Portuguese, Spanish and French dormir, Italian dormire etc. come from the Latin verb dormīo.

Wiktionary's entry says that its etymology is:

From Latin dormīre, present active infinitive of dormiō, from Proto-Italic **dormiō*, from Proto-Indo-European **drem-* (“run, sleep”).

It claims that it comes from the same root as Ancient Greek δρόμος (> English -drome). How can a root have two meanings that are practically the opposite to each other? Wiktionary also says that the Latin verb is cognate with Russian дремать, related to the act of sleeping. How can the Proto-Indo-European root mean both "to sleep" and "to run"?

I guess it maybe a case of two different words being homophonous, but I'm not quite sure. If not, is it possible to have such a big semantic shift?

  • 4
    "fast asleep" makes so much sense now :) – ngn Apr 8 at 23:50
  • @ngn :) actually, this expression always puzzled me as a non-native English speaker... – tum_ Apr 9 at 6:17
  • trying to isolate d- from the root I found the pair düsen and dösen. The latter is to doze and haz an etymology in *dhew- (wiktionary), the former is "to jet [move quickly], whirl", close to Düse "nozzle, yet", without apparent etymology. This finds a parallel in *spreH, cf. spray, sparrow (also Ger. sprengen, springen). Potentially comparable to Dusche "shower", Italian docciare, uncertainly from VLat. – vectory Apr 9 at 7:06
  • 2
    @tum_ In ‘fast asleep, fast doesn’t mean ‘quick’ but rather ‘steady, firm’ (as also in hold fast or steadfast). In other Germanic languages, this is the only (or at least primary) meaning of the various cognates; the ‘quick’ meaning developed within English only about 500 years ago. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 9 at 13:27
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, fasten your belt gives a clue as to the other meaning but it's primarily the "quick" meaning that's being taught in English classes for foreigners. And some 20 years ago I would definitely struggle translating this sentence from Cambridge Dictionary correctly: "The glue had set and my hand was stuck fast". :) – tum_ Apr 9 at 14:28

This seems to be quite the knotty little tangle of roots, so this is going to be rather long.

LIV² gives a total (that I’ve found) of seven different roots for this rather complex mass of running and sleeping:

  • ?*derdʰ-, ?*dreh₁- and 2. *drem- ‘sleep’
  • *dreh₂-, 1. *drem-, *dreu̯- and ?*du̯er- ‘run’

(Question marks indicate that the existence of the root is uncertain, usually because it’s based on very few attestations within just one language.)


Sleeping: ?*derdʰ-, ?*dreh₁- and 2. *drem-

The only forms quoted directly under ?*dreh₁- ‘sleep’ are Vedic: an optative ni-drāyā́t, a participle -drāṇá- and a future drāsyáti. This root is apparently quite rare in Vedic, perhaps, they surmise, because of its homophony with the ‘run’ root(s). The only comment on the shape of the root is:

Ansatz mit *h1 aufgrund des viell. mit 2. *drem- (s. d.) kontaminierten slav. drěm-, das aber auch anders erklärt werden könnte.

Under 2. *drem-, they give the Latin forms (which yield the Romance forms) as well as Old Church Slavonic ‑drěmljǫ ‘slumber’, which underlies the Russian form cited in the question. They say very little about the actual shape of the root, except to note that the OCS forms are perhaps the result of a contamination between *dreh₁- and 2. *drem- > *dreh₁m-. This in turn is why they posit *h₁ instead of *h₂ or *h₃ as the final consonant above: if it had been one of the others, the contaminated form would have resulted in a different vowel (*-dramljǫ I think, but Slavic is not my forte). They hedge their bets a bit, though, saying that the Slavic form may also be

mit Klingenschmitt, FS Meid 819, als innerslavische Intensivneubildung zu erklären.

So in conclusion: there is a PIE root 2. *drem- meaning ‘sleep’, and also a rarer root *dreH- meaning ‘sleep’. If the Slavic verb is indeed a contamination of these two roots, *dreH- should specifically be *dreh₁-; if it’s not, we don’t know which laryngeal it is.

The third root, hypothetical ?*derdʰ-, is based only on the Greek verb δαρθάνω ‘sleep’ and its forms (e.g., aor. ἔδραθε). It is possibly an extension invented within Greek.

All three roots are clearly connected, but their internal connection is hard to pin down. This is not uncommon – there are quite a few cases in PIE where looks like a common ‘base root’ is variously extended with an extra consonant for seemingly no systematic or meaningful reason. There is no evidence of the base root itself (**der, presumably) actually existing.


Running: *dreh₂-, 1. *drem-, *dreu̯- and *du̯er-

In the case of running, there are at least four connected roots – presumably extensions to an underlying, but unattested, base root of the same shape as the ‘sleep’ root. Unfortunately, at least one of the extensions is also identical to one of the ‘sleep’ extensions (*-m-), which, frankly, is just PIE speakers making things difficult for themselves (and us).

The m-extension 1. *drem- only appears to be attested in Greek and Indo-Iranian (at least those are the only forms quoted in LIV²). In Greek, the suppletive aorist and perfective stems of τρέχω (and sometimes θέω) ‘run’ is aor. ἔδραμον, perf. δέδρομα – this is where δρόμος comes from. From IIr. are quoted Khotanese dremäte ‘drives off’ < causative *drom-ei̯e-, as well as an intensive form from the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, dandramyamāṇa- ‘running around, milling about’. Based on these, they give the translation ‘run (somewhere)’ (“(wohin) laufen”) for this root, though I’m not sure exactly how this really differs from just ‘run’.

This root would be completely homophonous to 2. *drem-, but they would not necessarily be likely to be mixed up. As far as attested forms show, the ‘sleep’ root formed only a present stem (*-i̯e/o-), whereas the ‘run’ root formed only a (root) aorist, a (reduplicated) perfect and a causative. While they had the same shape, their formations were thus in complementary distribution.


The laryngeal extension is in this case certainly reconstructible as being *h₂, based especially on the Greek present, -διδράσκω < *di-drh₂-sḱ-. The meaning of *derh₂- seems to have been a little more specific, referring to running away: the Greek form is only attested in compounds, nearly always ἀποδιδράσκω ‘run away’, and some of the Indic forms clearly mean ‘run away’ as well, even with no prefix.

If the Slavic ‘sleep’ forms are actually contaminations (see above), that would mean that the ‘run’ and the ‘sleep’ roots would be phonetically different in PIE, though they would of course merge once the laryngeals were lost. Even if they were entirely homophonous, though, they would still not coincide, because – as was the case with *drem- – their formations differ: 1. *dreh₁- ‘sleep’ forms only a root present, while 2. *dreh₂- ‘run (away)’ forms only a (root) aorist, a *-sḱe/o- present, a (reduplicated) perfect and a desiderative. The only stem they both form is the present, and they form that in different ways (root present *dreh₁-ti vs *-sḱe/o- present *dṛh₂-ské-ti).


The last two roots are a *-u̯- extension *dreu̯- and what looks like a metathesised version of this, *du̯er-. Both are only attested in IIr. (the former seemingly only in Vedic, the latter only in Avestan, at least as verbs). At any rate, these (like the Greek ?*derdʰ- ‘sleep’) need not concern us here, because they’re clearly distinct from each other and cannot be confused.



As far as the evidence I have available can tell us (primarily the OED/Etymonline, Brill’s etymological dictionaries of Latin, Greek and Germanic, LIV², plus of course Wiktionary), it seems PIE had two different base roots of the exact same shape, used as the basis for various extended roots (all of which seem to mean more or less exactly the same thing as each other), of which at least two (possibly four) were also completely identical to each other in form.

Within PIE itself, however, there was no chance of confusion, because the one (or two) set(s) of roots that had identical shapes for different meanings formed different stems in different ways. In practice, it would thus always be clear which verb you were using.

So I would say the Wiktionary wording “*drem- (‘run, sleep’)” is an oversimplification. It wasn’t a matter of having one verb that meant opposing things – though this is synchronically entirely possible (cf. English cleave ‘cut apart / bind together’ or sanction ‘allow / penalise’) – but of having two words that happened to have the same form in their root structure.

Whether these two roots originated as dissimilations from the same underlying base root (i.e., whether there was originally one or two *der- roots to extend from) is impossible to say. Semantic shifts of a comparable scale to ‘sleep’ > ‘run’ (or vice versa) are not unheard of, so it could have happened – just think of how wicked now also means ‘excellent’ in English – but there’s no particular reason to believe that these aren’t just two roots that happened to have the same structure.

| improve this answer | |
  • "All three roots are clearly connected" you should not say that. It is formally inconsistent with the uncertainty explained beforehand. You surely mean the roots in those three languages, but you don't say so, perhaps because it does not look quite so certain at the one level, so you refer to the other level as a kind of metaphor because it's implicitly understood to be highly uncertain. Either way that's paradox. I'd remove the whole paragraph; excrescent phone, root-extension, inflection suffix ... the list is long, but none follows from the initial statement. ... – vectory Apr 9 at 18:28
  • It would be in order for a treatment, though perhaps not for an SE answer, to list all notable differences between the evidence, but the rarity of the vedic material for one would make that a fools errant (and hopefully redundant if to be found in LIV's bibliographic references). For "running" you actually tried to do that, but you kind of mix it up with "sleep" in one paragraph. The conclusion, most importantly, is not carried by the presentation; it rests on the notion of difference, i.e. "different base roots", that is difficult tk interpret as a terminus technicus, if it is one – vectory Apr 9 at 18:45
  • You evade the question of "semantic drift" because, ... No offence, but it reads like one of my own answers. For sake of the argument, it appears that you concluded no such big semantic drift were possibly, although you explicitly pointed out that it is possible (and cleave might be quite the neat example at that). But of course there's no saying when, and the details don't so far require dating the derivation of the stems into PIE (the material might, but I haven't checked it). – vectory Apr 9 at 18:55

de Vaan writes in his Latin etymological dictionary, s.v. dormio:

The PIE roots *drem- and *dreH- both have two meanings: ‘run’ and ‘sleep’.

For example Latin dormire ‘to sleep’ and Greek dramein ‘to run’ (aorist stem), but darthanein ‘to fall asleep’. But given the semantic distance, it is perhaps better to regard these as two sets of IE homonyms.

| improve this answer | |

The Etimonline entry for dormant mentions neither 'run' for PIE *drem-, nor δρόμος:

dormant (adj.)

late 14c., "fixed in place," from Old French dormant (12c.), present participle of dormir "to sleep," from Latin dormire "to sleep," from PIE root *drem- "to sleep" (source also of Old Church Slavonic dremati "to sleep, doze," Greek edrathon "I slept," Sanskrit drati "sleeps").

Similarly, Vasmer's etimological dictionary for "дремать" gives:

дремать дрема́ть дремлю́, укр. дрiма́ти, др.-русск., цслав. дрѣмати, болг. дре́мя, сербохорв. дри̏jема̑м, дриjѐмати, словен. drė́mam, drė́mati, чеш. dřímám, dřímati, слвц. driemat', польск. drzemię, drzemać, в.-луж. drěmać, н.-луж. dremaś. Родственно лат. dormiō, dormīre "спать", далее, др.-инд. drā́ti, drā́yatē "спит", греч. δαρθάνω "сплю", аор. ἔδραθε; см. Уленбек, Aind. Wb. 132; Бернекер 1, 223 и сл.; Младенов 153; Буазак 167; Траутман, BSW 60. Этимологический словарь русского языка. — М.: Прогресс М. Р. Фасмер 1964—1973

The above sources are more trustworthy than Wiktionary (in my opinion).


See also a related Linguistics.SE question on Dream and Дрёма with a quote from an Etymological Dictionary of Slavic Languages in the answer.

Hopefully, we will get some feedback to @ColinFine's request on Wiktionary as things are indeed unclear.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    The Wiktionary entry *drem cites Pokorny, but gives only the meaning "run". The entry for dormir links to that page, but says "run, sleep". It looks as if somebody has conflated two different PIE roots, but I can't find my copy of Pokorny. I've raised the question at the Wiktionary Tea room. – Colin Fine Apr 7 at 19:51
  • @Colin I don’t have a copy of Pokorny at home, but I’ve written up a (rather lengthy) answer based mostly on LIV², which also gives references to the relevant sections in Pokorny. If you find your copy, I can edit in the references if you want to check for additional data. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 8 at 21:57
  • Pokorny is mostly transcluded in the utexas pie pages – vectory Apr 9 at 16:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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