Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 10. Purchase and Redemption


Indo-European had words for “to be worth” and “value.” But a study of the Homeric usage of alphánō ‘to bring in, yield, fetch’ makes it clear that alphḗ designated originally the exchange value of a man put up for sale. Skt. arhat ‘a man of particular merit’ brings confirmation of this ancient sense. With the Germans, the custom of selling a man who had staked and lost his liberty in gambling, enables us to understand how the sense of “sell” of the Gothic verb saljan developed from an earlier sense, that of “offering a sacrifice.” Numerous concordant linguistic facts indicate that at an early date it was not merchandise but human beings who were bought. Thus buying was originally “redeeming,” because by purchase, a man was freed from a precarious situation, for instance being a prisoner of war.


For the notion of “price” and “value” we have in Indo-European a term which is rare in the realm of economy. It is represented by Greek alphḗ (ἀλφή) and especially by the denominative verb alphánō (ἀλφάνω) ‘to get a price, to make a profit’, and in Indo-Iranian by Skt. arh– ‘to be worth’, arghá– ‘value, price’; Av. arəj– ‘to be worth’, arəǰah– ‘value, price’; Persian arzīdan ‘to be worth, to have value’, arzān ‘who has worth’.
Elsewhere we have only a correspondence in Baltic: Lith. algà, Old Pruss. algas ‘wage’.
In Greek alphḗ is a rare term which has few derivatives; apart from a compound which will be discussed later, in classical Greek the root has produced only the adjectives timalphḗs which is commonly translated by “precious” but means literally “what is worth its price.” It seems that all we have to do is to note the sense, which is assured, moreover, by the correspondents just cited, and to conclude from it that an expression for “value” existed in Indo-European.
But what is interesting is precisely to define “value” and to establish, if it is at all possible, with what kind of conception this notion was associated. What was it the value of? How was it estimated? It will be useful to determine more precisely the sense of alphánō, of which there are only a few examples in Homer, but all of them significant. In Il. 21, 79 the subject is a combat between Lycaon, the son of Priam, and Achilles, who has him at his mercy and is on the point of killing him. The other, who can no longer defend himself, beseeches him to spare his life: “It was in your house that I ate corn, the day that you made me prisoner in my father’s house and transported me (epérassas, literally “to make me cross over,” cf. below) to Lemnos (to sell me),” ἑκατόμβοιον δέ τοι ῇλφον ‘I brought you the price of a hundred oxen’.
Thus the sense of alphánō ‘to have a value’ will have been more exactly “to fetch a price,” “a certain benefit”; it is the price which a man procures by his sale of the one whom he rightly possesses by act of war. Od. 15, 453: “This man, I could take him and afterwards bring him to a ship and ὁ δ’ὑμίν μυρίον ὦνον ἄλφοι.” It concerns a slave who is taken away to be sold and then would bring in a price (cf. above on ō̂nos) ‘ten thousand times what he might cost’.
We see here a connection between alphánō and ō̂nos, the price of purchase: in the first example it was linked with peráō ‘sell’. We shall see that ō̂nos is also connected with trade in human beings.
Od. 17, 250 … a man whom on my ship I shall take far from Ithaca ἵνα μοι βίοτον πολὺν ἄλφοι ‘in order that he may bring me an abundant livelihood, one from which I can live well’. Od. 20, 383: The suitors, assured of their victory, indulge in insulting remarks about the guests among whom is Ulysses in disguise: “Let us throw the guests out” (360)… “let us take these strangers, throw them on a ship and send them to Sicily…” ὅθεν κέ τοι ἄξιον ἄλφοι… ‘where they will fetch a price worthy of them’.
These are all the examples in Homer. There is not the slightest variation in the sense; it is remarkable that this constant application has not been registered: alphánō signifies “to bring in a benefit” in speaking of a man put up for sale by his owner. This is the proper sense of the verb “to be worth.”
We can confirm this by another test. This is the compound alphesíboios in the phrase parthénoi alphesíboiai (Il. 18, 593) ‘young girls who bring in oxen’ (for their family) because this was the price offered to obtain them in marriage.
The notion of “value” takes its origin from that of a personal worth, the physical value of the man who can be put up for sale: in the Homeric world alphánō was still exclusively used for the profit procured by the sale of a prisoner of war.
In Indo-Iranian the corresponding term, Skt. arh-, Av. arəj-, is much wider. It designates all kinds of value. But in Indian use we have an indication that the signification revealed by the Gr. alph– is not a development peculiar to Greek, but an inherited notion. It can be seen in a well-known term of the religious vocabulary of India: this is the participle arhat ‘a man of peculiar merit, who has acquired merit’, especially in Buddhism.
It is worth noting that arh– is applied only to a man and never to an object. From Vedic on, this restriction to a human quality, even if it is transposed into the moral sphere, indicates that “merit” is the personal “value” of a human being. Thanks to Greek we may bring the notion of personal “merit” into connection with “value,” the latter being associated with verbs signifying “to buy” and “to sell.” All this throws light on the same type of society and the same customs.
The right which the captor has over the captive, the transfer of prisoners, the sale of men by auction, such are the conditions in which the notions of “purchase,” “sale” and “value” emerged.
In Germanic territory an analogous process can be observed which reveals the correlation between a historical witness and a lexical datum. The testimony is that of Tacitus who, in reporting the taste for certain games among the Germans, shows to what length this passion for games of dice can go:

Dice are, surprisingly, a serious matter for them to which they apply themselves when sober; they are so carried away by gain or loss that, when they have nothing more, they are capable of staking their liberty and their own person in a last, desperate throw. The loser accepts voluntary servitude: … younger or more robust though he be, he allows himself to be bound and sold. Such is the folly of their obsession: they call this keeping their word. They rid themselves of this sort of slaves by trade in order to liberate themselves, too, from the shame of victory.
(Germania, 24)

We must note the manner in which Tacitus describes the conditions of those who go so far in this game as to stake the liberty of their own person: servos condicionis huius. They are not slaves in the Roman sense: there were no slaves in the proper sense in the Germanic world; Tacitus states this clearly elsewhere. They put them up for sale (per commercia tradunt) not because they wanted to make a profit thereby but to rid themselves of the shame of thus having reduced a partner to servitude.

This helps us perhaps to a better understanding of the ancient term signifying “to sell” in the Germanic languages of the North and West, which we have not considered so far. As we have seen, it is not uncommon for “sell” to be a variant of “buy”: this is the case in modern German kaufen and verkaufen. It is also the case in other languages where the same term, according to whether it is active or middle, renders the reciprocal notions of “buying” and “selling.” But in a large part of the Germanic world we have two different verbs for “to buy”: Gothic has bugjan, Engl. buy, which will be explained a little later. But for “to sell” we find in Old Norse selja, Old Engl. sellan, Engl. sell; the corresponding Got. saljan does not signify “sell” but “to offer as sacrifice” (Gr. thúein), as in the expression hunsla saljan = λατρείαν προσφέρειν τῷ θεῷ ‘to accord worship to God’, where hunsl designates the sacrificial offering.
The Gothic saljan ‘bring as an offering to a divinity’ explains the origin of Old Icelandic selja ‘to deliver, to sell’; it is properly the “sale” conceived as an offering which is brought. Such is probably the type of sale of which Tacitus speaks, the sale of a man to which one resigns oneself, not in a spirit of gain, but to rid oneself of the shame of having got the better of him; and this is achieved by way of an offering, as a kind of sacrifice of a human being.
The history in Germanic of saljan shows that this notion is prior to the vocabulary of commercial relations in the proper sense. At this point we may note that this development is consistent with that of the verb bugjan ‘to buy’, which etymologically means “to liberate, to redeem somebody,” to save him from a servile condition. Everything hangs together: these are in fact two notions primarily concerned with persons and still charged with religious values.
If we now pursue our enquiry into the terms for “to sell” in other languages, we find within each one that they are organized as opposites. Thus Greek has pōleîn (πωλεῖν) ‘sell’ and also a verb from the root *per– represented by the present tenses pérnēmi (πέρνημι) and pipráskō (πιπράσκω) (aorist epérasa, ἐπέρασα). Now it is possible to draw a distinction between the two verbs which, at the same epoch, seemed to have been employed concurrently without any difference as to sense. The meaning of the second group can be accurately deduced thanks to its derivation from the root *per-; this appears also in the adverb péran ‘beyond’, ‘on the other side’, so that the verb will have meant “to cause to pass, to transfer.” Thus originally the group of pérnēmi did not evoke the idea of a commercial transaction, but the act of transferring. It may have been the ancient custom among these people to transfer from one point to another, or in the market-place, what they wanted to sell: thus epérasa, with a personal name as object, signifies “transfer” or, as we say, “export” (cf. Il. 24, 752, where the connection between pérnēmi and péran is clear).
The frequent sense “to sell” must be considered as secondary: it is the result of a semantic restriction of the root *per-. As for the morphological differentiation observable in pérnēmi—the present tense in –– —it is worth noting that it is formally parallel with Skt. krīṇā– ‘buy’, the present in –– expressing the opposed idea.
The verb pōleîn has no etymology as clear as this. At first sight it has a related form in Greek itself; pōléomai (πωλέομαι) in Homer seems parallel to pōleîn. But the sense of pōléomai is entirely different: it is “to go regularly, to frequent, to circulate,” with a local determination in the accusative and with prepositions. This form must be linked with pélomai (πέλομαι); we must therefore separate it from pōleîn, which never had any other sense than “sell.” This latter word has been linked with Old High German fāli (with an ancient e), German feil ‘venal, what can be bought’, Lithuanian pelnas ‘merit, gain’. The iterative pōleîn would then signify “to procure advantages for oneself” and only secondarily “to sell.”
If we want to say in Greek “to buy and sell,” pōleîn is associated with ōnéomai. But taken separately each of these notions may be expressed in two ways. For the notion of “buy” we find the two verbs together, priámenos ōneîsthai (πριάμενος ὠνεῖσθαι) ‘to buy and pay the price’. There are likewise two terms for “sell”: pōleîn ‘put a price on, seek a profit’ and pipráskō or pérnēmi ‘to sell by transferring the object (at the market)’, generally overseas.
We now turn to the Latin facts. The noun vēnum is joined more and more closely to do and eo: hence vendo, vēneo. The contraction had already taken place in the classical period, but we still find vēnum do. Thus the notion of vēnum has served to express the two opposite aspects of “to put up for sale” and “to go to be bought.” Since vēnum is a supine or more probably a noun, it is from the purchase that the notion of “sell” developed.
We must also note that at an early date the terminology of “purchase” underwent an important innovation through the use of the verb emo in the sense “I buy.”
It is peculiar on the one hand that it should be precisely the notion of “sell” which received new expression by using the combination of the Latin derivative vēnum (from the root for “buy” in Indo-European) with dare in the sense “to sell,” whereas emo was used for “I buy.” Here we have a secondary specialization of this verb. The ancients still knew that emo signified “take,” e.g. Festus: antiqui emere dicebant pro sumere (‘the ancients used to say emere for sumere “to take”’). There are etymological correspondences which confirm this: Lithuanian has imù ‘take’ and in Celtic, Irish has arfoemat ‘they take’, where ar– and –fo– are preverbs. In Latin itself we have this sense in a series of compounds: demo ‘take away’, sumo ‘to remove’, promo ‘produce’ (‘draw wine’) etc. We should, therefore, note that emo first signified “take” and then “buy.”
To interpret this we must call other languages to witness. The facts are very complex in Germanic, where we find new words for “to buy” which have undergone successive transformations. We need not consider the German kaufen < Gothic kaupon ‘to trade’, a late borrowing from Lat. caupo ‘innkeeper’, ‘trader’, the sense of which was “trafficking” in general. From Gothic kaupon comes Old Slavic kupiti, Russ. kupiť, ‘buy’. In Germanic this verb has taken the place of a term preserved in Gothic bugjan ‘buy’, first person singular preterite baúhta, Engl. buy, bought. We have here, once again, no convincing etymology of this ancient verb. Feist in his dictionary contents himself with making vague suggestions which do not touch on the true sense of the verb. It is this sense which we must first interpret.
The Gothic verb bugjan translates Greek agorázein ‘to buy at the market’, and it also serves for the notion “sell”: frabugjanpōleîn, pipráskein’, with the same preverb as the German verkaufen. Combined with a different preverb, usbugjan renders exagorázein ‘to repurchase, to redeem’. The root also forms compound noun derivatives: andabauhts (abstract in –ti), which translates antílutron ‘purchase price’, faurbauhts, which translates apolútrōsis ‘redemption’. It has long been considered that this root is somehow or other connected with the root *bheug(h) in Indo-European. But the forms listed under this root are so confused and their senses so different that Feist preferred to leave bugjan without an etymology. Perhaps it may be possible to constitute a family by bringing together fungor ‘to discharge a function’, fugiō ‘flee’, Gr. pheúgō ‘flee’, phugḗ ‘flight’, Skt. bhuj– ‘eat’ and also ‘fold’ (cf. Gothic biugan, German beugen ‘bend’)?
If all this is to be traced back to a common meaning, it must be one of rare complexity. In reality it is a jumble of irreconcilable forms which are in sore need of discrimination:

  1. Lat. fungor must be linked with Skt. bhuṅkte, present middle, a nasal form (cf. bhuj-), the primary sense of which is “enjoy”; but at an early date it became specified in the sense of “enjoying food, consume.” This links up with the Armenian bucanem ‘to nourish, bring up’.
  2. Gothic biugan ‘bend’ from *bheugh– could be compared with Skt. bhuj– ‘bend’, Lat. fugio, Gr. pheúgō, these last from *bheug-.
  3. Finally, we think that Gothic bugjan ‘buy’ is to be compared with the root attested only, but in a very clear way, by Old Iranian: Av. baog-, which has abundant derivatives in Iranian and signifies “undo,” “detach” (a girdle or a garment) and later “set free” and finally “save.” The Av. verb baog– exists with several preverbs; it supplies the agent noun baoxtar ‘liberator’. It has a material, as well as a religious sense. It was, like other Iranian words, borrowed into Armenian: see the Arm. noun boyz, the present tense verb buzem ‘save’ (only from illness), ‘cure’.
Very soon the religious sense was emphasized: liberation through the intervention of a god, of a “savior,” who must come and deliver captive creation. It was to express the idea of salvation, redemption, liberation, that the word was employed, particularly in the vocabulary of Manichaeism: Parthian bōžāγar, Persian bōzēγar ‘the liberator’, and quite naturally it also expressed the notion of “redemption” in Christian texts.
The connection with Got. bugjan may be based on the use of the Gothic verb and the Greek equivalents cited above. We have seen that –bauhts is equivalent to –lusis, –lutron ‘deliverance, redemption’.
What were the conditions under which this semantic development could take place? It could only be in a situation of buying persons, with a view to liberating somebody who is a prisoner and is offered for sale. The only means of liberating him is to buy him. “To buy” is “to liberate.” This clearly establishes the relationship with andabauhts ‘repurchase, redemption’.
Let us return to the Latin facts: vendo/emo. It is of great significance that vēnum is supplanted by emo in the sense of “buy,” for emo is “I take” (but in the proper sense “to draw to oneself”). This specialization of sense probably reflects the conditions under which emo was employed. It must have been said of a person whom one takes, not of something; to purchase is the act of taking someone put up for sale whom one takes to oneself, once the transaction is concluded.
If we examine the uses of ōnéomai (root *wes-) ‘buy’ in Homer, it will be seen that all the examples are applied to persons: one buys slaves, prisoners who become slaves and who are offered as such. There are scenes in which the prisoner begs to be bought. One must realize that the situation of a slave only becomes to some extent normal when he is bought. In the hands of his captor or the dealer the prisoner is not yet in the position of a servant, a slave, who is after all in possession of certain guarantees: he attains to this position once he is bought.
It is one and the same process which is expressed through different words. Whether it be through the ancient expressions vēnum, ōnéomai, or more recent ones like bugjan for “to buy,” there is always some pointer which enlightens us about the nature of the transaction: purchase or sale, not of merchandise or goods, of commodities, but of human beings. The first uses were concerned with the purchase of slaves or those destined to become slaves. Symmetrically peráō, pipráskō, etc. ‘sell’, strictly meaning “transfer,” is applied to prisoners, to captives. Actual commodities, apart from precious materials, were doubtless not involved in this kind of trafficking and were not subjected to the same procedures of purchase and sale.
Such is the important fact of civilization which seems to emerge from the expressions concerned in one way or another with trade, purchase or sale.