2016-10-29 - Pre-Pre-Greek: Traces of a hunter-gatherer substrate in Greek
The Greek language is a gold mine of substrate words, consisting of  > 1000 non-Indo-European words. Among those there are two large distinct groups: a) Pre-Greek1 words that are restricted to Greece proper and the Aegean (incl. Asia Minor), b) Mediterranean words that are shared with Latin, Armenian, Akkadian and other languages of the near east. There is however one more small group of words that have been marked by Furnée, Beekes and others as ‘European’. Those have no Indo-European root, but do occasionally appear in other Indo-European languages2. What is striking about those words is that they could belong to the vocabulary of a hunter-gatherer.

Let us have a look on few examples:

  • βάσκιοι ‘bundles of firewood
  • βόνασος ‘aurochs
  • γλοιός  ‘glutinous substance, gum’, CS glěnъ ‘slime’, OHG klenan ‘stick, smear’, Latin glittus ‘sticky
  • γράβιον ‘torch, oak-wood’, Ru. grab ‘horn-beam’, OPr. wosigrabis
  • γῡ́πη  ‘cavity in the earth, den, corner’, γύπας/γύψ  ‘hut, den, nest of young birds, a habitation below the earth, caverns’, connected with a Gm. word for ‘room, cave, etc’ ON kofi , OE cofa, MoHG koben, etc.
  • τρύφ-/θρυπ- ‘fragment, softness, wantonness’, Latv. drubaža ‘piece, fragment’, OIr. drucht ‘drop’, ON drjupa ‘to drip
  • καμασήν ‘name of a fish’, Lith. šãmas ‘sheatfish’, Latv. sams
  • καπνός ‘smoke, steam’, Lith. kvãpas ‘breath, smell’, Goth. af-ƕapnan ‘to extinguish’ - could however be Pre-Greek and not European.
  • καρβάτιναι ‘shoes of unprepared leather’, Lith. kùrpė ‘shoe’, Cz. krpě, ON hriflingr, OE hrifeling, OIr. cairem ‘shoe maker
  • καρπός ‘fruit, fruits of the earth, corn, yields’, Latin carpo ‘to pluck (off)’, Lith. kerpu ‘to cut with scissors’, OHG herbist ‘autumn’ < *karpistrobest time to pluck
  • κλαγγή ‘(shrill) sound, cry of an animal’, ON hlakka ‘to cry’, Latin clango
  • κρόμμυον ‘onion, Allium Cepa’, MIr. crim, OE hramsan, MoHG rams, Lith kermùšė ‘wild garlic’, Ru.čeremšá ‘Allium ursinum
  • σκάπτω ‘to dig, dig out, work the earth’, scabō ‘to scratch’, OHG ‘scaban’, Lith. skabiu ‘to scoop out with a chisel
  • τραπέω ‘to tread’, ἀτραπός ‘foot-path’, PGrm *trappon, MLG trappen ‘to stamp


  1. By the term Pre-Greek we refer to a substrate of one or more non-Indo-European languages spoken before the arrival of the first proto-Indo-European speakers to Greece. This substrate might be a so called agricultural substratum, carried by the first farmers who settled in Greece approximately 9000 years ago. Pre-Pre-Greek as the title reads would be the language spoken before what we refer to as Pre-Greek.
  2. The fact that a word appears in several Indo-European languages does not make it Indo-European, as it might not fit the Proto-Indo-European phonology and morphology.

Further reading

Beekes, Robert Stephen Paul, and Lucien Van Beek., Etymological dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
Furnée, Edzard J.  Die wichtigsten konsonantischen Erscheinungen des Vorgriechischen: mit einem Appendix über den Vokalismus. Mouton, 1972.