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*u̯erg̑- u̯erg̑- u̯erg̑-: Aspects of Indo-European Popular Culture

Joe R. G. d’Umezzille

The study of Proto-Indo-European culture dates back almost as long as the study of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. It is primarily conducted by trying to identify etymologically related phrasings and stories in various distinct daughter traditions. One of the greatest achievements in this field was undoubtedly Calvert Watkins’s discovery that the PIE phrase *(e-)ghen-t oghim ‘he killed the serpent’ was at the basis of a very important dragon-slaying myth, and that reflexes of this phrase and story can be found in the literature of almost every major IE language.

In this article, I will propose another such cross-linguistic connection that is likely to be as groundbreaking as Watkins’s. The present investigation begins with a famous line from the epic Works and Days, probably the fourth-oldest poem in Ancient Greek:

“ὧδ᾽ ἔρδειν, καὶ ἔργον ἐπ᾽ ἔργῳ ἐργάζεσθαι.” (Hesiod, c. 700 BC)
“Do these things and work with work upon work.” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, 1914)

The four similar-looking words in this line (ἔρδειν, ἔργον, ἔργῳ, and ἐργάζεσθαι) are not alike by chance: although they appear in different parts of speech (two nouns, two verbs) and different inflections, they are all forms of the root (ϝ)έργ- ‘do, work’. This Greek root, in turn, descends from the PIE root *u̯erg̑- ‘work’, which is also the etymon of the English word work. Therefore, it is natural to search for works in English wherein the word work is frequently repeated, ideally in different grammatical roles. In some recently-unearthed1 popular music, we find just that:

“I’ve been work work work work working on my shit
Now get this work, now get this work” (Iggy Azalea, 2014)

“Work, work, work, work, work, work
You see me I be work, work, work, work, work, work
You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt
There’s something ’bout that work, work, work, work, work, work” (Rihanna, 2016)

“You don’t gotta go to work, work, work, work, work, work, work
But you gotta put in work, work, work, work, work, work, work
You don’t gotta go to work, work, work, work, work, work, work
Let my body do the work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work
We can work from home” (Fifth Harmony, 2016)

The significance of this finding is, presumably, obvious. In all three of these songs, the word work is repeated ad nauseam, and in all three it appears as at least two distinct parts of speech, together with several different inflections. Since epic poetry was the pop music of the classical world, these examples are completely analogous to the aforecited Hesiodic line. Therefore, it is natural to postulate the existence of a PIE phrase *u̯erg̑- u̯erg̑- u̯erg̑-, exhibiting some sort of polyptoton, which was used throughout all forms of PIE popular culture.

The evidence presented above for this omnipresent PIE formula is incontrovertible, so I will now briefly discuss some possible consequences of this discovery. Since all PIE popular culture must have been concentrated on the notion of work, we can conclude that their life in the Pontic-Caspian steppe must have been one focused exclusively on industry. However, since the same root *u̯erg̑- is also the etymon of the English words irk and orgy, it seems likely that some people were annoyed by this work-obsessed culture and sought out... alternative pastimes.

The most obvious direction for further research is the search for reflexes of the phrase *u̯erg̑- u̯erg̑- u̯erg̑- in the popular culture of other IE languages, and I encourage interested grad students to pursue this with gusto. Though I am certain that other such examples can be easily found, I will not personally be hunting for them, since doing so would involve the unseemly act of learning other languages, which is completely unbecoming for a serious scholar of linguistics.

Another promising research direction for those with a more mathematical bent is the study of the number of times the reflex of *u̯erg̑- is repeated. My reconstructed phrase contains a triple repetition, but all of the known examples exhibit a different number. Since work and labor are essentially one and the same, further study on this topic could quite possibly be used to definitively prove or refute Dumézil’s trifunctional hypothesis.

1 One might plausibly ask how these were recently unearthed if they’ve been around and popular for several years. One might respond that I am an academic, after all.

Thank You, Historical LinguistThe Third Autonomous Bilborough Linguistics Circle
Recipes for Success!Book Announcement from Psammeticus Press
SpecGram Vol CLXXXIII, No 1 Contents