26 Mar 2010

Indo-European (*)*ǵalak- 'milk'

This is another rant about hideous Proto-Indo-European roots still reconstructed in the 21st century that should have been dumped in the 1960s along with Woodstock. I love Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and am fascinated by it but I also hate unjustified reconstructions and "junk linguistics". On that subject, let's now talk about (*)*ǵalak- or similar forms designated as the PIE word for 'milk' in addition to the more substantiated root *melǵ-. I don't think a person truly understands PIE until they recognize the myriad of shoddy reconstructions out there in its name that need to be dismissed.

We have Greek γάλα (gen. γάλακτος) & γλάγος 'milk' along with Latin lac 'milk' (gen. lactis). Based primarily on this, Douglas and Adams have reconstructed *ǵl̥lákt- , have then attempted to add dubious cognates from Indo-Iranian loaded with assumptions, and have concluded (or merely asserted without firm basis rather) that "[...] both the archaic morphological shape and the geographical distribution would seem to guarantee this item as at least a regional word in PIE."[1]

In my view, a more reasonable, alternative view is that the Greek and subsequent Latin forms are from Hittite kalaktar meaning more generally 'nutriment'[2] and have nothing to do with PIE at all. This would be one of those Greco-Anatolian Wanderworts which spread during the 2nd millennium BCE along μέλι 'honey' which I've just talked about before. Whether directly or through an intermediary, this must be where internal -kt- comes from while word-final -r has been deleted in the Greek loan. The Latin form must then be from Greek. The word even finds its way into Egyptian as ỉrṯ.t 'milk' (*yarāṯat /jəˈɾɑ:cəʔ/).[3] We know that the word must be from Hittite or similar Anatolian dialect because it can be further derived from the native verb root kala(n)k- 'to soothe, satiate, satisfy'. Reconstructing a protolanguage root that's unanalysable despite an etymology already available with a clear historical source is the kind of sloppy, unacademic nonsense I loathe with a passion.

[1] Douglas/Adams, Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture (1997), p.381 (see link).
[2] Puhvel, Hittite Etymological Dictionary: Words beginning with K (1997), p.19: "kal(l)aktar, galaktar (n.) 'soothing substance, balm, nutriment'" (see link).
[3] Woodard, The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Aksum (2008), p.181 (see link).


  1. Strange word indeed. We should be suspicious from the start because we don't really need two words for milk in the Proto-Language (as with honey).

    In the reconstruction you present it I am convinced that is indeed impossible to be held as a PIE word.

    De Vaan in his Latin Etymological Dictionary has a vastly different reconstruction though.

    He proposes PIE *glg-t. *glg-t then shifted to PIt. *(g)lagt- by Schrijver's rule of *CRDC > CRaDC. The initial *g was then lost due to dissimilation.

    Greek can also be derived from *glg-t, which Beekes does. *glg-t would yield *glagt, which would then get a 'restored' full grade in front of the *l. Feels very stretched. Especially because in Both Latin and Greek you have to go out of your way to explain the bizarre vocalisation.

    I'll agree that this is nowhere near a satisfying reconstruction. Of course also violates the "rule" that you can't have two glottalized consonants in one root.

    Long story short: I'm still with you that it's probably not a PIE word. And I find the Hittite origin idea appealing. But I do not feel that a Greek to Latin loan is very convincing. Not by any stretch of the imagination would can I imagine Latin speakers mishearing the greeks saying 'gala(gt)' and see them copy it as lac(t). The words don't sound much alike. I'm not sure how else to explain these words though. There's definitely something going on.

  2. Note other loanwords entering into Latin from Greek that show the same curious loss of g- (eg. liquiritia 'liquorice' < Greek γλυκύρριζα). Latin lac looks most like γλάγος, an alternative form of γάλα.

  3. So if Latin lac looks more like Greek glagos how would you explain that the genitive of the Latin word has lactis A merger of two different Greek words into one?

  4. This is where I admit I have some difficulty. The genitive of γλάγος is technically γλάγεος.

  5. Digging further, I notice γλακωντες and γλακτοφαγος, thereby justifying a genuinely Greek alternation between forms with γάλακτ- and with γλακτ-.

    Given the evidence already available and an evident source in Hittite galaktar, I'd expect an early Greek dialect with *γλακτ as a reasonable source for Latin lac, without invoking PIE or trying to explain away the disappearing g- with ad hoc sound rules. A direct Greek source for the Latin word is lacking yet everything points to this conclusion. (In this case, I can't think of any credible Proto-Aegean root as intermediary either.)