ghabh-  Also ghebh-.  [=]  To give or receive.

My guess is that anything given by one must be received by another, and vice versa. But my guess doesn't explain this surprising dichotomy in meaning, due to the need of (at least) 2 different parties. I expected two different PIE roots. Or am I missing some deeper connection?

Footnote: Following this advice, I tried to research this in A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages (1988) by Carl Darling Buck, but to no avail.

  • 3
    Are you familiar with Michel Bréal "Essai de sémantique", Hermann Paul "Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte", Stephen Ullmann "Principles of Semantics", "Semantics: An introduction to the science of meaning", or Blank & Koch "Historical Semantics and Cognition". Having that kind of background might solve many of your puzzles.
    – user6726
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 1:12
  • @user6726 Thank you for the recommendations, because no, I wasn't acquainted with them. Which is a practical introduction for a layman?
    – user5306
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 1:45
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    A word that refers to one part of an opposition (come/go, give/take, buy/sell) can easily refer to the other part. Happens all the time. Remember, any change in a word involves billions of daily uses by millions of speakers for hundreds of years. Pretty much anything can happen.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 1:53
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    There need not be a dichotomy of meaning at all when it's used in a sentence. Prepositions or case markers or on the attached noun phrases can make the meaning perfectly clear. Many Germans who speak English often mix up borrow and lend; they use just one of these words in both cases. Their intended meaning is clear anyway: "I borrowed the book to him".
    – prash
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 15:18
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    If that is what it means, then a better gloss might be along the lines of "exchange with".
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 12:40

6 Answers 6


I don't know how it really was, but as a possibility, ghabh- in the meaning "receive" could develop from passive/ergative constructions like "[to] me [it] is given", and later the construction became active (=> "I receive"). Compare Old English "[to] me [it] likes" (mē līcað), literally "to me it pleases", which became "I like" (me likes=>I like). The modern "I like" technically means "I please (someone/something)" from the point of view of Old English -- voila, the meaning is reversed.


Allow me to reply to your question in a general way, which answers a lot of the other questions you have posed on here recently. Proto-Indo-European is not a real language, but a reconstructed language. We did not know how PIE words sounded, nor what they meant. The “meanings” that you find in PIE word lists have been assigned to them by modern scholars so as to “explain” the diverging semantics of the real words in the daughter languages. So instead of asking “How did a PIE word with the meaning ‘X’ take on the meaning ‘Y’ in English?” you should be asking “Why do linguists attribute the meaning ‘X’ to the ancestor of the English word with the meaning ‘Y’?” You are asking these questions backwards.


It didn't.

...maybe. Everything we know about PIE is to some extent an educated guess. But some modern linguists say there were two distinct roots here:

  • *gʰeh₁bʰ- "to grab, take, receive"
    • Ancestor of Latin habeō, Welsh gafael, Gaelic gabh
  • *gʰebʰ- "to give, move"
    • Ancestor of English "give", German geben

Pokorny wrote before the Laryngeal Theory was really a thing, and the AHD for some unknown reason doesn't include laryngeals (like *h₁), listing forms after the laryngeal sounds had already disappeared from the language. So they conflate the two into a single root.

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    Interesting hypothesis. Has the root *gʰebʰ- "to give, move" non-Germanic cognates? The wikitionary article behind the link does not state any. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 9:50
  • @jknappen Unfortunately I don't know of any, though I assume there must be some for it to be considered a PIE root. I'll search.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 15:31
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    @jknappen I'm not sure offhand whether it's a later development, but gabh in Irish and Scottish Gaelic means both ‘take’ and ‘go’; the latter could be from the second root here, if it isn't just a later extension of the ‘take’ word. (For an example of such an extension is Danish tage, which has secondarily come to mean both ‘take’ and ‘go’, whereas means only ‘go’, specifically in the sense ‘walk’.) Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 13:12

Simple. The PIE root didn’t mean ‘give’ nor ‘receive’, it meant ‘give/receive’. We see a similar semantic range currently in Comanche (Uto-Aztecan). The word for ‘buy’ is the same as ‘sell’, but it really means ‘buy/sell’. I often gloss it as ‘trade’, but that doesn’t entirely capture it. ‘Give’ and ‘receive’ are fundamentally the same activity. The distinction we find in English is that the perspective taken toward the activity is encoded the word. ‘Give’ has the giver as agent. ‘Receive’ has the receiver as agent. It’s only the perspective that differs, same as the analogy I made with ‘buy/sell’. In Comanche, the same word is used in either case. Languages commonly have both some words that encode perspective and some that do not. ‘Come’ and ‘go’ encode perspective in English; ‘Did he come to you, or did you go to him?’ However, ‘approach’ only encodes the activity, not the perspective; ‘Did he approach you, or did you approach him?’ We would be hard-pressed to recognize ‘approach’ as having two different meetings here. We would probably identify both uses of‘approach’ as having the same meaning, but as simply vague with respect to perspective.


I know many won't like it, but whenever PIE is in question, I think (in some case) Basque language could give an inside clue. Now, just consider this : GABE without, lack(ing) CAVE a hole under a house (French) GAP hole, lack (English)

That would mean (if I am right of course) PIE ghabh- = inducing a lack When the agent gives something, it will lack from him. When the object receives, it will lack from the giver...

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    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 18:31

Have any linguists considered that if, early in the divergence of the PIE language family, if among some dialects a term like Ghabh was used to mean 'to receive', and in others 'to give', that term might translate as 'tribute'? If the speakers of some early PIE languages systematically gave, and others received, tribute, this might serve as a rough survey of systems of cultural and political dominance over a 3,000 year period of pre-/protoceltic history with no other contemporary records. In English we use 'give', 'grab', and 'gather' as successor terms, but few other modern languages are derived from as many mixed roots as English, and I gather most other modern languages of the PIE family use primarily one form 'give' or 'receive' after the Ghabh root. Given the rate at which the PIE family spread across two continents with relatively little absorption of the pre-PIE languages on the way, speakers of early-PIE languages would seem to be anomalous of a reciprocal gift-giving society, as the simultaneous 'give/receive' meaning of ghabh seems to been interpreted by some to indicate.

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