Etymology of Beer

I was talking with an Austrian visiting professor in the sauna during our annual graduate school seminar this week, and he explained the origin of the word 'beer.' Beer (or more accurately the German bier, which English borrowed) apparently originates from the Latin bibere, to drink. This all made perfect sense, until I began to wonder why the Germans needed a Latin word for such a Teutonic beverage. As beer and languages are two of my favourite subjects, I did a little more digging, and found this excellent investigation into the subject. The mystery deepens, however:

why did the Germans borrow a word for which there was already a perfectly good one (aluth-) in their language? The Romans were not beer-drinkers, so why use one of their words for the beverage? If a Latin word had to be used, why not the usual Latin one (or Gallo-roman, at any rate), cerevisia? Anyway, the new word ousted the old in continental west Germanic, which developed into modern German and Dutch, but both words continued in use in Britain.

So this is why we have both beer and ale in English, but öl in Scandinavian, olut in Finnish, bier in German, bière in French, birra in Italian, cerveza in Spanish and cervesa in Catalan. The more you know...

Posted on April 7, 2006 and filed under Drinks, Language, Rambling.