Oct 07

Confused by cerveza?

FT + Pumpkin Publog + The Brown Wedge17 comments • 15,382 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:

  • Øl = Danish, Faeroese, Norwegian
  • Õlu =Estonian
  • Öl = Icelandic, Swedish
  • Alus =Lithuania, Latvian
  • Olovina  = Serbo-Croat
  • Olut =Finnish  (technically a Uralic language) 

The Germanic for beer derives from the Latin ‘bibere’ – ‘to drink’. The Germanic languages are not descended as such from Latin, although they share a common parent in PIE. However the influence of Latin across many languages is well documented, so it is not odd to find Latin words in all sorts of places. What is peculiar is that the West Germanic people borrowed the Latin for ‘to drink’ rather than the Latin for ‘beer’, plus there was already a word for ‘beer’ in the Germanic tongue (which went on to be ‘Ale’). It is impossible to say at this distance in time as to the motive for this. It has also been suggested that the word could have come from the proto-Germanic ‘*beuwoz-’ from ‘*beuwo-’ meaning barley.

  • Bier = Breton, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, German (high)
  • Beer = German (low), English
  • Biere = French
  • Birra = Italian 

The Slavic word is derived from an old word for barley. Some sources say that this word is instead derived from the Germanic, which would, however, invalidate the connection to barley.

  • Pivo = Croatian, Czech, Macedonian, Russian, Slovak, Serbian, Slovene, Ukrainian
  • Piwo = Polish
  • Piva = Belorussian

Italic (or Romance) words come from Old French – ‘cervoise’ meaning ‘unhopped beer’, which is derived from a Medieval Latin word of Gaulish origin ‘cerevisia’. The origin of this word is hotly contested, but commonly thought to honour the Roman goddess of the harvest Ceres.

  • Cerveza = Spanish
  • Cervesa = Catalan
  • Cervexa = Galician
  • Cerveja = Portuguese 

English is a Germanic language, and it uses a Germanic word. Spanish and Portuguese, being Italic languages are actually conforming to type by using the Italic ‘cerveza’/ ‘cerveja’. However, French and Italian are also Italic languages, yet they use ‘biere’ and ‘birra’, which are clearly Germanic. French and Italian somehow replaced Italic lexical stock with Germanic. There are many reasons why languages adopt words from other languages, but it’s usually social reasons rather than internal linguistic motivations.

Although it’s uncertain why French and Italian adopted a non-Italic word it is possible to speculate. Beer production techniques are important here – the usurping of the older words for beer in France and Spain tie in with the spread of new brewing processes across Europe in the Middle Ages – specifically the use of hops in brewing, perfected in Germany in the 14th century and introduced to Holland and England soon after. The French stopped using ‘cervoise’ (which meant ‘unhopped beer’) as the main word for beer in the 15th century, in favour of ‘biere’, which meant ‘hopped beer’, and around the same time the Spanish started using ‘cerveza’ (Modern French still uses ‘cervoise’ but it’s semantically limited to ‘barley beer’). Hopped beer was introduced into France from Germany, reaching Northern France first. Medieval France was linguistically divided between the Langue d’oc of the south, and the Langue d’oil of the north, and out of these two it was the northern Langue d’oil that was more influential in the development of Modern French, which may have facilitated the Germanic ‘biere’ to spread throughout all of France. Another factor is the cultivation of wheat for beer production was more common in Northern Europe due to the more conducive growing climate, therefore the culture of beer drinking was better established in the north, so the Old French and Iberian words for beer would simply not have been used as much, making them more vulnerable to substitution. 

On the Iberian Peninsula prior to adopting ‘cerveza’, an ancient Iberian word ‘ceria’ or ‘celia’ (meaning fermented wheat) was used. Despite the phonetic similarity to ‘cerveza’ this word is unrelated etymologically – the now long extinct Iberian was seemingly a language isolate, possibly related to Basque, and was not an indo-European language. Spanish as a language established itself in the 15th century, and is largely derived from Latin. How the Spanish came to take the French word is also unclear. 

The derivation of the Italic beer word is contentious and it involves the somewhat complex matter of the Celtic language family. Celtic was/ is found across Europe and parts of Asia Minor before the Roman Empire, and has a poorly documented history, prompting much argument among linguists. ‘Cerevisia’ is a Gaulish word. Gaulish is an extinct Celtic language found in parts of Western Europe, including northern France, as anyone who’s read Asterix knows. It’s reasonable that the Italic word should derive from this, as it was adopted by Latin speaking Romans during Gaulish invasions. It’s the link between Ceres, Roman harvest goddess and ‘cerevisia’ that is contested. The Romans were compelled to provide a classical etymology for words they took from barbaric languages, even when there was no such link, hence their reckless attribution of Ceres to the Gaulish word ‘cerevisia’ – easy enough given the phonetic similarities. The link therefore, between Ceres and ‘cerevisia’ is arbitrary, and relatively recent.   

A more plausible derivation of ‘cerevisia’ is a proto-Celtic word ‘*kurmi’, and PIE word ‘*kor-m’, – words which are also given as the root of the Latin words ‘cremor’ meaning ‘broth, thick juice’ and ‘cremo’ – ‘to boil, bubble’, bringing us back to the popular etymological theme of brewing methods, which gives credibility to this explanation. It’s also supported by the existence of other similar Celtic words – beer in Welsh is ‘cwrw’; Cornish ‘korev’; Breton ‘koref’; Irish ‘coirm’, and even an old Greek word for beer ‘kourmi’ (Greek is Hellenic, not Celtic, but once again, it is descended from PIE). The derivation would appear to have filtered down from PIE, making it pretty ancient and also widely distributed across languages.  

So,  ‘cerveza’ entered Spanish from Latin, and is essentially cognate with lots of other words for beer, just not ones in the main European languages and its real back-story is Celtic, and ultimately PIE.


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  2. 2
    Alix on 9 Oct 2007 #

    I really wanted to get something about everything being PIE into it.

  3. 3
    Kat on 9 Oct 2007 #

    Hooray! Awesome stuff. Welsh fans may also be interested to know that when ‘cwrw’ is used with a preposition it mutates to ‘gwrw’, e.g. ‘Dau peint o gwrw ac baced crisps, plis’.

  4. 4
    Pete on 9 Oct 2007 #

    I concur that this anomoly in the French and Italian words comes from there not being much of a tradition of social beer brewing or drinking in those cultures. Not just due to the strength of wine production, but I am sure that has a hand in it. I’d be interested to know what the peasant drinks were from C10th to C19th. Your theory about production methods would then hold, as lack of demand would make the extant name go out of fashion. Particularly if beer was being brewed for a social mobile or tourist market (look at the names for beer in South East Asia for example).

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    Alix on 9 Oct 2007 #

    I am quite intrigued now by the history of beer drinking/ production, as the etymol is entwined with the development of this. I haven’t gone into as much detail as I wanted, mainly because I don’t know much about it! It does seem like an instance of the world shaping language rather than vice versa; beer traditions (or lack of) in various countries seems to be key in working out why particular words were favoured. It’d be bloody hard though to untangle it all, I suspect.

    Beer production for tourist markets is an interesting area – I would be interested to find out more, I would imagine it would be a case of either words deriving from modern English, due to the Empire and all that, or perhaps much more ancient PIE and Sanskrit influence on South Asian words. Who knows?

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    Pete on 9 Oct 2007 #

    Veitnamese for Beer is Bia!

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    CarsmileSteve on 9 Oct 2007 #

    see, now i’m really glad i asked you about this :)

    i’m sure pete brown could get a whole book out of this…

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    CarsmileSteve on 9 Oct 2007 #

    also pete clearly wrong about it deriving from basque if they use “garagardoa” then (although we can check this out in a few weeks, guess we’ll get away with asking for cerveza though)

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    Pete on 10 Oct 2007 #

    I NEVER SAID IT WAS FROM THE BASQUE! I got the basics of the above from the Pete Brown book infact (Three Sheets To The Wind). Barely any Spanish words come from Basque, for obvious reasons.

    (Unless the Pete you refer to is Pete Brown).

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    Tracer Hand on 12 Oct 2007 #

    “Langue d’oc” still exists in some places in the south of France!

    Although it is just called “d’oc” now. It apparently sounds very strange.

  11. 12
    Richard Durkan on 6 Apr 2008 #

    I was fascinated by Aliz’s piece on beer. Is there anywhere else I can read about more roots linked and explained like this?

  12. 13
    Debs on 7 Jun 2008 #

    I too was gripped by this quirky history of language and would also like to know if anyone has any recommendations for pieces similar to this?

  13. 14

    […] is, er, ‘choco’, fair enough. Is ‘chocolate’ the same in every language? Alix did a great linguistic analysis on the words for ‘beer’ once, concerning the complete seeming lack of … – but I can’t think of any language where the word for chocolate is considerably different. […]

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    Hera on 25 Aug 2015 #

    Scandinavia = Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Nothing else. Countries like Finland and Iceland are included in the Nordic countries. Lithuania, Latvia, Serbia and Croatia have no place on a list of Scandinavian languages.

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    Izzy on 27 Aug 2015 #

    This lovely ale-coloured illustration appeared on reddit only a few days ago: http://i.imgur.com/csT2Crt.png

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    Marcus on 8 Jul 2016 #

    Langue d’Oc is known as Occitan and is still spoken in parts of Southern France. It’s closely related to Catalan rather than Langue d’Oi and modern French.

    Before the Roman invasion most of the Iberian peninsula was dominated by local Celtic tribes (Celtiberia), so the Spanish word for Beer may originate directly from Celtic languages, rather than being imported via Latin.

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