Home     The Brown One, The Honey Eater,
The Shaggy Coat, The Destroyer

A friend of mine, Charles Bigelow, saw this web site and sent the following note...

The commendable desire to reduce conflict with bears has a long and distinguished pre-history, as shown by variant forms of the word for "bear" in different languages of the Indo-European family, which includes English, Russian, French and other ancient and modern tongues, all descended from a common ancestor spoken thousands of years ago.

Background Note: A major achievement of 19th century linguistics was the discovery, through comparison of sounds, words, and expressions in various ancient and modern languages, of an ancient, unwritten language now called "Proto-Indo-European" (PIE), which was the common ancestor of many classical and modern languages. Linguists such as Jacob Grimm (one of the famous brothers who collected the folk tales now beloved by children) and Ferdinand de Saussure, inventor of the study of semiology (now beloved by academic obscurantists), analyzed the sound and structural changes that transformed words spoken some 6,000 years ago, well before the invention of writing and the dawn of history, into the words spoken today in English, German, Russian, Italian, French, Irish, Welsh, Armenian, and others, or into the words preserved in written and oral texts of "dead" languages like ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Hittite.

Back to the Bear. Most of the Indo-European languages have a word for bear, but the form of the word itself varies because it was apparently subject to a taboo in some languages but not in others. The theory of the bear taboo is taught to almost all beginning students of Indo-European and historical linguistics, and I will repeat it here for those interested in the history of man and bear.

The Latin word for bear is "ursus", from which is derived the name for the constellation Ursa Major (Big Dipper), and the English adjective "ursine", meaning "bear-like". The French word for bear, "ours", is derived from the Latin. The ancient Greek word for bear is "arktos", from which is derived the star name "Arcturus", meaning "guardian of the bear" (from its position behind the tail of the bear constellation Ursa Major), and the adjective and noun "arctic", meaning "north", again a reference to the northern constellation of the bear. The Sanskrit word for bear is "rkshas" (in ASCII transliteration; the "r" being pronounced more like a vowel than a consonant). Old Celtic had a similar bear word (*arto-), from which the Welsh word "arth" and the name "Arthur" are derived.

From these words in four separate branches of Indo-European (Italic, Greek, Indic, and Celtic), linguists have reconstructed the PIE word for bear as *rktho-, *rkto-, *rkso-, or *rtko-. An asterisk simply marks a word as being a hypothetical reconstruction. The alternative forms show that the reconstruction of Indo-European root words is not always an exact science.

In recent pre-historical and early historical times, bears are thought to have been more common in northern than in southern climes. The southern Indo-European tongues retain the old PIE word for bear, but different words for bear appear in the northern PIE language groups, like Germanic (which includes English, German, Dutch, and Swedish), Slavic (which includes Russian, Polish, and Czech), and Baltic (including Lithuanian, Latvian, and Old Prussian).

We know the common English word "bear" and its less common variant "bruin" (from Dutch "bruin", meaning brown. French "brun" and "brunette", also signify the color brown, though the French word for bear is, as we saw above, "ours"). The Dutch word for bear is "beer". In German, the word for bear is "baer" (now spelled "bär" with a-umlaut). In Old Norse, and its descendants Danish and Swedish, the corresponding bear word is "bjorn". These words appear in personal and family names and also in place names in Germanic speaking lands, for example "Berlin" in Prussia, "Berne" in Switzerland, "Brno" (German "Brunn") in Moravia in the former Czechoslovakia. All these words are derived from the PIE word *bher- = "brown". The Germanic speaking peoples, who inhabited and hunted in northern climes and were presumably in frequent contact with the bear, did not use its common name. Instead, they used a circumlocution: "the brown one", and this is reflected in the modern word for bear in all the Germanic languages. Linguists hypothesize that in old common Germanic, the true name of the bear was under a taboo -- not to be spoken directly. The exact details of the taboo are not known. Did it apply to hunters who were hunting the bear and did not want to warn it? Or to hunters hunting other animals and did not wanting to rile up the bear and have it steal their prey? Or did it apply to anyone who did not want to summon the bear by its name and perhaps become its prey? Whatever the details, the taboo worked so well that no trace of the original *rkto- word remains in Germanic languages, except as borrowed historically in learned words from Greek or Latin. The Greeks and Romans apparently had a more laid-back relationship with the bear, perhaps because there were relatively few encounters, and preserved the ancient name.

A similar taboo also operated in the Slavic languages, but a different circumlocution was used. The word for bear in Russian is "medved", and the same in Czech. In Polish, bear is a similar word "niedzwiedz", and in Old Church Slavonic, bear is "medvedi". All of these words mean something like "honey-eater" and are derived from the common Slavic words "medu" = "honey" (PIE *medhu-, from which we also get the English word "mead") plus "ed-" = "eat".

So, Slavic speakers, also living in northern climates and familiar with, and neighbors of, the bear, also showed circumspection by avoiding his name. They chose to call him by one of his habits rather by his color. The Baltic languages, related to the Slavic, with their speakers also living in northern regions close to those of the Slavs, also observed the taboo, but chose yet another characteristic for their circumlocution, calling the bear "lokys" in Lithuanian, "lacis" in Latvian, and "clokis" in Old Prussian, all of which are believed to be derived from *tlakis, meaning "hairy, shaggy", referring to the texture, rather than the color, of the bear's coat. We might imagine a debate between ancient Germans, Slavs, and Balts about whose circumlocution is better, but in such a debate, a person might slip up and utter the tabooed word for bear, and thus get into deep trouble. Maybe they never spoke about it.

And speaking of habits, there is also a suggestion that the original PIE word for bear, *rkso- (or its variants) is itself descriptive, meaning "destroyer (perhaps of beehives)", because a cognate word in Sanskrit is "rakshas", meaning "harm, injury". If the bear's standard PIE name did mean "destroyer", we can see why it would not have been used lightly by anyone familiar with the bear, for fear it might inspire or encourage the bear's destructive tendencies. Even today, we need only think of Yellowstone and Yosemite parks, and the shambles of a Ford or Toyota after a bear has torn it apart in a search for food, to know that "The Destroyer" is still an aptly descriptive moniker.

So, perhaps we can take a tip from the Germanic, Slavic, and Baltic peoples who knew the bear on something like equal terms in the Boreal forests of thousands of years ago, and reduce our chance of conflict with the bear by not using his name in a rude way. Regrettably, the Indo-European linguistic evidence does not reveal the ursine flip-side. There is no hint of what word the bear uses for man. Probably, anything it wants.

-- Chuck Bigelow


  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, by Calvert Watkins
  2. A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, by Carl Darling Buck
  3. Introduction to Historical Linguistics, by Anthony Arlotto
  4. Historical Linguistics - an introduction, by Winfred P. Lehmann

But wait, there's more...

Subject: bears vs. wolves
Date: Tue, 9 Jun 1998 19:36:55 -1000


I looked up the proto-indo-european for "wolf" and its "reflexes", as the linguist jargon calls the descendant words in various languages. Sure enough, "wolf" also seems to have been subject to taboos, but they were different from, and weaker than those for "bear". The ancient word was something like *wlkwo-, and by known and regular historical sound changes, that becomes English "wolf", Latin "lupus", Greek "lukos" (as in "lycanthropy"), and Russian "volk".

The taboo seemed mostly to involve changing one or two sounds, mainly the "kw" to "p", or *wlkwo- to *wlpo- , which gives the basis for old German *wulp- which by regular sound change becomes *wulf- and then *wulfaz. A similar sound taboo gives old Italic *lupo- (either by reversing the order of *wlpo- to *lwpo-, or dropping the initial 'w' sound and inserting a 'u' (I didn't find which they think it is), which becomes Latin "lupus". The Greek and Slavic didn't change the "kw" to "p", but did mess in a minor way with the initial sound sequence.

For the wolf, a few sound changes seemed to be enough. But for the bear, they had to completely change words.

I deduce that, for some reason, the old indo-europeans were more respectful of the bear than the wolf, though they didn't dis the wolf either.

-- Chuck

Thu, 11 Jun 1998 07:25:29-1000 The Saga Continues...

Your term "linguistic archaeology" is "spot on" as the Brits say. One of the enthusiastic historical linguists called a reconstructed language a "glorious artifact", which was dug up, so to speak, by the power of thought alone. Historical linguistics was one of the great intellectual achievements of the 19th century, but in the 20th has been overshadowed by structural and formal (we used to call it transformational) linguistics.

One of the greatest of the historicists was also the founder of the structuralists, Ferdinand de Saussure. He is mostly famous today because of a book called "Course of General Linguistics" based on lectures he gave toward the end of his life. After he died, his students, knowing they had heard something cool that would otherwise be lost, put the book together from their notes of his lectures. Among many fascinating ideas, it introduced the concept of "semiology" which has since become one of the most useful forms of bullshit for suave French intellectuals and American academic hacks straining to publish something incomprehensible to strengthen their tenure case.

But Saussure himself was not a bullshitter. And when he was young, he made one of the most astonishing "linguistic archaeological" discoveries of all time. By carefully studying the reconstructed sound changes and their derivative words in indo-european languages, he deduced that the earliest proto-indo-european language had to have contained at least two sounds (phonemes we would say today) that totally disappeared in every known descendant language, but which left their trace in various features of the descendant words. He worked this out by a kind of abstract algebra of sound changes, and called his discoveries "sonantic coefficients" to emphasize their formalist abstraction. This was in 1879.

That was interesting but unprovable, so other linguists ignored it and went on with their other studies. But some 27 years later, around 1906, archaeologists dug up the Hittite royal library in Bogazkoy, Turkey, and found 25 thousand mystery clay tablets in an unknown language. In 1915, the tablets began to be deciphered, and the language was identified as Hittite, which was discovered to be an early indo-european language, a sister language, so to speak, of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and so on. The tablets were from around 1600 BC - 1200 BC, which makes them older than any other written records of an indo-european language, and therefore, in a chronological sense, the closest to the proto-language.

Saussure died in 1913, and never knew about the discovery. But in 1927, a Polish linguist named Kurylowicz, examined the decipherments, and remembering Saussure's 1879 paper, demonstrated that the Hittite texts contained Saussure's hypothetical "sonantic coefficients", right where Saussure had predicted they should be. These coefficients, now called "laryngeals", are now a standard tool of the reconstructionists.

This is more or less like discovering the positron based on symmetries in the quantum equations of Dirac. Except it took 40 years instead of 4, and it was only accidental that such an ancient indo-european tongue happened to have been written and the writing happened to have been discovered.


-- Chuck

From 1998

© Pacific Rim Grizzly Bears Co-Existence Study of Charlie Russell, 2006