Monthly Archives: January 2011

a BIT of evidence for a PIE root “to bite”




The lexical properties of the words "to chew" and "to eat" are closely akin, which can be illustrated by a look at the Romance languages. Modern French manger
and Modern Italian mangiare are reflexes of Proto-Romance MANDUCARE, a word that originally meant “to
chew”, which had replaced the Latin verb
edere in almost all
Romance languages. This lexical replacement was probably motivated by regular
soundchange because medial lenition of /d/ reduced the original Latin word to a
very minimal state. Spanish and Portuguese were only able to retain the Latin
compound verb
comedere which yielded comer in both languages.
However, chance would have it that the Latin verb
manducare is an
interesting word in itself which presents us with some nice linguistic riddles.
So, let’s leave Romance philology on the sideline for the moment and turn
towards some IE problems.


Latin manducare
“to chew” is a secondary formation to the Latin
mandō “to chew, to bite”. The LIV joins Latin mandō to a Vedic injunctive
máthīt  “he robs” and assumes that a
nasal infix into the PIE root *
meth2 “wegreissen” is responsable for the Latin form. De Vaan (1998)
disagrees and proposes that PIE *
mnth2 “to stir” (Vedic mánthati,
Lith. menčiu, męsti) yielded Latin mandō in the same way as PIE *pnth2 yielded Latin pandō. This however prevents Greek μασάομαι and the Greek gloss μάθυιαι in joining in, which is duly accepted by Beekes
(2009). Pairing
μασάομαι to either PIE *meth2 and * menth2 would mean accepting an aberrant soundchange PIE *-th2
Grk –θ-, which isn’t very alluring[1].
However true this may be, a PIE reconstruction for Greek
μασάομαι may lead to another interesting solution. Beekes and
Frisk both consider
μασάομαι a secondary
iterative-intensive formation to a yod-present *mathyō in the same way
as φῡράω is a deverbative formation to φύρω < *phǔryo. This
leads Beekes to reconstruct a Proto-Greek root *mnth– which
he doesnt consider to be of IE ancienity.


I think it is conceivable that the Greek verb goes back to a PIE root *m(e)ndh-,
which would mean “to bite”, and it may be possible to join Latin mandō to
this root as well. De Vaan, following Schrijver, contends that Latin pand- goes
back to Pre-Italic *pndn– which secondarily acquired an a-vocalism
in Latin. Isn’t it possible that Pre-Italic *mndn– got its aberrant a-vocalism
in the same way? If we keep this possibility in mind, we might envision the
developments as follows:


Greek μασάομαι[2] “to chew, to bite” <
[deverbal derivation] Proto-Greek *mathyō < PIE *mndhyoh1


Latin mandō  “to chew” <
Pre-Latin mndnō < PIE *mndhnoh1


OHG mindil ( ON mél and OE mīdl/mīðl
) which is found as a gloss for Latin lupati[3], would, to my
mind, be another candidate for joining this interesting club. OHG mindil goes
back to Pgmc. *menðla- which, in its turn, could go back to PIE *mendhtlo,
since dental clusters preceding a liquid tend to drop the first dental  instead of assibilating (a phenomenon first
described by De Saussure, 1887).


OHG mindil “bit of the bridle” < Proto-Germanic *menðlaz
PIE *mendhtlo


This is, to my mind, a better etymological pairing than the usual
connection to Pgmc. *munþa-, itself a nominalization by accent shift of
a verbal adjective PIE *mntó[4]– (PIE *mńto
> Pgmc. *munþa-). To link OHG mindil to Pgmc. *munþa- a
vrddhi-derivation has to be assumed, which isn’t very appealing.
Furthermore, the original meaning of the formation PIE *mńto must have
meant something like “chin”, as evidenced by Latin mentum and Middle
Welsh mant, which doesnt add up with the fact that also the tlo-derivation
must be of PIE age, making it a instrumentalization of the noun “chin”. The
fact hat the tlo-suffix makes nomina instrumenti from verbs, not from
nouns, makes this development problematic as well, although this argument may
be countered by assuming that we are dealing with an instrumental lo-suffix[5].
 For these reasons it isn’t very
plausible that Pgmc. *menðla- belongs to Pgmc. *munþa-. The
contention that also Middle Irish métal “belly” belongs to the group of
Latin mentum, Pgmc. *munþa- is semantically and phonologically
not compelling and not plausible.


A last argument may be that a “bit of bridle” is within Germanic
lexically associated with the verb “to bite”, as evidenced by the causative
verb Pgmc. *baitjanan and the noun Pgmc. *bitō. A
derivation from a noun meaning “mouth” is not paralleled within Germanic. Also
in the early Romance realm a derivation from a verb refering to what the animal
does with the bit is preferred, as evidenced by Old French gobel <
Gaul. *gobbo < PIE *g(h)obh– “to
swallow” (cfr. Russian zobát’ “to masticate”)[6].


By positing a PIE root *m(e)ndh-, I think we have
ourselves an acceptable IE etymology for a verb which Beekes considered to be
Pre-Greek. Furthermore, we can assume that Latin and Greek both retained the
original meaning of the root. And, last but not least, we have a better
etymology and understanding of the development of OHG mindil and its



Eugen Hill, Untersuchungen zum inneren Sandhi des Indogermanischen; Der
Zusammenstoss von Dentalplosiven im Indoiranischen, Germanischen, Italischen
und Keltischen
, Münchner Forschungen zur historischen Sprachwissenschaft
band 1, Peter Schrijver et Peter-Arnold Mumm eds., (Bremen 2003).

M. de Vaan, An
etymological dictionary of Latin
(Leiden 2008).

Beekes, Etymological dictionary of Greek, 2 vols (Leiden 2009).

Helmut Rix, Lexikon der Indogermanischen Verben; Die Wurzeln und ihre
(Wiesbaden 2001).

[1] Also in the case of Greek οἶσθα it isn’t very
probable that the laryngeal had something to do with the aspiration (Beekes

[2]  (Greek μασάομαι  <
Proto-Greek *mathyāyomai < QIE *mndh-yeh2-yo-mh2(i))

[3] Traditionally OHG mindil is
translated as “bit of a bridle”.

[4] The verbal root is often
interpreted as PIE *men “hervorragen”, which is also found in Latin promineo
and mons, montis

[5] To my mind, PIE –lo-, -tlo- an
-dhlo- are allomorphs of eachother, a contention that I will make in my thesis.
However, I cannot expand on it now.

[6] A counterargument may be found
in Slavic, where the word *ūzda and its reflexes are derived from the
word for mouth. However, most Slavic languages point to the meaning “bridle”
and only in Čakavian it developed the meaning “bit of a bridle”.