Indo-European Language and Society

Section 2: Giving and Taking

Chapter 5. Gift and Exchange


Greek has five words that are commonly translated uniformly by “gift.” A careful examination of their use shows that they do in fact correspond to as many different ways of envisaging a gift—from the purely verbal notion of “giving” to “a contractual prestation imposed by the terms of a pact, an alliance, a friendship, or a ‘guest-host’ relationship.”
The Gothic term gild and its derivatives take us back to a very ancient Germanic tradition in which the religious aspect (“the sacrifice”), the economic aspect (a mercantile association), and the juridical aspect (the atonement for a crime) are closely interwoven.
The varied history of the words related to Gr. dáptō, Lat. daps, on the one hand discloses the practice of “potlatch” in the Indo-European past, and on the other hand shows how the ancient notion of “prestigious expenditure” became attenuated to mean “expense, damages.”
The Hansa, which had become in the form of the guild an economic association, continues the tradition of the comitatus of young warriors attached to a chieftain, such as Tacitus described in his Germania.



We now approach the study of a complex of economic notions that is difficult to define otherwise than by the sum of their peculiarities: “gift,” “exchange,” “trade.” The terminology relating to exchange and gift constitutes a very rich chapter of the Indo-European vocabulary.
We begin with the notion of “giving.” One might think that this is a simple idea. In fact it comprises some strange variations in the Indo-European languages, and the contrasts found between one language and another merit examination. Furthermore, it is extended to notions which one might not think of associating with it. The activity of exchange, of trade, is characterized in a specific way in relation to an idea which appears to us different, that of the disinterested gift. In this light exchange appears as a round of gifts rather than a genuine commercial operation. The relationship of exchange to purchase and sale emerges from a study of the terms employed for these different processes.
In this field there is great lexical stability. The same terms remain in use for very long periods, and, in contrast to what happens with those for more complex notions, they are often not replaced.

The Vocabulary of “Giving” in Greek

We start from the root *-, for which the consensus of languages guaranteed a constant form and meaning. The nominal forms show an ancient structure, that of derivatives in –no– and –ro-: Skr. dānam, Lat. dōnum, Gr. dō̂ron (δῶρον), Arm. tur, Slavic darŭ. These forms clearly attest, in the very constancy of this resemblance or of this difference, an ancient alternation r/n, this being the mark of an archaic declension, called heteroclitic, which is often revealed by the coexistence of derivatives in –r– and –n-. We have further a series of nominal forms in Greek, distinguished only by the class of derivation, all of which relate to “the gift.” They are: Gr. dṓs (δώς), dō̂ron (δῶρον), dōreá (δωρεά), dósis (δόσις), dōtínē (δωτίνη), five distinct terms which are uniformly translated as “gift.”
The first is very rare: we have only one example. The other four are much more common and may coexist in the same author. Is this a fortuitous lexical redundancy or are there reasons for this multiplicity? Such is the problem which we must investigate.
The first form, dṓs, is a stem in –t-. It corresponds to Latin dōs (stem dōt-). In Latin the word is specialized; it is the “dowry,” the gift which the woman brings into marriage, sometimes also the gift by the husband in purchase of his bride.
To establish the sense of Greek dṓs, which is not yet specialized, we have a verse by Hesiod: δὼς ἀγαθή, ἅρπαξ δὲ κακή, θανάτοιο δότειρα ‘dōs is good, but robbery (hárpaks) is bad, because it brings death’ (Works, 356). This verse is found precisely in a passage where the “gift” is highly praised as a means of establishing advantageous relations. Dṓs and hárpaks are root nouns, and it is no accident that no other example is found: they represent the idea in its most abstract form: “giving” is good, “robbing” is bad.
Dō̂ron and dōreá seem to have the same sense. But when Herodotus uses them concurrently we can see that he distinguishes them according to a principle which it is not difficult to discern. Thus III, 97: Κόλχοι…ταξάμενοι ἐς τὴν δωρεήν…δῶρα…ἀγίνεον ‘the Colchidians having assessed [having imposed payment on] themselves, brought gifts (dō̂ra) for the dōreá’. Dōreá is strictly the act of offering a dō̂ron. It is an abstract noun derived from dōréō (δωρέω), which is itself a denominative of dō̂ron. The verbal force is clearly seen in dōreá, and this explains the adverb dōreán (δωρεάν) (Attic) ‘by a gift, for a gift, gratuitously, for nothing’. Thus dō̂ron is the actual gift and dōreá is the act of bringing, of presenting a gift. From dō̂ron are derived dōreîsthai (δωρεῖσθαι) ‘to make a gift’ which governs the name of the thing or the person to whom it is given, and dṓrēma (δώρημα) ‘the thing which is presented, the present which serves as a recompense’.
Dósis is very different. Our translations do not distinguish it from dō̂ron; but its use in Homer Il. 10, 213 makes it clear: καί οἱ δόσις ἔσσεται ἐσθλή. A volunteer is needed for a dangerous mission; he is promised a good dósis, not a dō̂ron, because the object itself of the gift does not exist. Dósis is a nominal transposition of a verbal form in the present tense or, as here, in the future: “we shall give him, we shall make him a gift.” A formula where the verbal force of this abstract is still apparent is found in Homer, Od. 6, 208, δόσις δ’ὀλίγη τε φίλη τε —words used by people who give but who excuse themselves for not giving much. “This gift is a small one, but given gladly.” Thus dósis is “the act of giving.” The formation in –ti indicates an effective accomplishment of the idea, which may also, but not necessarily, be materialized in an object. Dósis may also designate a legal act. In Attic law it is the bestowal of a bequest, by express will, outside the rules of normal inheritance.
There is a further medical usage in which dósis denotes the act of giving, whence develops the sense of the amount of medicine given, a “dose.” Here the notion of gift or offering is absent. This sense passed by loan translation into German, where Gift, like Gr.-Lat. dosis, was used as a substitute for venēnum ‘poison’, whereas (Mit)gift ‘dowry’ still preserves the original connection with “giving.” In the early texts there is no interference of dósis either with dō̂ron or with dōreá.
Finally it remains to define the essential use of dōtínē. This is the most specialized term of the whole group. The examples are few but they are well characterized. It is a word of Ionic poetry which appears in Homer and also in Herodotus but soon passed out of use. Dōtínē certainly denoted some species of “gift,” but precisely what?
To persuade Achilles to return to battle, he is promised, among other things, a grant of land together with its rich inhabitants, who will become his subjects “…who will honor him (timḗsousi) like a god with dōtínai and who under his scepter will pay the liparàs thémistas” (Il. 9, 155–156).
The two words timḗsousi and thémistas are essential for defining dōtínēsi. By thémistas, an extremely complex notion, is understood the prerogatives of a chieftain; in particular, it is the respect shown, and the tribute brought, to a personage such as a king in accordance with the requirements of divine law. Still more important is the timḗ. This expression is derived from tíō and belongs to the group of Skt. cayati ‘to have regard, respect for’, from a root which must be strictly distinguished from that which signifies “to avenge, to punish,” Gr. poinḗ, which is often associated with it. Poinḗ, which corresponds exactly to Av. kaēnā ‘vengeance, hate’ is the retribution that compensates for a murder. This also developed the emotional sense of “hate,” of vengeance considered as a retribution (cf. the sense in Iranian). The other group, the one which concerns us here, timḗ, denotes the honor due to a god, to a king, and the tribute due to them from a community. It is at the same time a mark of esteem and estimation in a social and sentimental, as well as an economic, sense. [1] The value attributed to somebody is measured by the offerings of which he is judged worthy, and these are the terms which elucidate dōtínē.
In Homer, Od. 9, 266–286, we find: “We are come to your knees to see whether you will offer us a xeinḗïon (a gift of hospitality) or whether you will give us a dōtínē, as is the law of hospitality (thémis xeínōn).” This time, in a text which seems made for our enlightenment, a relationship is established between dōtínē and the presents which are exchanged between host and guest according to the traditions of hospitality. Similarly, in Od. 11, 350 ff. “let our guest wait until tomorrow before leaving us so that I may be able to assemble the whole of his dōtínē .”
Fleeing from Athens, the followers of Pisistratus wanted to repossess themselves of the tyranny from which they had been ejected. To this end they travelled through all the towns which might have obligations towards them to assemble the dōtínai: ἤγειρον δωτίνας (Herodotus I, 61).
There exists also a verb dōtinázō, which is found once in Herodotus (II, 180): on the occasion of the reconstruction of a temple which was incumbent on a group of federated cities, the priests went from town to town collecting gifts: περὶ τὰς πόλις ἐδωτίναζον.
These quotations throw light on a very different notion from the others. It is not merely a present, a disinterested gift: it is a gift qua contractual prestation, imposed by the obligations of a pact, an alliance, a friendship, or a bond of hospitality; the obligation of the xeînos (of the guest), of the subjects towards their king or god and also the prestation implied by an alliance. Once this meaning has been established it helps us to solve the philological problems posed by the variants in the textual tradition of these words. Thus the manuscript tradition of Herodotus VI, 89 is divided between the reading dōtínēn and the reading dōreḗn. The Corinthians wanted to aid the Athenians and sold them twenty vessels, but at a very low price, at five drachmas per boat, because the law forbade a gratuitous gift. Thus it was a symbolic payment imposed on the Athenians because, according to the law, it was impossible for one city to give the vessels to another. Is this dōtínē or dōreḗ? In fact what was involved was a gratuitous present. The valid reading is therefore dōreḗn and not dōtínēn, which is excluded because it is a gratuitous gift which the law forbade, not that which is inherent in an alliance.
Such is the way in which the Greek distinguishes for the same notion “gift” between three nouns which, for all that they are derived from the same root, are never for one moment confused. This notion is diversified in accordance with social institutions and what I may call the context of intention: dōsis, dō̂ron, dōtínē, three words for expressing a gift, because there are three ways of conceiving it. [2]

A Germanic Institution: The Guild

To the Greek terms we have reviewed we may now add the Germanic word which has become the name for “money,” in German, Geld. In Gothic, gild translates the Greek phōros ‘tax’, while the compound noun kaisara-gild translates the Gr. kē̂nsos ‘tax’. We also have a verb: fra-gildan, us-gildan ‘to render, repay, apodidónai, antapodidónai and a derived noun gilstr, which likewise translates phóros ‘tax’.
In the other Germanic languages the sense is quite different: Old Icel. gjald ‘recompense, punishment, payment’; OE gield ‘substitute, indemnity, sacrifice’; Old High German gelt ‘payment, sacrifice’; in composition gotekeltGottesdienst, divine service, worship’. In Frisian jelde, jold appears the special sense which was to become generalized in Germanic: “a guild of merchants,” implying also “a corporation banquet.” The whole notion seems extremely complex within Germanic society; it is simultaneously of a religious, economic and legal character. We are here confronted with a very important question which dominates the whole of the economic history of the Middle Ages: the formation of the guilds, a problem so vast that it cannot be treated here and which in any case is more the concern of the historian than the linguist.
It is not the conception itself which we shall consider but rather the starting point of the great medieval economic associations which developed between the sixth to seventh century and the fourteenth century, especially in the coastal regions of the North Sea, in Frisia, in the south of England and in the Scandinavian countries.
The institutions have both an economic and a religious character. These fraternities were united by economic interests but apparently also by a common cult. They were studied in the work (1921) by Maurice Cahen, La libation en vieux scandinave. According to this scholar, toasts, banquets, compotations, were like rites which were celebrated by the members of a fraternity. This finally took on a specific form and became in Germanic countries an economic association.
The author, however, ran into a serious difficulty. According to modern historians of the Middle Ages, the guilds constituted an exclusively economic phenomenon of fairly recent date and did not reach back into the beginnings of the Germanic world. In these economic groupings, in which people were brought together by common interests, one should not look for a survival of older religious associations.
But more recent researches into medieval history have justified these conclusions. M. Coornaert has sketched the history of this institution in broad outline in two articles in the Revue Historique, 1948. Not content with confirming the ancient and religious character of the guild, he reproaches Maurice Cahen for deferring to the judgment of earlier historians who rejected any intrusion of comparative studies into this field.
At present the facts can be seen to form part of a continuous history which goes far back in time. It has been claimed that ghilda, a Latinized form of a Germanic word, does not go back further than the eighth century. But it is now known from the Gallo-Roman period in a text which is dated to 450 AD.
What is a guild? It is first and foremost a festive occasion, a sacrificial meal within a “fraternity” which has assembled for a voluntary communion, and those who are thus assembled bear the same name. The notion of a sacred banquet is at the very center of this expression. Now, we encounter it in 450, that is to say, shortly after the period when the Gothic text has become fixed in writing (towards 350).
It will thus be relevant to give close scrutiny to the Gothic data. The essential words gild and fra-gildan have no correspondents except in Germanic. It is a new term which offers no possibility of comparative study.
The Gothic word gild is found in the well-known question in Luke XX, 22: “Are we permitted to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” skuldu ist unsis kaisara gild giban…? In the same question Mark XII, 14 replaces gild with kaisara-gild. A neuter gilstr, that is to say, *geld-strum or *geld-trum, is given with the same sense: Epistle to the Romans, XIII, 6: “That is also why you pay taxes, φόρους τελεῖτε.”
The verb fra-gildan means “to give back, to restore,” Luke XIX, 8: “I give, gadailja (dίdōmi) to the poor (literally: I share my possessions with the poor); if anybody is cheated by me, I repay him fragilda (apodίdōmi ‘to make a return payment’ in the text) fourfold.” Cf. also Luke XIV, 12 and 14: “if you prepare a meal, do not invite your friends or your brothers or other relations, or rich neighbors, lest they invite you in their turn and this will result in an antapodόma, an obligation to further requital” (Gothic usguldan). The sense is “to render in exchange for what has been received,” not to give back the object itself but “to spend as much as is equivalent to the amount by which one has benefited.”
In order to understand the value of the terms in Gothic it is necessary to envisage the problem, which must have vexed the translator, of transposing into Gothic Greco-Roman ideas like those of Gr. phόros, Lat. census ‘tax, assessment, the obligation to obey a higher authority’, since the Germanic tradition knew only small independent groups, each obeying a particular chieftain, without any idea of a general organization.
Gild may be defined as a “reciprocal tribute”; it is a fee which is paid personally in order to benefit from a collective service within a fraternal grouping: an entrance fee (which is paid for in one way or another) into a fraternity bound by a common cult.
Wulfila thus gave a very special sense to a very different expression of traditional Gothic vocabulary, the word gild ‘obligatory contribution (paid to a group of which one is a member and a beneficiary)’, when he used it as an equivalent of phόros. This word evokes “a cult association,” a true fraternity which is fulfilled, expressed and reinforced in banquets and common celebrations at which affairs of high importance are decided.
In fact Tacitus (Germania, 22) speaks of the convivia of the Germans, the banquets which were an essential part of their social and private life. They attended under arms, a fact which simultaneously showed the military and civil character of the matters to be debated: it was there they discussed “the reconciliation of private enemies, the conclusion of family alliances, the choice of chieftains, peace and war, because they believed that there was no more favorable moment for man’s spirit to be open to frankness and to be fired to greatness.”
We have here the very important idea of the convivial communion, which is as it were the symbol and the intensification of the fraternity. The point of departure of the economic groups called ghildes lies in such fraternities which were bound together by a common interest, by one and the same activity. And within such a group the banquets, convivia, ghilda are among the most characteristic institutions of the Germanic world. In thus “paying” (gildan) a fee to a fraternity, one pays a “due,” a sum which one must pay, and the payment itself is money, the geld.
We have here given a resumé of a long and complex history which has led up to institutions and to collective values. But to begin with the word was attached to an idea of a personal kind: the proof of this is the wergeld ‘the price of a man’ (with wer ‘man’), the price which was paid for the expiation of a crime, the ransom. Let us take up once again the Germania of Tacitus, chapter 21: “they are obliged to share the hostilities of the father or their kinsmen as well as their friendships, but they are not prolonged indefinitely. Even homicide can be redeemed with heads of cattle which are a benefit to the household.” This wergeld, compensation for murder by a certain payment, is equivalent to Gr. tίsis; it is one of the ancient aspects of the geld.
We are thus on three lines of development: first religious, the sacrifice, a payment made to the divinity, secondly economic, the fraternity of merchants, and thirdly legal, a compensation, a payment imposed in consequence of a crime, in order to redeem oneself. At the same time it is a means of reconciliation. Once the crime is over and paid for, an alliance becomes established and we return to the notion of the guild.
It was first necessary to define these ideas in their mutual relations and their peculiar senses in Germanic in order to assess how far apart these terms were in their original meaning from the Greek terms which they were used to translate. This is a fact to which insufficient attention has been paid. Scholars have always tended to proceed by straight interpretation of the Gothic without noting the effort of transposition which must have been involved and the difficulties which resulted from it. These Gothic expressions, when compared with those in Greek, are quite differently structured.
Another difference lies in the manner in which economic ideas became established in the Germanic and classical languages respectively. They are often bound up with facts of religion which make still wider the gulf which separated them from each other in the past, and they took shape in wholly dissimilar institutions.

Prestigious Expenditure

We must remember that the fraternities constituted a group of close solidarity and a kind of dining club. The two aspects of this institution could be maintained also in other ways. What was in origin a convivial group might become with the evolution of society an association of an economic, utilitarian, and commercial character.
One of the two aspects, the dining club, recalls a parallel institution in another society. It may be defined with the help of the Lat. daps ‘banquet’. This word forms part of an etymological group which is well characterized in form, but has divergent meanings. Outside Latin, the root recurs in Greek dáptō (δάπτω) with the more general meaning “to devour,” but also in a nominal form which is closely connected with daps in spite of the apparent difference: dapánē (δαπάνη) ‘expenditure’. There are corresponding words in other languages: Old Icel. tafn ‘sacrificial animal, sacrificial meal’, Arm. tawn ‘festival’.
It will be noticed that all the forms have the same suffix –n. This formal feature brings in the Lat. damnum < *dap-nom, which is mentioned separately because at first sight it does not seem to be associated with the previous group.
Daps is a term of the religious vocabulary; the Scandinavian and Armenian expressions also belong to the same sphere. At an early date, within the historic period, daps had the sense of “banquet offered to the gods, festive meal.” The daps is described by Cato in De Agricultura with a characteristic expression of the old Latin religious vocabulary, dapem pollucere ‘to offer a sacred banquet’. This archaic expression pollucere is applied to the lavish feasts offered to the gods: polluctum.
Apart from this, there is evidence that daps is associated with the notions of abundance, lavish expenditure, generous offerings. Noteworthy are the adjective dapaticus and the adverb dapatice, obsolete forms collected and cited by Festus, who translates dapatice by magnifice ‘in a magnificent manner’. A verb dapino from daps or perhaps from the Greek dapanân, which had a closely related meaning, also existed. We have only a single example of dapino in Plautus (Capt., 897), but it is characteristic: aeternum tibi dapinabo victum ‘(if you tell the truth) I will offer you in perpetuity a sumptuous feast, I will entertain you royally for ever’.
A direct testimony defines the sense of daps, and dapatice as well as dapaticus confirm it: it is a “magnificent feast.” Ovid in the fifth book of the Fasti shows us a poor peasant to whom Jupiter appears in disguise. Suddenly, he reveals who he is: the peasant offers him as a daps his only possession, an ox, which he roasts whole. This is his most precious possession.
In Greek, dapanân means “to spend,” dapánē is “ostentatious expenditure.” In Herodotus the expression is applied to lavish expenditure. The adjectives Gr. dapsilḗs, Lat. dapsilis (coined on the Greek model) apply to what is abundant, ostentatious. Icel. tafn denotes the consumption of food; Arm. tawn, a solemn feast. From all this we may abstract a general notion, that of “expenditure on the occasion of a sacrifice which involves the consumption of large amounts of food,” expenditure required for a feast, for prestige, to display wealth.
We thus find in Indo-European a social phenomenon which in the language of the ethnologist is called potlatch; the display and consumption of wealth on the occasion of a feast. It is necessary to make a show of prodigality in order to demonstrate that one sets no store by it, to humiliate one’s rivals by the instantaneous squandering of accumulated wealth. A man conquers and maintains his position if he outdoes his rivals in this reckless expenditure. The potlatch is a challenge to others to do likewise in their turn. The competitors make a still more lavish outlay, and this results in circulation of wealth, which is accumulated and expended for the prestige of some and the enjoyment of others, as Mauss has shown so well.
In Indo-European there is no clear notion of rivalry; the agonistic character so prominent in archaic society has here a subordinate role. Nevertheless, emulation is not absent from this expenditure. In fact it is closely connected with hospitality (cf. daps and dapatice). We see the social roots of an institution which is a necessity in certain communities; its essence is the obligation to make a gift of food, which is understood to impose reciprocity. But these are ideas and terms of great antiquity, which are in the process of fading. In historic times there remains only damnum with the derived sense of “injury sustained, what is taken away by forcible seizure.” It is the expense to which one is condemned by circumstances or by certain legal stipulations. The peasant spirit and the legal exactitude of the Romans transformed the ancient conception: ostentatious expenditure became no more than an outright expenditure, what constitutes a loss. Damnare means to afflict a damnum on somebody, a curtailment of his resources; from this stems the legal notion of damnare ‘to condemn’.
Side by side with the words in which the ancient notion has survived, there are innovations which create a new concept, and this means that we have simultaneously two strongly contrasted aspects of an ancient idea.

The Hansa and Its Military Origins

Among the confraternities, where the participants in the communal banquet enjoy special privileges—those which characterize the guild in its medieval development—we encounter in the same economic and religious vocabulary of the Germanic world a close neighbor of ghilda, the hansa. This ancient term, which has survived down to modern times, designated in the countries around the North Sea an institution of great historic and economic importance. The Hansas are economic associations of groups of merchants; they constitute a society to which one belongs in virtue of a right which can be purchased, inherited or sold, and which forms part of commercial assets. The workings of this institution have been the object of numerous studies. The results of those who studied the origin of the word are negative: hansa has no certain etymology. Since no correspondence is found outside Germanic, it is the history in Germanic of the word which we must try to trace.
The story begins with the Gothic hansa, which gives a precise starting point to the analysis, although we have but few examples. In one passage, hansa translates, in apparently a vague way, the Greek plē̂thos ‘crowd’. But in three other examples, hansa corresponds to speîra (σπεῖρα) ‘cohort’. In Mark XV, 16: “the soldiers took Jesus inside the courtyard, that is to say into the pretorium, and they called together the whole cohort,” Got. alia hansa ‘totam cohortem’. It functions similarly in John XVIII, 3, 12. In the passage where plē̂thos is rendered by hansa (Luke VI, 17), if we read it in its entirety, we see that the translator had to translate successively ókhlos and plē̂thos. He chose hiuma ‘turba’ for ókhlos, and for plē̂thos ‘multitudo’ he used hansa ‘cohort’. This unit in fact comprised several hundred men, as many as a thousand, and could represent a “crowd” which in some way had been mobilized to welcome Jesus.
It is not by accident that hansa is found in Old High German in Tatian to translate cohors. In OE hōs is “the follower of a lord.” It is not until Middle High German that hans( e) assumes the sense of “commercial association” with the sense that it henceforward keeps. In Late Latin or in Latinized German hansa means a tax for a trade license as well as a commercial association.
The sense of “(military) cohort” indicates that one has to envisage the hansa as a company of warriors. Hansa would not have been employed in Gothic to translate speîra if it had, for instance, meant a religious group or a group with a common interest. In fact when Tacitus (Germania 13–14) describes the societies of young men (comitatus) which are attached to the chieftains, he gives us a picture of what the hansa must have been. These young men who attach themselves to a chieftain live from his bounty and receive abundant food which serves instead of pay (14, 4). They are always ready to follow him and defend him and to win renown under his orders.
It is probable that these companies of young warriors who vied with each other under their chieftain, while the chieftains competed among themselves to see who would attach to himself the keenest followers, formed the first model of the hansa. With the evolution of society, this company of warriors in which privileges and rites were shared was transformed into a society of companions of a different type, devoted to economic activities. The word remained but it was attached to a new reality.


[ back ] 1. On timḗ and its group cf. Book 4, Chapter 5.
[ back ] 2. For a detailed analysis of the “gift” vocabulary see our article “Don et échange dans le vocabulaire indo-européen,” L’Année Sociologique, 3rd Series, vol. II, 1951, pp. 7–20.