Translated by Olivier van Renswoude from his original Dutch piece.
To horses we owe our language. Not that there was ever a wise stallion or mare in a meadow somewhere, gifting the word to dumb bipeds. Rather, Indo-European –the precursor to English and most other European languages– was able to spread as far as it did because its original speakers were probably warlike, able riders. These initially lived as herdsmen on the west end of the Steppe, where they likely climbed on the backs of steeds as first men ever, about 6000 years ago.
Such was the case that David W. Anthony convincingly built on the work of many predecessors several years ago, in his groundbreaking book The Horse, the Wheel and Language. People on the Steppe tamed the horse and got the upper hand that enabled their spread in nearly all directions. In part this was by mass migration, in part by small groups settling as elites among the local populations, whether peacefully or forcefully. Over the centuries, their immediate legacy –descent, customs, language– stretched from Ireland to India and the Tarim Basin that is now part of East China. And probably beyond, right next to the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Their own, Indo-European word for ‘horse’ has been reconstructed by etymologists as *h1éḱuos. From this arose, among others, Latin equus, Greek híppos, Sanskrit áśva- and Proto-Germanic *ehwa-. It possibly derives from the same root as words like Latin ōciōr ‘faster’ and Sanskrit āśú- ‘fast’ and referred to either these quick animals in general or the quickest among those at their disposal, as opposed to the packhorses, workhorses and old nags.
The English continuation of *ehwa- was lost, but had it not it would now have the form ee. (Compare the development of *sehwan- to see.) It seems our ancestors preferred other words. It was still in use in Old English, however, as eoh and in compounds éo-. The latter form will be familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings. In this linguistically rich work by J.R.R. Tolkien, words like éothéod and éored and names like Éomer and Éowyn are typical of the Rohirrim, a mounted people ruling over the vast grasslands of Rohan.
Other forgotten designations
The Germanic peoples had multiple words for this noble animal, albeit with small differences in meaning and one more poetic than the next. The not so elegant German Pferd and Dutch paard were not part of these, though, as they are corruptions of Late Latin paraverēdus, which literally meant ‘extra posthorse’.
Besides *ehwa- there was also Proto-Germanic *marha-, which by way of French survives in marshall, plus its feminine form *marhjō-, now mare. A cognate of this word is found in the Celtic languages, like Gaulish markan and Middle Irish marc, but nowhere else. It might stem from a language spoken by farmers in Northwestern Europe before the arrival of Indo-European. And in turn they might have borrowed it from the first inhabitants: the hunter-gatherers who where there since before the last Ice Age.
Of equally unclear origin, though probably fairly young, are *hangista- as precursor to both German Hengst ‘stallion’ and English hench in henchman, and its byform *hanhista- as precursor to Norwegian hest. It seems to be an extension of *hanha-, a word whose meaning is not quite certain, but might reasonably be ‘horse’ in the context in which it was found: a single rune stone and a handful of personal names. It might, moreover, have cognates in Lithuanian šankùs ‘nimble’ and šankìnti ‘to make jump; to gallop’.
Clear, on the other hand, is that the verb *wrīnan- ‘to howl’ underlies another word with a somewhat narrower meaning: *wrainjan- as precursor to for instance Middle Dutch wrene ‘stallion, warhorse’. A derivation of this *wrainjan- survives as Norwegian vrinske and Low German vrìnsken, both ‘to neigh’, in particular of a stallion towards a mare.
In addition we find *wegja-, which is no longer in use in any of the daughter languages, but which had the form wicg in Old English and would hence be widge in Modern English. Its origin might lie in poetic invention, as a derivation of the root of way and German bewegen ‘to move’.
More difficult to assess, but perhaps a hidden treasure, is *huppōn-, known by younger forms like Danish and Norwegian hoppe ‘mare’ and regional Swedish hoppa ‘old, thin horse’. A stableboy in Denmark could be called a hoppedreng (in which dreng is ‘boy’) and in the north of the Netherlands hop is a callword and children’s name for horses as well as a spurring to stand up. No doubt this is the same word. Old variants of *huppōn- are Frisian hap, happe and presumably English hobby(horse) and through borrowing from Germanic probably also Finnish hepo and Karelian hebo.
The Danish linguist Adam Hyllested has even argued that we are dealing with a Germanic cognate of Old Church Slavonic kobyle ‘mare’, Greek kabállēs ‘nag’ and Latin cabō ‘gelding’ and caballus ‘(work)horse’, the precursor to French cheval for one. Was this originally the Indo-European word that formed a contrast with the aforementioned *h1éḱuos? In other words, did it refer to the somewhat slow workhorse as opposed to the fast warhorse?
A troublesome question
And then there is *hrussa-/*hursa-, a much discussed word attested in forms like Old Norse hross, hors, Old High German (h)ros, Old Saxon hros, hors, Old Frisian hors and of course Old English hors and Modern English horse. The current Dutch form ros is either a loanword from German or borrowed from an eastern dialect. A better, more regular Dutch form would be hors, which was still in use in the Middle Ages. This backward jump of an -r- over a short vowel (within a closed syllable) is typical of the so-called North Sea Germanic languages. It is why we have English to burst and Dutch barsten while Swedish has the more original form at brista. Why this jump matters will be clear in a moment.
Now, this *hrussa-/*hursa- is taken for a loanword by many etymologists. It would have been borrowed from the language of the Alans, an equestrian people once bordering the Germanic world, specifically a continuation of Proto-Iranian *ŭrša(n)-, which itself is from Proto-Indo-European *h2urs-en- ‘male (animal’). Ossetian, a descendant of the Alanic language, preserves this word in the forms wyrs and urs, in the sense of ‘stallion’ no less.
Yet all in all it is unlikely that this is where the Germanic word came from. First off, the gender does not match. Contrary to the supposed source word, which was linguistically and conceptually clearly masculine, the Germanic word was neuter in all its early forms.
Second, Germanic also had forms with -e- and -a-, namely Old Saxon hers, Old Frisian hers and hars and Middle Dutch hers and hars. The form with -a- could have development from the form with -e-, like how Dutch for instance has the younger, informal harsens ‘brains’ beside the standard, more proper hersenen, but the form with -e- cannot be explained as simply springing from the forms with -u-.
Third, a borrowing from Alanic does not explain why the Germanic forms initially invariably had an h-. To be sure, Middle Dutch had the form ors (as well as ers and ars), but this was chiefly written down in Flanders, where for centuries in a wide area the h- has regularly been lost before consonants, all the more easily in combinations like een hors ‘a horse’, mijn horse ‘my horse’, zijn hors ‘his horse’ and het hors ‘the horse’. In the older phases of the Germanic languages the h- was simply there.
Finally, the biggest objection against borrowing is the aforementioned jump. As it happened in the North Sea Germanic languages, it was a regularity that the -r- jumped backward over the consonant and not the other way around. That is to say, *hrussa- most likely did not arise from *hursa- by this phenomenon and therefore the word was not, through Alanic, borrowed from Proto-Iranian *ŭrša(n)-. For the same reason another popular explanation is equally implausible: a connection with Proto-Germanic *hurzōn- ‘to rush’.
Analysis of a word
Where then does it come from? That long -ss- in *hrussa- is striking at any rate. It could have developed from an older, Indo-European ‘clash’ of dental consonants, as for instance happened with *wissa- ‘certain’ from *uidtó- ‘seen’, but also from the merger of a dental consonant with a short -s-, like with *hnissa- ‘smell’ from *knidsó- ‘poke, butt’.
Incidentally, the latter word is of interest to our question. Its middle -s- was originally part of the case ending. A noun with such a declension is therefore called an s-stem: in this case nominative *knéid-ōs, genitive *knid-s-ós. (The acute accent marks the stress.) However, in the time of or before Proto-Germanic, the -s- was generalised, i.e. understood as part of the base, just like with quite a few other s-stems.
Well then, likewise we can imagine a word with a form and declension like nom. *krét-os, gen. *krt-s-ós. The -s- could be generalised and hence spread to the nominative, so that the whole could eventually be reformed into nom. *kréts-os, gen. *krts-ós. After Grimm’s Law a.k.a. the First Germanic Sound Shift, this would have regularly developed into nom. *hressaz, gen. *hursaz. Moreover, through further paradigm levelling the intermediate forms *hersaz and *hrussaz could arise. And thus all forms in the daughter languages can be explained.
But what would this *krét-os have meant in essence? What characteristic did it signify? And is there otherwise any evidence that it even existed? Yes, precisely this word, specifically with the declension of an s-stem, is attested in Greek, in the form of krátos (archaic, Aeolic krétos), meaning ‘(physical) strength’ and by extension ‘authority’. Derivations are found in personal names like Hippokrátēs ‘horse power’(!) and Kresphóntēs ‘strong killer’, with Kres- merged from *kret-s-, mind you.
Doubtless related is Greek krótos for ‘foot stamping’, ‘hand clapping’ and such, also in compounds like hippókrotos, which means ‘trodden by horses’ and ‘resounding of the hoofbeat of horses’. Hereto also belongs krotéō ‘to stamp, beat, rattle etc.’, and outside Greek we find Sanskrit krátu- ‘mental strength, willpower’, Old Breton credam ‘I rush’, Middle Welsh dy-gredu ‘to strike, meet, visit’, Lithuanian krẽsti ‘to jolt, shake, scatter’, Latvian krèst ‘to drop, fall, die’ and Old Church Slavonic krotiti ‘to tame’, to name a few.
There are related words within Germanic as well, with the same ostensible ground meaning of ‘to quickly and strongly arrive, come down, go forth etc.’ We may mention Old Norse hreði ‘bull’, hreða ‘din, battle’, hræða ‘to scare’, hraða ‘to drive, hurry’, hrata ‘to fall, tumble, hurry’ and possibly also hress ‘lively’ (probably properly ‘quick, strong’) and hressast ‘to recover strength, to freshen up’. Also related are English to rattle and rather (properly ‘quicker’).
And so our word would have originally referred to the mighty strength this thundering beast. What a shock it must have been for the people who found themselves, for the first time ever, approached by men on horses.
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