Words for beer (3): the big mysteries

As I said when I wrote the first of these blog essays, the origins of the words “ale” and “beer” are a surprisingly tangled mystery, with no particularly obvious root for either word.

Nor has anyone ever explained convincingly why the “continental” branch of West Germanic (the one that eventually became German in all its dialects, and Dutch and Friesian) dropped the al- word for “beer” it had derived from a supposed Germanic root *aluþ- (that *, remember, indicates a word for which there is no direct evidence, but which has been reconstructed from later forms), and took up the word bier instead, while the “off-shore” branch of West Germanic, the ancestor of modern English, together with the North Germanic languages (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and so on) stayed with words derived from *aluþ- – “ale” in modern English, Swedish öl and Danish and Norwegian øl.

Let’s look at “ale” first, the word that originally, in English, mean an unhopped fermented malt drink. It’s a word found across Northern and Eastern Europe: as well as in the Scandinavian languages, it occurs in the Baltic languages Lithuanian (alùs) and Latvian (alus), the Finno-Ugric languages Finnish (olut) and Estonian (olu) and the Slav languages Slovene (ôl) and Serbo-Croat (olovina, which means “yeast, dregs”, I believe). There is no evidence that the Baltic languages borrowed the “ale” word from the Germanic languages, or vice versa.

The word also appears away over in the Caucasus, in Georgian (apart from Finnish and Estonian the only non-Indo-European example) as ludi or, in a couple of mountain dialects, aludi, and in Georgian’s neighbour, the Iranic language Ossetian, as aeluton. Georgian linguists believe their language took the word ludi from the Ossetians, who are the descendants of the Alans.

The Alans ranged from their original home near the Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea, as far west as France in the late 4th, 5th and 6th century AD, down into Spain and along the North African cost to modern Tunisia, as allies of other invaders of the Roman world such as the Germanic-speaking Vandals and Goths. After the final defeat of the Vandal/Alan kingdom in North Africa in 534, some of the Alans look to have returned to the border of the Roman Empire with Persia as cavalry in the Roman army. It seems more than possible they picked up the “ale” word from one of the Germanic peoples and brought it back to the Eastern Black Sea, where they met up with other stay-at-home Alans who had been pushed up into the Caucasus by the advancing Huns.

But where does “ale” come from as a word? One school wants to trace it to an Indo-European base *alu- (-d, -t), meaning “bitter”, a root found in the modern English word “alum”, the highly astringent salt used in, for example, leather tanning, and in the Proto-Slavonic root *el-uku, “bitter”, which has apparently given words such as the dialectic Polish ilki, “bitter” and the Czech žluknouti, “turn rancid”. This would make ale etymologically “the bitter drink”. Unfortunately there’s no evidence ale WAS originally a bitter drink: without hops and herbs (and English ale, at least, seems to have been drunk quite often without herbs) it would probably have been a sweetish drink to begin with, and then acidic or sharp, rather than bitter, as it aged and soured. Indeed, in a list of words in one now-extinct Baltic language, Old Prussian, compiled by a German writer in the 14th century, alu is glossed as meaning “mead”, fermented honey, which is definitely sweet, not bitter. So, no cigar for that idea.

The Indo-European expert Calvert Watkins of Harvard University suggests another possibility, that the Germanic root *aluþ- is related to the Greek aluein or alussein and the Latvian aluót, both meaning “to be distraught”, with cognates having to do with sorcery (Runic alu, “a spell”, Hittite alwanzatar, “withcraft, sorcery, spell, hex”), and also “hallucinate”. All these words in a variety of Indo-European languages do suggest that there was a Proto-Indo-European root *alu meaning “a spell”. The semantic link would be that after drinking * aluþ- the bewitched drinker would stagger about in a distraught state and begin to have visions. It’s an interesting suggestion, but not a convincing one, for me: you don’t automatically become distraught and start hallucinating once you begin drinking ale.

One minority group wants to link “ale” with words in Uralic languages meaning “tree sap”, such as ālos or āllus in Sami, the language of the Lapp people, in the language of the Mansi of West Siberia and yllu in the language of their neighbours to the east, the Selkup. This appeals to me: fermented birch sap is still drunk in, for example, Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania (where it is called kveisas, surely linked to kvass, the Russian bread-beer, the name of which is reckoned to be descended from another putative Indo-European word for “fermented substance”, *kuath-so-, also found in a Gothic word meaning “foam up” and the Sanskrit kváthati, “boil”). It is easy to believe the Indo-European peoples who later lived in Northern Europe nicked the idea of fermenting tree sap from the Uralic people, along with the word, and then transferred the word to another alcoholic drink once they started growing grain. But I don’t know enough to say if this is a valid idea etymologically.

“Beer” is just as difficult to find a convincing etymology for. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology links it to the Old English word beór, and says it’s from the Old High German bior, which gave the modern Dutch and German bier and tentatively suggests: “perhaps from monastic Latin biber, drink”, an adoption of the Latin bibere. The (somewhat controversial) Russian linguist Vladimír Orel suggested bior was borrowed from a possible Romance (that is, the fissiparous language Latin became on its way to French, Spanish, Italian and so on) word *biw(e)r, itself from Late Latin biber. In French, *biw(e)r became boire, “drink”. The big name behind this theory is Friedrich Kluge (1856-1926), who put forward the monastic Latin biber derivation for bier in his positively canonical Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache.

But there are several problems here. Old English had beór, Old Norse had bjórr and these must have been the equivalents of Old High German bior. However, as I showed here, Old English beór was probably not “beer”, but another kind of alcoholic drink, quite likely cider, and the same looks true of Old Norse bjórr. Nor is it clear where Old English beór and Old Norse bjórr came from. Not Romance, and not monastic Latin, probably: monasteries did not appear in Scandinavia until around the 11th century, as far as I can see. Beór and bjórr, whatever they meant, disappear and Middle English and the Scandinavian languages carried on using “ale” words for the fermented grain drink. At some point in the history of Old High German however, the old “ale” word vanished, and bier was the word for fermented grain (hopped or unhopped, incidentally). Middle Dutch apparently still had ael or ale but this, too, eventually succumbed to bier Why did Old High German bior, whatever it originally meant, push out the al- “ale” word it had shared with Old English and Old Norse?

I have a theory, although this is almost pure speculation. I suspect that Old High German bior originally meant, as Old English beór seems to have done, an alcoholic drink but not “ale”. In the many monasteries that sprang up across Germany in the sixth and seventh centuries, meanwhile, the Latin-speaking monks used biber, properly “drink”, to mean “ale”. The Germans, in my piece of speculation, influenced by the similarity of bior and biber, then started widening the meaning of bior to encompass “ale”, and their original al- word disappeared.

But why did the monks use biber (a word with the same roots as “imbibe”) to mean “ale” when Latin had a perfectly good word for ale, cervisia, derived from Celtic? More dangerous speculation, but many of the most influential monkish evangelists in Germanic-speaking Europe during the sixth and seventh centuries were Irish scholars and clerics, such as St Columbanus, St Gall and St Kilian. Important centres of Irish-Christian influence included Cologne, Mainz, Strasbourg, Salzburg and Vienna, while St Kilian and his companions brought Christianity to Franconia and Thuringia, and St Gall gave his name to an important medieval monastery in modern Switzerland. In Irish, the first language of these travelling saints, the word for ale had become lionn, which like biber originally meant just “drink”. Perhaps when Irish monks spoke in Latin about lionn, meaning ale, they translated the word literally from Irish into Latin as biber, “drink”, rather than cervisia, “ale”.

That all contains too many “ifs” to be likely, however, and some even sneer anyway at Kluge’s pushing forward biber as the origin of “beer”. Dr Joseph Garreau, professor emeritus of French studies at the University of Massachussetts Lowell, calls it “wrong” and “fanciful” to talk of the monks “imbibing” their ale, and insists instead that we look for the origins of the word “beer” in the Indo-European root *bher, which expresses the idea of bubbling, as in what happens both when liquids are boiled and when yeast starts producing carbon dioxide as it creates alcohol.

*Bher is pretty definitely underneath a variety of brewing words, including “brew” itself, via pre-Germanic breuh-e/o- (after what linguists call metathesis, the swapping of two sounds, in this case “r” and “e”), then Proto-Germanic *brew-i/a- and on to Old English brēowan. Via Latin fervere, “to boil” (showing the regular change of “b” to “f” in Latin, as in the pair “brother/frater) *bher is behind the word “fermentation”. It is also the ultimate root for “barm”, an old word for yeast, via Old English beorma, which is probably from a word in Proto-Germanic or Old Teutonic (the language spoken in Scandinavia in the 1st millennium BC from which all the modern Germanic languages from Swedish to English are descended), hypothesised as *bermon-: the same word appears in both Danish and modern German (or modern North German, anyway) as bärme, “yeast”, and in Swedish as barma. (And “yeast” itself derives from another Indo-European root word for “boil”, *ias-.)

It even looks to have given us “bride”: in Proto-Germanic and some early German languages “bride” (brūths in, for example, Gothic) seems to have originally meant “daughter-in-law”, from a root word derived again from *bher and meaning “to brew” and “to cook, make broth” – the duties of a daughter-in-law 2,000 and more years ago (“broth” itself being another word descended from *bher). In modern German the connection appears even more obvious: Braut for “bride”, Brauer for “brewer”.

The “Garreau school” suggestion, as I understand it, is that Proto-Germanic *brew-i/a , from *bher, led to a Proto-West-Germanic *breura, meaning the drink that is brewed, and from that, they claim, are derived Old High German bior, Old English béor, modern English “beer” as an instance of “loss of recurring phoneme”. In Thracian, the Indo-European language spoken just north of Greece from around 1000BC until the fourth or fifth centuries AD, the word for beer, brûtos or brytos, certainly looks to be derived ultimately from *bher-. Brûtos, then, was “what has been brewed”. However, despite the example of Thracian, I’m underconvinced that the concept of bubbling, intimately connected with the action of yeast on sugary solutions, and with the act of brewing (and with boiling up broth) would have automatically attached itself to the drink. So “brew” and “barm” from *bher, yes: “beer” from *bher, not so sure.

The third common explanation suggested for the origins of the word “beer” link it to the word “barley”. The name for the grain most commonly used today for brewing beer goes back to a likely Proto-Indo-European *b[h]ars-, meaning “grain” in general. Indeed, some linguists suggest Proto-Indo-European borrowed *b[h]ars- from Proto-Semitic *barr-/*burr, “grain, cereal”, which occurs today in Hebrew bar, “grain”, and Arabic burr, “wheat”. This, at least, seems a sensible suggestion: both grain cultivation and (according to one theory) the Semitic languages developed in the Near East, and there are other agriculture-related borrowings from Proto-Semitic into Proto-Indo-European, including “wine” (Proto-Semitic *wayn > Proto-Indo-European *wóinom).

In Proto-Germanic the word for barley has been hypothesised as developing from *b[h]ars- to *beuwo-, and the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that possibly from this came an unrecorded Proto-Germanic word *beuro-, “drink made from *beuwo-“, out of which, perhaps, descended Old Norse bjórr, Old English beór, Old High German bior and so on down to “beer”.

In the Scandinavian languages the “-w-” sound developed to “-gg-” (as in bryggeri = “brewery”), so that *beuwo- became bygg in Old Norse, which gives us English “bigg”, the name for a type of hardy four-row barley grown in Scotland (and in Scandinavia). In Old English *beuwo- developed into bere, which became in modern English “bear”. This is pronounced today the same as “beer”, and again, in the North of England and Scotland, it is used for a variety of coarse barley. This is enough to persuade some that bere, “barley”, is the root of “beer” the drink. But bere, in the South of England, at least, was originally pronounced “bar”, as in “barn”, from “bere aern“, “barley house, place for storing barley”, the place name Barton, from “bere tun“, “barley enclosure”, and “barley” itself, from “bere-lic“, “barley-like”, that is, “the grain similar to bere“. So that seems to rule out “beer” coming from bere, Again, I’m no etymologist, but with no real evidence, I’m not convinced at all that *beuwo-, “barley” gave birth to a word that led to “bjórr/beór/bior, “beer”.

Overall, then, there’s no compelling theory giving the origins of either “ale” or “beer” as words. “Ale” certainly seems to be a mystery. If you find anyone stating as a fact that “ale” or “beer” definitely “come from” any other word, then they’re wrong. But with the examples of pivo, the word for beer in Slavic languages, and lionn, “beer” in Modern Irish, which both originally just meant “beverage” or “drink” , I’m inclined to suspect that the roots of “beer” lie in the Latin bibere, “to drink”, or a similar word also derived from the Proto-Indo-European base *po-/*pi-, “drink”, even if the route wasn’t via the monasteries of Germany. Using the general for the particular is common enough: if someone said to you: “Fancy a drink?”, you wouldn’t believe they were thinking of sparkling mineral water.

Sources, inter alia: Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture by JP Mallory and Douglas Q Adams; A Handbook Of Germanic Etymology by Vladimír Orel

23 thoughts on “Words for beer (3): the big mysteries

  1. Because of so many sound shifts–both over time and geographically, because of poor orthographic systems–personal and cultural, and because we would have to go back to a pre-historical accounting (and thus the need to create reconstructed forms) I don’t have a lot of faith we’ll ever know for sure what the origin of either word is, but I’m glad you keep offering your highly researched opinion on the matter.

    Not that you’re interested in still pursuing what is very possibly a dead end, but I would be pleased to see you walk us through the “barley” and the “bibere” what specifically you find convincing about the latter you find lacking in the former.

    I’m also curious why you find the “distraught” pathway unconvincing and didn’t mention that early cultures often mixed actual hallucinogens in their fermented drinks (whatever they may have been called). We know the Celts did, and I don’t think it would be entirely unreasonable to think they waited to get to NW Europe before experimenting that way. If we speculate that earlier cultures did what we know the Celts did, and that it was this effect that may have given the drink its name, seems to counter the only argument you give contra this particular path.

    I’m also curious (I know, if I’m so damned curious why don’t I pick up a book?) … if, as you were marching down the “brew as sorcery” path you ran across the Spanish word for “witch,” “bruja” (pronounced /BREW-ha/) and if that adds any weight to the argument of that particular pathway.

    1. Jim, I’d written 2,500 words, and I thought that was quite enough … but thanks for raising those points, which perhaps I should have covered more fully.

      “Barley” versus “bibere” – deriving “beer” from the “barley” root word strikes me as possible, but there’s just no hard evidence: a couple of languages (Basque and Farsi) call beer the equivalent of “barley water” (abjo in Farsi, for example), it’s true, but neither of these two peoples, afaik, ever had beer as a major part of their culture and, of course, barley was never the only grain that went into beer: wheat and oats were also important. And the good evidence that beór and its Norwegian equivalent did not mean “beer”, suggesting that Old High German bior did not originally mean “beer” either, is more evidence against the “beer = barleydrink” hypothesis.

      On the “bibere or some other word derived from the Indo-European ‘drink’ word” theory, I think it’s possible (though given my almost complete lack of etymological knowledge I may very well be talking out of my rissole here) that Proto-Germanic had a word derived from the Indo-European *pi/*po root, like pivo, “drink/beer” in Slavonic, that developed into beór in Old English, bjórr in Old Norwegian and bior in Old High German, which meant (in those languages) “strong drink”, and which in Old High German, possibly under the influence of biber, became the word for “beer”. But really, this is the least bad suggestion, rather than the best.

      On the subject of hallucinogens in early ale, I covered this in Beer: The Story of the Pint: to quote myself, “If the word ‘ale’ goes back as far as the Neolithic, and if the suggestion by some archaeologists that Neolithic ale was flavoured with the plant henbane is correct, the possible etymological link between ale and ‘hallucinate’ becomes stronger: henbane ale will certainly bring the drinker feelings of terror, delirium and visual distortion.” But I’m not aware that people in the Bronze and Iron Ages (apologies to any real archaeologists reading this for those old-fashioned terms) were sticking hallucinogenic herbs into their ale*, and anyway if the Celts were doing so, the Celtic word for “ale” was most likely derived from another word linked to the meaning “broth”, not anything linked to spells or hallucinations.

      *Edit: or at least herbs as powerful as henbane, at any rate. Of course, several pre-hop ale flavourings, such as sweet gale and yarrow, to name two, had potential psychotropic effects similar to wormwood, the herb most famous for its use in absinthe, but only if used in considerable quantities.

      1. 2,500 was a good start. 🙂

        I appreciate the extra bit you added here. I could read, and have read, about language for days and days. Add beer to the mix (as a subject of study or as a study aid) and I’m practically cemented in place.

        And I will get your Story of the Pint one of these days. I’m stacking up beer/liquor books way, way faster than I can read them.

  2. Interesting article. In swedish there are a couple of slang words for beer: “bira” and “bärs”, I’ve always thought them related to the german word “bier”. Is it that simple or is there a more interesting explanation?

    1. Well, Latvian speakers will be far better informed than me about what words exist in the language, obviously, but I took my info from a book called Insights in Germanic Linguistics: Methodology in transition by Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr, available on the net here, and “Latvian aluót” is also mentioned in the fascinating pdf on the subject of alu and its possible relationship with spells and hallucinations to be found here, and in the web version of Pokorny’s Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch here (search for aluot). So if I’m wrong, I’m wrong with reliable-looking sources to back me up.

      1. just to correct what Ivars commented above –

        there IS a word in Latvian along the lines of “aluót”
        it may not be written this way these days, but this is close to how it is pronounced.
        in modern Latvian it is transliterated as “Alot [-ies]” (to err, be wrong)
        or similar “Ālēt [-ies]” [to play the fool, be mischievous]

    1. Yes, I’m afraid you are. Pasteur only discovered what yeast WAS, that is, a living organism. The existence of yeast as something that multiplied during fermentation to produce a foam on the top of ale, that was needed to make ale ferment, and that made dough rise, was known for centuries – millennia, even – which is why there are ancient words for it. What wasn’t understood, before Pasteur, was the nature of yeast. People though it was some sort of breakdown product of the ingredients in ale.

  3. Interestingly, in both Icelandic and Faroese “bjór” means “beer”, as you can see quite clearly from these pages: http://www.foroyabjor.dk/ http://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=7648 http://www.ratebeer.com/brewers/olgeroin-egill-skallagrimsson/1533/ http://is.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bjór_(öl)

    This makes me curious: if Old Norse “bjorr” did not mean beer, why do the two languages that today are closest to Old Norse use that very word to mean beer?

    Interestingly, it seems that Iceland also has the word “öl” and calls a brewery “ölgerðin” (beer fermenting?), while Faroese appears to use “bjór” for beer and “bryggjari” (close to Danish/Swedish/Norwegian) for brewery.

  4. Martyn,

    A fascinating line of research that intellectually I can add absolutely nothing.

    However whenever bigg is mentioned I do smile due to the irony that goodness knows how many centuries later the word is most often associated (in North East England anyway) with the site of many bars, restaurants, and clubs in Newcastle.

    As the Bigg Market is the epicentre of the city‘s (in)famous nightlife and party culture associated particularly with young female revellers (or so my friends tell me!).

    But I wonder how many of them even though their alcohol of choice is unlikely to be beer realise that the name of where they are enjoying themselves so much dates back to a market founded in medieval times to sell ” …………………
    “bigg”, the name for a type of hardy four-row barley grown in Scotland (and in Scandinavia)”?

    Keep-up good work.

    John Holland.

  5. Ale-Alu-Spell makes sense to me. It would not be necessary to the theory that (non-ethanol) drugs were added. Alcohol is mood-altering if not psychoactive, and in early cultures one can envisage it was associated with hallucination. Indeed it can have the effect if greatly abused. Perhaps bitter herbs were added to some forms of early ale and this explains the similar-sound word meaning bitter, but if that is not so, the spell theory seems persuasive on its own.

    I think the term beer must be related to bibere, and the mention of the French boire is intriguing, since that seems the same word basically as some of the old forms of beer. This would explain why beer was associated with drinks that were not barley-based. True, bibere and boire mean to drink anything (not just alcohol), but a restricted meaning probably emerged ultimately for alcohol drinking. Even today a secondary meaning of the verb “to drink” means to drink alcohol, with an association of excessive use.


  6. Well. ..alcohol potentiates fungal compounds psychotropically. ..don’t drink booze and take antibiotics…so henbane and yarrow and calamintha could have upgraded the psychoative capacity of old time brews but plenty of psychoactive mushrooms could have also been used….besides which beer and bear and beserkers…flow to honey bees beer bear

  7. ‘ bygg in Old Norse, which gives us English “bigg” ‘ In reading a cookbook focused on making Foccacia the cousin or ancestor of pizza in Italy I learned that the start, a sourdough stock is called biga, a short enough word to be invented multple times, but also a ‘brew’ of sorts hence potentially of the same sourcing.

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