30 Dec 2012

Aegean coleslaw, anyone?

After months of slacking off, I should probably get back to work and blog something. It's not as if I ever ran out of ideas. So today I want to talk about a package of vegetable terms that seem related but I believe may be misetymologized.

Let's focus on *kremus- 'onion', an unanalysable Proto-Indo-European root presumed to be a nominal derivative in *-us-, concocted to explain Old Irish crem 'garlic', Germanic *hramuson ~  *hramsaz 'onion, leek', Greek κρέμυον ~ κρόμυον ~ κρόμμυον 'onion', Polish trzemucha and Lithuanian šermùkšnis. The forced assumption here is that if enough branches of Indo-European exhibit a particular root word as we have here then it must be because it existed in the proto-language spoken over 6000 years ago. "Assume" makes an "ass" out of "u" and "me", as they say.

An alternative possibility that must always be kept in mind is that a word has merely managed to expand due to cultural transmission and dissemination from a substrate language that is not necessarily Indo-European. Lacking further knowledge on very historically important yet largely unknown languages like Minoan and Hattic, we can hardly pretend that we can so easily reconstruct many of these claimed Indo-European roots securely. So for the sake of further discussion, I present an alternative view of this particular root.

Instead of pushing the origin all the way back to Indo-European, why not a simpler alternative and presume a much later date, in the first millennium BCE? We could start with an Aegean root *harápʰa 'cabbage, kale' with a diminutive *harápʰazo 'onion, garlic, leek' becoming Minoan *harámpa and *harámpazo. This then can explain both the source of κρέμυον ~ κρόμυον with its unmotivated vowel alternation as well as the curiously similar forms κράμβη 'cabbage', ῥάφη 'a kind of large radish' and ῥάφανος 'cabbage' in a way that an Indo-European origin cannot. As Etrusco-Rhaetic speakers traded heavily in the Adriatic with the Greeks, their presumed cognate, *χramφza, would be quickly disseminated into Baltic, Slavic, Germanic and Celtic circles. Simple commerce and loanword adoption.


  1. I'm confused by the appearance of the nasal in Minoan. If it wasn't present in Aegean, where might it have come from?

    Also, while I suspect the similarity is merely by chance, the Lithuanian form immediately called to mind the obsolete Lithuanian "šermuo" (ermine) and its cognates (e.g. OHG "harmo", OE "hearm", Romansch "carmun"). These point to a form *k^ermon; there are various attempts to tie the word to roots for "hoar(frost)" and "rime", which are semantically solid but seem to require extensive ablaut. The only possible semantic connections I can think of between ermines and cabbages, kale, onions, garlic and leeks would be something about whiteness, or maybe an element of the taste (a sharpness, perhaps one that is somehow "cooling"), but the connection seems weak.

  2. The word for "seven" is semph in Etruscan, a transparent loanword from the Egyptian numeral usually reconstructed as *sáfḫaw. So I reconstruct an original Aegean root *sapʰa. Since Cyprian Syncope deletes the final vowel we would be left with *sapʰ if not for a shift towards preaspiration of word-final stops, thus *[saʰp]. From there, it's a reasonably simple phonemicization of the aspirate feature into a nasal sound.

    That being said, I'm not completely sure whether such a process is likely to have occurred in Minoan, given so little data to go on, but it appears reasonable for the Cyprian languages (Etruscan, Rhaetic, Lemnian, Eteo-Cypriot, Eteo-Cretan) at least. And then there's the question of when Minoan died out. If it died out by around 1400 BCE, let's say, then the substrate may not be Minoan so much as Eteo-Cretan. The problem is it's simply impossible to determine but I still think there's value in thinking about these possibilities even if theoretical.

    I doubt that the words you list however are related to this package of vegetable roots. The common factor in the words I've put forth is that they describe "fruits of the earth". That is, vegetables growing in the ground that need to be dug up as opposed to stalks, vines, fruit from trees, etc.