Semitic Words in Greek
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Categories: Ancient

Semitic Words in Greek

The tube stop just outside the tower of London, June 2019. I don’t entirely understand the topography, but anything higher than the walls is out of bowshot of the moat (currently drained and replaced with a dry ditch, and the water gate is only accessible through a long tunnel).

Back in 2013, Jerker Blomqvist took the time to compare three books on Semitic words in ancient Greek texts. Scholars often disagree about which arguments are “certain,” “probable,” or to be “rejected.” Out of about 400 words which have been seen as loans, he found about 25 which are accepted by all three authorities:

  • The names of most of the the letters from alpha to omega (and while the letter m is named mem in Hebrew and mu in ancient Greek- see a four-line verse by the comic poet Callias- I remember an Akkadian text which calls it meu)
  • βύσσος byssos “a luxurious textile, probably flax-based” (Aramaic būṣ, Akkadian būṣu)
  • δέλτος deltos “writing board”
  • ἴασπις iaspis “jasper, a semiprecious stone”
  • κάδος kados “a kind of jar”
  • κάμηλος kamelos “camel” (Akkadian gammalu)
  • κασᾶς kasas “?carpet, padded saddleblanket?” (only in the Cyropaedia)
  • κασία “cassia, a spice from the bark of bushes in the cinnamomum family” (today we use the word for ‘Chinese cinnamon’ but Theophrastus and Herodotus knew it long before goods from China were reaching Egypt)
  • κιν(ν)άμωμον “cinnamon, a spice from the bark of bushes in the cinnamomum family” (today we use the word for ‘Indian cinnamon’ but exactly which species the ancients meant is tricky)
  • κρόκος krokos “saffron”
  • κύμινον “cumin, a spice from the seeds of a Near Eastern herb”
  • κύπρος kupros “henna”
  • λίβανος/λιβανωτός libanos/libanotos “frankincense, the aromatic resin of a shrub from western Arabia”
  • λῖς lis “lion (poetic)” (Hebrew liš, Armaic lyt) and possibly λέων leon “lion”
  • μνᾶ mna “pound, a weight of 300-500 grams” (Sumerian, Akkadian manû)
  • μύρρα “myrrh” (Akkadian marāru or murru)
  • νάβλας nablas “a string instrument”
  • νάρδος “nard, an essential oil”
  • ὀθόνη othone “a luxurious fabric, probably flax-based”
  • σάκκος sakkos “fabric bag, coarse fabric” (Akkadian saqu, Aramaic saq, Latin saccus, Old French sac)
  • σαμβύκη sambyke “a musical instrument”
  • σήσαμον “sesame” (Akkadian šamaššammu)
  • σίγλος siglos “shekel” (Akkadian šiqlu)
  • σοῦσον souson “lilly”
  • τύμπανον tympanon “drumhead”
  • χαλβάνη xalbane “a medicinal bush in the genus Ferula (carrot)”
  • χρυσός chrysos “gold” (Akkadian ḫurāṣu)

As you see, many of these words (camel, jasper, sack, cinnamon, cumin, sesame, tympanum) are still spoken in English. There is widespread but not universal agreement that another important word was borrowed from a Semitic language into Greek:

  • χιτών/κιθών chiton “tunic” (probably also related to English “cotton”)

Three words from the first list, plus chiton, are already recorded in the tiny body of Linear B texts, the oldest known texts in Greek. In addition, there are a body of words which spread so wide so early that they cannot be assigned to a single language family. Words like οἰνός oinos “wine” κέρας keras “horn” and ταῦρος tauros “bull” were spoken with local pronunciations in different languages thousands of miles apart. From the Bronze Age onwards, when Greeks talked about buying and selling, tasty food or fine textiles they used Semitic words. Just how many other words you say they borrowed depends on your political orientation.

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Further Reading: Ray Brown, “The Lemnos Stele” Jan Tavernier has a whole book on Old Iranian words attested in non-Iranian languages, but he does not address the ones in Greek and Latin. Walter Buckert complains about philologists who are far more critical of proposals that a Greek word was borrowed from the east than of far-fetched Indo-European etymologies in The Orientalizing Revolution (1984).

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