Book 1: Economy
Section 1: Livestock and Wealth
Chapter 1: Male and Sire


Contrary to traditional etymologies we have to distinguish between two ideas on the Indo-European level: (1) on the physical side that of the “male,” i.e. *ers-, and (2) on the functional side that of the “sire,” i.e. *wers-. A semantic rapprochement between these two roots is found only in Sanskrit and may be regarded as secondary.


We shall first consider some typical expressions relating to stock breeding. The object of study will be the differentiations characteristic of special techniques: on the lexical level, as elsewhere in linguistics, the differences are instructive, whether they are immediately apparent or come to light only after the analysis of a unitary group. An obvious and necessary distinction in a society of stock breeders is that between males and females. This is expressed in the vocabulary by words which can be regarded as common, since they appear in several languages, though not always with the same applications.
For the first word which we are going to study we have a series of correspondences which are relatively stable, although they admit of variations. They concern the word for “male”:
  r̥ṣabha   arəšan    
Skt.   Av.   Gr. ársēn, árrēn
  vr̥ṣabha   *varəšan    
We postulate for Avestan a word which happens not to be attested but which is implied by its derivatives, i.e. Av. varəšna– ‘masculine’, varəšni- ‘male’, ‘ram’.
In Greek, again, we find slightly deviant forms in the group e(w)érsē ((w)έρση), hérsai (ἕρσαι) (cf. the form with ν in Indo-Iranian); the meaning is (1) “rain, dew” (in the singular), whereas (2) the plural is applied to animals. To this family belongs Lat. verrēs, the male of a particular species, with its corresponding forms in Baltic, Lit. ver̃šis, Lett. versis. All these derive from the verbal root *wers- exemplified in the Skt. varṣati, which means in the impersonal “it rains” (cf. eérsē); we may also adduce Irl. frass ‘rain’ < *wr̥stā.
There is a morphological difference between the last forms and the preceding nominal forms, but this has not prevented etymologists from grouping them together. But this should give us pause: we have on the one hand forms with and without an initial w in Indo-Iranian. Similarly in Greek, whereas árrēn (ἄρρην) never has a w, Homeric metre implies that eérsē = ewérsē, which develops to hérsai.
Comparatists have interpreted this disagreement as an alternation. But since there are no compelling reasons to follow them, we should practice the utmost economy in the use of hypothetical “alternations.”
In Indo-European morphology there is no principle which would permit us to associate forms without w- with those containing a w-. To postulate a unified group here is gratuitous; there is no other example of this alternation w-/zero. As for the meaning of the words thus associated, where an analysis is possible, it will be seen that there are difficulties in bringing the words together.
In Sanskrit, vr̥ṣabha- and r̥ṣabha- attest the same manner of formation and the same notion. This is that of the “mythological bull” and “the male in general,” the epithet of gods and heroes alike. In Avestan, on the other hand, the two words (with or without w) have divergent meanings, and this disaccord is instructive outside Indo-Iranian: in Iranian arəšan and *varəšan are absolutely separate words. Arəšan in the Avestan texts is always opposed to a word which designates the female, this being sometimes xšaθrī (a purely Iranian term), but usually daēnu. This latter expression, which is Indo-Iranian (cf. Skt. dhenu), belongs to the group of Greek thē̂lus (cf. the Sanskrit root dhay- ‘suckle, nourish’). Thus we have here a specific designation, a functional one, for the female animal.
The opposition of arəšan- : daēnu- is constant. In the lists of animals we find the two series of terms enumerated in the same order:
"horse" aspa-arəšan- aspa-daēnu-
"camel" uštra-arəšan- uštra-daēnu-
"bovine" gau-arəšan- gau-daēnu-
The Avestan arəšan never designates any particular species, as does the Sanskrit r̥ṣabha which, without being the exclusive word for bull, frequently has this meaning. This is quite different from arəšan; it simply denotes the male as opposed to the female.
This opposition male/female may appear in a slightly different lexical guise in Avestan. For human beings, nar/xšaθrī are used, where the latter term looks like the feminine form of the adjective meaning ‘royal’, that is, ‘queen’. This may appear somewhat strange, but it is not inconceivable if we think of the correspondence between Greek gunḗ ‘woman’ and English queen. There are some slight variants such as nar/strī, where the second term is the Indo-Iranian name for “woman,” cf. in the compounds strīnāman (cf. Lat. nōmen) ‘of female sex’, while xšaθrī is sometimes transferred to the animal world. All this is quite clear; the opposition is unambiguous. Outside Iranian, arəšan has an exact equivalent in the Greek ársēn, árrēn with precisely the same sense as in Avestan: it denotes the male as opposed to the female, árrēn contrasts with thē̂lus. The etymological identity of the two terms argues an Indo-European origin.
Let us now consider the Avestan word *varəšan. It expresses a different notion, that of the sire. It is not the characteristic of a special class of beings, but an epithet of functional value. *Varəšan (the actual form is varəšni-) is used with the name for sheep to designate the “ram”: maēša-varəšni-. This combination leaves no doubt as to its meaning. Apart from this, there is also historical testimony: *varəšan, by regular sound development, yielded Persian gušan, and this signifies not the “male” (represented in Persian by a form derived from nar) but the “sire.”
Outside Iranian, Latin verrēs is the exact counterpart in form and meaning. It does not denote the “male,” the male pig being called sūs (a word to which we shall return later) but the “sire.” Verrēs, ‘boar’, is used in exactly the same way as the corresponding Avestan form *varəšan.
What conclusion can we draw from these observations? *Ers- and *wers-, which were regarded as identical, are two different forms, absolutely distinct both in meaning and morphology. Here we have two words which rhyme, which may be superimposed, but which in reality belong to two independent families. One designates the “male” as opposed to the “female”; the other denotes a function, that of the “sire” of a flock or herd and not a species, like the first. It is only in Sanskrit that there was a close rapprochement between r̥ṣabha- and vr̥ṣabha-. Because of a mythology in which the bull has a prominent place and in virtue of a style in which high-flown epithets abound, the two terms became so far assimilated that the first assumed a suffix which belongs properly only to the second.
Such is our first conclusion. It can be given further precision by recourse to a distinct lexical development. There is probably some connection between Greek eérsē and hérsai. How can this be defined? The singular eérsē denotes the light rain of the morning, dew. Apart from this we have the Homeric plural form hérsai, which is only attested once (Od. 9,222): in the cave of Polyphemus there is a sheep-fold in which the animals are arranged in age groups, from the adults to the very youngest—the hérsai. Now, hérsai is the plural of eérsē. To understand this peculiar association, we can adduce some parallels in Greek: drósos means “dew drop,” but in Aeschylus drósos in the plural denotes young animals. There is a third example of the same kind: psakás, which means “fine rain,” has a derivative psákalon, ‘the newly-born of an animal’. This lexical relationship may be explained as follows. The tiny newly-born animals are like dew, the fresh little drops which have just fallen. Such a development of meaning, peculiar to Greek, would probably not have taken place if *wers- had first been the name of an animal, considered as the “male.” It seems therefore now to be established that we must posit for Indo-European a distinction between the two different notions and two series of terms. It was only in Indic that a rapprochement was effected with the result that they became similar in form. Everywhere else we find two distinct lexical items: one, *ers-, designating the male, (e.g. Greek árrēn), and the other *wers- in which the original notion of rain as a fertilizing liquid was transformed into that of “sire.”