Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.54

Rafał Rosół, Frühe semitische Lehnwörter im Griechischen.   Frankfurt am Main:  Peter Lang, 2013.  Pp. 310.  ISBN 9783631626214.  $64.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jerker Blomqvist, Lund University (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The last fifty years or so of classical scholarship have displayed an increasing interest in the impact of other languages on the development of Greek and Latin. Loan-words are a rather well-defined and conspicuous category of indications of such influences, as compared to syntactical and morphological phenomena, and loan-words appearing in ancient Greek and Latin have consequently evoked the keen interest of the comparatists. Both Latin and Greek have a small number of loan-words in their vocabularies as compared to the modern languages of Europe, and the Greeks in particular seem to have consciously worked against the introduction of loan-words, at least during the classical and Hellenistic periods. On the other hand, for a considerable portion of the Greek lexicon no convincing Indo-European etymologies have been found. It has also proved possible to identify three languages or language groups which have contributed a noticeable number of the loan-words that ancient Greek actually possessed, viz., (i) the pre-Greek substrate that the Greek-speaking immigrants met with when they arrived in the Mediterranean area, (ii) the Semitic languages that the Greeks came into contact with, mainly in the archaic period, through commerce and colonization and, later on, with the spread of Christianity, and (iii) Latin, with the political domination of Rome from the mid- Hellenistic period onwards. In the twentieth century new facts about the language situation in the eastern Mediterranean area have made possible a better understanding of the loan-words in Greek. With the decipherment of Hittite and its Anatolian sister-languages it became possible to identify loan-words originating from that language family (or to differentiate them from other pre-Greek material). From the 1960s onwards a series of studies has increased our knowledge of the pre-Greek substrate language (or languages).1

With this situation, a new study on the Semitic loan-words in Greek is to be welcomed. That task has been undertaken by Rafał Rosół, a linguist and classicist presently working at the Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan. He is far from the first scholar to investigate the Semitic loan-words in ancient Greek. As his survey of previous scholarship demonstrates (ch. I:1), already in antiquity the presence of Semitic words in Greek was remarked upon, and at the beginning of the 17th century a number of scholars started an attempt to derive as many Greek words as possible from Hebrew, which was then regarded as the ultimate origin of all other languages. The development of comparative linguistics in the 19th century inspired more serious investigations, culminating in Heinrich Lewy’s impressive monograph Die semitischen Fremdwörter im Griechischen (Berlin 1895), which claimed to have identified more than 300 Greek words with Semitic origin. The most recent predecessor of Rosół’s study is Emilia Masson’s Recherches sur les plus anciens emprunts sémitiques en grec (Paris 1967), and among other 20th-century contributions Rosół especially mentions a series of articles by John Pairman Brown, published between 1963 and 1994.

Rosół’s book could be characterized as a critical examination of the Greek words that his predecessors have suggested to be Semitic loan-words. Rosół limits his study to early (”frühe”) loans, i.e., words appearing in texts of the classical period or older (but he includes Menander and Theophrastus). Glosses appearing in Hesychius’ lexicon, which provided earlier studies with much material for discussion, are included only when they can be supposed to have been quoted from pre-Hellenistic texts. Names, whether personal or geographical, are not included. The sixty-five words that Rosół regards as direct Semitic loans are presented in ch. II; for each of them he indicates whether its Semitic origin, in his view, is certain, probable (“wahrscheinlich”) or just possible (”vielleicht”). The names of the Greek letters receive a separate treatment (ch. III). Chs. IV–VI list fifteen words that originate from other Near-Eastern languages – Egyptian, Iranian or unknown – but probably have been introduced into Greek via a Semitic language. Ch. VII includes two words, κέρας and ταῦρος, classified as “semitisch-indogermanische Isoglossen”. They belong to a group of words the cognates of which are known from several languages of the area but whose origins and precise mutual relationships mostly cannot even be guessed at. In earlier studies they are sometimes labeled “Kulturwörter”, “Mittelmeerwörter” or “Wanderwörter”, and Rosół has, by necessity, chosen an equally imprecise designation for them.

It turns out that Rosół – just like, e.g., Masson – finds reason to disapprove of a great majority of the suggestions made by previous scholars. Chapter VIII, which lists the rejected (“abgelehnte”) Semitic etymologies, has c. 300 entries; there might have been many more, had Rosół chosen to include all the alleged linguistic evidence that makes up volume III of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena.2

Rosół’s work amply illustrates the problems linked with etymological investigations. Etymologies, in order to convince, must be confirmed by both the form and the meaning of the words involved. As for meaning, the problems with Greek-Semitic etymologizing are not overwhelming, because a relatively large number of the words under discussion denote objects and substances that may be supposed to have been unknown to the Greeks before they arrived in the Mediterranean area and to have been taken over by them together with the foreign words denoting them; both goods and words are likely to have been Oriental imports. Problems arise when the existing text material does not allow a precise assessment of what a word refers to. Greek αἵμων offers an extreme example (Rosół p. 18 and 158). The word occurs only once, in the phrase αἵμονα θήρης and in a context (Iliad 5.49) that gives no clue to its meaning; ancient and modern lexicographers are equally desperate as to its interpretation. Rosół rejects Semitic etymology, just as with the similar ἄμιθα and ἀνόπαια.

Distinctiveness of form is more difficult to ascertain, mainly because the writing systems used for the supposed Semitic source languages often do not adequately reproduce the phonetics of the language. Vowels are particularly problematic and when Rosół in ch. IX.2 summarizes the Semitic-Greek phonological correspondences illustrated by his material, he simply refrains from discussing the vowel phonemes. Loan-words may also undergo changes within the target language that integrate them with their new lexical environment but at the same time make them more difficult to identify. This is exemplified by χιτών with its alternative forms κιθών and κιτών, which must have been influenced by the Greek dissimilation of aspirates. δάκτυλος ‘date’, ‘fruit of the date-palm’, which originates from a Semitic root containing no ‑t‑, was, by folk-etymology, associated with δάκτυλος ‘finger’ (which, in its turn, is of unknown, possibly pre-Greek, origin; Rosół pp. 35–36).

In chs. II–VII every word is provided with an ample commentary. It gives references to earlier literature, aiming at completeness, summarizes previous scholarship, lists the parallels in different Semitic languages and illustrates the Greek-Semitic phonetic correspondences with parallels from other words. In combination with the 42-page list of literature and the extensive indexes at the end of the volume these commentaries make Rosół’s work a valuable reference book and bibliographic tool. The frequency and distribution of the words in the Greek texts, on the other hand, are mentioned only summarily; on ἀρραβών, e.g., Rosół restricts himself to the remark “Antiph[anes], Is[aeus], Arist[otle] etc.” (“Antiph.; Is.; Arist. usw.”), whereas Masson devotes 25 lines and a foot-note to the Greek usage of the same word.

The rejected words in ch. VIII are treated with less detail. Sufficient bibliographic references are present here, too, but Rosół does not indicate his reasons for rejecting each individual word. Instead he makes a more general declaration on his criteria in ch. I.3. It appears that his rejection of the suggested Semitic etymologies is primarily based on the absence of sufficient evidence – semantic and phonetic – for a Semitic origin, not on the presence of counter-evidence, e.g., in the shape of alternative, more convincing etymological explanations.

Rosół ascribes a Semitic origin to a greater number of Greek words than either Masson in her study of 1967 or Beekes in his more recent Etymological Dictionary of Greek. As indicated above, Rosół concludes that, disregarding the Greek letter names, 82 words have certainly, probably or possibly been adopted by the Greeks from or via a Semitic language. For Masson the corresponding figure is approximately 42 (excluding the Cypriote glosses). Beekes accepts even less of Rosół’s material as Semitic loans. Instead he derives several of these words from “Pre-Greek”, i.e., the non-Indo-European substrate language that has left numerous traces in the Greek vocabulary. Beekes regards certain sound variations and suffixes as fairly certain indications of a Pre-Greek origin. Thus, the presence of the element ‑νθ‑, in combination with the word’s semantic field (architecture), is supposed to indicate that πλίνθος is Pre-Greek and not Semitic, as Rosół would have it. Out of Rosół’s supposed Semitic loans, Beekes declares about twenty words as Pre-Greek and some others as Indo-European (including Anatolian). Rosół does not enter any general discussion on this Pre-Greek hypothesis. He gives the impression of general skepticism against it when, speaking of πλίνθος (p. 82), he uses the phrase “the alleged pre-Greek or Pelasgian ‑νθ‑ suffix” (“des angeblichen vorgriechischen bzw. pelasgischen ‑νθ-Suffixes”) with reference to Beekes most important evidence for Pre-Greek origin.

Masson, Beekes and Rosół agree, although in some cases with hesitation, that c. twenty-five words have been adopted by the Greeks from or via a Semitic language; these are βύσσος, δέλτος, ἴασπις, κάδος, κάμηλος, κασᾶς, κασία, κιν(ν)άμωμον, κρόκος, κύμινον, κύπρος, λίβανος/λιβανωτός, λῖς,3 μνᾶ, μύρρα, νάβλας, νάρδος, ὀθόνη, σάκκος, σαμβύκη, σήσαμον, σίγλος, σοῦσον, τύμπανον, χαλβάνη, χρυσός. Due to the complexity of the problems and the ambiguity of the empirical data, disagreement is the normal situation among etymologists. When these three scholars agree, we may feel certain that at least these words were introduced into the Greek lexicon from Semitic languages. And it is worth noticing that three of the words, κύμινον, σήσαμον and χρυσός, are attested for Mycenaean Greek (plus χιτών/κιθών, the Semitic origin of which is accepted by Masson, Rosół and most other scholars but rejected by Beekes). These findings testify to a Semitic influence already on late Bronze-Age Greek. It has continued, with varying intensity, through the ages.

Table of Contents

I. Einführung
1. Übersicht über die Forschungsgeschichte
2. Bearbeitung der Lehnwörter
3. Kriterien zur Bewertung der Etymologien
II. Semitische Lehnwörter im Griechischen
III. Griechische Buchstabennamen
IV. Ägyptische Lehnwörter mit möglicher semitischer Vermittlung
V. Iranische Lehnwörter mit möglicher semitischer Vermittlung
VI. Orientalische Lehnwörter unbekannten Ursprungs (semitische Herkunft zweifelhaft)
VII. Semitisch-indogermanische Isoglossen
VIII. Abgelehnte semitische Etymologien
IX. Schlussfolgerungen
1. Klassifikation der Lehnwörter
2. Phonetische Adaptation der Lehnwörter
3. Morphologische Adaptation der Lehnwörter
X. Abkürzungen
1. Griechische und lateinische Quellen
2. Sprachen und Dialekte
3. Grammatische Bezeichnungen
XI. Literaturverzeichnis
XII. Indices
1. Griechisch
2. Semitisch


1.   Primarily Edzard J. Furnée, Die wichtigsten konsonantischen Erscheinungen des Vorgriechischen , The Hague, 1972. For a handy survey of these findings, cf. Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek. With the assistance of Lucien van Beek, Leiden; Boston, 2010, pp. xiii–xlii.
2.   Martin Bernal, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical civilization. 3. The Linguistic Evidence, London, 2006. With good reason, Rosół excludes this material entirely from serious discussion and quotes, with approval, Jasanoff’s and Nussbaum’s verdict ”Bernal’s claim to have uncovered “hundreds” of viable Greek-Egyptian and Greek-Semitic etymologies is simply false. We doubt that he has discovered even one such etymology that is wholly new” (Rosół pp. 13–14; quotation from Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (eds.), Black Athena Revisited, Chapel Hill, 1996, p. 201).
3.   Masson and Beekes explain both λέων and λῖς as derived from the same Semitic root, whereas Rosół rejects Semitic origin for λέων.

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