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The Geography of ‘Book’

Submitted by on June 7, 2013 – 5:08 pm 46 Comments |  
As explored in earlier GeoCurrents posts (see also here, here, and here), the spatial distribution of words for a given meaning can reveal interesting patterns of both language spread and language contact. While both factors are always at play, language contact is more evident in regard to words for cultural innovations, such as ‘tea’ or ‘computer’. Another interesting case is the geography of words for ‘book’, which many languages borrowed along with the general concept of ‘book’ and more often than not with one particularly important religious text.

book_map

As can be seen from the map on the left, several roots for ‘book’ are particularly common in Eurasia and Africa, including those related to the Latin liber shown in red; to the Proto-Germanic *bōks shown in blue; to the Arabic kitāb shown in green; to the Proto-Slavic *kъniga shown in purple; and to the Sanskrit pustaka shown in pink. Some other words, whose etymology will not be considered here in detail, are shown in black.

Let’s start with the Latin root for ‘book’, liber. Several possibilities have been explored for its uncertain etymology. One relates it to the Proto-Indo-European *hlewdh- ‘people’, whose cognates include the Ancient Greek eleutheros, German Leute, Old English lēod, Lithuanian liaudis, Russian ljudi ‘people’. Another etymology derives this word as a cognate of Old Church Slavonic lubŭ ‘bark of a tree’ and Lithuanian lùpti ‘to peel, to shell’. As one would expect, its descendants are attested in Romance languages: French livre, Italian libro, Spanish libro, Portuguese livro, Occitan liure, Catalan llibre, Galician libro, Sicilian libbru. Interestingly, Romanian uses carte, which is related to another Latin root, which gives us the English card and charter (however, Romanian also retained the Latin root liber in a different meaning). But Romance languages are not the only ones with the reflexes of this Latin root. Celtic languages generally have words for ‘book’’ that descend from the Latin liber: Welsh has llyfr, Irish and Scottish Gaelic both have leabhar, Breton has levr. These words were transmitted from Latin to the Celtic languages when the Celts were Christianized. This is the first of many examples of the word ‘book’ spreading with religion, more of which we shall see below. Two languages outside the Romance and Celtic families have words that reflect the Latin liber: Albanian and Ilocano. In the case of Ilocano, the main language of northern Luzon in the Philippines, the word libro ‘book’ was borrowed from Spanish. Generally, Ilocano features numerous Spanish loanwords. Other languages of the Philippines such as Tagalog and Cebuano, however, have non-borrowed words for ‘book’, aklat and basahon, respectively.

Unlike the Latin root for ‘onion’, the root liber did not spread into other Indo-European branches such as Germanic or Slavic, nor are Germanic and Slavic roots for ‘book’ related. In Slavic languages, the words for ‘book’ are all very similar: East Slavic languages have kniga (Russian), knyha (Ukrainian), and kniha (Belarusian); South Slavic languages have kniga (Bulgarian and Macedonian) and knjiga (Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian; and West Slavic languages feature such forms as księga, książka (Polish), kniha (Czech and Slovak), knigła (Lower Sorbian), and knéga, knéżka (Kashubian). All these forms derive from the reconstructed Proto-Slavic form *kъniga. Its etymology is rather controversial, with at least three theories proposed about its origin. One theory derives it from Old High German kenning ‘symbol, sign’ or from other Germanic source (cf. Gothic kunnan ‘to know’ and Old Norse kunna ‘to know’). Another hypothesis relates the Proto-Slavic word to the Akkadian kunukku ‘seal-cylinder’ or kanikku ‘sealed object: document, sack bulla, etc.’, as well as to Old Armenian knik’ ‘seal’. A third theory links the Proto-Slavic form to Chinese words (e.g. Old Chinese küen ‘scroll’, Mandarin juǎn, possibly via Turkic küiniŋ). This theory is buttressed by the fact that paper was invented in China ca. the 1st century CE. One way or another, Slavic languages share the root for ‘book’, and one of them in particular—Russian—also “donated” this root to many other languages of Eurasia, as we shall see below.

Germanic languages generally have words that descend from the Proto-Germanic *bōks ‘book’, which in turn derives from a Proto-Indo-European word reconstructed as *bheh2g- (Beekes 1995) to mean ‘beech’. That reconstructed meaning is rather problematic, however, as some of the reflexes of this root in Indo-European languages refer to other tree species: for example, the Greek reflex of the PIE root *bheh2g-, phēgós, also means ‘oak’ (Beekes 1995: 48), while the Russian cognate buzina refers to ‘elder tree, Sambucus’. As we can see, in Germanic this root acquired a different meaning entirely. Modern Germanic languages whose word for book derives from this root include English book, as well as West Frisian boek, Dutch and Afrikaans boek, Limburgish book, German Buch, Yiddish bukh, Allemanic buech, Danish bog, Norwegian and Swedish bok, and Icelandic bók. But just as the Latin root liber has spread outside the Romance family, so did the root bok-/buk-. For example, it has penetrated some Austronesian languages such as Bahasa Malay, Bahasa Indonesian, Balinese, Sundanese, and Javanese, in all of which it is buku (though the word probably was borrowed from English into Bahasa Malay, and from Dutch into the other languages mentioned above). Similarly, another Austronesian language, Malagasy, has boky, probably derived from English. English is likewise the source of the word buk in Tok Pisin, a nativizing pidgin of Papua New Guinea. Also from English are such forms as the Lingala búku, Somali buug, and Shona bhuku. This Germanic root was spread into these various non-European languages by colonialism rather than religion, as several of the areas where buk-languages are spoken are predominantly Muslim. Intriguingly, in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria, the same root yields boko, which literally means ‘alphabet’ but which has come to stand in for ‘Western education’, as can be seen in the name of the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram (“Western Education Is Forbidden”).

Other languages in Africa have either native words for ‘book’ (e.g. Bambara gafɛ and Yoruba ìwé), or a loanword from another language such as Arabic, which donated its word for ‘book’ along with the spread of Islam. The Arabic word for ‘book’ is kitāb; as with other Semitic languages, Arabic has non-concatenative (i.e. root-and-pattern) morphology so that lexical roots typically consist of three consonants, while the vowels indicate mostly grammatical information. In the case of kitāb, the root, whose general meaning concerns writing, is K-T-B. To form the plural of ‘book’, one changes the vowels: kutub means ‘books’. Other Arabic words formed from the same root include kitaba ‘writing’, kātib ‘writer’, maktab ‘desk’, as well as verbal forms kataba ‘he wrote’, kutiba ‘it was written’, kattaba ‘he caused to write’, and many others. The same root is found in Maltese, another Semitic language, whose word for ‘book’ is ktieb. Interestingly, Hebrew has the same root, as in the verbal forms katav ‘he wrote’, hixtiv ‘he dictated’ (i.e. caused to write), hitkatavnu ‘we exchanged letters’ (i.e. wrote to each other), nixtav ‘it is written’, and many others, as well as in nouns such as mixtav ‘letter (to be sent)’, katav ‘writer’, ktiva ‘writing’, and the like. However, a different root, S-P-R, (which means ‘to count’) is the base for the Hebrew word for ‘book’: sefer.

African languages that have borrowed the Arabic word kitāb, which typically belonging to the Bantu family, have reanalyzed the word as consisting not of a tri-consonantal root K-T-B and vowels, but of the prefix denoting noun class and a root. For example, the Swahili word for ‘book’ is kitabu, an Arabic loanword which has been reanalyzed as containing the noun class prefix ki- and the root tabu. Noun class systems are found in Bantu languages, but also in Dyirbal and Nunggubuyu, both Aboriginal Australian languages; Ingush, a Northeast Caucasian language; Ju|’hoan, a Khoisan language; and Yimas, a Papuan language. Such systems are not unlike grammatical gender systems in more familiar languages such as Spanish, German, or Russian. Like gender systems, noun class systems divide nouns into groups that usually have some semantic coherence. However, instead of relying on categories pertaining to the biological sex of the individual, other semantically motivated categories come into play in noun class systems, including shapes, sizes, materials, origin (natural vs. man-made objects), animacy (humans and animals vs. other objects), abstractness etc. Also unlike grammatical genders, noun classes are usually numbered rather than named. In Swahili, noun class 7 denotes man-made objects (among other things, such as languages and diminutives). To make a noun plural, a noun class prefix is switched to another: for instance, ki- is replaced by vi-. The Swahili word for ‘knife’, kisu, thus becomes visu in its plural form. Loanwords are pluralized in the same way: hence, the plural of kitabu is vitabu. The story of the Kinyarwanda word for ‘book’, igitabo, is similar.

The Arabic word kitāb penetrated languages of other families as well, most notably Turkic and the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European. But not all languages in those families have a kitāb-derived word for ‘book’. Among Turkic languages, one finds reflexes of the Arabic kitāb in Turkish kitap, Azeri kitab, Uzbek kitob, Kazakh kitap, Tatar kitap, and Bashkort kitap. Yet other Turkic languages—for example, Chuvash and Sakha—have words related to the Russian word kniga: kĕneke and kinige, respectively. (It is probably not coincidental that the Chuvash and Sakha people, unlike most other Turkic-speaking peoples, did not convert to Islam.) The Indo-Iranian languages also vary on this issue: some have a word based on the Arabic kitāb, while others do not. Sometimes, even closely related languages have a different word for ‘book’, as is the case in Zazaki, which has kıtabi, and Kurdish, which has pirtûk. Tajik is another Iranian language with an Arabic-derived loanword for ‘book’, kitob. Indo-Aryan languages too split into those that have an Arabic loanword (e.g. Hindi kitāba) and those that do not (e.g. Bengali ba’i).

Another common root among languages of India, whether Indo-Aryan or Dravidian, is linked to the Sanskrit word pustikā. Its etymology is not entirely certain, but some scholars believe it to be borrowed from some Middle Iranian language. It is comparable to the Sogdian pwst’k ‘book, document, sutra’, Parthian pwstg ‘book, parchment’, and Persian pust ‘skin, hide’. Reflexes of this root are found in such Indo-Aryan languages as Assamese puthi, Bengali pustôk, Bhojpuri pōthī, Gujarati pustak, Kashmiri pūthi, Kumaoni pothī, Maithili pothā, pothī, Marathi pustak, Nepali pothi, Oriya pothā, pothi, puthi, Pali potthaka, Punjabi pustak, Sindhi pothu, pothī, Singhalese pota, and Urdu pustak. Sanskrit-derived forms are found also in several Dravidian languages, where it is an Indo-Aryan loanword. Compare, for instance, Malayalam pustakam, Tamil puttagam, Telugu pustakam, and Kannada pustaka. Another language with a related form is Malay, where pustaka coexists with the abovementioned buku.

One final family to be considered here is Finno-Ugric languages. Languages in this family have very different roots for ‘book’: compare the Hungarian könyv, Komi nebög, Estonian raamat, Finnish kirja, and Mari knaga. Where do these words come from? The Mari word—like its counterpart in the neighboring Turkic language Chuvash—comes from Russian. The Estonian word raamat (and its cognate in Latvian, grāmata) also derives from Old Russian gramota meaning ‘document, writing’, which derives in turn from Ancient Greek grámmata ‘letters, writing’, which also gives us grammar and— perhaps surprisingly—glamour. In Finnish, the same root gave rise to raamattu meaning ‘Bible’—once again a connection between ‘a book’ and the Book, the Holy Scriptures, is undeniable. The Finnish word kirja (and its Veps cognate kirj) originally meant ‘carved mark/decoration’; Estonian retains the root in kiri ‘letter (to be sent)’. I am not aware of the etymology of the Komi nebög or the Hungarian könyv.

 

Sources:

Beekes, Robert S. P. (1995) Comparative Indo-European Linguistics. An Introduction. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

 

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  • Gippo

    Just
    pointing out that Italian for ‘book’ is libro
    and
    that the PIE etymology *hlewdh-
    ‘people’ can actually be related to Latin līber
    ‘free’ (with long i), not to lĭber
    ‘bark, book’ (with short i).

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks, Gippo! I’ve fixed the spelling of the Italian word for ‘book’ in the post — and thanks for the etymological correction/addition.

      • marie-lucie

        It is hard to keep those words apart! Similarly, Spanish ‘libre’ means ‘free’, as in ‘Cuba libre’, a mix of rum and coke. Spanish for ‘book’ is ‘libro’.

    • Piotr Gasiorowski

      I’d also like to point out that the Slavic word for the black elder (*bъzъ) is unlikely to be related to the ‘beech’ word. Neither the root vocalism not the inflectional class are compatible, and an etymology based only on the similarity of consonantal skeletons should be dismissed.

      • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

        Any other word you think is cognate to “beech”?

  • Paul Oliver

    Some random text seems to have been pasted into the article:

    “as his Korean name was unacceptable for the censorship t taht y were hardly the most”

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks, Paul! Some sort of computer glitch — I’ve fixed it now.

      • Paul Oliver

        My pleasure. Really enjoyed the series on deportations, by the way!

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks, Paul!

  • nominalize

    Might the Romans have borrowed the word for book from the Etruscans?

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      It’s possible, I suppose, but I don’t know how we can ever prove that…

      • marie-lucie

        Roman books were scrolls, called uolumines (sing. uolumen), derived from the verb uoluere ‘to roll’. That’s why volume is still a synonym for (physical) book in some contexts. Whether liber, libri is of Etruscan origin or not would depend on whether this word matches what is known of Etruscan morphology. There are other Latin words in -ber/-br-, which have IE etymologies. It would also depend on how plausible the relationship is between liber ‘bark’ (or at least a component of bark) and liber ‘book’. (The Novgorod birch bark books come to mind, but was bark also used to make the earliest Latin uolumines?).

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks for sharing this! Yes, birch bark -> book etymology makes sense if early books were written on bark, and the shift from scroll to book us even more natural. After all Jews talk about the Torah as the book when it’s traditionally a scroll…

          • SirBedevere

            I think the word liber also referred to a scroll or roll before the first century AD. Indeed, when I see the term in a text (particularly a non-Christian text) from before the fourth century AD, I usually assume it refers to a scroll rather than a codex. Am I wrong in that assumption?

            Regarding the Torah, I have often heard it referred to in English as a torah scroll, at least when referring to the physical object, while the five component sections are always referred to as books. Is the Torah as a whole referred to as a sefer in Hebrew or a bukh in Yiddish?

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            I am not sure about your Latin question, but as far as the Torah is concerned, it is indeed “sefer Torah” when talking about the whole thing, but there is a separate word (khumash) for each of the five “books” of Torah. It is derived from the root meaning ‘five’ by the way.

          • marie-lucie

            Sir Bedevere: “liber/uolumen” : it is possible that these words became almost interchangeable, if they referred to two aspects of the same thing (bark – rolled up piece of bark) but evolved again to acquire different connotations (written content vs physical object).

          • SirBedevere

            I think something like what you are saying here did occur. Of course, I doubt bark was ever used in Italy, since the presence of the Greek colonies made papyrus available from the beginning of literacy there. Indeed, for rolled documents, the papacy was using papyrus from Egypt and from its Sicilian estates into the Carolingian era, long after the rest of Europe had gone over to parchment. I believe the woven nature of papyrus makes it less suitable to being bound in codices.

  • Ravi Vararo

    along with “புத்தகம் puttagam” “பொத்தகம் pottagam” is also available in Tamil.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks, Ravi! Do both words mean the same thing, or is there meaning difference between them?

      • Ravi Vararo

        hi Asya,

        pl find the following lexical information.

        புத்தகம் puttagam n. 1. Book; ola manuscript; நூல். புத்தகமே சாலத் தொகுத்தும் (நாலடி, 318). 2. Printed cloth; சித்திரப்படாம். (பிங்.) 3. Peacock-quill; மயி லிறகு. (சங். அக.)

        with regards
        Ravi

      • Ravi Vararo

        they have the same meaning of book.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Different dialects?

          • Ravi Vararo

            “பொத்தகம் Potttagam” is in Jaffna(Yaazhppanam, Sri Lanka) Tamil dialect.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Ah, I see.

  • SirBedevere

    The Magyar etimológiai nagyszótár of Totfalusi Istvan gives the ultimate root of könyv as most likely either Sumerian through Akkadian kunukku (seal) or Chinese küen (scroll). Totfalusi suggests that the word would have come into Hungarian through a Turkic language, but as you point out above, modern Turkic words are loans from Slavic or Arabic, except, apparently, for Uighur, whose word is küin from the Chinese.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Fascinating, thanks, James! So the Hungarian word may well be a “relative” of the Russian one (as is possibly the Georgian word, I am being told).

      • SirBedevere

        Isn’t the Georgian word something like “tsigni”? That always sounded like the Latin “signum” to me, but Georgians must have had books long before any Latin influence.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Apparently, the Georgian word is cognate with the Russian kniga, or so I’m told.

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  • Martin

    Konyv (hungarian) – taking into consideration of old Hungarian contacts with the Slavs and Slavic culture of 9th Century, I would definitely judge the Hungarian word is derived from Slavic root (not Russian).
    Old Magyars borrowed many basic Slavic words (coming into contact with the latter Croats, Slovaks, Czechs etc.) – ebed (lunch), pentek (Friday), plus many words from Germanic languages – haza (house) etc., It is natural, because of old Magyars nomadic culture. I suppose the same applies to the word “book”.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      It’s a possibility, but of course one would have to figure out sound correspondences and the like before one can be certain about this etymology.

      • SirBedevere

        Purely from the point of view of a non-linguist, Slavic loan-words into Hungarian are usually much more recognizable, having come into the language in the last 1200 years or so. I find it much more likely that an Eastern Slavic word was taken into a Turkic language and thence into Hungarian, which might produce the very different konyv.

        Hungarian does get many words from Germanic languages, though interestingly haz (house) is not one of them (haza means something like homeland, as in oshaza=Urheimat). Haz is from a Finno-Ugric root and is matched by the Finnish kota (shelter, lean-to), Estonian koda (house, hut), Mansi kat, and Mordvin kud. http://www.szokincshalo.hu/szotar/?qbetu=h&qsearch=&qdetail=4089

        • Martin

          SirBevedere: Thank you very much for the correction on haz/haza!

          • SirBedevere

            My pleasure. That distinction took me quite a long time to recognize.

  • Idris

    Malay, in addition to ‘buku’ and ‘pustaka’, also has ‘kitab’.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks! Is it in reference to the Quran or any book can be “kitab”?

      • Idris

        Welcome! I am not a native speaker of the language, but what I know is that the Bible is actually called Alkitab in Malay. The Quran is just called Al-Quran.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks.

  • Jeronimo Constantina

    The Spanish loan “libro” is more common than is described in the article. While it is stated that Tagalog and Cebuano, which, along with Ilocano share the top three positions in the country in terms of number of speakers, “libro” is also an alternative form in Cebuano and Tagalog, in which it is more commonly used than the non-borrowed “aklat”. One proof that it is also used in Cebuano is by typing in “books” in Google translate, in which Cebuano has recently joined the roster: this yields “mga libro”: . In addition, most Christianized lowland groups also used derivatives of the Spanish term.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your comment, Jeronimo! I wouldn’t trust Google Translate though, as it did spit out some erroneous forms for ‘book’ when I tried to experiment with it.

  • Roland Schuhmann

    In Old High German there is no word kenning with the meaning ‘symbol, sign’ (a word kenning [transmitted twice] means ‘cup’ [a derivation from kanna]) – meant is Old Norse (it is derivated from kenna ‘know, recognise’ not from kunna). The Gmc. root *bōk- (the form *bōks seems not to be the oldest reconstructible form, but made after *aik- ‘oak’, cp. Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Althochdeutschen 2, 445ff.) was also taken over in Old Church Slavonic bukъvi ‚scripture, charter‘ e.a. (how can one write italics?)

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for these comments/corrections, Roland.

      Do you mean how to write italics in the comment? Write “” at the beginning of the text you want to be italicized and “” at the end of it.

      • Roland Schuhmann

        ah – good to know! Thx!

  • Kevin

    What about another Latin derivative—Rumantsch cudesch, with variants (Surm.) codesch, (Surs.) cudisch? These Romance languages opted for CÔDEX as their etymon for ‘book’ instead of the usual LIBER.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Good point, thanks!

  • Kousic Prabu

    In Indian map at southern end it’s written as Puttagam but its wrong It should be Nool ….. Tamil Language

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Isn’t there also a Sanskrit borrowing for ‘book’ in Tamil?