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A Drinking Bout in Several Parts (Part 1: Ale)

By Anatoly Liberman

English lacks a convenient word for “ancestors of Germanic speaking people.”  Teutons, an obsolete English gloss for German Germanen, is hardly ever used today.  The adjective Germanic has wide currency, and, when pressed for the noun, some people translate Germanen as “Germans” (not a good solution).  I needed this introduction as an apology for asking the question: “What did the ancient Teutons drink?”  The “wine card” contained many items, for, as usual, not everybody drank the same, and different occasions called for different beverages and required different states of intoxication, or rather inebriation, for being drunk did not stigmatize the drinker.  On the contrary, it allowed him (nothing is known about her in such circumstances) to reach the state of ecstasy.  Oaths sworn “under the influence” were not only honored: if anything, they carried more weight than those sworn by calculating, sober people.  Many shrewd rulers used this situation to their advantage, filled guests with especially strong homebrew, and offered toasts that could not be refused.

In the mythology of the Indo-European peoples a distinction was made between the language of the mortals and the language of the gods, a synonym game, to be sure, but a game fraught with deep religious significance.  The myths of the Anglo-Saxons and Germans have not come down to us, but the myths of the Scandinavians have, and in one of the songs of the Poetic Edda (a collection of mythological and heroic tales) we read that the humans call a certain drink öl, while the Vanir call it veig (the Vanir were one of the two clans of the Scandinavian gods).  Öl is, of course, ale, but veig is a mystery. No secure cognates of this word have been attested, and the choice among its homonyms (“strength,” “lady,” and “gold”) leaves us with several possibilities.  Identifying “strong drink” with “strength” sounds inviting, but who has heard of an old alcoholic beverage simply called “strength”?  Veig- is a common second element in women’s names, of which the English speaking world has retained the memory of at least one, Solveig, either Per Gynt’s true love in Ibsen and Grieg or somebody’s next door neighbor (I live in a state settled by German and Scandinavian immigrants, so to me Solveig is a household word, quite independent of Norwegian literature and music).  It is hard to decide which -veig entered into those names.  “Gold” cannot be ruled out.  On the other hand, it was a woman’s duty to pour wine at feasts, so that -veig “drink” would also make sense.  In any case, veig remains the name of a divine drink of the medieval Scandinavians.  It stands at the bottom of our card.

From books in the Old Germanic languages we know about the Teutons’ wine, mead, beer, ale, and lith ~ lid, the latter with the vowel of Modern Engl. eeLith must have corresponded to cider (cider is an alteration of ecclesiastical Greek ~ Medieval Latin sicera ~ cicera, a word taken over from Hebrew).   It was undoubtedly a strong drink, inasmuch as, according to the prophesy in the oldest versions of the Germanic Bible, John the Baptist was not to taste either wine or lith.  The word is now lost, and so are its origins.  Mead is still a familiar poeticism, while the other three have survived, though, as we will see,  beer does not refer to the same product as it did in the days of the Anglo-Saxons—an important consideration, because the taste of a beverage is essential for discovering the origin of its name.  To repeat for the umpteenth time, we cannot know the origin of a word unless we have a clear idea of the nature of the thing it designates.  But at present, we will concern ourselves mainly with ale.

Lith, as noted, came to Germanic from Greek via Latin.  The Teutons learned about wine from the Romans, but the origin of the Latin word vinum “wine” remains a matter of conjecture.  Vinum, or rather winum, was probably borrowed from some Mediterranean language, and, if so, the Romans learned the process of fermenting the juice of grapes from their neighbors, just as the Teutons later learned it from them.  To the extent that sicera ~ cicera and vinum were loanwords in Greek and Latin, ale could be a loanword in Old English, and some people think so.  They go all the way to Etruscan for the source of ale.  Unfortunately, Etruscan has been preserved so badly that our chances of ascertaining the origin of any word in that language are close to zero. In the past, all the Old Germanic languages except Gothic had cognates of ale: Old Engl. ealu (from alu-) sounded very much like the related words in Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old Scandinavian.  As time went on, ale and beer became indistinguishable synonyms.  English still has both words, but the speakers of Dutch and German know only beer, and the Scandinavians know only ale.  If ale is not from some exotic language, what is its origin?  It is a big question, and I’ll divide the answer into two essays, partly because it is too long for one post and partly, as I have already done in the past, to heighten the suspense, the more so as next week is the time for monthly gleanings.

As a general rule, literacy came to Europe (disregarding of course Greece and Rome) with Christianity, but before the adoption of the Roman script the Germanic speaking world used runes, special letters of unknown origin.  By far the greatest number of runic inscriptions on stone, metal, and wood were carved in Scandinavia, beginning with the 2nd century CE.  In numerous inscriptions the mysterious word alu appears (there is a convention to print runic words in bold).  It usually goes together with the word for leek.  Apparently, both were carved for magical purposes.  Leek played a noticeable role in medicine, and if alu means “ale,” between the two of them they contributed to good health and well-being.  Alu appears in inscriptions often enough to make us treat it with respect.  As always, there are two schools of thought.  According to one, alu has nothing to do with ale; according to the other, ale is the continuation of this ancient word.  Absolute certainly is unachievable in such cases, but the second point of view seems more realistic: the words correspond to each other grammatically and phonetically and look like a good semantic match.  Such is the view of many scholars, and I see no compelling reason to disagree with them.  If their opinion can be accepted, we arrive at a most important conclusion: ale is a word of Germanic origin.  Drinking ale must have been a ceremonial procedure.  The Beowulf poet says, though in an obscure line, that Grendel’s ravages caused great distress among the Danes, who were deprived of ale.  (This is one possible interpretation of that line.  The other interpretation has it that the Danes were served bitter ale, but ale, it appears, was not bitter.) Ale drinking and joy in the hall went together; they were inseparable in the world of the ancient Teutons.

(To be continued.)

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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