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A teacher of mine recently mentioned a phenomenon in linguistics called "rho-rotation". Across eons and languages if a r/rho sound was next to a vowel it tended to switch postitions and "jump" before or after the vowel. He named the example of the Ancient Greek "ἁρπάζειν" which turned into the Latin "rapere" (later in English "to rob" or German "rauben") all with the meaning "to take/rob/grab".

I have found this phenomenon described by other teachers and quite vaguely in some Latin textbooks but never in an actual linguistics book or paper, especially on the internet.

Do you know any sources of further information on this topic?

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    The exact origin of harpazō is unclear, but it's not the ancestor of Latin rapiō. For a more likely cognate of rapiō, look at ereptomai "pluck".
    – Draconis
    Apr 17 at 22:01
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    This is just a specific kind of metathesis. If you search for 'rhotic metathesis' (or something similar) you'll get lots of hits. BTW, English has quite a few instances of rhotic metathesis from Old English to Modern, eg brid->bird, thrid->third, hros->horse. Apr 17 at 22:42
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    @GastonÜmlaut Thank you very much, I had never heard of the word metathesis before and it helped a lot.
    – SoccerFan
    Apr 18 at 8:33
  • @Draconis Interesting... English speaking web-etymology sites agree with you on the origin of rapere, but a lot of German dicionaries site ἁρπαζω. But that wasn´t my question anyway.
    – SoccerFan
    Apr 18 at 8:38
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    not relevant to this particular case, but Greek reflects PIE *r̥ (syllabic r) as "ra", where Latin has "or" so some instances of apparent metathesis (and a slightly different vowel) could just be different reflexes
    – Tristan
    Apr 18 at 10:20

2 Answers 2

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What you refer to as "rho-rotation" is just a specific kind of metathesis. If you search for "rhotic metathesis" (or something similar, perhaps "liquid metathesis" or "r-metathesis") you'll find plenty of discussion about this phenomenon.

English has quite a few instances of rhotic metathesis from Old English to Modern, for example

  • brid->bird
  • thrid->third
  • hros->horse
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Yes, rhotic metathesis (or r-metathesis) is a real thing. If you want a recent-ish study on it, try this 2013 paper by Bartłomiej Czaplicki.

Simply, metathesis is the transpositions of letters, sounds, or syllables within a word. You see it everywhere in many languages worldwide, and rhotic metathesis is no exception. In his comment to your question, Gaston mentions a few of the more well-known examples in English, and you do frequently see the phenomenon going from Latin to Old French, such as:

turbulare -> turbler -> trubler (Eng. trouble)
fimbria -> frimbia -> frenge (Eng. fringe)

While this principle is sound, it's not quite what happened with the verbs in question. First, no one knows exactly where harpazein comes from, but the initial h-, if it's IE and related to harpe (see Beekes on why that might not be the case), it would likely begin with initial s-. But this isn't for sure.

Now, people used to think that harpazein is cognate with rapere, but that's no longer current. (LSJ includes it; Beekes mentions it at ἐρέπτομαι.) Regardless, both the Latin rapere and the German rauben (cognate with rob) do not directly descend from the Greek; they are derived more immediately from their parent languages. The Proto-Germanic *raubōną gives rise to the German rauben and the English rob. Both go back to PIE, with the initial letter being hr-.

If there is a Latin connection, Wiktionary points to *Hrewp- being cognate with the Latin rupes ("cliff") and rumpere ("to shatter") (with a present nasal infix; past passive participle ruptus).

Following Draconis' comment, we do see a cognate with rapere in Greek's ἐρέπτομαι. This is a normal yod-present (or jot-present) derivation of the PIE ancestor. It is not the direct ancestor of the Latin rapere or the German/English rauben/rob.

To sum, yes, rhotic metathesis is real and there is plenty of evidence for it. No, that's not what's going on with these verbs. Crucially, though, harpazein does not give rise to rapere and (either directly or indirectly) rauben and rob.

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