Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society

by Émile Benveniste

Translated by Elizabeth Palmer
Foreword by Giorgio Agamben

Since its publication in 1969, Émile Benveniste’s Vocabulaire—here with a new introduction by Giorgio Agamben—has been the classic reference for tracing the institutional and conceptual genealogy of the sociocultural worlds of gifts, contracts, sacrifice, hospitality, authority, freedom, ancient economy, and kinship. A comprehensive and comparative history of words with analyses of their underlying neglected genealogies and structures of signification—and this via a masterful journey through Germanic, Romance, Indo-Iranian, Latin, and Greek languages—Benveniste’s dictionary is a must-read for anthropologists, linguists, literary theorists, classicists, and philosophers alike.

This book has famously inspired a wealth of thinkers, including Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Giorgio Agamben, François Jullien, and many others. In this new volume, Benveniste’s masterpiece on the study of language and society finds new life for a new generation of scholars. As political fictions continue to separate and reify differences between European, Middle Eastern, and South Asian societies, Benveniste reminds us just how historically deep their interconnections are and that understanding the way our institutions are evoked through the words that describe them is more necessary than ever.


Benveniste cover

“A great book, an indispensable book: une promesse de bonheur (“a promise of happiness”) as Stendhal would have said, for any reader curious to explore the intricacies and depths of the language she or he speaks.”

— Carlo Ginzburg, author of The Cheese and the Worms

“Benveniste’s erudition impresses and enthralls: every entry in this monumental work of learning is revelatory of unsuspected origins and connections among languages, cultures, and worlds of thought. A fundamental work not only of reference but also of inspiration for all scholars and all readers who love the web of words.”

— Lorraine Daston, author of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750

“This masterpiece of the human sciences of the twentieth century is crossed by a genuinely poetic impulse. Indo-European institutions do not appear so much as “states” or as “substances” but as living relationships in motion in the minds of men who think and speak. . . . This is why, by setting itself apart from works that are only similar in appearance, Benveniste’s Dictionary remains a totally unique work, which no inquiry in the humanities could do without.”

— Giorgio Agamben, author of Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

Émile Benveniste (1902–1976) was a French linguist, semiotician, and Professor of Linguistics at the Collège de France until 1969. He is the author of many works on Indo-European languages, including Problems in General Linguistics. Along with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Pierre Gourou, Benveniste was also the cofounder of the anthropological journal L’Homme.

Giorgio Agamben is the author of more than fifteen books on topics ranging from aesthetics to poetics, ontology, and political philosophy, including The Church and the Kingdom, The Unspeakable Girl, and Nymphs, all three published by Seagull Books. He is best known for his Homo Sacer series.

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Foreword:  The Vocabulary and the Voice, by Giorgio Agamben

List of Abbreviations


Section I: Livestock and Wealth

Chapter 1: Male and Sire
Chapter 2: A Lexical Opposition in Need of Revision: Sūs and Porcus
Chapter 3: Próbaton and the Homeric Economy
Chapter 4: Livestock and Money: Pecu and Pecunia

Section II: Giving and Taking

Chapter 5: Gift and Exchange
Chapter 6: Giving, Taking, and Receiving
Chapter 7: Hospitality
Chapter 8: Personal Loyalty

Section III: Purchase

Chapter 9: Two Ways of Buying
Chapter 10: Purchase and Redemption
Chapter 11: An Occupation without a Name: Commerce

Section IV: Economic Obligations

Chapter 12: Accountancy and Valuation
Chapter 13: Hiring and Leasing
Chapter 14: Price and Wages
Chapter 15: Credence and Belief
Chapter 16: Lending, Borrowing, and Debt
Chapter 17: Gratuitousness and Gratefulness


Chapter 1: The Importance of the Concept of Paternity
Chapter 2: Status of the Mother and Matrilineal Descent
Chapter 3: The Principle of Exogamy and its Applications
Chapter 4: The Indo-European Expression for “Marriage”
Chapter 5: Kinship Resulting from Marriage
Chapter 6: Formation and Suffixation of the Terms for Kinship
Chapter 7: Words Derived from the Terms for Kinship


Chapter 1: Tripartition of Functions
Chapter 2: The Four Divisions of Society
Chapter 3: The Free Man
Chapter 4: Phílos
Chapter 5: The Slave and the Stranger
Chapter 6: Cities and Communities


Chapter 1: Rex
Chapter 2: Xšay- and Iranian Kingship
Chapter 3: Hellenic Kingship
Chapter 4: The Authority of the King
Chapter 5: Honor and Honors
Chapter 6: Magic Power
Chapter 7: Krátos
Chapter 8: Royalty and Nobility
Chapter 9: The King and His People


Chapter 1: Thémis
Chapter 2: Díkē
Chapter 3: Ius and the Oath in Rome
Chapter 4: *Med- and the Concept of Measure
Chapter 5: Fas
Chapter 6: The Censor and Auctoritas
Chapter 7: The Quaestor and the *Prex
Chapter 8: The Oath in Greece


Chapter 1: The “Sacred”
Chapter 2: The Libation
Chapter 3: The Sacrifice
Chapter 4: The Vow
Chapter 5: Prayer and Supplication
Chapter 6: The Latin Vocabulary of Signs and Omens
Chapter 7: Religion and Superstition

Bibliographical Note