What the Beaver Teaches Us about IE Analysis

From: x99lynx@...
Message: 15340
Date: 2002-09-10

Piotr wrote: (Sun Sep 8, 2002 11:25 am)
<<Dear Steve,... I'd be most grateful if you at least read my replies
carefully to spare me explaining the same things twice....>>

Piotr, I think you know that I've read your messages very carefully. I've
been careful to quote EVERYTHING in your posts in my replies, but you've
barely quoted or addressed anything I've written. I think you've barely read
my posts at all. If you don't have time that's fine. Just don't accuse me
of what you are doing.

<<I[f] you want to defend your Greek etymology of 'beaver' to the bitter end,
let someone else take my place. I've had enough of it.>>  

I think the problem you're having is that you really don't have a solution
here. And repeating the old conventional analysis over and over again
definitely does not solve the problem. You can repeat how the beaver word
came from PIE over and over again, but that does not tell me or anyone why it
isn't really a later loan word. The fact that a reconstruction is consistent
with the words it is reconstructed from is no surprise because it is
circular. So that goes no where.

I'd suggest this might be an opportunity to take an unbiased look and maybe
say to yourself - "hey there may be something wrong here." An opportunity
that you can take or not as you choose.

Piotr wrote:
<<Primo: For a reconstruction to have PIE status it is not required that it
be represented in _all_ the branches of the family,... I didn't say that the
ancestors of the Greeks had never had the 'beaver' word. >>

Hey, try reading my post for a change. That has nothing to do with what I
wrote. What I wrote was:
"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."

Piotr writes:
<< I merely said, in accordance with all known facts, that it is does not exis
t in _Greek_ (as opposed to _pre-Greek_) -- that is, there is no reflex of
that word anywhere in the enormous corpus of Greek texts.>>

No. I'm sorry. You can't say that either. _Greek_ does not begin with
literacy. There is no reason why the word could not be lost well after
_pre-Greek_. Why are you equating Greek with literacy and pre-Greek with
pre-literacy? You are conveniently picking a time for the beaver word to be
"lost" and you have no evidence for it. The best you can say is that it was
"lost" before writing, NOT that it was lost in pre-Greek. Something like
Attic Greek could have been spoken a long time before literacy.

And of course if the beaver word originated from the gnawing, toothsome word
in Greek, then the ONLY cognate is in Greek. (See btw what is interpreted as
"scavenger birds" in Antigone, <bebro:tes>.)

<<We know the Greek word for 'beaver' (<kasto:r>), and since it has no
cognates outside Greek, we conclude that it is a branch-specific innovation
replacing the inherited word.>>

Well let's not blithely disregard the Sanskrit <kastu:ri:>, musk. Accounting
for that word might suggest a better reason for the <kastor> word in Greek
than that they just forgot it.

The connection between beaver castors and musk is clear and obvious, of
course. (Both are make reference to substances derived by removing glandular
sacks -- often confused with the genitals -- from the nether parts of a
specific list of animals. Both were exploited for medicinal and cosmetic

And the connection between the Greek word <kastor> and Skt <kastu:ri:> is
therefore equally obvious. They do not make reference to the same animal (in
India, kasturi was extracted from the musk deer) , but they do refer to the
very same specific process and sometimes, in more current usage, the very
same product.

<kastor>/<kastu:ri:> is probably another case of a word coming out of trade
and commerce. The high value of these extracts in the south compared to furs
might explain how the original Greek word for the beaver was replaced in the
marketplace and in the texts. It also might suggest how <kastor> preempted
the original Indian word for musk <muska, genitals> in India, a word which
nevertheless stayed the word for musk almost everywhere else. This is the
same pattern as the original beaver word in Greece.

<<Secundo: If the "Proto-Greeks" had coined the 'beaver' word and then lost
it, it would have had to happen in pre-literary times (and also early enough
for the word to be borrowed into Old Indo-Aryan and Avestan), but let me
inform you again that the word-family built around the meaning 'chew up,
devour' reflects PIE *gWerh3-.>>

But, of course, it doesn't matter what your reconstructed word family was
supposed to mean. Because in Greek it meant "chew up, gnaw, devour." So,
what does the word family and its supposed meaning have to do with any of
this? For all you know, the word could have referred to gnawing, chewing in
Pre-Greek, too.

Piotr wrote:
<<The initial *gW- was still pronounced as a labiovelar in early historical
times but became /b/ in Classical Greek. In pre-Classical times the
(Proto-)Greeks had, not <bibro:sko:>.>>

Can you tell me precisely when the first Greek started using <bibro:sko>
instead of *gWigWro:sko:. For all you know it was 1000 years before Homer.
So this argument is empty. If you had "direct" evidence of when Greeks truly
last used *gW-, you wouldn't need to put an asterisk by it.

Piotr wrote:
<<And if they invented the 'beaver' word in the form *bibr- or *bHibHr-, then
it has nothing to do with the verb 'chew up' and your etymology falls

This doesn't make sense. How do you know when the word changed meaning?
When did it go from whatever you suppose it meant to what it meant in Greek?
My etymology is fine unless you can put a chronology on this semantic shift
you are claiming. In any case Lat <voro> and gnawing, chewing are a lot
closer than most *PIE words get to a real life common meaning. Chewing,
gnawing is a solid way to devour something or eventually swallow it.

<<Tertio: If Germanic *bebru- is a loan from Latin, where does Classical
<fiber> come from?>>

You know, you really should try reading my posts. I'd asked for a date when
the unique Latin bh>f/b sound change happened. Did it happen before or after
the <bibro-> word came from Greek? There's obviously no answer for that.
And there is no way way of knowing if Latin speakers did not conform the new
word to their own way of speaking, adding the sound changes after the fact.

Piotr writes:
<<The word <biber> is attested only in late Latin. Its derivation from
<fiber> through irregular assimilation is thinkable (as a less likely
alternative to its being a Germanic loan), but this leaves us again with
<fiber> as the orginal form.>>

Again, it's might have been a matter of the market place. <Biber> may
reflect the fact that the name of product changed in trade when other sources
became more important. In the New York, "redstone" became "brownstone" when
the main source of this building material changed. Even buildings built out
of the old stone became known as "brownstones." If <bibr-> was a word being
used in international trade, by late Latin times it would have been subjected
to a myriad of languages, anyone of which could have been the last source.
Or even multiple sources.

Again, <fiber> in Latin may also be the result of a close analogy to an older
word in Latin that clearly explains the extraction of castors from the rest
of the beaver: <fiber> may be 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.

Piotr wrote:
<<Quarto: It is illogical to propose that an original *bebr- was manipulated
in Sanskrit (and I suppose Latin) 'to look more native', since there is
nothing non-native-looking about such a consonant configuration in either

Sure there is. One reason might be that particular phonetic slot was taken.
And of course I gave the example of other tooth and bite words in Sanskrit
that did have -bh- in them. So, simple analogy is another reason. And of
course I don't know that ancient Indian did not hear <<bibru-> as a Greek
word and change it for that reason alone. Or that they did not hear it from
a third language. Or that they heard the same word from the speakers of a
number of different languages at the same time. Historically, that would be
just as probable. And all would be a reason to make the word more native.
No other reason is necessary and it has happened in other cases.

Piotr wrote:
<<You posit arbitrary irregularity where the assumption of regularity works
better (see below).>>

Actually, what you are calling regularity is circularity. You reconstruct a
PIE word using <babHru-> and then you say, look, it's consistent with
<babHru->. Of course, it's consistent. You got it from from <babHru-> in
the first place. The fact that you can reconstruct an ancestor from a group
of later words does not mean that ancestor existed. Loan words do change to
conform to the phonotactics of a language. There's an example in the word
Easter in Celtic I just found. It's fine to say that the simplier explanatio
n is direct descent from PIE. But you really have no way of telling if that
is true. Pre-literate loan words are simply not as regular as you propose,
especially when they move through multiple languages to get to a destination.

Piotr writes:
<<Quinto: The correspondence set for 'beaver' is as follows: Latin fiber
'beaver'Slavic *bobrU, *bebrU, (only South Slavic) *bIbrU 'beaver'Lith.
babras, bebras, OPr. bebrus 'beaver' Avestan bawra- 'beaver' Old Indo-Aryan
babHru- 'brown; mongoose'Celtic *bibro-, *bibru-, *bebro- (only as an
onomastic element) Germanic *bebru- 'beaver' The _only_ branch where the
meaning has changed is (understandably) Indo-Aryan. The reconstruction that
accounts for all these words is *bHe-bHr-u-.>>

There's a medieval bestiary at
that shows a drawing of the beaver and it's clearly not a beaver, but
probably an otter. I subject what the beaver word represents is later book
learning. I bet there isn't a entry on beavers before say 1400 that doesn't
repeat the classical sources and European beavers were nearly extinct by
1500. The beaver word probably went north late or was first used for a class
of furs like the beaver. Later, classical learning helped northern folks
figure out what a beaver actually was.

One big problem is here is that semantics do not conform to the comparative
method. Anthropologists have found that in a single pre-literate villiage
there is no dependable uniformity of plants and animals names. Yet all of
this PIE singular meaning concept is premised on 100,000 villiages across two
continents and 1000's of years. When regularity shows up in this area, it
happens because of trade or writing. Before that there are going to be many
common local names with ambiguous application. In trade it will not be the
animal that first makes the name, but the end-products. The different animal
names will conform to the standardization of exchange -- where you put your
mouth where the money is. Again there's a great little segment in Proust
about why "beaver hats" are really rabbit hats.

Piotr writes:
<<There is some variation in the vocalism of the reduplication syllable (a
common secondary variant being *bHi-bHr-u-), and the word has often shifted
from the recessive u-declension to the "major" o-declension; the consonants,
however, develop everywhere exactly as expected: In Latin, PIE *bH > initial
f-, medial -b-.>> 

Once again, you are forgetting that you don't know when these developments
occurred. So if they occured after the word came into the language, it's no
surprise that word developed with them.

Piotr writes:
<<In Slavic, Baltic, Iranian and Celtic, PIE *bH > b in both positions; the
further development of medial *-b- in Avestan is also regular.>>

Of course, b > b and b_b > b_b are simplier explanation. Or to quote you,
"You posit arbitrary irregularity where the assumption of regularity works
better." On that basis we have to reject the unlikely bh > b in the case of
the beaver.

Piotr writes:
<<In Germanic, PIE *bH > b (but an original *b would have given /p/).>>

Of course, again, b > b is a simplier explanation. b > p is irrelevant. 

<<In Indo-Aryan, PIE bH > bH, but if there are two aspirated stop in the same
stem, the first one changes into an unaspirated one (Grassmann's Law), hence
*bHebHru- > *bHabHru- > babHru.>>

And Grassman's Law is a good reason to expect that Indian speakers might
reanalyze <bebru-> to <babHru>. 

Piotr writes:
<<I[f] you want to defend your Greek etymology of 'beaver' to the bitter end,
let someone else take my place. I've had enough of it.>>

I'm sure that the your traditional etymology for beaver will be repeated for
a long time to come, even though it makes no semantic, historical or
anthropological sense. So you don't have to bother defending it. Tired old
theories eventually just fade away.