Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 2. A Lexical Opposition in Need of Revision: sūs and porcus


It is usually held that: 1) IE *porko– (Latin porcus) denotes the domestic pig as opposed to the wild animal, *– (Lat. sūs); 2) The dialect distribution of *porko– leads to the conclusion that only the European tribes practiced pig-breeding.
However, a careful examination shows 1) that in all languages, and particularly in Latin, where the opposition *– : *porko– was maintained, both these terms applied to the domesticated species, *porko– designating the piglet as opposed to the adult *-; 2) that *porko– is in fact also attested in the oriental part of the Indo-European world. Consequently pig-breeding must be attributed to the Indo-Europeans, but it was eliminated at an early date in India and Iran.


The Latin term verrēs forms part of a group of words which refer to a particular species of animals, the pig. An attempt will be made to define the relations between the terms in this series of animal words in Latin, i.e. verrēs, sūs, and porcus.
Sūs and porcus have equal claim to Indo-European status, since both have correspondents in the majority of Indo-European languages. What is the relation between their senses? The distinction is generally held to be between the wild and the domesticated animal: sūs meaning the pig-species in general in its wild form, the wild boar, while porcus denoted exclusively the domesticated animal.
This is supposed to be a very important distinction from the point of view of the material culture of the Indo-Europeans, because whereas sūs is common to all dialects from Indo-Iranian to Irish, porcus is restricted to the European area of Indo-European and does not occur in Indo-Iranian. This difference suggests that Indo-Europeans were not acquainted with the domestic pig and that domestication did not take place until after the unity of the Indo-European people had been disrupted and some tribes had established themselves in Europe.
Today we might wonder how it came about that this interpretation was regarded as self-evident so that scholars came to believe that the difference between sūs and porcus reflected a distinction between the wild and the domesticated pig. Let us scrutinize those Latin authors who wrote on agricultural themes—Cato, Varro, Columella—and who used the language of the countryside. For them, sūs denoted both the domestic and the wild animal. Sūs is certainly used with reference to the wild pig, but the same word in Varro is always applied to the domestic species: the minores pecudes, the small animals, comprise ovis ‘sheep’, capra ‘goat’, sūs ‘pig’, and they are all domestic animals.
A further proof is found in the term suovetaurilia, which designated the great sacrifice of the triple lustration, in which three symbolic animals figure. This technical term combines two species (ovis, taurus), which were certainly domesticated, with sūs, and this presumably indicates that this was likewise a domesticated animal. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that in Rome no wild animals were ever sacrificed.
Similarly in Greek, there is an abundance of examples in which hū̂s (ὗς = Lat. sūs) applies to the domestic animal. Certainly a distinction was made between the wild and domestic species, but only by means of an added epithet. The wild pig is called hū̂s ágrios as contrasted with the domesticated animal. We must conclude that it was in prehistoric times before the emergence of Latin that Indo-European *– = Greek hū̂s became applied to the useful species, i.e. the domesticated one.
In the other Indo-European dialects, the word is used in a different way. In Indo-Iranian – denoted the wild pig. The historic forms Sanskrit sūkara, Avestan – are formed from an identical stem. According to Bloomfield, one must begin with sūka-, this being an ancient stem which received a suffix –ra, attached on the model of other animal names, such as vyaghra ‘tiger’. Sūka-ra was analyzed as +kara ‘the animal which makes ’ by a kind of popular etymology. Besides Av. , a form xūk is met in Iranian, and this presupposes *hūkka. Thus Indo-Iranian had a form with a suffix –k which, over the domain of Indic and Avestan, referred only to the wild species. The reason is that neither in India nor in Persia were pigs bred in ancient times. There is no mention of pig breeding in our texts. Yet against this, from the evidence of Latin, we have seen that in the European sector the domestication of the pig took place well before Latin was constituted, the generic name being already employed for the domesticated animal. It is this sense of “domesticated pig” which is almost exclusively used in Latin. Sūs refers to the wild boar only in those contexts where the generic term suffices.
In studying the meaning of words which are peculiar to Latin with reference to the pig, a problem emerges: a minor one at first sight, but with consequences which turn out to be of considerable importance. Since sūs designates the species in general and more especially the domestic species, the distinction usually drawn disappears. Since both words refer to the domestic pig, sūs and porcus become synonymous. This pleonasm is surprising and provokes closer examination of the testimony by which the meaning of porcus is established (and not the translations, which are unanimous on this point).
We may begin with one of the terms in which the name of the animal appears in a stock expression, suovetaurilia, an expression already quoted, which implies the sacral combination of three animals sacrificed on the occasion of a lustration ceremony. The expression suovetaurilia is said to be irregular in a number of ways. We have
1) a compound containing a group of three terms; but similar compounds are attested in the Indo-European languages, cf. Gr. nukhth-ḗmeron, ‘a night and a day’. Thus the objection is invalid.
2) a phonetic difficulty, because the form is ove instead of ovi. This can be resolved if we give an exact determination of its signification and site it in the conditions in which it was constituted. It is no ordinary compound word, but a juxtaposition comprising not nominal stems, but case forms. It is a series of three ablatives: *, the ancient ablative of sūs (cf. sūbus, the ancient plural form); ove, a regular ablative, and finally taurō. There are thus three ablatives in juxtaposition and the whole being treated as a single word with attachment of the adjectival suffix –ilis, –ilia added to the last word with elision of the case ending. Why this juxtaposition? Because it is taken from the ritual expression in which the name of the sacrificial animal is in the ablative: facere ‘to sacrifice by means of an animal’ and not the animal itself. Facere + the ablative is certainly the ancient construction. Therefore it meant to perform the cult act by means of these three animals, an ancient sacrificial grouping of these three species, where sūs is the name for the porcine species. We must reread a chapter of the De Agricultura by Cato (141), the famous text which describes the way in which the lustration of the fields, a ceremony of a private nature, was carried out. In this text, which has often been read, quoted and used, we are expressly concerned with the suovetaurilia. In proceeding to the sacrifice, the owner of the field must pronounce these words: macte suovetaurilibus lactentibus esto. This is a prayer of Mars that he should accept these suovetaurilia lactentia, three “suckling” animals, that is, young ones. This prayer is repeated a second time in these terms: Mars pater, eiusdem rei ergo, macte hisce suovetaurilibus lactentibus esto. Cato continues: “when you sacrifice the porcus, the agnus, the vitulus, you must…” (ubi porcum immolabis, agnum vitulumque, oportet…) The sacrifices in fact comprise three animals which this time are called porcus, agnus, vitulus. Let us compare the terms of the nominal sacrifice sūs, ovis, taurus with that of the actual offering, porcus, agnus, vitulus. These expressions follow each other in exactly the same order and they indicate the sacrificial animals. It follows that vitulus is the young of the taurus, agnus the young of the ovis, and porcus the young of the sūs. This is deduced in quasi-mathematical manner by superimposing the ritual expressions on the actual species of the sacrifice. The conclusion is inescapable that porcus can only mean piglet. The difference between sūs and porcus is not between the wild animal and the domesticated one: it is a difference in age, sūs being the adult and porcus the young animal.
We have another text which makes this point. In the De re rustica of Varro (Book II, ch. 1) the author gives advice to breeders on the raising of animals. Some months must elapse before the young animals are weaned: the agni at four months, the haedi at three months, and the porci at two months. Thus porcus is paralleled with agnus and haedus. There are so many examples of this kind that the greater part of the chapter could be quoted. Varro makes the point that one can tell sues of good stock a progenie: si multos porcos pariunt, ‘if they produce plenty of porci’. As to feeding, it is the custom to leave the porci two months cum matribus. A little further on we read: porci qui nati hieme fiunt exiles propter frigora, ‘the porci born in the winter…’ Here the association of porcus and mater speaks for itself.
In an archaic expression of the religious vocabulary, the porci which are ten days old habentur puri ‘are considered pure’, and for this reason they are called “sacres” (the ancient form, instead of sacri, from the adjective *sacris); sacres porci, a very old expression, “the pigs which are ten days old.” Similarly, lactens porcus appears frequently, but we never encounter *lactens sūs. A diminutive porculus or porcellus exists, just as one finds agnus/agnellus, vitus/vitellus; but there is no word *sūculus, since the name for the adult animal does not admit a diminutive. Thus the meaning of porcus, which is found perhaps forty times in this text, is constant. The meaning does not vary in later usage. Cicero uses it in the same sense: with reference to a villa (‘estate’) he writes: “abundat porco, haedo, agno,” an expression where porci figure along with the other young animals, haedi and agni, kids and lambs. We know two words for swine-herd: sūbulcus ‘he who occupies himself with sues’ (parallel with būbulcus) and porculator. What reason was there to coin two separate expressions if the two words sūs and porcus had the same meaning? In fact the porculator looks after the young pigs (piglets), which need special treatment, while the sūbulcus looks after the adult pigs. We have thus established that throughout ancient Latin down to the classical period porcus designated only the piglet. The difference is now clear. What is astonishing is that this fact was not seen earlier and that an erroneous translation of such a common term as porcus has endured for so long. The relation of sūs to porcus is exactly the same as that of Greek hû̄s, sūs (ὗς, σῦς) to khoîros (χοῖρος). This difference is of great importance. In public and private cult there were no animals more commonly offered than the porcus, the young pig.
The Romans already knew what we have just discovered. Varro gives us, with a fanciful etymology, precisely the equivalents in the two languages: R.R. II, 1: “porcus graecum est nomenquod nunc eum vocant khoîron .” He thus knew that porcus meant the same as khoîros. But porcus exists not only in Latin; it is also found in Italic. The contrast between si and purka is the same in Umbrian in a ritual text where both figure. We must see what this opposition signifies in Umbrian.
The translation of the Iguvine Tables is usually expressed in Latin so that it is not particularly lucid. But we must consider the adjectives which accompany si and porko. Si is found with kumia, translated as ‘gravida’, and also with filiu, translated as ‘lactens’; and on the other hand there is purka. Now the combination of lactens with sūs is impossible in Latin and the difference in Umbrian becomes incomprehensible. If the Umbrian word si can signify an animal which may be gravida ‘pregnant’ as well as lactens ‘suckling’, what can porko mean? If the same word applies both to the adult and to the newly born animal, the difference of designation is no longer justifiable, and the other word purka becomes redundant.
In a ritual text of such precision, why is there this difference, in one place si and in another purka? The crux of the problem lies in the meaning of filiu. There is another possibility than that of the traditional translation. Two interpretations of filiu are possible: one as lactens ‘suckling’, but it is also possible to think of lactans ‘in milk’ (“she who suckles”). In fact the Umbrian filiu is related to Greek thê̄lus and to fēmina, which in Latin means “she who suckles,” also the meaning of Greek thê̄lus. In Irish and Lithuanian a form with the suffix l made from the same root *dhē– is used with reference to the mother: Lith. pirm-delú ‘animal which suckles for the first time’. Thus we may take the Umbrian filiu not as ‘lactens’ but as ‘lactans’. The sow is sometimes spoken of as “gravida” and sometimes as “lactans,” according to whether the animal is still pregnant or has already farrowed. It follows that purka is the term for the young pig; it is the piglet, just like the Latin porcus, and the situation which at first was quite incomprehensible becomes intelligible. We may thus be assured that the difference illustrated by both Latin and Umbrian is an inherited lexical difference. It is in fact prior to Italic.
In Celtic, the corresponding word for porcus, phonetically Irl. orc, is always cited with the group of porcus and given the translation “pig.” But the precision which we expect is given by the detailed dictionary of the Irish Academy, which translates orc as “young pig.” Thus we see that both Italic and Celtic show solidarity in offering one and the same meaning.
In Germanic, the two corresponding words are represented by derivatives, on the one hand by swein (German Schwein) and on the other by farh, farhili (German Ferkel). Here the modern forms already indicate the distinction: Ferkel is the piglet, specifically a diminutive form, whereas swein ‘pig’, derived from -, does not show a diminutive formation. The Germanic word corresponding to porcus immediately attests the sense of “young pig” which it has preserved. Finally, in Slavic and Baltic, the Lithuanian paršas, Sl. praęs (from which comes the Russian porosënok, which is a diminutive) is opposed to svin. Now the Slavic and Baltic *parša– corresponding to porcus has the sense of “piglet.” We thus have the same contrast in Slavic as in Germanic. This demonstration could have been pursued from two different angles, but whether we start from Germanic or Slavic, the same conclusion is reached as emerged from an unprejudiced study of the Latin evidence. At all events the testimony is consistent and the lexical situation seems identical in all western dialects of Indo-European.
It is, however, on the Indo-European level that the contrast between the two terms poses a new problem. The distribution of the two forms is unequal. The form *– is common Indo-European. It is attested in Indo-Iranian as well as all the strictly “European” dialects, whereas *porko– does not appear in Indo-Iranian but only in the European languages.
From this dialect distribution and from the meaning attributed to *– and *porko– the conclusion has been drawn that the Indo-European community was not acquainted with the pig except as a wild species. The very meaning of porcus, so it was believed, implied that the domestication had only begun in Europe after the settlement of certain ethnic groups.
But the restored signification of these terms transforms the problem. It assumes a new aspect, since the opposition is adult/newly-born and not wild/domesticated. Why then is the name for the newly-born animal (*porko-) not co-extensive with that of the adult (*-)? But is there in fact this unequal distribution of sūs and porcus? The whole chain of reasoning rests on the allegation that no trace of porcus has been found in Indo-Iranian territory. In fact, the problem has been much advanced and today the traditional affirmation must be challenged.
The same word *porkos is attested in an area that is geographically adjoining but linguistically quite different, in Finno-Ugrian, by the Finnish word porsas, Mordvinian purts and Zyrenian porś. Scholars are agreed in regarding this as a common borrowing by the Finno-Ugrian languages from a form in –s at some stage of Indo-European, but at what date did this word penetrate into Finno-Ugrian?
We may begin by noting that the meaning is certain: “piglet, small pig” in Finnish; in the other languages, the lexica are less precise, but this meaning is probable. The connection with Indo-European forms has been noted and the possible chronology of the borrowing has been discussed. What seems certain is that porsas in Finnish presupposes a stem in –o; the final –as is a Finnish adaptation of a stem in –o, replaced by a, because, from ancestral Finno-Ugrian times, ο was not permitted in the second syllable: *porso becomes porsa. The root *porso exhibits a characteristic palatalization of the k into s. The original form borrowed into Finno-Ugrian was marked by this palatalization before the change of the root ο into a, which is characteristic of Indo-Iranian. The theoretical Indo-Iranian form is *parśa, and this would appear in Indic as *parśa and in Iranian as *parsa. The phonetic shape of the Finno-Ugrian borrowing takes us back to the stage prior to Indo-Iranian, but posterior to the common Indo-European, where the word possessed a-k-. It was therefore an ancient dialect form which would precede the separation of Indo-Iranian. This is the conclusion reached by Finno-Ugrian specialists. But one difficulty has given them pause: the pre-Indo-Iranian form implied by the borrowing is not attested in Indo-Iranian. They have therefore hesitated to draw any firm conclusion.
But now we have the form in the oriental region. A Middle Iranian dialect of Eastern Iranian, called Khotanese, the knowledge of which goes back only a few years, has yielded evidence for the existence and the meaning of a word pasa, gen. pasä, which designates the pig. The meaning is certain because the texts are translated from Sanskrit or Tibetan, in which there occur expressions for dates borrowed from the animal cycle: there is a year or month of “the pig.” Thus Khotanese has restored to us the expected Indo-Iranian form: parśa, and it furnishes the proof that *porko– was also known in Indo-Iranian territory.
The negative argument can thus no longer be sustained. True, there is no trace of *porko– in Indic, but a word of this kind is exposed to accidents. There are peoples who, for religious reasons, exclude this animal from sacrifice and consumption, whereas it was esteemed by the peoples of Europe. We now know that the word did exist in Iranian. There is now no difficulty in admitting in principle that the Indo-European stem *porko– was common to all dialects. We have established its presence in Eastern Iranian and confirmation has been given by the Finno-Ugrian borrowings.
True, we are not yet able to define the exact meaning of the term in Khotanese, a language not attested until the seventh or eighth century of our era. But since *– is common to Indo-Iranian and the European languages, if *porko– was also used in Iranian, it must have been distinct from the word *-. The features which are presumed or are established indirectly accord with those taken from textual usage.
All this, namely the existence of two words employed since the European period, and the difference of sense which we have underlined, allows us to state that the common Indo-European word *porko– meant “the young pig.” The negative conclusion of traditional doctrine can no longer be upheld: there was after all Indo-European domestication of the pig. This is what the vocabulary reveals by the distinction made between sūs and porcus, which runs parallel with that encountered in the names for the other domestic animals.
Another point may be made, namely that the lexical distinction made between sūs and porcus may later be expressed by different terms. The opposition sūs : porcus persists throughout the whole of Latinity until after the classical period; but later the proper sense of sūs was transferred to porcus, which took over the function of sūs. At that moment sūs disappeared.
In the Glosses of Reichenau, which give such precious testimony for the transition of Latin to French, the term sūs is glossed as ‘porcus salvaticus’ (= wild pig). Thus sūs had been limited to the meaning of “wild pig” and porcus had taken its place as the name for “pig.” But it was necessary to coin a term to replace porcus in its original sense: hence porcellus, French pourceau.
Later, under the influence of the language of the Gospels, where porcellus means “pig,” recourse was had to a technical term for the young animal, French goret. There is an innovation in the expression for the distinction, but the distinction is preserved, for it is important to maintain a distinction which is anchored in an extra-linguistic reality—animal husbandry.