Posts from 9th October 2007

Oct 07

Confused by cerveza?

FT + Pumpkin Publog + The Brown Wedge17 comments • 12,570 views

Things most people know about European languages  – One – Spanish for ‘beer’ is ‘cerveza’. Two – English is not in the same language family as French and Spanish. When looking at other European words for beer it is apparent that lots of them are similar to the English, making the Spanish word look a bit odd, it being so different phonetically from the others, and the superficial assumption that it’s a weird anomaly is reasonable, but it’s actually the French and Italian words that are anomalous.  

There are four basic word roots for ‘beer’ in European languages, found in the Germanic, Slavic,  Scandinavian (technically Nordic and Baltic), and Italic language families. The derivation of beer themed words from roots related to brewing/ or beer ingredients is common, for example ‘brew’ and ‘broth’ both come from indo-European ‘*bhru’, a word connected to heat and bubbling (asterisk denotes a word that’s been reconstructed theoretically, but has no direct evidence for its existence). 

Scandinavian languages use a word possibly derived from a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word meaning ‘bitter’. English has a word from the same source – ‘ale’, from the Old English ‘ealu’ (OE was influenced both by Germanic and Norse languages). Ales bitter reputation stems from the bitter herbs, or gruit used in its preparation, and from comparison to the other popular sweet tipple of the time – mead. ‘Ale’ could also derive from a PIE word that had connotations of sorcery, magic, possession, and intoxication, and it has been suggested that Neolithic beers were flavoured with henbanea poison that would cause the drinker to act somewhat erratically, so perhaps ‘ale’ dates from as long ago as that. Here’s the various Scandanavian words: