At first glance, the words raven and crow don’t appear to have anything in common, despite describing closely related types of birds. I started looking into them because I encountered two different translations of the Welsh name Brân, as in the legendary King of Britain, Brân the Blessed. Some sources translated Brân as “raven” and others as “crow.” Given that they are technically two different birds, I thought this was strange. We distinguish between them in English, is that not the case in other languages?
I decided to investigate the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as Welsh. For good measure, I also looked into Greek because I was interested to see how it related to the others. Below is a list of what I found:
- Raven / Crow– English
- Rabe / Krähe– German
- Raaf / Kraai– Dutch and Afrikaans
- Ravn / Kråke– Norwegian and Danish
- Korp / Kråka– Swedish
- Hrafn / Krár– Icelandic
- Cuervo / Cuervo– Spanish
- Corbeau / Corbeau– French
- Corvo / Corvo– Italian
- Cigfran / Brân– Welsh
- Koráki / Koráki– Greek
A few things jump out at me about this list:
- The Germanic languages distinguish between the two types of birds but the Romance languages and Greek do not.
- The Germanic and Romance words are very different, with the exception of korp for “raven” in Swedish. This is clearly a loanword.
- Welsh also distinguishes between the birds, but the relationship of these words to the Germanic and Romance terms is a bit opaque.
- Icelandic, being the most conservative (i.e., being the least changed from its “ancestor” language, in this case Old Norse) seems to hold the key to unlocking the connection.
What I noticed about Icelandic is the seemingly vestigial “h” on the front of hrafn. This “h before r” pattern comes from Old Norse and may be a feature of Proto-Germanic, since it existed in Old English as well, where the word was hræfn. While other Scandinavian languages dropped the “h” where it proceeded “r” as they evolved, Icelandic did not. This was the clue I needed to get to the bottom of the connection between raven and crow.
The reason why the “h” is important is that a shift known as Grimm’s Law occurred over time where the initial “k” sound found in most branches of the Indo-European language became an “h” in the Germanic languages. To give a relatively well known example of this, the “h” sound at the beginning of the English word hundred remained a hard “k” sound at the beginning of its Latin counterpart, centum, and both words can be traced back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *kemtom.
So, rather than some sort of strange outlier, the “h” at the beginning of the Icelandic word hrafn is an indicator of a “k” sound that has been lost over time. If one adds the “k” to the beginning of the Germanic words (again, with the exception of Swedish), one ends up with a consonant root of “k-r,” often followed by “v/w/f/b,” which maps very well to examples from both the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as to Greek. It is not hard to imagine (k)raven, corvo and koráki coming from the same ancestral PIE word. One can even see, with a bit of squinting, the “k-r+v/w/f/b” root poking through the Welsh word cigfran and, with a bit more squinting, brân. Taking the investigation of the etymological root down to the lowest level, I eventually got to the PIE root *ker– which denotes something that is “horned.” There are many loan words from Latin and French, such as corner and cornucopia that demonstrate this, not to mention Cornwall and the horned god of Celtic myth, Cernunnos.
The implication here is that, at one time, the raven and the crow were referred to by a single word, but that for some reason, speakers of the Germanic and Celtic languages began distinguishing between them, while speakers of Latin (ancestor of the Romance languages) and Greek did not. The reason why they did this is not obvious, but I am tempted by the idea that it was because this particular bird had a greater significance in Germanic and Celtic cultural spheres as compared to other areas.
After doing some research on the topic, I do think this “cultural” explanation may in fact have something to do with it. While ravens and crows have figured as psychopomps associated with war, death, the otherworld and prophecy in a variety of cultures around the world, it is notable that in some cultures their role exceeds that of helper and they become equated in some sense with particular gods.
For example, in Greek mythology, Apollo uses ravens as messengers. In Norse mythology, Odin also has ravens, Huginn and Muninn, usually translated as “thought” and “memory,” who fly around the world on a daily basis and come back to alight on his shoulders and tell him what they have seen. The messenger theme found in Greek mythology is clearly present in the Norse myth, but Odin’s connection with his ravens goes much further; they appear to be extensions of his mind. The connection is so strong, in fact, that one of his nicknames is hrafnagu, or “ravengoð.”
Similarly, in Irish mythology, the goddesses Badb, Morrigan and Macha turn themselves into crows and, as noted above, Brân the Blessed’s name literally means “crow.”
In the end, I’m left with the intriguing notion that the Germanic and Celtic peoples, as distinct from their neighbors to the south, developed more elaborate ways of talking about these black birds because they figured heavily in their respective mythologies in connection with gods. Further, it appears that the importance of ravens/crows developed within the Germanic and Celtic cultural contexts, as opposed to Indo-European, since only the Germanic and Celtic languages distinguish between them.