Sumerian beer

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There is a clear resemblance between the Sumerian and the Chinese glyphs for "beer", both of which depict a jug with a pointed bottom and an extended narrow neck (here, here). It's interesting that the oracle bone forms (second half of second millennium BC) for 酒 all have the three drops of water as a semantophore, whereas the bronze inscriptional forms (first millennium BC) and even some of the seal forms (latter part of the first millennium BC) lack the three dots for liquid, making the character for jiǔ 酒 identical to that for yǒu 酉 ("an ancient vase used in making and storing fermented millet liquors") — for all these forms, see here.

Wanting to investigate more deeply the Sumerian side of the equation, I asked my colleague, Philip Jones, a Sumerologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, for more information about the Sumerian word for beer, kaš.  He replied:

Kaš "beer" is written with a sign that we call the BI sign and can be found by typing bi or kasz into the search field on (If you scroll down the results page, you will see various words written with this sign and will be able to click through to the dictionary entries for those words. The sign itself indeed is almost certainly based on a pictograph for a beer vessel.
The word is pronounced /kash/, but for various reasons /sh/ is represented by [sz] in ePSD (Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary) searches.

Given the polyvalency of signs and the difficulties of representing the shape of cuneiform signs in easily affordable ways, Assyriology has always been keen on using transliteration and over the decades a more or less consistent naming system has evolved for disambiguating signs. Sometimes this is actually based on ancient lexical lists providing sign names, other times, either the most frequently used value is chosen or the value closest to the underlying pictograph.

Typographically, the sign-names are in upper case, while what we call values are in lower case.
You are perfectly at liberty to call it the KAŠ sign rather than the BI sign – although "everyone" automatically knows the difference between the BI and the BI2 signs, while KAŠ vs KAŠ2 is slightly more tricky (partly because kaš, kas2 = KAŠ/BI, while kaš2, kas = KASKAL sign)

The value /bi/ of the BI sign is sometimes thought to derive from a hypothesized non-Sumerian language (Proto-Euphratic) being the origin of proto-cuneiform and having a word for beer which is /bi/ or /bi+??/. It is more likely that it derives from the Sumerian /biz/ "to trickle, drip, ouze". The most common use of the sign is to represent the grammatical clitic /bi/ meaning "its, their".

Just for the record, the etymology of "beer":

From Middle English bere, from Old English bēor (beer), from Proto-West Germanic *beuʀ, from Proto-Germanic *beuzą (beer) (putatively from Proto-Indo-European *bʰeusóm), meaning 'brewer's yeast.

Cognate with Saterland Frisian Bjoor, West Frisian bier, German Low German Beer, Dutch bier, German Bier, Icelandic bjór (beer).


Alcoholic drink made from grain, generally barley, infused with hops and boiled and fermented, Old English beor "strong drink, beer, mead," cognate with Old Frisian biar, Middle Dutch and Dutch bier, Old High German bior, German Bier; a West Germanic word of much-disputed and ambiguous origin.

Probably a 6c. West Germanic monastic borrowing of Vulgar Latin biber "a drink, beverage" (from Latin infinitive bibere "to drink," from PIE root *po(i)- "to drink"). Another suggestion is that it comes from Proto-Germanic *beuwoz-, from *beuwo- "barley." The native Germanic word for the beverage was the one that yielded ale (q.v.). "The word occurs in OE., but its use is rare, except in poetry, and it seems to have become common only in the 16th c. as the name of a hopped malt liquor." [OED] They did have words for it, however. Greek brytos, used in reference to Thracian or Phrygian brews, was related to Old English breowan "brew;" Latin zythum is from Greek zythos, first used of Egyptian beer and treated as an Egyptian word but perhaps truly Greek and related to zymē "leaven."

Spanish cerveza is from Latin cervesia "beer." Old Church Slavonic pivo, source of the general Slavic word for "beer," is originally "a drink" (compare Old Church Slavonic piti "drink"). French bière is a 16c. borrowing from German. U.S. slang beer goggles, through which every potential romantic partner looks desirable, is from 1986.

Beer was a common drink among most of the European peoples, as well as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but was known to the Greeks and Romans only as an exotic product. [Buck]


For extensive notes on the etymology and history of beer and ale, see the Wikipedia articles on these subjects (here and here).

The words derived from the IE root for "beer" are remarkably diverse:

pō(i)- / Indo-European roots

Examples of words with the root pō(i)-: beer, beverage, bib, bibulous, hibachi, imbibe, pierogi, pinocytosis, poison, potable, potation, potatory, potion, symposium.


To drink.

Oldest form *peh3(i)-, colored to *poh3(i)-.
I. Basic form *pō(i)-, reduced to *pō- (< *poh3).
1. Suffixed form *pō-to-. potable, potation, potatory from Latin pōtus, drunk; a drink (whence pōtāre, to drink).
2. Suffixed form *pō-ti-. poison, potion from Latin pōtiō, a drink.
3. Suffixed form *pō-tlo-, drinking vessel. hibachi from Sanskrit pātram, cup, bowl.
4. Suffixed reduplicated zero-grade form *pi-pə-o- (oldest form *pi-ph3-o-), whence *pi-bo-, assimilated to *bi-bo-. beer, beverage, bib, bibulous; imbibe, imbrue from Latin bibere, to drink.
5. Suffixed zero-grade form *pə-ti- (oldest form *ph3-ti-), *po-ti-. symposium from Greek posis, drink, drinking.
II. Zero-grade form *pī- (< *piə-).
1. Suffixed form *pī-ro-. pierogi, pirozhki from Slavic *pirŭ, feast (Old Church Slavonic pirŭ).
2. Suffixed (nasal present) form *pī-no-. pinocytosis from Greek pīnein, to drink.

[Pokorny 2. pō(i)- 839.]

(source:  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Appendix of IE roots)

The word among these IE derivates that most boggled my mind is "hibachi" ("portable charcoal-burning brazier with a grill, used chiefly for cooking"), which I always thought of as a purely (Sino-)Japanese word borrowed into English.  It turns out, though, that the main root is from Sanskrit.

Japanese : hi, fire + -bachi, combining form of hachi, bowl (from Middle Chinese pat, Buddhist monk's begging bowl (also the source of Mandarin , from Sanskrit pātram, cup, bowl; see pō(i)- in Indo-European roots).

(source:  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Appendix of IE roots)

Where beliefs, activities, objects, and technologies travel, words often go with them, across distant lands and oceans — but not always.


Selected readings


  1. Dan Milton said,

    April 4, 2022 @ 11:30 am

    Wiktionary"s putative Proto-Indo-European word for Brewer's yeast seems unlikely. Beer was fermented by wild yeast for millenia before anyone recognized the causative substance.

  2. martin schwartz said,

    April 4, 2022 @ 3:11 pm

    Is there any possibility that 1) Russ. piróg etc. and Turk. börek
    are somehow related, and, much less likely, 2) Turk. boza (an alcoholic drink fermented from wheat or millet) and the Germanic 'beer' word are related? As for Greek zuthos (u circumflex), I've contemplated a Scythian origin, cf. Sogdian zwt'k (/zutē?) 'an alcoholic drink', perhaps from Ir. √zu 'to pour as libation'.
    By the way, the Anchor Beer Company has marketed a Sumerian beer as part of the Sumerian Beer Project. I had some long ago,
    but can't remember its taste. Skt. pātram has an exact cognate in Lat. poculum. Martin Schwartz
    Martin Schwartz

  3. CuConnacht said,

    April 4, 2022 @ 3:45 pm

    Dan Milton, could not our Indo-European forebears have used the barm, foam, yeast, from one batch of beer as the starter for the next? You are more sure of your result once you have figured that out.

  4. Chris Button said,

    April 4, 2022 @ 9:13 pm

    It's interesting that the oracle bone forms (second half of second millennium BC) for 酒 all have the three drops of water as a semantophore …

    Takashima notes this to be a misinterpretation of the three slashes in the early forms, which are not drops of water.

    making the character for jiǔ 酒 identical to that for yǒu 酉 ("an ancient vase used in making and storing fermented millet liquors")

    The phonological relationship between the onsets of 酉 ʁ- and 酒 ts- has parallels elsewhere. Perhaps the most notable is between 巳 ɣ- and 子 ts- (the calendrical sign 巳 being originally written with the form that became 子)

    That 卣 "wine vessel" (also in the oracle-bone inscriptions) is homophonous with 酉 is surely not coincidental.

  5. ~flow said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 5:29 am

    re Chris Button
    "Takashima notes [the three drops of water] to be a misinterpretation of the three slashes in the early forms, which are not drops of water."

    Citation needed… this goes against the grain (sorry) of most people's understanding. Three drops of water appear to be a very fitting semantophore and have been understood and written as the water semantophore for millenia. Granted I can find some forms online where the water element looks somewhat atypical but then there's overall a lot of variation in OBI forms.

    How does Takashima justify his analysis, and what does he say the three slashes are meant to represent?

  6. /df said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 5:57 am

    If we see, say, the word for "bell" in two apparently unrelated languages as *ding and *dong, onomatopoeia will likely be preferred over borrowing or common ancestry to explain the similarity.

    Presumably a similar logic could apply when two scripts use a symbol for beer that resembles a container or drinking vessel? One person on the Web suggests that "onomableva" is the word for the visual equivalent of onomatopoeia.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 6:25 am

    On the basis of what etymology ? Google Translate happily renders "onomatopoeia" into Greek as ονοματοποιία but has no idea how to handle "onomableva".

  8. Chris Button said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 6:32 am

    @ ~flow

    Palaeographically, there is no evidence (or in Takashima’s 2010 words “total lack of support”) for treating the three slashes here as water. Just looking in Matsumaru & Takashima’s Sо̄ran, that interpretation of this character goes back as far as 1933 and seems to be maintained in most transcriptions by academics. The three slashes are rather the same three slashes that became the base of 易. Water would have been inscribed differently—just take a look at some forms where it is attested.

    Having said that, the idea that the character in question here still might represent 酒 despite its lack of the “water” component does seem to be maintained by several academics. Takashima seems to first tackle it head on pages 680-681 of his 1988 article “An emphatic verb phrase in the oracle-bone inscriptions”, where he notes that contextual and syntactic considerations favor interpreting it as “some way of cutting, the neat and beautiful execution of which must have been required as a preparatory sacrifice”. He then repeats the argument in several publications. A recent one is in his massive Bingbian (1992) volume.

  9. Chris Button said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 6:34 am

    * Bingbian 2010 volume

  10. Chris Button said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 6:46 am

    Also just to add, Takashima also notes a clear case of 酒 with the water component and 酉 in the oracle-bone inscriptions. There seems to only be one example along with a likely variant, but the crucial point is that the form in question with the three slashes is indisputably distinct, regardless of how its actual meaning is interpreted.

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