From vital to toxic: the history of drink words
Liquids are not just vital to our survival, they also form a central part of our culture. Most human gathering has the procedure of drinking as its common denominator, be it water, wine, beer, tea, or coffee. This post is about ancient drinking and words for drinking in languages (coffee and tea will be in a later blog).
The two most vital liquids to humans – as well as to mammals in general – are water and milk. Water we drink all our lives; without water we cannot survive. Milk we drink our first year; during this period, milk represents our entire need for nourishment. In many cultures, individuals continue to drink milk from cows, goats or sheep, either in the form of fresh milk or as cheese or yoghurt. In other cultures, milk is not a natural part of the diet later on in life.
Looking at the words for water and milk, they are both high-conservative words, which belong to languages’ basic vocabulary. In Indo-European, both words can be reconstructed to the proto-language, and the form has not changed much during the family’s history. The Proto-Indo-European word for water *wód-r-/wéd-n-, look similar in its earliest appearance, Hittite watar, strikingly similar to English water several millennia later. The root for milk, Proto-Indo-European *h₂melǵ-, is not very different from the form in Russian molokó, Tocharian B malkwer, or in Old Norse mjǫlk, English milk. Fresh milk as a drink is most frequent in Europe and less frequent in other parts of Eurasia, and the ability to drink milk, lactose tolerance, is a genetic mutation that goes back 6,000 years in Central Europe. The mutation is not unique to Europe, other independent epicentres are also found in Saudi Arabia and Western Africa.
At least in Europe, there is a popular generalization about ‘drinking belts’, which sometimes are used to generalize about various peoples’ mentality, typically the ‘wine belt’ and the ‘beer belt’, often also the ‘vodka belt’ and sometimes also a ‘milk drinking zone’. Beer and wine are both very ancient and central drinks in all of Eurasia. Another important drink is mead, which is tightly connected with bee keeping. Mead has lost its importance in the last millennia, probably due to the more efficient production of beer and wine. Vodka, whiskey and other distilled drinks have a short history: they are a result of distillation, which is a relatively modern process.
Among beer and wine, beer is the most archaic drink, which appears in many lexical forms. The preparation of a toxic, fermented drink, based on cereals, was invented already by the earliest Neolithic farmers in West Asia and Anatolia 10,000 years ago. With the preparation of beer came also the practice of cultic feast; occasions where people worshipped the gods, ate, drank, sacrificed, and got (probably very) drunk. A common word for beer can be reconstructed to Indo-European *h2el-u-, but it is frequently substituted (like in English beer): likely, the production of beer was divergent and different in cultures, with many local deviations, and for this purpose, many languages substituted their beer words.
Wine has a different story. The production of wine is related to farming of the domesticated grape, a practice that began in the Caucasian region about 8-7,000 years ago. The word for wine is also the same in all languages, and it is most likely that the words spread through all languages at an early state, together with the invention of wine. Wine cannot be planted in Northern parts of Eurasia, still all languages have a word for wine. The ultimate source of the wine-root is not clear. Often, Proto-Semitic or Proto-Kartvelian are believed to be the sources of the word (PIE *woh₁i-no- ‘wine’ < PIE *weh₁-i- ‘to turn, wind’; Proto-Kartvelian *ɣwin- ‘wine’, Proto-North-West Caucasian *ωwə- ‘wine; alcoholic drink’, Proto-Dagestanian *ωun- ‘wine; one-year-old vine shoot’, also found in early Semitic languages, Old Testment Hebrew yayin, Ugaritic yn). The Indo-European root, on the other hand, is derived from a verb meaning ‘to wind’ (referring to the vine), which to some indicates an Indo-European origin. This may be a secondary adaptation in Indo-European, so we cannot be certain about the origin of the word wine.
Cognacy map of words for WINE in modern (top) and ancient (bottom) languages. One rott dominates almost the entire map.