Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Slaves and slavery, part 11: Lat. servāre, Introduction

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 11 of Slaves and Slavery: Go to Part 1

Lat. servāre and derived verbs


In addition to the verb sĕrvīre, Latin had another verb that may have been derived in the distant past from the same root sĕrv‑, namely the first conjugation verb sĕrvāre, whose principal parts were present tense sĕrvō, present infinitive sĕrvāre, perfect active sĕrvāvī, and passive participle sĕrvātus. This verb’s main meaning was ‘to make safe, save, keep unharmed, preserve, guard, keep, protect, deliver, rescue’ (CTL). Some believe that this verb contains a Proto-Indo-European *ser‑ ‘to watch over, protect’, which may have also been used to create the ancestor of the Latin noun sĕrvus, which would make the verb sĕrvāre cognate with (that is, related to due to sharing the root) the verb sĕrvīre, if not actual cognates (that is, not having the same identical source).[i]

Neither Spanish nor English has a descendant of the Latin verb sĕrvāre today. Spanish did inherit this word patrimonially from Latin, as servar, meaning ‘to observe, guard’, but the word is now obsolete (it is found in the Academy’s DLE, where we are told that it is obsolete).[1] Other Romance languages, but not French, have preserved this word, so that both Occitan and Catalan have a verb servar that descends from Lat. sĕrvāre and Italian has serbare ‘to put away, to keep, etc.’. Neither English, Spanish nor French borrowed this Latin verb later on from written Latin as a learned word (Sp. cultismo).

The famous Hispanic medieval historian Isidore of Seville (Sp. Isidoro de Sevilla, Lat. Isidorus Hispalensis) had some interesting, if totally erroneous, things to say about the relationship between Lat. sĕrvāre and Lat. sĕrvīre. In his renowned work Etimologiae, written in Latin in the early seventh century, which was the most used textbook during the Middle Ages in Europe, Isidore argued that the words for slave and slavery in Latin (servus and servitus) derive from the verb servāre, ‘for among the ancients, those who were saved from death in battle were called slaves’.[2] There is no doubt that this was an incorrect etymology, more like a wild guess, just like many of the other word etymologies espoused by St. Isidore, one of the most learned man of his generation.

Although there is no reflex of Lat. sĕrvāre in English or Spanish today, there were in Latin five verbs that were derived from sĕrvāre by prefixation and most of them have indeed made it into the modern languages and are quite common words. The five derived Latin verbs are the following (the definitions are from CTL and L&S):




ad- ‘to’


‘to watch over, keep, preserve, observe, guard (carefully)’

con‑ ‘with’


‘to retain, keep safe, maintain, preserve, spare’

ob- ‘towards; against’


‘to watch, note, heed, observe, take notice of, attend to’

prae- ‘before, in front’


‘to observe beforehand (post-class.)’ (L&S)

re- ‘again, back’


‘to keep back, save up, reserve’

It is quite obvious that all but the first of these verbs has made it into both English and Spanish, giving us the cognates: Eng. conserve ~ Sp. conservar, Eng. observe ~ Sp. observar, Eng. preserve ~ Sp. preservar, and Eng. reserve ~ Sp. reservar. English has, of course, borrowed all of these verbs, but so did Spanish, since none of them are patrimonial. This is obvious from the fact that the Spanish reflexes did not undergo the sound changes expected in patrimonial words, and are thus regular verbs, not stem-changing verbs the way Sp. servir is (e > i). Because of the short ‑ĕ‑ in Lat. sĕrvāre and its derivatives, if these verbs had been inherited (patrimonial), we would have expected their conjugation to have a e > ie change, as in *consiervo ‘I conserve’, rather than the actual conservo.

The four sets of cognates that we just saw are fairly ‘good friends’ since they share their core meanings, at least in the abstract. As we have learned to expect, however, these cognates are not equivalent all of the time or even most of the time since they do not share all of their senses and uses, especially when it comes to idiomatic expressions. This is mostly due to the different changes these words have undergone in each of the languages since they were first introduced.

Go to Part 12

[1] The original says: ‘servar Del lat. servāre.  1. tr. desus. observar (‖ guardar)’ (DLE).

[2] “Slavery (servitus) is named from saving (servare), for among the ancients, those who were saved from death in battle were called slaves (servus). This alone is the most extreme of all evils; for free people it is worse than every kind of punishment, for where freedom is lost, everything is lost with it.” (Book V, pg. xxvii.32).

Isidore (c. 560-636), Archbishop of Seville, has been called ‘the last scholar of the ancient world’ (Montalembert). He is famous for his work Etymologiae (Eng. The Etymologies, Sp. Las etimologías), a sort of encyclopedia or compendium of universal knowledge, mostly consisting of summaries of previous works, which have been lost, in part because Etymologiae made them redundant in some people’s view. Etymology, the analysis of the origins of words, plays a prominent part in this work, though many of the etymologies, as in the case of the word servus, are quite fanciful guessworks. Cf.

[i] Cf. Pokorny’s PIE Etymon and IE Reflexes:

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