Let the Beer-Divider Be Chief!

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Yesterday, in a post about a traffic sign, I momentarily mistook the phonophore YOU3 酉 (calendrical symbol) for QIU2 酋 ("chief") in the character JIU3 酒 ("beer").  It turns out that YOU3 and QIU2 are both semantically, graphically, and phonetically related to JIU3 ("beer, alcohol").

YOU3 酉 is actually the original form of JIU3 酒; it depicted a jar full of beer (imagine the bottom as tapered rather than squared).  YOU3 酉 was subsequently borrowed to indicate the 10th of the 12 Earthly Branches (DI4ZHI1 地支, calendrical symbols), with the bleaching of the original meaning ("jar [full of beer]").  But as late as the Shuihudi manuscripts (late 3rd c. BC), the pictograph YOU3 酉 by itself could still signify JIU3 ("beer").  In these recently discovered manuscripts, which include laws of the Qin Dynasty, there are prohibitions against the brewing of beer by peasants.

QIU2 酋 originally signified the person in charge of apportioning beer among a group of individuals.  The character was composed of  two strokes at the top signifying "to divide" (cf. FEN 分 ["to split, divide"], where we have the same two strokes at the top with a knife at the bottom dividing the two halves above) plus 酉 (the jar of beer which was the original form of JIU3 酒, before the water radical got added to disambiguate it from the semantically bleached or attenuated Earthly Branch).  The resultant QIU2 酋 ("chief") was the person in charge of distributing the alcoholic beverage in the jar, i.e., he divided up / \ (–> \ /) the beer (in the jar) YOU3 (= JIU3) 酉 to those who were drinking, hence he was the QIU2 酋, the "beer-divider."  That must have been an important position in ancient society, because "beer-divider" later came to mean "(tribal) chief."

In the Kangxi system of 214 radicals, the "three-drops-water" at the left side of JIU3 酒 is no. 85.  There are well over 500 characters that have the "three-drops-water" as their semantic classifier.  All sorts of characters having to do with aqueousness, liquidity, moisture, and so forth are classified under this radical.  It is interesting that the phonophore for JIU3 酒 ("beer"), namely YOU3 酉, is also itself a radical, no. 164.  There are probably over 200 characters that have 酉 as their radical.  Some examples:  ZHUO2 酌 ("pour beer"), CHUN2 醇 ("mellow [of beer, tea]"), SU1 酥 ("flaky [of crust, cakes, biscuits]"), LAO4 酪 ("cheese, curds"), JIAO4 酵 ("leaven, yeast"), SUAN1 酸 ("sour, acid"), CHOU3 醜 ("ugly"), YUN4 醞 ("brew, ferment"), YI1 醫 ("medicine [as a science]"), and so forth.

The Early Middle Sinitic (ca. 600 AD) pronunciation of the three main characters discussed above are:

YOU3 酉  juw'
QIU2 酋  dzuw
JIU3 酒  tsuw'

In Old Sinitic (ca. 600 BC), all three of these words would have ended in a velar or glottal stop.

These terms are all close cognates and fall into the same phonetic series.  See Bernhard Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa, no. 1096, where early forms of 酉 (as a beer storage vessel) may be seen, and Axel Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese:  A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa, 13-36.

It is just as well that — in a moment of graphic inebriation — I innocently confused 酉 and 酋.  Otherwise, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to mature these mellow mullings (puns intended)!

Oh, I almost forgot.  Last Thursday at the Beer Summit, President Obama demonstrated why he's the real chief in Washington DC.


  1. William F Dowling said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    Tangentially related, I seem to have a dim recollection that the Persian جو "jo (barley)" in one of the few Persian words I remember from my studies 30 some years ago, آبجو "abjo (beer)", might be a source of (?) borrowed from (?) cognate with (??) JIU3 酒. Urban legend? Can somebody here help?

    Of course the آب "ab" (water) component of آبجو is recognizible to Indo-Europeanists everywhere.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    Most intriguing, William! I will try to get the input of some Iranian and Indo-European specialists on this.

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

    Should we take as given that "barley" and "beer" share a root?

    Would anybody care to elaborate on "ab"?

  4. Hiroshi KUMAMOTO said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    Persian jou 'barley' is a regular outcome of Indo-Iranian *yava-; see Mayrhofer, Etym. Wb des Altindischen, II, 404f. for cognates.

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 2:58 am

    I don't think "beer" and "barley" do share a root: the first element of "barley" goes back to Old English "bere", unsurprisingly meaning "barley", while Old English for "beer" is "bēor". As far as I know (not very far) there aren't any regular derivational processes which would get both of these forms from a single root.

  6. Pardis Minuchehr said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 5:09 am

    Very interesting. Thanks for the great post Victor.

    The Ending of the Persian word for barley جو , is actually considered to be a diphthong. So, it can be pronounced either as jow, or jaw, depending on the dialect. Perhaps, making the Chinese origin very likely.

  7. Cameron said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    Though there was an Old English cognate of modern "beer", it's probably best to think of the word as a relatively modern borrowing. The word for beer in Old English was alu, that is to say, ale. The word "beer" was borrowed from Dutch for the purpose of drawing a distinction between a hopped brew, and the un-hopped style. Since the introduction of hops to England (15th-16th centuries, I think) the word "ale" has generally been used to refer to beer made in the traditional English manner, as opposed to some continental style. Hence in the early period after the introduction of hopping, ale referred to un-hopped beer, and the term beer referred to the hopped brew. By the time hopping had pretty much become universal (but note that traditional beers from Northern England are still less hoppy than those from the South) another continental innovation had been introduced, and so the word ale came to be used in contradistinction to "lager", with the term beer becoming a generic term encompassing both styles.

    Note that French and Italian also borrowed German/Dutch Bier, giving modern French bière and italian birra, when hopping was introduced. Spanish held on to cerveca, from the late Latin term cerevisia (itself probably borrowed from Gaulish).

    There was a great little article on the history of beer terms in the original OED. I think it was in the entry for "porter". Sadly, the editors of the second edition trimmed it back somewhat.

  8. Lugubert said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    Swedish 'öl', not to be confused with the German word for oil, should have the same origin as 'ale'. Sometimes, beer is jokingly referred to as 'bira', a German loan.

    Getting back to Chinese, I suppose that the first part of today's Chinese word for beer, PI2JIU3, is a German loan. The Tsingtao Brewery was founded in 1903 by German settlers in Qingdao.

  9. William F Dowling said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Nathan Meyers: Would anybody care to elaborate on "ab"?

    There are a bunch of IE *h2ep- words with watery-sense. Sanskrit अप् "Ap" (water), Latin piscis (fish), and the fish words I think are related.

  10. Cameron said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    If there's any connection between Persian jo and the names for beer in various Chinese languages, I suspect it's more likely to be a case of Chinese borrowing the IE root.

    As noted above, the Persian word in question comes from a well-attested root *yava-. That's one of the IE roots that has been adapted to refer to different crops in different climates. The cognate term in Ossetian refers to millet. The Greek ζεά refers to spelt. Irish éorna means barley. Sankrit yáva is ambiguous – sometimes wheat, sometimes barley. As usual Lithuanian is quite conservative: http://lt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Javai

  11. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

    Surely YOU3 酉 depicted not a jar, but an amphora? (i.e. a vessel tapered at both ends; or, that is what the oracle-bone form of the character shows. Almost identical with a Greek amphora).

  12. Wolfgang Behr said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 6:18 am

    Dear Victor,

    pardon my Bavarian sensitivities, but I think it is somewhat misleading to translate jiu3 酉~酒 as "beer". In my understanding beer is fermented from barley, or, if it absolutely can not be avoided, from wheat, rice or maize, and it is flavoured with hops. It is well known, however, that the main basis for the fermentation and brewing of the spirit called jiu3 酉~酒 during the Shang period was glutinous millet (shu3 黍, panicum miliaceum). The spirit was widely used in sacrificial libations and consumed by all layers of society, and eventually gave rise to the early literary topos of the Shang's downfall on account of rampant dipsomania, nicely reflected in early Zhou bronze inscriptions and the edited literature. If jiu3 was flavoured, maybe on the basis of black millet, it was not with hops or other hemp-like plants (cannabaceae), but with fragrant herbs, resulting in a sweet wine (called li3 豊醴 in inscriptions and measured by chang 鬯), which was consumed in freshly fermented or stored varieties (cf. inscription Cui 232).

    All of this (nicely documented in Guo Shengqiang 郭勝強, "Lüe lun Yindai de zhijiu ye" 略論殷代的制酒業 [On the alcohol production of the Yin period], Zhongyuan Wenwu 3.1986, and Raimund Th. Kolb, Die Landwirtschaft im alten China, T. 1, Shang-Yin, Berlin: Systemata Mundi 1992, pp. 70-74) sounds like a more high proof wine or liquour to me, for which Endymion's amphora (i.e. a zun 尊) certainly was the adequate container. There is even a cute oracle bone inscription (Jia 2121) saying:

    "Crack-making on a jiazi-day (=day 1 of the ritual cycle), tested: Bi lies trashed on the sickbed (酒在疒). He will not execute the king's undertakings."

    Finally I doubt that the top part of qiu2 酋 is etymologically the same as the signific 八 "open, divide". Qiu2 does not occur in oracle bone inscriptions, and in the earliest bronze inscriptions where it does, it has a wavy line (like a doubled ligature proofreader mark: ⁀⁀) as its top part, which only becomes corrupted into 八 only in Warring States seal and bamboo inscriptions. Thus, while there can be little doubt that jiu3 and qiu2 are etymologically related (maybe by the morphological process called "tone A" or zero-derivation by Schuessler in his Etym. Dict. of OC), and that one of the important functions of a qiu2 was to distribute alcohol, as still reflected in early titles like 大酋 referring to a person in charge of jiu3), we can only speculate by what quality such a "chief" was iconically identified through the top ⁀⁀ in the character: maybe he was not a beer-divider, but just a wiggly alpha booze head …


  13. David Marjanović said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    There are a bunch of IE *h2ep- words with watery-sense.

    And isn't there a connection between /p/ and /kʷ/, each changing into the other on often irregular occasions?

  14. Terry Collmann said,

    August 9, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    The Sumerian cuneiform symbol for "beer", I believe, started off as a representation of a grooved pointy-bottomed pot of the sort used by Sumerians to brew in …

    Wolfgang, your mileage may vary, but the usually accepted technical definition of "beer" is anything brewed from cereal which has undergone a three-step conversion of the starch to sugar before the sugar is converted into alcohol, while "wine" is made from fruit, where the production of alcohol is directly from sugar, so if it's made from millet, a starch-containing grain, it must be a beer.

  15. Chau H. Wu said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Dear Victor:

    I just happened to read your post and the interesting comments today. I would like to contribute my "two cents." 酋 in Old Chinese had the meaning of 'the wine that has finished fermentation', and in the phrase 大酋 'the chief official in charge of wines'. However, the character 酋 in Modern Chinese and Japanese means 'chieftain' only, and is used in the two-syllable word 酋長 to denote 'chieftain of an ancient or native tribe'. The old meanings have become obsolete.

    In Taiwanese 酋 is pronounced siû (in Taiwanese romanization script). Thus, 酋長 'chieftain' is pronounced as siû-tiúnn or siû-tióng. In my research on the etymology of Taiwanese, I find that because the Taiwanese phonology lacks the th- sound (Greek θ or Germanic þ) as in English 'thigh', the th- sound from foreign loanwords is usually rendered either as s- or t-. With this background it is easy to see the correspondence of siû-tiúnn with Gothic þiudans, Old Norse þjōðann, and Old English þēoden 'chieftain, king'. The legendary hero-king Beowulf is called a þēoden. Much as 'hamburger' is rendered as 漢堡 (han4-bao3), when a foreign loanword is adopted, the Chinese use characters that approximate the original sound.

  16. Rex Remes said,

    November 26, 2010 @ 3:29 am

    I believe JIU3 in chinese means alcohol/liquor. There is PiJiu for beer, HongJiu (red liquor) and PuTaoJiu (grape liquor) for wine, BaiJiu (white liquor) for clear, chinese distilled liquor from rice.

    What I find interesting is that the Russian word for beer is PIVO … which is very similar to PiJiu.

    Supposedly the Chinese made a "beer-like" beverage thousands of years ago, leading to the production of HuangJiu (Yellow Wine/Liquor) until modern beer became popularized by the Russians and Germans in the 19th century.

  17. Aaron Mansheim said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    Quite parallel to this, I heard in a recorded lecture by Seth Lerer that "lord" originates as hlafweard "loaf-guard".

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