19 Sept 2010

Minoan pulses and bitter vetches

I'm looking at another potential substrate word, this time from Minoan. I think there might be a lot more here than meets the eye so I'll just start with the preliminary leads first and perhaps expand in a future post.

This etymological safari starts by examining the origins of the Greek word ὄροβος 'bitter vetch' whose etymology remains unknown and very likely to be a product of Mediterranean substrate. The bitter vetch, despite the nasty sounding name, is a type of legume related to the bean. Another similar word, ἐρέβινθος 'chickpea', looks like a derivative of the former. Yet nothing in Greek grammar can yield one from the other, nor has anyone been successful in attributing either of these terms to a previous Indo-European form.[1]

Trying another approach, a Minoan root could underly both: *arapua 'pulse, bitter vetch'. Upon this we could build the form *arapuwinta 'chickpea', ie. from the base *arapu- plus *-inta, a productive derivational suffix already attributed to Pre-Greek substrate.

This leads to the possibility that if the term survived into Old Etruscan by inheritence, it might be *arapu. Towards Late Etruscan, /p/ before /u/ is expected to soften to bilabial fricative /ɸ/[2] with added vowel-raising before resonant /r/. This takes us to a Late Etruscan form *erfu. However reasons for this hypothetical Etruscan word present in Italian substrate requires added justification from me. So... more to follow.

[1] Burkert/Raffan, Greek religion: Archaic and classical (1987), p.19 (see link).
[2] This sound rule was previously mentioned on this blog (for eg.: Some observations concerning Woodard's The Ancient Languages of Europe).


  1. Good job there, digging up Greek ὄροβος. I think the Latin term ervum is a fully valid cognate (hence the scientific name of bitter vetch: Vicia ervilia); yet I do not know how many Italian languages had related words. Maybe we shall never know, because of the fragmentary records.

    As for the derivation of ἐρέβινθος from the stem above, it is a bit problematic: I think about about the original word (maybe just as short as *arwa, *arpa or similar) meaning something like the beans of vetch. If so, a "collective" form could have easily been applied to a legume fruit ('pod') with multiple seeds in it. Hence ἐρέβινθος = possibly 'legumine pod', by the transfer of meaning, also 'garbanzo bean' (Cicer arietinum).

    It should not surpise us that two loosely related plant goes by the same name: it was common in olden times: e.g. many monocot plants with prominent flowers were simply called 'lily' or the name 'cypress' could also apply to a wide variety of conifers, etc.

  2. Good try. But other leguminous plants have completely different names (phasiolos/phaseolus, faki/lentil, kyamos or pyanos (broad bean)). Also, although wheat, barley and rye look identical to the non-expert, they have completely different names in Greek and other languages.
    Conclusion: Investigation of the pre-written greek is simply a guess and a good passtime.

  3. "Conclusion: Investigation of the pre-written greek is simply a guess and a good passtime."

    Translation: "I'm a self-absorbed pessimist and possible troll who pompously pretends that he knows enough to decide what humanity can and cannot know in the future."

    Many laypersons feel that fact-based theory is the same as "factless opinion", but that's why they're lays.