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Straight Talking

Alby Stone

Way back in 1980, Jim Kimmis drew the attention of earth mysteries researchers to Eric Partridge's work on the Indo-European root word *reg- (The Ley Hunter No.89). Since then, Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux have added to these ideas in Lines on the landscape (Robert Hale, 1989, p246ff) and Paul provided an even more detailed resumé in Shamanism and the mystery lines (Quantum, 1992, p108ff).

In this article Alby Stone provides his own critique of the way in which 'straightness' and 'kingship' merge in such words as 'ruler'.


A great number of words, in most Indo-European languages, that refer to kingship, rule, or governance, are believed to derive from the root *reg-. There is Latin rex, Italian re, French roi, Spanish rey, Rumanian rege; Irish ri; Breton roue; Sanskrit rajan-, raj-; Gothic reiks: all mean 'king, ruler'.

Similar derivations are accepted for Latin regere (direct, guide, rule); From the Latin, we have Italian reggere and French regir (administer, manage). There is also Sanskrit rj- (direct, attain); Dutch regeeren (govern); Old High German rihhison, Gothic reikinon, OE ricsian (rule, govern) and so on. These are distinct from another common Indo-European terminology based on the idea of power, might; and a third rooted in words meaning 'to steer'.

Also from *reg- comes common right hand terminology in some middle and modern Germanic languages (but not Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, or Old High German) and French. The more general terminology is determined by a group of words typified by Latin dexter, Sanskrit daksina (meaning better, best) or the likes of Old English swithra (strongest). Right (as opposed to 'wrong') is commonly based on *reg- in Sanskrit and all the Germanic tongues, ancient and modern; but is not typical (although sometimes present) in other languages of the Indo-European family. Right (as in a privilege or legal claim) is distributedted in more or less the same way, as is right used to mean moral correctness.

These represent a small sample of words derived from *reg-. In spite of the usual rendering of *reg- as 'straight', it actually seems clear enough that it had more than one meaning - or, perhaps, one basic meaning with a number of divergent connotations, all of which are thematically coherent:


1. Straight (in the accepted sense);
2. Upright (erect, perpendicularly straight);
3. Correct (true, in order, moral);
4. Encompassing (reaching or stretching out, collecting), as in modern English rake, etc.

The key would appear to lie in words such as regulate, which means to keep constant or orderly - to maintain an accepted state of affairs. Rulers named for *reg- could be either kings or priests; in early Latin rex apparently once denoted the priest who drew the line of a settlement or city - this is generally assumed to have been a straight line, which would thus be the axis of the central sacred or administrative precinct; but it is equally possible that it was the boundary (which is certainly given greater prominence in the Roman foundation myth), in which case straightness would be a potentially defunct concept. But it does leave open a number of circumstances in which a curved, circular, or sinuous line could, perhaps quite legitimately, be termed 'straight'!

This linguistic exercise shows that the meanings that may originally have been ascribed to *reg- offer rather more than just 'straightness' as the underlying concept. For instance, Latin regio, from regere (direct, guide, rule), can denote a direction, line, boundary, or - as its modern English descendant region implies - a district. Latin usage (which determines all the Romance words) suggests that regula (a straight stick, bar, or template) owes its meaning to rex or reg- compounds with meanings relevant to kingship or rule. Regula is the source of French regle and our own cognate, ruler.

From this we can postulate that a regula was first conceived of as a guide (for the hand) instead of simply a straight-edge. Something similar can be posited for the right hand conceived as the guiding hand. A book could be written about right hand/left hand terminology; but here it is worth noting that the *reg- usage most probably owes its existence to the idea of the dexter hand as the 'true' (steady, reliable) one, as opposed to the weak or unreliable left.

The development and distribution of *reg- through the major branches of early to medieval Indo-European can be tabulated as follows:


1. SANSKRIT: rju- (straight); rj- (to make straight); rajan-, raj- (king); rju- (right, moral).
2. AVESTAN (ancient Iranian): erezu- (straight); rasta- (straight way); eresva- (right, moral).
3. OLD CHURCH SLAVONIC: no known cognates or reflexes.
4. GREEK: orthus (straight); oregu, (to reach, stretch).
5. LATIN: rectus (straight); regere (to direct, lead); rex (king); rectus (right, moral).
6. OLD IRISH: diriuch (straight); rigim (to stretch out); recht (law, authority); r (king).
7. GOTHIC: raihts (straight); (uf-)rahjan (to stretch out); reikinon (to rule, govern); reiks ( ruler); garaihts (right, moral); rikan (to heap up).
8. OLD NORSE: rettr, rakr (straight); rekja (to stretch out); rettr (law, legal claim); retti (direction); retta (to direct, rule, lead); rgr (king); rettr (right, moral); raka (to sweep together).
9. OLD ENGLISH: riht (straight); reccan (to stretch out); riht (justice); rihtan (to direct, rule, lead); ricsian (to rule, govern); rica (ruler); riht (right, moral); raca (to rake).
10. OLD HIGH GERMAN: reht (straight); recchan (to stretch out); reht (justice); rihhison (to rule, govern); rihhi (ruler); reht (right, moral); rehho (to rake).

The terminology can be categorised in the following way:

KING/RULER: Avestan has no significant cognate for 'king', suggesting that the Sanskrit one may have evolved after the split between Indic and Iranian. Greek has no cognate form, nor has Old Church Slavonic. Irish and Latin forms derive from a common Italo-Celtic cognate; and the Germanic forms are usually accepted as a borrowing from Celtic (Gaulish rix, etc).

STRETCH, REACH: Not apparent in Sanskrit, Avestan, or Slavonic, but does occur in Greek, Irish, and Germanic.

RULE/GOVERN: Germanic, to a lesser extent in Irish.

LEAD/DIRECT/GUIDE: Latin, Germanic; reflexes in Irish.

(MORALLY) RIGHT: Occurs in all except Greek, Slavonic; weak in Irish.

(LEGAL) RIGHT: Germanic only.

SWEEP UP, HEAP UP, COLLECT: Germanic only.

STRAIGHT: All but Slavonic; but derivation of Greek orthus is uncertain.

The virtual disappearance of *reg- as a major stem in Slavic is a bit of a mystery; knowledge of Old Church Slavonic is limited to translations of the Bible and a few odd fragments, so there is little to help there.

Recently, it has been proposed that the *reg- king etymology has been interpreted incorrectly (see Mallory, p. 125). Earliest uses of raj in the Vedas are as a feminine noun meaning 'strength, power'. This has been allied to a revision of *reg- as 'to be efficacious, to have mana'; and implies a Proto-Indo-European word for a protector or charismatic person, but not strictly a king. The absence of related words for a king or governance in Avestan, Greek, and Slavonic - 'descended' from Indo-Iranian or 'southern' Indo-European in that rough chronological order, if not in a straight line! - and their probable one-time absence in Germanic, would tend to support that view.

If that view is valid, then *reg- may be given a tentative base meaning something like 'control(ling)/(er)'; or 'enforce(r)/(-ing)'; or, like so many other Proto-Indo-European words, some combination of the these, with overtones of the other derivatives. Clues from Tocharian (a tongue having affinities with Italo-Celtic, according to some, though opinions vary considerably) and elsewhere suggest an additional or alternative meaning of 'word', 'speak', so that a *reg- king might be '(one whose) word (is law/just/true)', which would accord with Dumzil's juridical/contractual explanation for one half of the first Function, sovereignty.

The thematic links between *reg- words denoting reaching out, or stretching, with those for 'heaping up', 'sweeping up' or 'rake' appear to hark back to a common origin - but this could plausibly be due to the Germanic, with Irish rigim being borrowed from that source, as may recht, 'legal right', which has common cognates in Germanic but not really anywhere else.

On a slightly different tack, there is a striking similarity (in verbal formation, phonology, and semantics) between the *reg- words and a group derived from *leg(h)-. These include Latin lex, English law, legal, and so on. The base meaning is pretty clearly 'to lay down, set in place, etc', which has a certain relationship to that of *reg-. These two stems are the source of a very great deal of Indo-European legal/juridical terminology! The Germanic tongues listed above use both types, although *reg- derivatives are mostly used for law in the general sense, with *leg(h)- words used to denote specificity, just like lex. There is also a possible link with homophonic Latin lex (word, phrase) from whence we have lexicon, dyslexia, and so on. It is not impossible that *reg- and *leg(h)- were once identical: the shift between r and l is a common enough phonological quirk, and is well-attested in Indo-European; a good example is the cognate pair flamen and brahmin. Is it possible that the two forms discussed here are the product of such a shift at a very early date, compounded by constant borrowings or internal shifts in and between the various Indo-European speakers? The language of the enigmatic Etruscans, long considered a strictly non-Indo-European people, has lately been suggested as a pre-Indo-European language - that is, it may be one of the dialects ancestral to Proto-Indo-European. In this context, it is interesting to consider Etruscan lauchum (king) and lucair (to rule).

This survey of the *reg-derived words for kingship and governance, while casting doubt on the strict application of the terminology in discussions of straight lines and alignments in the landscape, does no damage to the basic idea - that kings are associated with rectitude, and with the maintenance of cosmic and social order. It does, however, shed light on certain anomolies. Circling occurs in a number of Indo-European funerary and regal contexts (indeed, often in connection with royal funerals). Ritual circling of a hero's burial mound occurs in the Iliad and Beowulf; Herodotus describes how deceased Scythian kings were taken on what amounted to a complete tour of the Scythian tribes, a custom that may be compared with the treatment of King Frodi's corpse in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. In Ireland and Scandinavia, the dead were borne a certain number of times around the outside of a graveyard before entry, a custom that can still be seen in some places. The medieval royal tour, which involved a monarch going round the country and staying with each of the major noble families in turn, seems to have evolved from the same underlying concept. To maintain the cosmic order, a king is required to impose his presence upon the landscape, to become one with it. This is done by dwelling for a time in each part of the land, parts ruled by those who constitute the major households of the realm.

By circling his realm, a king is redefining the cosmos, reaffirming the order that dictates the shape of things. In practical terms, he reminds his servitors and subjects of his presence, and of his power. By circling a graveyard or burial mound, the mourners reiterate the realm of the dead - a kingdom in its own right, according to Indo-European tradition, ruled by the very first king of all, the lord of the dead, whose rule is the template for those of this world. The existence of 'royal roads' and 'dead roads', which are straight lines, assists in the merging of three distinct (but linked) concepts: their straightness echoes the legal order and moral correctness, effect the royal or funerary journey, and demonstrate the encompassing nature of the kingship and the physical boundaries of the kingdom.

Note

The idea of Indo-European roots is dependent on accepting that there was a single ethno-linguistic ancestor of all the current variants (the fabled 'homeland'), and that the current distribution of Indo-European languages is the result of colonisation (by whatever routes and means) from that central source. So far Renfrew is the only person to have seriously considered alternatives to that scenario in an extensive and in-depth study, at least in such a manner as to enable his ideas to be given authentic consideration. The presence of apparently 'native' non-Indo-European tongues in Europe (excluding Finland and north-eastern Russia) has often been cited as evidence to support the concensus view. These are Iberian (including Basque); Etruscan; and the allegedly non-Indo-European nature of many ancient names for European rivers. However, the history of Iberian and its speakers remains uncertain; and it has been suggested that the Etruscan language represents a fossilised variant of early Proto-Indo-European (or Late Nostratic) rather than a wholly non-Indo-European tongue (the Anatolian, or 'Hittite' languages also seem to belong to this category).

Accepting a radically different genesis for Indo-European puts a very different complexion on the accepted etymological procedures. If a multi-source evolution from a dialect of Nostratic (a palaeolithic language proposed as the ancestor of Indo-European, Turkic, Uralic, and Semitic; although hypothetical, reconstructions of Nostratic have been attempted, and that process has demonstrated that those languages are indeed more closely related than was previously thought) can be allowed - mutually reinforced by a convergence along trade routes (the major European rivers, coastal traffic, inland routes between settlements, workings, and sacred sites) and perhaps catalysed by certain major innovations (the introduction of farming, then metallurgy, from Asia Minor; the invention of wheeled vehicles in the northern part of central Europe; and the domestication of horses in the steppes) - then it might be expected that the major branches of Indo-European would have coalesced around the centres of innovation, with a corresponding retention of pre-Indo-European terminology along or around the old trade routes.

In such a scenario, the apparent *reg- could conceivably represent a convergence of phonetically similar, but semantically unrelated, words from the different early Proto-Indo-European languages, with any resultant loaning or new compounds reinforced by increased contact.

Main Sources

W. Lehmann (1986), A Gothic Etymological Dictionary
C. Renfrew (1987), Archaeology and Language
J.P. Mallory (1989), In Search of the Indo-Europeans
C.D. Buck (1949), A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages
J.C. Kerns (1985), Indo-European Prehistory.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.17 November 1993.


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