helps naught in explaining its derivation.


  1. Given the last time a Pokornian PIE root talking about Sanskrit appeared on this blog we learned about the Sanskrit prefix क ka- "head" and we're dealing with yet another Sanskrit word beginning with /k/ which deals with the head, it doesn't seem amazingly outlandish to speculate that kesara- might be from ka- and another word - maybe सर sara- "cord, string"?

  2. The changing vowel would have to be addressed between ka- "prefix" and kesara- although, if through a foreign source, *kai could sensibly be the antecedent of both manifestations keeping in mind imperfect transmission of the root across languages. Sanskrit e originates from earlier *ai afterall and the incongruence between the two forms may stem simply from the presence or absence of the terminating glide *-i.

    This thought then raises the question of what exactly the difference would be between the meaning of *kai and my previously-theorized *kaupada (all assuming for the sake of brainstorming if nothing else, that this derives from none other than Minoan). The former root could mean 'skullcap, top of skull', let's say, while the latter 'head' proper. Maybe?

  3. I suppose I should keep my orthography consistent and write *kaupaθa (knowing that the medial fricative might be voiced by lenition) rather than *kaupada, but I digress.

  4. This Minoan *kai in *kai-zera - could it be a locative form of *ka? The meaning "hair ON the head" certainly makes such an interpretation sound possible.

  5. I also wonder if - and this is a real shot in the dark - the Minoan *ka had any connection with the Egyptian k3.

  6. I don't want to simply grasp straws in the dark like this. Egyptian means 'soul', not 'head', and it's vocalism was most likely *kuˀ (nb. Babylonian zabnaku < ṯb-n-kȝ; Greek Αίγυπτος 'Egypt' < ḥȝ.t kȝ ptḥ).

    The locative idea is intriguing but hard to ascertain considering that this is already much conjecture and little in way of fact. Hmm, isn't it annoying when you just know that a popular theory is off but you just don't know what a better solution is?