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Origin of the Words Denoting Some of the Most Ancient Old World Pulse Crops and Their Diversity in Modern European Languages

Origin of the Words Denoting Some of the Most Ancient Old World Pulse Crops and Their Diversity in Modern European Languages

  • Aleksandar Mikić


This preliminary research was aimed at finding the roots in various Eurasian proto-languages directly related to pulses and giving the words denoting the same in modern European languages. Six Proto-Indo-European roots were indentified, namely arnk(')- (‘a leguminous plant’), *bhabh- (‘field bean’), * (‘a kernel of leguminous plant’, ‘pea’), ghArs- (‘a leguminous plant’), *kek- (‘pea’) and *lent- (‘lentil’). No Proto-Uralic root was attested save hypothetically *kača (‘pea’), while there were two Proto-Altaic roots, *bŭkrV (‘pea’) and * (‘lentil’). The Proto-Caucasianx root * denoted pea, while another one, *hōwł(ā) (‘bean’, ‘lentil’) and the Proto-Basque root *iłha-r (‘pea’, ‘bean’, ‘vetch’) could have a common Proto-Sino-Caucasian ancestor, *hVwłV (‘bean’) within the hypothetic Dené-Caucasian language superfamily. The Modern Maltese preserved the memory of two Proto-Semitic roots, *'adaš- (‘lentil’) and *pūl- (‘field bean’). The presented results prove that the most ancient Eurasian pulse crops were well-known and extensively cultivated by the ancestors of all modern European nations. The attested lexicological continuum witnesses the existence of a millennia-long links between the peoples of Eurasia to their mutual benefit. This research is meant to encourage interdisciplinary concerted actions between plant scientists dealing with crop evolution and biodiversity, archaeobotanists and language historians.


It may be said that the term pulse has an identical meaning to food legume, with both denoting those grain legumes used exclusively for human consumption, mostly in the form of immature (green) pods, immature (green) grains and mature (dry) grains. Among the most important pulses in temperate regions are pea (Pisum sativum L.), field bean (Vicia faba L.), lentil (Lens culinaris Medik.) and chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.). Pulses once significant, but today largely neglected, are the bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia (L.) Willd.) and grass pea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Many pulses are, in fact, multifunctional crops that may be also used for animal feed, as green forage, forage dry matter (hay), forage meal, silage, haylage or straw (1), or as green manure: a valuable feature in contemporary trends such as organic farming and sustainable agriculture (2). Most traditional Eurasian pulses originated in either the Near Eastern centre of diversity, such as the pea, lentil, chickpea and common vetch (Vicia sativa L.); or the Mediterranean, such as the grass pea, red vetchling (Lathyrus cicera L.) and bitter vetch; or the Central Asian, such as the field bean (3). As other plant species used for food, pulses were first collected by hunter-gatherers.

Among the oldest finds of pulses are those of lentil and bitter vetch in Franchthi cave in Greece, dated to about 11,000 BC (4). Pulses are also considered one of the first domesticated plant species, and thus the first crops (5), with much archaeobotanical evidence, mainly from present-day Syria (6). Together with cereals, pulses were part of the ‘agricultural revolution’ in post-glacial Europe (7), quickly spreading over the entire continent (Fig. 1). Pulse seeds are more degradable than those of cereals, and are usually found in smaller amounts, except in a few cases such as at Hissar in south Serbia, where thousands of charred pea and bitter vetch seeds were found, but almost no cereals (28). There has been a growing interest by molecular biologists in extracting ancient DNA (aDNA) from charred and other preserved old seeds, with recent reports on its success in the case of the pea and bitter vetch (29).

Figure 1. Some of the oldest archaeobotanical evidence related to the first domesticated pulse crops in Europe and its neighbouring regions.

The European continent has always been rich in a linguistic sense: it is estimated that it is (or was) home to at least 300 extinct and living languages (30). The most widely-spoken family there is the Indo-European, with all its branches, namely Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, Italic and Slavic. It’s commonly regarded that the extinct and the living languages of all these branches had a common ancestor, usually referred to as Proto-Indo-European. Although the exact position of the original homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (i.e. the people who actually spoke Proto-Indo-European) still remains uncertain, the widely-accepted Kurgan hypothesis proposes it was the wide Pontic-Caspian steppe, from 4,500 BC to 2,500 BC (31), following which great migrations began in many directions over Europe and Asia, and Proto-Indo-European started to produce numerous derivatives (32).

The Uralic language family descended from Proto-Uralic, most likely spoken on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains millennia ago (33). It developed into two branches, Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic, with the former spreading over northernmost Europe. Similarly, the Altaic language family slowly evolved from the Proto-Altaic, developing (most likely) in western regions of Siberia and diversifying into Turkic, Mongolic and a few other branches (34). The Caucasus is home to two more language families, namely Caucasian, also known as North Caucasian, and by some theories linked with the Basque language isolate into a Dené-Caucasian superfamily (35), and Kartvelian, or South Caucasian, languages, with Georgian as the best-known representative. Finally, Maltese remains as the only genuinely European language belonging to the Semitic branch of the great Afro-Asiatic family (36).

Viewing the said archaeobotanical and linguistic evidence the one in the light of the other, it might be assumed that the pulses were surely among the plant species, from both wild and agricultural floras, which were familiar to the ancestors of the modern European nations during their complex ethnic evolution. The mechanisms underlying the genetic, ethnic and linguistic development of each of the great European language families are still far from explained in a detailed and satisfactory way, and the frequent migrations of each, along with numerous mutual cultural contacts, make this issue even harder to comprehend. One must allow the possibility that the spectra of crop usages, and of words denoting such crops, were manifold. On arrival, newcomers could find cultivated the crop they themselves had grown in their old homeland, and either retain their original word or adopt a new one from the aboriginal population. Also, the introduction of a new technology, or a novel way of using an already cultivated crop, by a neighboring people could also introduce words that would replace old ones. In any event, common vocabularies related to diverse aspects of the everyday life of the ancestral members of one language family are still well preserved, albeit to a varying extent, by the Indo-European languages in particular (37). Among common words, those denoting various kinds of food are regularly found in every European language family: and words or names for pulses are ones that should be most prominently represented (38).

This preliminary research had two main goals. The first one was to find those root-words in various protolanguages whose primeval meaning was directly related to pulses and which, in most cases, begot the words denoting the same in modern European languages. It is also a call by plant scientists dealing with crop evolution and biodiversity to archaeobotanists and language historians, to combine their separate efforts in joint and concerted action towards a more complete and better-comprehended discernment of the dawn of pulse crop cultivation in the Old World.

Results and Discussion

Indo-European Languages

The Indo-European language family proved to be the richest in root-words originally relating to pulse crops. The meaning of the Proto-Indo-European root *arnk(')-, arenko- was literally a leguminous plant (39, 40). It was preserved only in Old Greek, where the word άρακος also generally denoted a leguminous plant or, specifically, the annual vetchling (Lathyrus annuus L.). Its descendant in Modern Greek, αρακάς, also denotes the pea. It is noteworthy that this Proto-Indo-European root-word was immortalized in plant taxonomy by Linneaus as Arachis L., denoting the groundnut genus (41).

One of the Proto-Indo-European roots related to pulses with a large number of attested direct derivatives (Fig. 2) is *bhabh-, bhabhā. It is regarded that the literal meaning of this root was a descriptive one, swollen, swelling, and was used to denote the field bean (39, 40). Despite the distance of many millennia between this Proto-Indo-European word-root and its countless descendants in the modern Indo-European languages, the original meaning has been fully preserved. For example (Table 1), the Proto-Albanian *bhakā gave the Modern Albanian bathe; the unattested Proto-Baltic root-word, probably similar to the Old Prussian baba, babo, gave the Modern Lithuanian pupa; the Proto-Germanic *bau-nō(n-) gave the Modern Danish bønne, the Standard German Bohne and the English bean; the Latin, a descendant of the unattested Proto-Italic together with the extinct Faliscan language, gave the Modern Italian fava; the Modern Spanish haba and the Modern Sardinian fa; the Proto-Slavic *bobŭ gave the Modern Polish bób, the Modern Ukrainian bib and the Modern Serbian bob (42). The only descendant of Proto-Indo-European root-word where the meaning shifted was Old Greek, where as φακóς began and continued to denote ‘lentil’. The Celtic languages borrowed their words denoting field bean either from Latin, such in their Brythonic branch with the Modern Breton fav, or from the Germanic languages, such in the Goidelic branch with the Modern Irish pónaire (43). Similarly, the Slavic words were borrowed by neighbouring Indo-European languages, such as boba in the case of Romani and bob in the case of Romanian (44).

Table 1. Words denoting lentil, pea and field bean in the modern Indo-European languages of Europe.

Another Proto-Indo-European root-word with important derivatives (Fig. 3) is *, eregw(h)o-, erogw(h)o-, denoting both ‘the kernel of a leguminous plant’ and ‘pea’ (39, 40). The Proto-Germanic root-word *arwait-, *arwīt-, denoting ‘pea’, kept its meaning in its numerous descendants, such as the Modern Norwegian with ert, or the Standard Dutch with erwt, and the borrowings made during the great migrations of the Germanic tribes, found in several Italian dialects such as the West Lombard erbion. The Proto-Greek * gave both the Old Greek όροβος, denoting ‘bitter vetch’, and έρέβινθος, denoting ‘chickpea’, with the latter evolving into Modern Greek ρεβιθιά, with the same meaning. The supposed Proto-Italic *erouom is judged to be a direct source of the well-known Latin ervum, denoting ‘bitter vetch’, from which, in turn, derive contemporary descendants denoting ‘pea’, such as the Portuguese ervilha (Table 1).

Of all its derivates, the Proto-Indo-European root-word *ghArs-, ghers-2, denoting ‘a leguminous plant’ (39, 40), was preserved in the Proto-Slavic *gorxŭ, with a shift of meaning to pea and producing modern forms denoting the same, such as the Czech hrách, the Russian gorokh and the Bulgarian grah (45).

The original meaning of the Proto-Indo-European root-word *kek-, *k'ik'-, kiker-, namely pea (39, 40) was preserved only in the extinct Old Prussian language (Fig. 4). In all other attested derivatives, it began to denote ‘chickpea’. The Old Armenian siseŕn gave the Modern Armenian siser and the Latin cicer produced numerous descendants such as the Catalan cigró and the French pois-chiche, by way of a kind of pleonasm. The Old Macedonian κίκερροι, denoting ‘chickpea’ and possibly being derived from the Proto-Hellenic *κικριός, left no attested forms in its descendants.

The Proto-Indo-European root-word *lent-, *lent-s-, denoting ‘lentil’ (39, 40), proved remarkably conservative in morphology and meaning, both among its direct derivatives (Fig. 5) and its modern descendants (Table 1). The Proto-Baltic * -ia- gave the Modern Latvian lēca; the Proto-Germanic *lins-ī(n-) gave the Modern Icelandic linsa and the Modern Swedish lins; the Latin lēns gave the Modern Corsican lentichja and the Modern Occitan mendilh; the Proto-Slavic *lētjā gave the Serbo-Croatian leća and Slovenian leča (46).

The attested Proto-Indo-European root-words directly linked to pulse crops are further testimony that Proto-Indo-European society was well-acquainted with agriculture (47), and was not predominantly nomadic and pastoral, as initially thought by the proposers of the Kurgan hypothesis (48). As already noted, the Proto-Indo-European root-word denoting ‘field bean’ had a primarily descriptive character. Such cases are widely present in linguistic development (49), and there are several more Proto-Indo-European root-words that originally had no direct link to pulses, but began to denote them in their derivatives. It’s worth mention that the Latin legūmen, denoting ‘pod’, evolved from the Proto-Indo-European leg'-, meaning to gather; that the Latin pisum was derived from the Proto-Indo-European *pis-, meaning to thresh; and that the Latin vicia, through its verb vincīre, meaning to bind and obviously referring to vetches’ tendrils, originated from the Proto-indo-European *weik, meaning something pliable, perhaps pointing at their slender and climbing stems (50).

Uralic and Altaic Languages

The words denoting pulse crops in the modern Uralic languages of Europe that either have the most numerous speakers, and are the best studied, such as Estonian, Finnish or Hungarian, are mostly borrowings. The Finnic languages of the Uralic language family represent the westernmost spread of this family, comprising Finnish, Estonian, Karelian and several more languages also spoken in the Baltic region. The words denoting ‘pea’ in all these languages, such as the Estonian hernes, the Finnish herne or the Karelian herneh (Table 2), are the early borrowings from the neighboring Indo-European Baltic languages (22), witnessed by the Proto-Baltic root *žirn-ia-, *žirn-i˜ă, also denoting ‘pea’ (39, 40). However, the word denoting ‘pea’ in the Saami language, spoken in the utmost north of Scandinavia, namely hearta, could be a borrowing from Germanic languages. The words denoting ‘field bean’ in both Finnic and Saamic languages are largely borrowings from Slavic, such as the Estonian uba, the Finnish papu and the Saami báhpu. Magyar, having separated from its Finno-Ugric stock quite early (33), also borrowed some words from the Slavic tribes already living in Pannonia, with bab denoting ‘field bean’ and lencse denoting ‘lentil’.

Table 2. Words denoting lentil, pea and field bean in the modern Uralic languages of Europe.

However, in case of the Finno-Ugric languages still spoken in areas close to the supposed Proto-Uralic homeland, such as Permic and Mordvinic, there exists a great morphological similarity in their words denoting ‘pea’ (Fig. 6). The Proto-Permic *kзžs, giving the Modern Komi an’kytsh with and the Modern Udmurt köžy, fully corresponds to the Proto-Mordvinic *kзsnav, evolving into the Modern Erzya ksnav and the Modern Moksha snavnja, all denoting ‘pea’ (51). They are also equivalent to the words denoting ‘pea’ in Khanty and Mansi, the closest relatives of Magyar, with in the former and an’kas in the latter. There is a Proto-Uralic root-word that could be a candidate for the still unattested ancestral form denoting ‘pea’ in this language family: the Proto-Uralic *kača denoted ‘hole, cavity’ and ‘a wooden vessel’ (52), and the possibility that it also described the act of hollowing the pea seeds out of their pods, or the vessel-like form of a pea pod, still remains to be assessed by a detailed linguistic analysis.

One of the two attested Proto-Altaic root-words related to pulses is *bŭkrV (Fig. 7), denoting ‘pea, nut’ and ‘cone’ (53). Its descendants with unchanged meaning are the Proto-Turkic *burčak, the origin of all the words denoting ‘pea’ in the majority of the modern Turkic languages of Europe (Table 3), such as burşaq in Kazakh or borchaq in Tatar, and the Proto-Mongolic *buγurčag, giving the Modern Kalmyk bürcëg. In the early days of separating from their Ugric relatives and at the outset of their great migration towards their present home in Central Europe, the Magyar-speaking Uralic tribes borrowed the word denoting ‘pea’ from their Turkic neighbours, and adopted it as borsó (54). Another Proto-Altaic root, *, denoted primarily ‘lentil’ (53) and gave the root-words denoting the same in the Proto-Turkic, *jasi-muk, and the Proto-Tungusic, *sibsV (Fig. 7). From the Turkic, the word denoting ‘lentil’ was borrowed by neighbouring languages belonging to other families, such as the Uralic Udmurt with jasnyk (46).

Table 3. Words denoting lentil, pea and field bean in the modern Altaic languages of Europe.

Caucasian, Basque and Other European Languages

The Proto-Caucasian root-word *hōwł(ā) denoted both ‘bean’ and ‘lentil’ (55), and gave the words denoting either one or the other crop in its modern descendants within the Avar-Andi-Dido group, such as holó in Avar, denoting ‘field bean’, and hil in Tsez, denoting ‘pea’ (Table 4). Another Proto-Caucasian root-word, *qŭr’ā, denoting exclusively ‘pea’ (55), gave rise to words of the same meaning in most other languages of the Daghestani group, such as the Lak quIru or the Lezgi zar, as well as in the languages of the Abkhazo-Adyghean group, such as the Kabardian cesh. Interestingly enough, it is within the languages of the Nakh group where the meaning shifted from pea to field bean, such as in Chechen and Ingush qe, with a possible borrowing into Adyghe, also known as Circassian (in a narrow sense), with ceshä, and the Indo-Iranian Ossetic, with qædur (44).

Table 4. Words denoting lentil, pea and field bean in the modern Caucasian languages.

According to the hypothesis concerning the existence of the Dené-Caucasian language superfamily, the Caucasian languages are related to Basque and several other language isolates in Asia and North America. Genetic studies have already provided some evidence to this effect, suggesting that both the Basque and the North Caucasian peoples could be the descendants of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers that retreated into the mountains when the last Ice Age ended, and new peoples began to inhabit Europe (56). The said Proto-Caucasian root-word *hōwł(ā) is thus brought into connection with the Proto-Basque root-word *iłha-r (Fig. 8). Originally, the latter denoted ‘pea, faba bean, vetch’ and ‘heather’ (57), but survived into the modern times as the Basque ilar, denoting exclusively ‘pea’. The supposed common ancestor of both the Proto-Caucasian and the Proto-Basque stocks is the Proto-Sino-Caucasian *hVwłV, ultimately denoting ‘field bean’ (58).

Figure 8. Derivation of the supposed Proto-Sino-Caucasian root *hVwłV in its Caucasian and Basque descendants.

The research on the words denoting pulses in the Kartvelian languages did not result in any attested Proto-Kartvelian root-words. If they ever existed, it is most likely that they were gradually replaced by the borrowings from diverse neighboring languages, such as the Indo-Iranian Persian, in the case of the Georgian mukhudo, Altaic, in the case of the Laz parsuli, and Caucasian, in the case of the Svan ghedar, all denoting ‘pea’ (45).

The Maltese language preserved the memory of two Proto-Semitic root-words related to pulses. One of them is *'adaš-, denoting ‘lentil’ (59), with the Modern Maltese form of ghads, denoting the same. Another one, *pūl-, denoted ‘field bean’, and as fula was preserved in Modern Maltese together with its original meaning. It could also be responsible for the Indo-Iranian Kurdish word denoting ‘pea’, polik.

With great certainty and on the basis of the presented etymological evidence, it may be claimed that the most ancient Eurasian pulse crops, such as the pea, the lentil and the field bean, were surely among the basic components of Proto-Indo-European farming systems. It is also notable that the frequently migrating and complexly evolving Indo-European peoples preserved the words denoting these crops that they used in their original homeland, and continued to use them in their new territories, often loaning them to both aboriginal populations and to those that came afterwards.

It may be assumed that the pea played the most prominent role of all the pulses among the ancient Uralic tribes, since, judging by their morphology only, the words denoting ‘lentil’ and ‘field bean’ in these languages are usually based upon the words denoting ‘pea’. Similarly, it seems that peas and lentils were the dominant pulse crops grown by the ancestors of the modern Altaic nations, since their words denoting ‘field bean’ and other grain legumes are based either upon the words denoting ‘pea’ or ‘lentil’, or are mostly borrowings from Persian. On the other hand, peas and field beans played the most important role among the Caucasian peoples, since the number of attested words related to ‘lentil’ was extremely small, and largely based upon those denoting ‘pea’ or ‘field bean’.

The presented results prove that the most ancient Eurasian pulse crops, especially the pea, the lentil and the field bean, were well-known and most likely extensively cultivated by the ancestors of all modern European nations, regardless of exactly where in Europe or Asia their proto-languages developed and began to diversify. In most cases, the root-words of these proto-languages proved to be remarkably well-preserved in both morphology and meaning, though there is a rich testimony of considerable and lively contact between different language families, and of extensive mutual exchange of the words denoting pulses. The attested lexicological continuum witnesses the existence of millennia-long links between the peoples of Eurasia to mutual benefit, and hopefully encourages the much closer collaboration of all those dealing with the agricultural history of the Old World.

Materials and Methods

In order to carry out the practical side of its first goal, and thus establish the fundamentals of achieving the second one, this preliminary research was aimed at a detailed search of all available printed and electronic resources related to the etymology of the languages spoken in Europe for root-words related to pulse crops and leguminous plants in general. Numerous printed and electronic dictionaries of modern European languages were used as an auxiliary tool, by compiling the words denoting ‘pea’, ‘lentil’, ‘field bean’ and other traditional and most ancient Eurasian pulse crops. The whole outcome of this lexicological screening of modern European languages is not presented in this short communication, as its sheer magnitude demands completely separate processing and presentation. It was used simply as a guide to, and confirmation of, the said etymological research. Each of the present language families of Europe was dealt with individually, and the results are presented accordingly. Where more than one was assessed, the root-words were listed in alphabetical order. The attested borrowings of words derived from these root-words, whether between languages belonging to different branches of the same family, or between languages of different families, were also recorded.


The author thanks Mike Ambrose, John Bengtson, Branko Ćupina, Vuk Đorđević, Gérard Duc, Noel Ellis, Diana Gerasimova, Henrik Hauggaard-Nielsen, Borislav Kobiljski, Ana Marjanović-Jeromela, Kevin McPhee, Aleksandar Medović, Diego Rubiales, Denis Sacharnych, Petr Smýkal, George Starostin, Fred Stoddard, Carlota Vaz Patto, Margarita Vishnyakova, Tom Warkentin and many more for their assistance, encouragement and support. The author is especially grateful to Howard Huws for anglicizing the manuscript and enriching it with numerous lucid solutions.

The backgrounds used for making the maps were kindly provided by

To Oket.

Author Contributions

Conceived and designed the experiments: AM. Performed the experiments: AM. Analyzed the data: AM. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: AM. Wrote the paper: AM.


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