Martyn Cornell on Anglo-Saxon Ale and Beer (part I, mostly Ale)

head and shoulders of Martyn Cornell

As I started to say in my last post, the Anglo-Saxon words beor, ealu, medu and wyn may not be what they seem.  It may be that we’ve been telling the wrong story about Anglo-Saxon feasts for long time.  Martyn Cornell takes a crack at sorting out the word histories and what we actually know about any of them.

I am reprinting this with Mr. Cornell’s permission.  His Zythophile blog is well worth reading if you’re into brewing history (and that’s not all he writes about).  He tends to write about later periods than I do, and is always interesting.  I recommend his books, Amber, Gold and Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers, and Beer: the Story of the Pint

I added the photos below; the text is all his.  (You can take a look at the original, if you don’t believe me.)

Without further ado, I give you…..Martyn Cornell! (wild applause)

As I said when I wrote the first of these blog essays, the origins of the words “ale” and “beer” are a surprisingly tangled mystery, with no particularly obvious root for either word.

Nor has anyone ever explained convincingly why the “continental” branch of West Germanic (the one that eventually became German in all its dialects, and Dutch and Friesian) dropped the al- word for “beer” it had derived from a supposed Germanic root *aluþ- (that *, remember, indicates a word for which there is no direct evidence, but which has been reconstructed from later forms), and took up the word bier instead, while the “off-shore” branch of West Germanic, the ancestor of modern English, together with the North Germanic languages (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and so on) stayed with words derived from *aluþ- – “ale” in modern English, Swedish öl and Danish and Norwegian øl.

drinking horn
drinking horn by Vassil

Let’s look at “ale” first, the word that originally, in English, mean an unhopped fermented malt drink. It’s a word found across Northern and Eastern Europe: as well as in the Scandinavian languages, it occurs in the Baltic languages Lithuanian (alùs) and Latvian (alus), the Finno-Ugric languages Finnish (olut) and Estonian (olu) and the Slav languages Slovene (ôl) and Serbo-Croat (olovina, which means “yeast, dregs”, I believe). There is no evidence that the Baltic languages borrowed the “ale” word from the Germanic languages, or vice versa.The word also appears away over in the Caucasus, in Georgian (apart from Finnish and Estonian the only non-Indo-European example) as ludi or, in a couple of mountain dialects, aludi, and in Georgian’s neighbour, the Iranic language Ossetian, as aeluton. Georgian linguists believe their language took the word ludi from the Ossetians, who are the descendants of the Alans.The Alans ranged from their original home near the Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea, as far west as France in the late 4th, 5th and 6th century AD, down into Spain and along the North African cost to modern Tunisia, as allies of other invaders of the Roman world such as the Germanic-speaking Vandals and Goths. After the final defeat of the Vandal/Alan kingdom in North Africa in 534, some of the Alans look to have returned to the border of the Roman Empire with Persia as cavalry in the Roman army. It seems more discount tramadol no prescription than possible they picked up the “ale” word from one of the Germanic peoples and brought it back to the Eastern Black Sea, where they met up with other stay-at-home Alans who had been pushed up into the Caucasus by the advancing Huns.

6th c curved drinking horn with embossed metal at mouth and tip
Sutton Hoo (6th c) drinking horn was apparently made from extinct aurochs horn

But where does “ale” come from as a word? One school wants to trace it to an Indo-European base *alu- (-d, -t), meaning “bitter”, a root found in the modern English word “alum”, the highly astringent salt used in, for example, leather tanning, and in the Proto-Slavonic root *el-uku, “bitter”, which has apparently given words such as the dialectic Polish ilki, “bitter” and the Czech žluknouti, “turn rancid”. This would make ale etymologically “the bitter drink”. Unfortunately there’s no evidence ale WAS originally a bitter drink: without hops and herbs (and English ale, at least, seems to have been drunk quite often without herbs) it would probably have been a sweetish drink to begin with, and then acidic or sharp, rather than bitter, as it aged and soured. Indeed, in a list of words in one now-extinct Baltic language, Old Prussian, compiled by a German writer in the 14th century, alu is glossed as meaning “mead”, fermented honey, which is definitely sweet, not bitter. So, no cigar for that idea.The Indo-European expert Calvert Watkins of Harvard University suggests another possibility, that the Germanic root *aluþ- is related to the Greek aluein or alussein and the Latvian aluót, both meaning “to be distraught”, with cognates having to do with sorcery (Runic alu, “a spell”, Hittite alwanzatar, “withcraft, sorcery, spell, hex”), and also “hallucinate”. All these words in a variety of Indo-European languages do suggest that there was a Proto-Indo-European root *alu meaning “a spell”. The semantic link would be that after drinking * aluþ- the bewitched drinker would stagger about in a distraught state and begin to have visions. It’s an interesting suggestion, but not a convincing one, for me: you don’t automatically become distraught and start hallucinating once you begin drinking ale.

bit of the Bayeux Tapestry showing  a feast
Feast depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

One minority group wants to link “ale” with words in Uralic languages meaning “tree sap”, such as ?los or ?llus in Sami, the language of the Lapp people, o? in the language of the Mansi of West Siberia and yllu in the language of their neighbours to the east, the Selkup. This appeals to me: fermented birch sap is still drunk in, for example, Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania (where it is called kveisas, surely linked to kvass, the Russian bread-beer, the name of which is reckoned to be descended from another putative Indo-European word for “fermented substance”, *kuath-so-, also found in a Gothic word meaning “foam up” and the Sanskrit kváthati, “boil”). It is easy to believe the Indo-European peoples who later lived in Northern Europe nicked the idea of fermenting tree sap from the Uralic people, along with the word, and then transferred the word to another alcoholic drink once they started growing grain. But I don’t know enough to say if this is a valid idea etymologically….To be continued in my next post – Elspeth

Related Post