Tree Names (Under Construction)

European plant names tend to have unclear etymologies. Trade-able goods and materials are the most common Wanderwörter yet the trees of Europe have particularly similar-sounding names. The question is whether their appearance merely coincidental or indicative of a single source language.

Who were these lost Adams and Eves that named so many trees in the Garden of Europe? There are a few candidates for some of the donor languages. Many of these examples are tied to Greece, pointing to a Pre-Greek or Paleo-Balkan source. To the best of our knowledge, these examples probably form multiple substrata of source languages, rather than a single layer from one language. At least one of the substrata was located close to Greece (or in Greece), while another was north of Greece, probably in the Balkans, and a third was even further north. Leschber (2012) provides an excellent review of many of these arbornyms but the fullest list of proposed source languages is below. No other publication, to my knowledge, has bothered to list them all in a single place.

Some tree names fall under specifically or generally identified substrata. Most of these substrata are debated, though the existence of Pre-Greek is virtually undisputed today, and some are outright rejected by the majority. I have included my own [bracketed] comments to help the layman navigate through the seas of scholarly opinion. The expert will have no need for my comments. The identities of some of the tree name substrata are:

  1. [Debated] Northern European: Responsible for Germanic, Celtic, and possibly Uralic loans. Though many of the proposed etyma are accepted as foreign, this is marked a debated category as Kroonen is mostly unique in distinguishing it from #2: European. Kroonen.
  2. [Accepted] European: Responsible for Germanic, Celtic, Balto-Slavic and Italic loans with peripheral loans (Etruscan and paleo-European languages). Kroonen.
  3. [Accepted] Pre-Greek: Responsible for Greek loans of particular sound, grammar, and structure (see Beekes 2003 for a full discussion; introduction to Beekes 2014 for a quick summary). Furnée, Beekes.
  4. [Mostly accepted] Balkan: A catch-all for a difficult and broad topic. Responsible for Italic and Greek loans, as well as Balkan IE loans. The area undoubtedly was home to many languages. Beekes, de Vaan, Genaust.
  5. [Not accepted] Vasconic: While Basque is indeed the source of modern and antique IE words, the concept of a vast Vasconic substratum is peculiar to Vennemann and rejected by nearly all others. Vennemann.
  6. [Generally not accepted] Sardinian: The language native to Sardinia was probably spoken on the continent as well, but I am unclear as to how one would identify it. [I do not accept the Vasconic or Sardinian hypotheses]. Leschber.

But in general, what can be succinctly describe about tree names is simply that all the Indo-European tribes had to learn the flora of a new land. When the IE peoples entered into Europe, they learned a new language for describing the world. These words represent the last echoes of people whose cultures died long before pen touched paper.

*abi- "fir tree." Substratum. Rarity of *b in PIE hints at non-IE origin. Beekes points out that ab-initial names occur in Illyrian and Iranian languages. Genaust argues this is a word from Italy or the Balkans. [Seems almost indubitably from the Balkan region, near or in Illyria]. Genaust 2012; Leschber 2012; de Vaan 2014; Beekes 2014. Leschber notes that Mallory & Adams (1997) accept this as non-substratal PIE *h2ebi-.

abies, -etis (f. t.) "fir tree." Latin.

ἄβιν (acc. m./f.) "fir tree," "silver fir." Greek.

ACHER? Substrate (Pre-Greek?) or Macedonian. Beekes dismisses Macedonian connection as unsupported in the literature, though acknowledges that it's phonologically possible. [Assuming prothetic vowel, reconstruction would resemble *khVrd- or *ghVrd-; someone with more time on their hands should invest the time in reconstructing this]. Connection to ἀχράς is obvious but as yet still not exhaustively investigated. Beekes 2014.

ἄχερδος (f.) "wild pear" Greek. Albanian cognate betrays Greek initial ἄ- as prothetic vowel (Beekes 2014).  

*ghord- "pear" Proto-Albanian.

dardhë "pear" Albanian. 

ἀχράς -άδος (f.) "wild pear tree," "wild pear." Beekes notes that alternate form ἀ-χερδ- points to e/a alternation and metathesis. Such a change can be explained within IE but Beekes and Furnée hypothesize Pre-Greek. See ACHER?. Furnée 1972; Beekes 2014.

*akr-no- "maple tree." Pre-Proto-Germanic; Substratum. Note: syllabic *r. Proposal linking Germanic forms with Latin but not to Greek. For alternative explanation see AKR?. Kroonen 2014.

*ahra- "maple tree." Proto-Germanic. Non-nasalized whence Swedish ära and Danish ære-træ. Kroonen 2014.

*ahurna- "maple tree." Proto-Germanic. Main form. Reflex also in Old Church Slavonic borrowing avor-ovъ "made of maple." Kroonen 2014.

*ak-r- "maple tree." Pre-Proto-Italic; Substratum. 

*ak-er- "maple tree." Proto-Italic. Syllabic *-r- receives vowel.

acer, -eris (n. r.) "maple tree." Latin. The only Latin tree-name of unclear etymology that is masculine and not feminine. [Germanic cognates seem more likely than the Greek proposals]. de Vaan 2014; Leschber 2012.

AKR? "maple tree." Substratum. Unreconstructed source to lemmata in Greek, Proto-Italic, and Proto-Germanic. Likely if we assume that Latin and Germanic forms are related and are also related to Greek. For alternate proposal, see *akr-no-. [Kroonen's theory of syllabic *-r- < *-Vr- is extremely parsimonius, even here. Even under de Vaan's thesis, we are almost inexorably led to accept *akr-].

ἄκαστος "maple tree" Greek. From *ἄκαρ-στος?. de Vaan 2014; Leschber 2012.

*ak-er- "maple tree." Proto-Italic. Proto-Italic borrowing via unknown source.

acer, -eris (n. r.) "maple tree." Latin. The only Latin tree-name of unclear etymology that is masculine and not feminine. [Germanic cognates seem more likely than the Greek proposals]. de Vaan 2014; Leschber 2012.

*aχurna- "maple tree." Proto-Germanic; Substratum. From ahorn "maple tree." Old High Germanic. de Vaan 2014.

*aχira- "maple tree." Proto-Germanic; Substratum. Reflexes in Old Danish, New High German. de Vaan 2014.

*alsnos "alder" Pre-Proto-Italic; Substratum. Mallory & Adams (1997) note that this hinges upon not accepting Hittite alanza(n) as indicative of a Proto-Anatolian *h2elsnos via metathesis. If we buy that Hittite is related, this is probably from PIE *h2éliso/eh2-. That being said, underlying form in non-Anatolian reflexes suggests *a-li-so, a distinctly non-IE pattern. Balto-Slavic and Discovered suffixes *ß-s-/-is. de Vaan 2014.

*alsno- Proto-Italic. [Matches closely PBS *a/el(i)snio-].

alnus (f. o.) "alder" Latin. Note: no Greek cognates. de Vaan 2014.

*a/elisaH "alder," "spruce." Proto-Balto-Slavic. de Vaan 2014.

*a/el(i)snio- "alder thicket," "marsh," "dale." Proto-Balto-Slavic. de Vaan 2014.

*alis/zo "alder." Proto-Germanic. Reflexes in Old High Germanic, Modern Dutch and Spanish (via unattested Gothic). de Vaan 2014.

*al-s- "alder." Proto-Germanic. Reflexes in Old Icelandic, Old English. de Vaan 2014.

ἀτάλυμνος (f.) "plum tree." Pre-Greek. Beekes (2014) simply writes, "unknown, but no doubt a substrate word." Yields non-IE suffix -υμνος.

(E)LM? "elm tree," "elm." Substratum. Much has been written about this problem. Some linkages to PIE yield *h1elmo- / *h1olmo- / *h1lmo- which de Vaan (2014) describes as "hardly credible." [There is a clear ablaut at work here and writing this off as non-IE seems too easy]. Germanic reflexes do not point to a single Proto-Germanic form and they were not borrowed from Latin (and there were Germanic languages that did borrow from Latin/Old French). Other elm lemmata can be retraced to PIE (see de Vaan 2014 for a list). Schrijver (1997) argues Celtic vs. Germanic and Italic demonstrates an Old European *Vlm- / *lVm- alternation. Schrijver 1997; Leschber 2012; de Vaan 2014.


*limo- "elm" Proto-Celtic. 

lem "elm" Old Irish.


*elmos "elm" Early Proto-Italic.

*olmos "elm" Proto-Italic.

ulmus (f. o.) "elm," "elm tree." Latin.

ëlmboum "elm" Old High Germanic. 

elm "elm" English.

almr "elm" Old Icelandic. 

farnus "pear tree" Latin. While Latin fraxinus has an easy PIE etymology, Latin farnus cannot be satisfactorily derived from PIE without multiple of ad hoc rules. [In my opinion, this one is a mess. It could just be the result of idiosyncratic changes within IE and we'll never know it]. Leschber 2012; de Vaan 2014.

*gis-nó- "pine tree." Substratum. Kroonen 2014.

*kizna- "pine tree" Proto-Germanic. 

*ké:zna- "pine tree" Proto-West Germanic.

cen "pine tree" Old English.

Kien "pine tree" German.

*gis-usto- "pine tree" Proto-Celtic. 

crand-gíus "pine tree" Old Irish.

giumhas "resin" Irish. Difficult to trace to *gis-usto-, perhaps representative of alternative Proto-Celtic etymon.

giuthas "fir" Gaelic. Same difficulty as giumhas

*kuse, *kose type of tree Proto-Uralic. Variously reconstructed.

kuusi "fir," "spruce" Finnish.

guossâ "spruce" North Saami.

*ǵogh-on- "shrub," "stem of a (small) tree" North European Substratum. Perhaps related to *ko:ko:n- (see *ko:kko:n- in Pre-Proto-Germanic) and *kagila-. Kroonen 2014.

*kagan- (m.) "stem of a (small) tree" Proto-Germanic. 

kagi (m.) "shrub," "young tree." Old Norse.

cag "trunk." English.

*ǵogh-oro- [(m.) "part of a tree," "shrubbery"] Proto-Baltic.

žãgaras (m.) "twig," (pl.) "shrubs" Lithuanian.

žagari (pl.) "shrubs" Latvian.

*klun-i- "maple tree" Substratum. Possible European loanword but perhaps from PIE *kléu-un (nom.); *klu-én-s (gen.) as a proterodynamic noun satisfies vowel disagreement in various reflexes. [Probably barking up the wrong tree here on this one.] Kroonen 2014.

*hluni- Proto-Germanic. 

*kleu-o- Proto-Baltic.

*klen-o- Proto-Slavic.

*lent-eh2- "lime tree." Substratum. A Germanic and Balto-Slavic Wanderwort. Kroonen 2014.

*lindo:- (f.) "lime tree" Proto-Germanic.

*lont-o- "lime tree bark" Proto-Slavic.

*lont-io- "lime tree bark," "willow twig(?)." Proto-Slavic.

*lent-eh2- "lime tree bark," "board." Proto-Baltic

?MAL "apple," "apple tree." Accepted as IE by Mallory & Adams but rejected by Beekes. Like the alder tree problem, acceptance of an IE connection hinges upon Anatolian words of distant meaning and sound (see *alsnos). If connected to Hittite maḫla- "grape," "vine," "vine twig" then we can accect PIE *meh2lom "apple." If rejected, then we may be looking at a loanword. Leschber 2012; Beekes 2014.

μῆλον "apple" Greek.

malum, melum "apple" Latin. Formed from Greek stems. 

*nino- "ash tree." Pre-Proto-Celtic. Matasovic 2014.

ὄγχνη (f.) "pear tree," "pear." Pre-Greek; Substratum. Furnée speculates Pre-Greek. Beekes goes on to point to ἔγχος "lance," assuming a lance was made of pearwood, with a difficult Homeric attestation ἐγχείη. [The pear tree was a common substrate word; see ἀχράς and ἄχερδος]. Furnée 1972; Beekes 2014.

ORN? Substratum. [Proposal by Leschber and probably wrong. We have little-to-no reason to accept this as a substratum word. Latin, Germanic, Armenian, and Albanian forms point to PIE *Heh3-s- or *Hh3-es-. Balto-Slavic points to PIE *Heh3s-. Only Greek form stands to reason as a Pre-Greek loan, in which case, see ὀξύα -η for a much fuller, conservative discussion.] Leschber 2012.

ornus (f.) "mountain ash tree." Latin. 

ὀξύα (f.) "beech." Greek.

ὀξύα -η "ash tree." Pre-Greek?; substratum. de Vaan considers this not a substrate and from PIE *Hh3-o/es-, and he continues that Latin and Celtic forms are common suffixes *-Vno- and *-no- respectively (cf. fraxinus). Beekes is less certain, acknowledges possible *Heh3-s- or *Hh3-es- but speculates that Greek form is deceptively similar, but from Pre-Greek, not PIE. Beekes 2014.

PI? "pear," "pear tree." All proposed IE connections have been very difficult to believe, though not impossible. [As there is only a Greek and Latin reflex, this is an excellent Balkan candidate]. Beekes 2014; de Vaan 2014.

pirum (n. o.) "pear" Latin. Whence pirus "pear tree." Leschber 2012.

ἄπιον, ἄπιος (m.) "pear," (f.) "pear tree." Greek. First proposed as Mediterranean loan by Hubschmid (1963). Beekes 2014.

pheṣ̌o "pear" Burushaski. Virtually no one but Berger links this word with the others. [Note, however, that even Watkins suggested that apple was connected to Burushaski; it's not out of the question to speculate at a Wanderwort, if a little hard to believe. Take this with a grain of salt]. Berger 1983.

PIT? "pine," "pine tree." de Vaan and Beekes point to Old European loanword, possibly Pre-Greek. For counter-proposal, see Mallory & Adams (1997), who reconstruct PIE *pit(u)- "conifer" with reflexes in Albanian and Sanskrit. de Vaan 2014; Beekes 2014.

πίτυς -υος (f.) "pine," "fir," "spruce." Greek.

*piksno- or *pitsno- Pre-Latin; Substratum. Latin /i:n/ may be reduction of complex consonant cluster.

pinus (f. u. / o.) "pine tree," "pine wood." Latin. 

pix "pitch," "resin." Latin. 

pis "pine tree" Albanian. 

populus (f.) "poplar tree." Latin. No etymology proposed but Leschber (2012) includes it among her list of substrata. Beekes (2014) rejects link to πτελέα

PRU? Pre-Greek or Anatolian loanword. Beekes (2014) contends the Greek etymon is either Pre-Greek or Anatolian loanword. As the tree comes from Anatolian, so then the name. 

προύμνη "plum." Greek. 

*πρου(ϝ)νον "plum tree." Greek. Intermediate form. Furnée 1972.

prunum (f.) "plum," -us "plum tree." Latin. From Greek.

Πρυμνησσός "plum tree." Phrygian. 

quercus (f. u.) "oak tree." Latin. [I see little reason to assume a non-IE origin]. Leschber 2012 citing Vennemann 2003. For a PIE explanation, see de Vaan 2014.

*ß-s-/-is (suffixes) Substratum. Balto-Slavic and Germanic variations reveal twin suffixes of unknown meaning; appears in *alsnos. Derksen 2008.


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de Vaan, Michiel. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and other Italic Languages. Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries Online. Ed. by Alexander Lubotsky. Brill, 2014. 'Brill Online'. 10 February 2014.

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Kroonen, Guus. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Ed. by Alexander Lubotsky. Brill, 2014. 'Brill Online'. 10 February 2014.

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