Eskimo words for freedom

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Under the heading Freedom 2014, "Whether it’s freedom from surveillance or freedom to be single, this spring the BBC is investigating what freedom means in the modern world". One of the BBC's own contributions to #Freedom2014 is a lovely addition to our No Word For X archive:

I'll leave it to better-informed commenters to tell us how to express various concepts of freedom in Inuit — but my guess is that "not caught" is one of a number of perfectly reasonable Inuit phrases for various senses of English free. Certainly as hunter-gatherers in marginal terrain the Inuit must have experienced many kinds of freedom in their history — though perhaps they would echo what Matthew Arnold said about philistinism: "We have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing."

If phrases like "not caught" seem inadequately abstract or general, it's worth remembering the etymological history of our own word free — according to the OED the development is from "around" to "one's own" to "(members of the household who are) one's own blood (as opposed to slaves)":

Cognate with Old Frisian frī (West Frisian frij ), Middle Dutch vrī , vrīe , vrijch , vrijg (Dutch vrij ), Old Saxon frī (only in frīlīk freely adj.; Middle Low German vrī , vrig , vryg ), Old High German frī (Middle High German vrī , German frei ), Gothic freis < the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit priya beloved, dear, (rare) friendly, Avestan friia beloved, dear, Welsh rhydd free. Icelandic frí (16th cent.), Old Swedish frir (Swedish fri ), Old Danish fri (Danish fri ), all in sense ‘free’ are ultimately borrowings < Middle Low German; the usual early Scandinavian word for ‘free’ is represented by Old Icelandic frjáls , lit. ‘free-neck’ (see frels v.). Compare also from the same Indo-European base Sanskrit priyā wife, Old English frīg love, (plural) affections, Old English Frīg the name of the goddess Frig (see Friday n.), and (in a different declension) Old English frēo woman (rare: see note), Old Saxon frī woman, wife. Compare free v., friend n., frith n.1, Friday n.

The original sense of the Indo-European base has been conjectured to be ‘one's own’ (perhaps ultimately related to the Indo-European base of Greek περί (preposition and adverb) round, around, round about: see peri- prefix), the better to explain the divergent development of sense in the different languages. Whereas the sense ‘beloved, dear’ is reflected in the Sanskrit and Avestan adjectives as well as in senses of the verbal and nominal derivatives in all the Indo-European branches in which they are attested (compare the cognates cited above and also those listed at free v.), the sense ‘free, not in servitude’ appears to be a peculiarity of Germanic and Celtic. This sense perhaps arose from the application of the word as the distinctive epithet of those members of the household who were ‘one's own blood’, i.e. who were connected by ties of kinship with the head, as opposed to the unfree slaves. In the context of wider society only the former would have full legal rights, and hence, taken together, they would comprise the class of the free, as opposed to those in servitude. Compare the Old English compounds frēobearn free-born child, child or descendant of one's own blood, frēobrōðor one's own brother, frēodohtor free-born daughter, daughter of one's own blood, frēomǣg one's own kinsman, and see further M. Scheller Vedisch ‘priyá-’ u. die Wortsippe ‘frei, freien, Freund’ (1959), D. H. Green Lang. & Hist. Early Germanic World (1998) 39–41. [emphasis added]

So, if we wanted to pursue the etymological fallacy to its logical conclusion in this case, we'd have to admit that the English concept of freedom is inextricably xenophobic, meaning something like "the state of being a privileged insider".

In contrast, the Romance forms derived from Latin libertas "liberty" and liber "free" derive from an Indo-European root *lewdʰ-o- that apparently also gave us Latin libido "pleasure, unlawful or inordinate desire, passion, caprice, wilfulness, wantonness",  Greek λιφ- "to desire",  English libertine, etc. So we can add (misleadingly but not without philological justification) that liberty is etymologically the pursuit of selfish pleasure.  (Alas, lewd is not from the same source…)

In comparison, "not caught" seems pretty reasonable, as does the Chinese 自由 (zì yóu), which in Literary Sinitic was originally "self + follow/from/due to", i.e., "deriving from self", implying "to make decisions for oneself", "to be one's own master", "to take one's own initiative", "not to be constrained and restricted".

Victor Mair explained to me that

This is one of those terms that I call "round-trip words" (start in China, go to Japan where they pick up a new [usually Western] meaning, and then go back to China with that new meaning). […] It started in Literary Sinitic as early as New Songs from the Jade Terrace (specific citation here), and first reenters Chinese with the new meaning of "freedom" from the Japanese calque jiyū around 1868.

[Tip of the hat to Robert Pryor]



  1. Rubrick said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 12:21 am

    I've heard that, since it has come to light, this vocabularic hole has caused such outrage among the Inuit that they've collectively decided to repurpose word for snow #43 to mean "freedom" from now on instead.

  2. Piyush said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 12:55 am

    Correspondingly, in many Indian languages including Hindi, the word for freedom is स्वतंत्रता (svatantrataa) or स्वाधीनता (svaadhiinataa), which literally mean "state of being under one's own system" and "state of being under one's own rule" respectively. Anther synonym, used more often in Urdu, is आज़ादी (azaadii), but I am not sure what the etymology of that one is.

  3. Rakau said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 2:53 am

    The word freedom is one of those terms that is defined by current political and social values of the time. Freedom to us, now, is certainly nothing like the freedom experienced by medieval "freemen." It is a bad choice of word to use in the "There is no word for … " context, whereas snow is snow and whether there is one word for it, or dozen, it is still cold white stuff that falls from the sky. In my language (Maori – a polynesian language spoken by indigenous New Zealanders) freedom is expressed as chiefliness or rangatiratanga. It implies self government in an individual or group sense (rangatira means a chief). We have another word, watea or free from obstruction which can be used to express being free in the sense of unobstructed. You could say that there is no word for freedom in Maori. Maybe there are words similar to freedom in meaning, but there is no single word for freedom.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 5:45 am

    To add to the 'free' cross-linguistic data base, in Arabic 'free' = hurr (freedom = hurriya). This is derived from the verb (harra) meaning to be hot. It isn't clear to me how the metaphorical sense developed.

  5. Milan said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 8:33 am

    @Rakau: if you took a Maori word of comparable abstractness, you probably wouldn't find a single English translation either: Liberty, autonomy, self-government and self-determination all seem to be closely related concepts that might be alternative translation for foreign words commonly regarded as meaning freedom.

  6. spherical said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 8:42 am

    More cognates that nicely reinforce the kinship theme in 'freedom', German used to have Freier = suitor and freien = to propose, to marry.

    The latter is obsolete, the former survives to describe the client of a prostitute.

  7. Milan said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    @spherical: I wouldn't call "freien" obsolete, since it is widely understood by educated speakers, even if it's only used humorously. It's dated or archaic at most.

    "Friend" and the synonymous German "Freund" are also cognates, as it is implied by the title of the reference at the end of the block quote: "Vedic ‘priyá-’ and the word family ‘frei, freien, Freund’ [free, propose/marry, friend]". Furtheremore, ther is "Friede" (peace) and hte English equivalent "frith".

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    Does anyone reconstruct an initial laryngeal *h₁lewdʰ- for PIE? Or is there another explanation for ἐλευθερία?

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    The etymological fallacy causes enough trouble when the etymology itself is watertight, but here the OED's story about "free" comes with qualifying language like "has been conjectured that" and "perhaps" and "would." A Germanic-only lexeme that requires that much handwaving to explain how it might have come from a given reconstructed PIE root but end up with significantly different semantics than the alleged cognates in other IE branches also just might be a coincidental homophone from an entirely different source, mightn't it?

  10. Iamaom said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    According to the Iñupiatun Eskimo Dictionary by Wolf A. Seiler:

    patchiñ n. reason, cause of action.

    patchisaikkauâiq n. liberty; freedom.

    patchisaiáaaq- vi. to be innocent; to be without

    patchisaiq- vt. 1) to free; to remove guilt. 2) to
    redeem. Syn: satuq-; tasuq-.

    patchisaiqsi n. redeemer. See: anniqsuqti.

    patchisairvik n. freedom, liberty.

    patchisait- vi. to be free, to be liberated. acquittal; a judgment, as by a jury or judge, that a defendant is not guilty of a crime

  11. Gunnar H said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

    @spherical, Milan:

    Norwegian/Swedish/Danish have a cognate to German "freien" with the same meaning ("fri/fria", vb.), which remains in common use and has picked up additional connotations and metaphorical uses, particularly in politics, where it can be used about political pandering (if the connection is unclear, think about "wooing" voters), or of offering political favors in an attempt to secure allies or coalition partners.

  12. D.O. said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    Modern concept of freedom is closely related to negative liberty, that is freedom from some constraints either physical or societal. Thus we can have freedom from searches, freedom from religion, freedom from internet etc. Naturally, societies that have no institutionalized searches, religion and have no idea what internet is are free from all of the above ipso facto. They also have no reason to have words for these specific freedoms, which makes "no word for X means abundance of X" pretty easy to fulfill.

  13. Piyush said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 2:12 pm


    I am not an expert in Arabic at all, but here is one possible metaphorical connection that comes to mind. The Farsi word josh (or at least the borrowing in Hindi and Urdu) means both "hot" and "courage, enthusiasm, vigor, zest" (so that the famous Persian dish, rogan josh literally means "hot oil") . I guess the metaphorical road from vigor and zest to freedom is much shorter than that from "hot" to freedom. So is it the case that hurr has similar connotations in Arabic as josh in Farsi?

  14. Piyush said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    There is also the issue of English having the same word for free as in free beer and free as in freedom. On the other hand, the word for free as in "free beer" in Hindi/Urdu is मुफ़्त (muft), and has no connotations of free as in freedom. (Perhaps the tweeters at BBC could take note of this fact).

    The story goes that General Cariappa—who later rose to the rank of Field Marshal in the Indian Army, but who, having grown up in South India had a somewhat shaky command of Hindi/Urdu—declared in his celebratory speech on the occasion of India achieving Independence that on that day, "हम सब मुफ़्त" [literally, "We are now all free (of cost)"].

  15. The abuses of etymology | Firefly the Great said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    […] Liberman at Language Log has an excellent critique of the statement, tweeted by the BBC World Service, that "The Inuit language doesn't […]

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

    Only tangentially on topic: Yup'ik (at any rate) doesn't have a word for "know" (so to speak), but uses the negative nallunrite- of the unanalysable base nallu- "not know" to convey that meaning.

    I would suggest that this, though it is unlike the "freedom" thing actually true, tells us absolutely nothing whatsoever about Eskimo epistemology.

  17. hector said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

    If, in fact, the closest Inuit word to "freedom" means "not caught":

    When Doris Lessing died, I read a number of interviews with her on the web. In one of them, she said "the human condition is to be trapped."

    Given that the desire for freedom is generally a desire to be free from the things that trap us and keep us confined, "not caught" strikes me as a very close counterpart to "freedom."

  18. Dustin said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

    This seems to somehow be conjugate to a memorable quote from Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods": "You have no word for freedom, like a fish has no word for wet."

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 3:51 pm


    "Azad" is Persian.

    (I cheated – this is a link followed from Wikipedia)

  20. spherical said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    @JWBrewer: I didn't mean to harness etymology, watertight or not, to explain any kind of 'true' meaning of a word – the etymological fallacy. The OP points out that a word that literally translates to 'uncaught' is a perfectly adequate expression for (among others) freedom, whose literal meaning also used to be something else, to which I intended to add.

  21. Amir said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw

    I'm pretty sure Piyush knew it was a Persian borrowing. I think he's referring to the underlying etymology.

    I just checked Platts dictionary, but unsurprisingly there's no etymological info there either.

    P.S. I loved that I just learned German Freier and freien from this thread. Can't wait to use it in a sentence

  22. Piyush said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

    @David Eddyshaw

    I know that (like much of Urdu vocabulary) 'azad' is from Farsi. What I meant was I do not know what the etymology of 'azad' in Farsi is.

  23. Piyush said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

    @David Eddyshaw

    I think I posted that last comment too soon; the link you posted actually does seem to imply that 'azad' would originally have meant "belonging to nobility". So perhaps the tweeters at BBC can add yet another factoid to their kitty: "There is no word for freedom in Persian. The closest word means 'being part of the nobility.'"

  24. Alon Lischinsky said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 7:19 am


    Does anyone reconstruct an initial laryngeal *h₁lewdʰ- for PIE?

    Mallory & Adams (2006:190) do.

  25. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

    I don't recall the language it's from but I remember a word 'vonu' which was glossed as 'invulnerability to coercion.' — a specific kind of freedom.

    Interestingly, it was regarded as a trap — excessive pursuit of vonu was seen as a sign of an immature mind, which could result in casting oneself out of society and leading a life of misery.

  26. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

    The free/noble thing turns up in West Africa too in the word "burkina", as in Thomas Sankara's new and undeniably better name for Upper Volta, Burkina Faso. It's borrowed into lots of the local Gur languages, including Moore, whence the country name (the second bit is Dyula IIRC.)

    It seems to mean basically free person i.e. not a slave, but seems very often to have the implication of noble nature. I don't think it's originally Gur and the word turns up in W Africa all over but I don't know where it originated.

    I suppose the association is a natural one, especially given the slaveowner's blithe self-justification that slaves are basically slaves because they're naturally suited to be that way. Goes right back to Aristotle in our Western culture.

  27. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

    Far as I can make out "vonu" was a creation of this bloke, assuming he hadn't lifted it from someone else:

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    Conquering an aversion to linking to sites with runes and torches on the front page:

    seems to explain it. Being traditionally Inuit is probably about as close as you could get in the real world to this supposed idyll, I guess …

  29. tuncay said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 3:22 pm


    Arabic hurr (#hrr) is not related to the word meaning hot with the same spelling. It is a borrowing from Aramaic "hur", meaning white clothed person, from "hawar", whiteness. The white clothed – free analogy is from the Roman empire where the free men were allowed to wear white.

  30. Zeppelin said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

    Georgian has "tavisupleba" for freedom, which I've always rather liked —
    literally "head-ruler-ness", "head" being commonly used in caucasian languages to mean "(one's) own".

  31. Colin Fine said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 4:46 am

    Then there's Orwell's Newspeak, where "free" survived only in the sense of "This garden is free of weeds ".

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