Our quarry today will be the Proto-Indo-European word *xártus (or, as historical linguists spell it, *H2ertus; the “x” in my spelling is pronounced like the “ch” in German “ach” and Scottish “loch.”). This will be big game hunting – the concept this word expresses is the essence of the Indo-European view of the Universe. Emile Benveniste went so far as to write that it “governs ... the orderliness of the universe, the motion of the stars, the regularity of the seasons and the years; and further the relations of gods and men, and finally the relations of men to one another. Nothing which concerns man or the world falls outside the realm of ‘Order.’ It is thus the foundation, both religious and moral, or every society. Without this principle everything would revert to chaos” (1969, 379-80). Wow.
Our weapon will be linguistics. We have no choice; you don’t go after a rhinoceros with a dinner plate, and as you’ve seen this is a very large rhinoceros indeed. I’ll have to throw some technical terms around, but as your guide on this expedition, I’ll do my best to make sure you know how to handle our weapon.
Let’s start with a smaller beast, *ghosti-. It’s only slightly smaller, though, so it’ll still be a good warm-up to the main hunt.
Probably lots of you have heard of this word, which can be defined as “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality” (Watkins, 2000, 2030). If we want to put this in the form used for the subject of sentences, we add an *-s at the end, giving *ghóstis, with the plural *ghóstēs. This is the word that’s the source of both “guest” and “host,” showing the relationship nicely: on one occasion a *ghostis serves as a guest (you invite me to your house for dinner), and on another a host (I invite you to mine).
It’s the principle of *ghosti- that holds society together. By exchanging gifts, whether of things, time, or concern, friendships are established, strengthened, and maintained. A one-way friendship doesn’t exist.
This sort of connection can exist on higher levels of society. Two examples are marriages and the Irish system of fosterage. Marriage between siblings wasn’t forbidden for genetic reasons that ancient peoples wouldn’t have understood, but because sibling marriage insulates a family, whereas one between groups creates relationships beyond it. Since traditionally women went to live with their husbands’ family (we know that this was true for the PIEs, because their word *wedh-, source of English “wedding,” meant “lead someone home, especially lead someone home in marriage), the ghosti-relationship was established by the groom’s family giving the bride’s a payment called a “bride price.”
In the Irish fosterage system, noble families would exchange sons at a certain age, and bring up their foster-son as if he were their own. This ghosti-exchange created bonds between the parents, of course, but even stronger ones between the sons and his adopted family.
The system worked vertically as well as laterally; that is, it also operated between different levels of society. We see this in the Germanic warrior bands, where the fanatical loyalty of warriors was dependent on the generosity of their lord.
*Ghosti- was found at even higher levels, in the way the Universe works. The Norse Yggdrasill was watered from a well into which the tree’s honeydew fell. In this way the Tree (Cosmos) and the Well (Chaos) were involved in a ghosti-relationship.
We can now turn towards our main quarry, asking why this should be so. Why does an exchange of gifts create something so important?
We start from the verb *xártus is based on, *xar- (*H2er- to linguists). Its meaning is “join together something in a way that is appropriate, effective, and esthetically pleasing.” One translation might be “harmonize;” the best one-word definition I’ve seen is Bruce Lincoln’s “dovetail” (1981, 57).
Like English, Proto-Indo-European could form nouns and adjectives from verbs (and vice versa). In fact, that was extremely common. There were a number of different ways to do this, each with its own form and shade of meaning. Our search will take us through those, so that by seeing what *xártus isn’t, we can see more clearly what it is.
The most common noun form of a verb was the past participle. This is a form which signifies either a completed action, or that on which an action has been performed. In English, this is usually formed by adding -ed or -en. Thus from “give” we have the past participle “given;” from “walk” we have “walked.” One common use of this is in the perfect tense; usually seen as a past tense, it’s actually a present one, since it tells us how things are right now: “I have given” means that at this very moment something went on in the past. The important factor here is that when a past participle is used, the action is all over.
The PIE way of making a past participle was first to take the verb and reduce its grade. That means knocking its vowel down a notch. If it contained a diphthong, that was reduced to the second vowel: *reug- “belch” > *rug-. Then a *-to- is added: *rug-to- “ a belch (that which is belched).” Finally, an ending as added which tells us the gender of the noun (in PIE, masculine, feminine, and neuter, with the masculine being the default gender), its number (singular, dual, or plural), and how it’s used in the sentence – is it a subject, a direct object, an indirect object? Is it possessing something, coming alone with something, coming from somewhere, being somewhere? Knowing the masculine nominative (subject) ending, *-s, and the neuter nominative ending, *-m, will be handy here, as will keeping in mind that the masculine ending shows that the noun is an animate one – it can do something – and the neuter is an inanimate one – things are done to it. Our ”belch” becomes *rugtóm, since a belch is generally the result of an action, rather than a cause. If instead of a diphthong, the verb only has one vowel, it disappears entirely: *gʷhen- “slay” becomes *gʷhṇ-, and then *gʷhṇ-to-s, “slain.”
Just as in English, PIE past participles could serve as both nouns and adjectives (in fact, this was true of all nouns, and most adjectives): “The field was covered with the bodies of the slain,” “The slain dragon just lay there.”
The past participle of *xar- would be *xrtós or *xrtóm, then, depending on whether it was animate or inanimate. Of course, we don’t really care which now, because neither is the word we are looking for. The *Xártus isn’t something over and done with, and isn’t something which has had something done to it
Another participle is the present one, which refers to an action which is currently going on. In English, this is done by adding “-ing.” It also can be an abstract noun or an adjective: “Walking is fun,” “The walking man fell down.” It could be also another kind of noun, an agent, one that describes someone who is doing something: “for us, the living.” The PIE way to do this is to reduce the grade, and then add *-ont. The PIE word for “tooth”, *dont-, comes from *ed- “eat;” (the [e] goes away because the root’s vowel is reduced); the tooth is the “eating one.” This won’t lead us to our prey, because we’ll find *xrónt.
Just as with English, there is a more standard way of forming a noun of agent. The English way is to add -er: “walk” becomes “walker.” The Proto-Indo-European ending is either *-ter or *-tōr. Fortson (2004, 111-2) expresses the difference between them: “The first of these formed so-called non-event agent nouns, as in *dh3-té̄r ‘giver, one whose function or role is to give (but who may never have actually done so’, while the second formed event agent nouns (*déh3-tōr ‘giver, one who has given’).” Neither ending reduces the vowel, so from * wes- “graze” we could make *wes-ter “grazer” (that is, “shepherd, the one who’s out in the field, or has just come in from it”), and from *gʷhen- “slay” we’d get could make *gʷhentor, “one whose job is slaying things (and who better get on doing it if he hasn’t already). From our *xar-, we’d get *xárter or *xartó̄r.
Or maybe we’re looking for a thing which does something. The ending here is *-trom, attached to the full-grade verb. A dragon-slayer would be a *gʷhénter, but his sword would be a *gʷhéntrom. From *xar- we’d get *xártrom, so we’re not looking for either a being or a thing that does something. Back to the hunt.
There were other ways of forming nouns/adjectives from PIE verbs, but enough teasing. The quarry is dead ahead.
Adding *-tu- to the full-grade form of a verb created abstract nouns which could either describe something that was going on, or the going on itself. Compare “song” in “I think that ‘Let it Be’ is a good song’ with “They were singing a song.” In the first, the song already exists in an abstract way, rather than as a thing, and in the second, the song is abstract in the sense that it only comes into being in the act of its performance. Thus we go from *pei- “sing” to *péitus “song.”
It’s pretty obvious that we’ve found what we’re looking for: *xar- becomes *xártus. Got ‘im.
But what have we actually found? It’s not a thing, animate or inanimate, which is acted upon, nor an event which is over (*xrtó-s/m). It isn’t an action which is going on (*xrónt). It isn’t an animate being which does something (*xarte/or), nor a tool (*xártrom). Instead, it’s an abstract noun that describes either the principle of dovetailing or what we have while the dovetailing is going on, or both.
I think that it is meant to signify both. That is, the *Xártus is what links the universe together or is that which is going on when the universe if being linked together. Notice, though, that in neither case is the Xártus external to the universe. A song, whether it is being sung at present, or can potentially be sung, is not separate from either the singing or the imagining of the singing. In the same way, *Xártus is inseparable from the universe which is going on. It is “Order” not in the sense of one which has to be followed, but as that which we observe when we look at something, and which is only there because its parts are doing what they’re doing.
That’s why Benveniste can say such amazing things about it. The *Xártus is the dovetailing of everything. Most important of all, it comes out of what’s going on, not before it.
Remembering that the joining together which is *xar- is one which is not just appropriate but beautiful (i.e., “fitting”), we can that “In the continuing there is the Xártus,” and can look at the Universe and say, “and it is Good.”
Those of you who have spent any time studying eastern Religions may be thinking that the Xártus sounds a lot like the Tao. We’re told by Lao Tzu in his famous opening words of the Tao Te Ching that, “The way [the Tao] that can be spoken of is not the constant way” (1963, 57), but if I had to try, I’d say that it was something like the unifying principle that, eternally changing and eternally unchanged, ties everything together, lies beyond everything, and is in everything. That sounds even more like the Xártus than you might have thought. There’s a crucial difference, however, and it strikes to the very heart of Proto-Indo-European belief, and that’s found in our first, smaller prey, *ghosti-. (Were you wondering if I’d get back to that?)
Remembering that a *ghostis someone with whom one has a reciprocal obligation of hospitality, one thing jumps out at us: there have to be two people involved, to be host and guest in turn. It is necessary for there to be at least two different people if there is to be a ghosti-relationship, and it is necessary that there be at least two different things if they are to be jointed together, if they are to be *xar-ed.
It is here that the main point of PIE ideology lies. Everything is not one, is not One. Rather, reality lies in relationships. Those relationships are beautiful, but only if they are reciprocal. Reality is about exchange, on every level from that between Chaos and Cosmos to that between friends. One is part of the Tao, but one takes part in the Xártus; one is an active participant in the process which joins everything together.
At this point you might still be thinking, “What the heck is he talking about?” Or maybe you think you know, don’t see what it has to do with you. Or you’re thinking, “Yes, of course, the Xártus. But enough thinking; I want to feel it. So now what?”
Now what indeed. Now let’s end the hunting and sit home, and look at our quarry. What sort of thing have we caught? What does the Xártus mean to each of us?
When you’re dancing, and each part of your body is doing what you want it to, and is bringing about beauty, the relationship between your mind, your body, the space in which you are dancing, and the dance itself, that’s the Xártus. When you hit the sweet spot, and the ball flies away, the joining together of bat and ball, of the pitcher, the ballpark, the rules of the game, the experience you’ve brought to that moment – the Xártus.
When you’re balancing your checkbook, and the numbers finally add up just right, just like they should, you’re knowing the Xártus. When there’s a problem that’s been gnawing at you for days, and suddenly all the pieces fit together in a way that’s so perfect you can almost hear an audible “click,” what you’ve just done is the Xártus.
When you know the virtuous thing to do, the moral thing that fits that specific moment – the time, the people, the place, the culture, and everything else that makes it up – and then you do it, you’re doing the Xártus. When you know that the person you love is the perfect one for everything you are, and you abandon yourself to joining perfectly with them, your loving is the Xártus.
Whenever you do anything that’s just right, or see it, or know it, or feel it; whenever you join in this kind of relationship; you’re doing, or seeing, or knowing, or feeling the Xártus; you’re making a Xártus relationship. It’s just right and beautiful, because it dovetails.
At the end of an tough hunt, involving a lot of technical terms, we find a word that says exactly (i.e., in a Xártus way) what the Proto-Indo-Europeans thought was going on all the time, making the world a beautiful and appropriate place.
A quarry worth bringing home, isn’t it?
Benveniste, Emile. Indo-European Language and Society. tr. Elizabeth Palmer. Coral Cables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1969.
Fortson, Benjamin W., IV. Indo-European Language and Culture: an Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching. tr. D. C. Lau. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
Lincoln, Bruce. Priests, Warriors, and Cattle: A Study in the Ecology of Religions. Berkeley: 1981.
Watkins, Calvert. Guide to Indo-European Roots (Appendix I). In The American Heritage Dictionary. ed. Pickett, Joseph P., et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
I would like to thank Faolan and my wife for their help with the end of this article. Any remaining deficiencies are my own, of course.