Recently, a question was asked about the possibility of the words knee and generation being cognates. Unfortunately, that question is rather unclear, so I'm asking this as a separate post.

The words in question are commonly derived from the PIE words *ǵónu 'knee' and *ǵenh₁- 'to give birth, to beget', respectively. The obvious similarity between these two reconstructed forms would be easy to dismiss as a chance resemblance, especially given the lack of an obvious semantic connection. However, it reminded me of a curious parallel in Basque: belaun 'knee' and belaunaldi 'generation' (with -aldi meaning 'period').

It seems someone else has also noticed this interesting parallel (though their other blog posts look a bit dubious at first glance): https://oldeuropeanculture.blogspot.com/2015/11/from-knee-to-knee.html They also point out Finnish sukupolvi 'generation' from suku 'kin' + polvi 'knee'.

So there seems to be a connection between the concepts 'knee' and 'generation' in at least three unrelated language families. Has this been treated before in the scientific literature? Is there an obvious connection that I'm just missing (maybe via joint/changing directions/changing generations)? Is it based on a specific concept common to the prehistoric cultures of Europe that's since been forgotten? Or is the parallel formation based on calquing?

  • 3
    Hmm, that reminds me of a Korean word 슬하 seulha (膝下 - from two Chinese characters "knee" + "under") which means status of being someone's child or descendant. I think its' borrowed from Classical Chinese.
    – jick
    Commented May 5, 2019 at 16:25
  • Interesting. Russian "колено" is indeed used for "generation", albeit this usage feels a bit bookish/archaic. However, only after having read the linked article I realised that the standard modern Russian term "поколение" has the same root, I just never happened to think about this :) Back to "колено" for "generation" - one of the ideomatics is "колена Израилевы", "The Tribes of Israel", שבטי ישראל (taken from Wiki) from the Old Testament. Could anyone with the Hebrew knowledge tell if there is a link with a "knee" here?
    – tum_
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 21:22
  • @tum_ Hebrew שֵׁבֶט 'tribe' also has the meaning 'staff, rod' but doesn't seem to be related to 'knee'. Commented May 7, 2019 at 15:28
  • @tum_ Nothing with שבט shivtei to my knowledge. Standard BH for "generation" is תולדה toldah, from ילד yalad "to bear (a child)". Also, I thought of בן ben "son" and בין beyn "between", giving new life to the metaphor, but no, the latter is from a different verbal root "to discern". For knees, there's a link between ברך berekh "knee" and ברך barakh "to kneel, to bless"... Commented May 7, 2019 at 16:10
  • @tum_ Descendants are יֹצְאֵי יֶרֶךְ "those who come out of the thigh" (Exodus 1:5)
    – b a
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 18:06

1 Answer 1


I don't have anything to say about this particular correlation. However, it is not uncommon to find that there are many PIE "roots" that seem to be sprung themselves from a common "taproot" with semantic coherence.

I once ran across this in the set of English simplex words beginning with *st-, which includes

  • stave stab stiff stub stitch stem stand stair step still steep stool

These (and others) mostly sort out into Leg/Walk or One-Dimensional Vertical, semantically. This suggests that they might come from some PIE root. In fact, most do, but they don't come from the same one. There turn out to be a LOT of PIE roots with this particular meaning, viz (the example words are English cognates):

  • *stā- ‘To stand, with derivatives meaning “place or thing that is standing”’ (Pok sta- 1004):
    style, stand, steed, stud, stay, stage, stamen, stem, station, static, stable, stoic, store, steer

  • *steigh- ‘To stride, step, rise’ (Pok steigh- 1017): stile, stirrup, stickle, distich, acrostic

  • *steu- ‘To push, stick, knock, beat’ (Pok 2. steu- 1025) stub, stoop, stutter, stock, stoke, steep

  • *stel- ‘To put, stand; with derivatives referring to a standing object or place’ (Pok 3. stel- 1019):
    stolon, stalk, stele, stilt, pedestal, stolid, stall, stout

  • *ster- ‘Stiff’ (Pok 5. ster- 1029): stare, starch, stork, starve, stark, stern, strut, start, stark, startle

  • *stebh- ‘Post, stem; to support, place firmly on, fasten’ (Pok steb(h)- 1011):
    stoop, staff, staple, stump, stamp, stomp, stave

  • *steip- ‘To stick, compress’ (Pok steib(h)- 1015) stubble, stiff, stipple

  • *steg- ‘Pole, stick’ (Pok 2. (s)teg- 1014) stake, stack, stagger

  • *stegh- ‘To stick, prick; pointed’ (Pok stegh- 1014) stair, stick, sting, stigma, stimulate, stag

All this means, of course, is that PIE had predecessors and dialects, which is hardly a surprise. It's just that that's as far back as the comparative method can go.

  • 1
    ...but there doesn't seem to be any "semantic coherence" in this case.
    – TKR
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 1:14
  • 1
    This is English. Nothing to do with Hebrew or Spanish. And I was not commenting on knee, as I said.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 13:45

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.