Honey eaters, brown ones and tramplers

A Eurasian brown bear

In many European languages the words for bear have their origins in taboo avoidance. It is thought that people who spoke Proto-Indo-European (PIE) believed that if you called a bear by its true name, it would hear you and may harm you. So instead they used different names when referring to bears [source].

The words for bear in Germanic languages can be traced back to the PIE *bʰer- (brown), via the Proto-Germanic berô (bear).

Examples include bear (English / West Frisian), beer (Dutch / Afrikaans), Bär (German), Bier (Luxembourgish), björn (Icelandic / Swedish), and bjørn (Norwegian / Danish / Faroese) [source].

In Slavic languages the words for bear can all be traced back to the Proto-Slavic word medvědь, from *medu-ēdis, from medъ (honey) &‎ *(j)ěsti (to eat), so could be translated as “honey eater”.

Examples are медведь (Russian), médved (Slovenian), medvěd (Czech), niedźwiedź (Polish). The Hungarian word for bear, medve, possibly comes from the same root [source].

In Baltic languages the words for bear from the Proto-Baltic *talk-, *tlāk-, from Proto-Indo-European *tel-k-, *tl-ek- (to push, to hit, to kick, to trample), and could be translated as “trampler”, “stomper”, “pounder”, [source]. In Latvian the word is lācis, and in Lithuanian it’s lokys.

The PIE word for bear was *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, which is possibly related to destroying or destruction – another taboo avoidance? This is the root of *artos in Proto-Celtic, άρκτος (árktos) in Greek, ursus in Latin and ari in Albanian, and related words in modern Celtic and Romance languages [source].

6 thoughts on “Honey eaters, brown ones and tramplers

  1. The PIE *bʰer- (brown) never existed; on top of that, the very concept of “brown” is just about 300 years old. Instead, the Germanic “bear” words seem to be individuating n-stem nouns formed from an adjective cognate with Latin ferus “wild”, itself an o-stem adjective formed from the root noun *gʲʱwer- “large scary wild animal”.

    For a discussion and links to several sources, I recommend the first 7/8 of the Languagehat thread “Taboo deformation and the bear”, all the way to the Latin word for amber.

  2. “In many European languages the words for bear have their origins in taboo avoidance”. But I love bears because they are fat and cool.
    They will not attack you if you don’t attack them.

  3. ‘Roll the ball’ – For the benefit of those of us that don’t have your level of knowledge: what on Earth does your second post mean?

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