What the Beaver Teaches Us about IE...

From: x99lynx@...
Message: 15265
Date: 2002-09-08

I wrote
<<If our ancestors were smart enough to give these animals and their
by-products names that truly distinguished them (instead of calling them
something dumb, like brown) then the manifestations of the beaver would all
point to chewing-up and teeth.

Given that, the best candidate might be: Greek <bibro:sko:> means to eat up,
chew up; in its passive forms, e.g., <bebro:oetai>, <bebro:menoi>, something
that is eaten, gnawed or chewed up...<bruchetos> is chattering of teeth.
<bruche:>, gnashing of teeth. <bebro:thois>, chew up...

So, if the beaver's name did not exist in *PIE as such, but circulated later
as a fur trade word from the Greek -- emphasizing that outward uniqueness of
the beaver is its teeth -- in which both the fur and later the castors of the
animal would have had great value, then perhaps we don't have to look for
brown or splash!!! as the origin of the word.>>

Piotr writes:
<<It can't be. Greek is one of the few branches where it doesn't exist. They,
of all people, have a different word for 'beaver'.>>

Now, come on. You can't have it both ways. If the Greeks never had the
beaver word, then the word can't be from PIE. If they had it and lost it
(which MUST be your position), then I can also take the position that they
lost it, but after they invented it. You don't get to assume a lost word in
your PIE hypothesis, if I can't do the same in my hypothesis.

The importance of the castoreum trade in the mediterranean could easily have
overwhelmed the old fur word in Greek, so that <bibro-> lost usage in the
marketplace and <kasto:r> took over. Somewhere on the web they say that
today beaver castors are worth four times as much as beaver pelts.

And that's how the Greeks could invent the word and then lose it. There's
nothing new about this. It has happened often enough. One example. In
Buck, he says that the word "maize" or a variant (maj, mais) is used in seven
or eight different IE languages. But if you walked into a store in NYC and
asked for "maize", nobody would know what you were talking about. That's
because the word for maize in America is most definitely "corn", despite the
fact that the word "maize" originated in America and travelled to all those
other languages as a loan.

<<And if anyone was really familiar with beavers and their habits, it was the
people of northern Europe, where the beaver was (and still is) common, not
the Greeks.>>

Forgive me for saying this, but this is from old-school IE disinformation.
When Pliny mentions the beaver, I think he says they live in Pontici, which
may be Asia Minor and where there are beavers today. Beavers live in northern
Mexico. And if the location of PIE depends on the beaver word, then that
homeland could be in Mesopotamia - See: Legge, A. J. and P.A. Rowley-Conwy,
"The Beaver (Castor fiber L.) in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin." Journal of
Archaeological Science 13:469-476 (1986). There's even a Kastoria in
Macedonia, I'm told, where nowadays they trap minks because all the beavers
and their castors are gone. References to the beaver being absent from "the
mediterranean zone" is to a narrow climate zone, not a location. The beaver
lived in the south. What is true is that the beaver's fur would have been
less important in the hot south where fur is less needed. But Herodotus is
already saying that fur is being imported from the north as "trim" in his
day. But of course the demand for castoreum changed everything.

<<Plus, even if we stretch the imagination and assume thet the Greeks had the
word a long time ago and then gave it away to other people, the non-Greek
reflexes rule out a word with original *b, whether PIE or Greek.>>

Why? Why are you talking about reflexes again? I think this whole Romanian
thing has got you in the habit of acting as if words don't travel between
languages at all unless by direct descent. (BTW, Imaging how a highly
splintered, non-literate group of speakers could all preserve the same
specific name of one specific kind of local rodent takes a lot more
stretching. When English-speaking Europeans WITH writing AND picture books
get to America, they end up calling the red deer an "elk", and the elk, a
"moose." So forgive me for finding the long-term continuity of the meaning
of the beaver name more implausible than anything I've said. And note that
is not a phonological problem, it is a general "semantic" problem that field
anthropologists have been pointing out for a long time.)

<<Latin has <fiber> >>

So? Do you know when the Latin went bh >f? What did they do, go to sleep
one night speaking PIE and wake up the next morning with the full compendium
of Latin sound changes? Maybe the Greek word got to them before they went
f-ing. This is an objection to words from PIE and NOT an objection to loan
words coming after unless you can say you know the date the Latin sound
change happened versus when the Greek word came in. And even then there is
enough evidence of after-the-fact conforming to the new sound system.

<<(<biber> in post-Classical Latin is a loan from Germanic)>>

Hey, maybe Germanic <biber> is a loan word from the Roman?
Here's an alternative. <fiber> was a reference to the beaver's castors which
must be removed from inside its groin and are attached by ligament-like
membranes. <fibra>
is the older Latin word meaning any "filament" in a plant or animal,
generally identified for some practical purpose, e.g., wicker-making, and it
comes to mean intestines. This would also tie beaver and castor nicely and
avoid unseemly references to the "brown" animal.

<<and Sanskrit has <babHru->, not *<babru->, etc.>>

You know how many different ways "beaver" has been spelt in English alone?
And you're telling me there is no leeway between <babHru-> and *<babru->?
This is a borrowed word. They could have reanalyzed it and added the
aspirate to make it sound more native. Buck mentions tooth/bite words like
<jambha-> and <-bhid-> that could have inspired the addition. I saw
somewhere that a word for parrot started with <bh->. So it's possible that
borrowed words that came in without <bh> could have ended up with <bh>.

And besides I understand that <babhru-> doesn't even mean beaver in Sanskrit.
It means mongoose. A live mongoose is more like a sable or an otter than it
is a beaver. It's a weasel-family looking, land-loving predator, but it has
highly desirable (gray) fur. There are various kinds of water dwelling,
vegetarian, brown furbearers in India -- plus the civet cat -- so the whole
thing doesn't make sense, unless the word applied primarily to the pelt and a
standard of merchandise quality and not the living animal. Another
possibility is this: In North America, beaver pelts were early treated as
currency -- and so the mongoose fur perhaps may have been the equivalent of a
beaver fur in an international exchange. The words could have approximated
each other in multiple languages like the dollar word originally did.

<<There is really no escape from *bHebHru-....>>
I think the closer you look at it, the more it looks like that curious
looking word never existed. At least not in reference to what writers
thousands of years later would call a beaver.

Steve Long