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Was Saint Peter a Buddhist monk?

Dunhuang Caves

Dunhuang Caves

I apologize for the click bait headline: no, he was not! I was, however, revisiting some fascinating work done by the syriacist Hidemi Takahashi on proper names in the Christian documents and inscriptions of Tang dynasty China (here, here and here). Three Chinese characters in one document seem to refer to Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter as ‘Solid-Peak Monk’.

Christianity first came to China during or just before the Tang era. The first Christians in China were most likely traders who came overland along the famous Silk Road to the Tang capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). They were adherents of the Church of the East, who prayed in Syriac but mostly spoke Iranian and Turkic languages.

In the great hoard of manuscripts discovered at the Dunhuang caves complex are those belonging to this first Chinese church. One of these is the eighth-century Zūnjīng (尊經 ‘The Book of Honour’), which is a rather grand name for what is essentially two lists of names. The first list in Zūnjīng is of biblical characters and saints, while the second is list of Christian books, including some other documents found at Dunhuang. It seems that the purpose of Zūnjīng was to provide a crib sheet for those translating Christian texts into Chinese to show which characters should be used for certain names.

The entry for ‘Solid-Peak Monk’ appears in Zūnjīng‘s list of names. The entry simply reads Cénwěn Sēng (岑穩僧 literally ‘solid peak monk’). From other uses, it is clear that the name Cénwěn should be understood as ‘Simon’. In the Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Tang era, it would likely have been pronounced /d͡ʒiɪm ʔuənX/ or /tʂɦəm ʔun’/ (different sources reconstruct it differently). The Japanese reading of the characters as shimu’on (しむおん) upholds this kind of pronunciation, and Japanese readings often give a good insight into the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Seeing as the liturgical language of the first Chinese Christians was Syriac, this fits with the Syriac for ‘Simon’, which is Shem‘ōn (ܫܡܥܘܢ, exactly following the Hebrew Shim‘ôn שמעון, ‘he has heard’). If the Simon in question is the Simon Peter whose nickname means ‘rock’ (from the Greek Petros Πέτρος, given by Jesus in the punning dialogue of Matthew 16.13–20), then the literal meaning of the characters 岑穩 as ‘solid peak’ also makes sense. All of this is rather linguistically satisfying.

The name ‘Peter’ sounds like just that, a name, to most us, and we forget that it is a rocky nickname. The New Testament gives us an alternative version of the name, often written Cephas in English Bibles. This represents Kēphas (Κηφᾶς) in the Greek text. This is the Aramaic word for ‘rock’: Kêfâ (כיפא ܟܐܦܐ). He gets a final sigma in Greek to make it sound more manly, as an alpha ending is womanly (Jesus’ name got its final ‘s’ for the same gendered reason). As Syriac is a variety of Aramaic, Simon Peter is more usually called Shem‘ōn Kēfā (ܫܡܥܘܢ ܟܐܦܐ). It would be natural for Christians who prayed in Syriac to have carried Peter’s name to China not as the Greek Petros, but the Syriac Kēfā, but that is not what the scribe of Zūnjīng gave us.

The Chinese sēng () is used for Buddhist monks. Thus we literally have ‘Simon the Buddhist monk’. The Chinese word comes from the Buddhist Pali term saṅgha (सङ्घ), referring to a Buddhist monastery, which is sēngjiā (僧伽) in Chinese. For want of a better term in Chinese, Christian monks are regularly given the title sēng in Tang era texts too, so our Simon does not have to be a Buddhist monk.

The key to the puzzle rests in learning the extinct Sogdian language, which was well represented among traders from the West in Chang’an. Sogdian was an Iranian language spoken in Samarkand and throughout a region covering today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It became a Silk Road lingua franca. In Sogdian, the word for ‘rock’ is sang, and this seems to be the origin of the Chinese sēng being used to translate the Petros/Kēfā part of Simon Peter’s name. Thus, Sogdian-speaking merchants and their clergy brought Christianity to China, naming Jesus’ disciple Shem‘ōn Sang, with that literal rocky translation of Kēfā. The scribe of Zūnjīng decided to choose Chinese characters that represented this Sogdian name phonetically. Yet the phonetic transcription is only half the story. The good scribe chose characters that had a meaning that was in harmony with who Simon Peter was.  Oddly, the rockiness of ‘Peter’ was transferred to the characters that phonetically represent ‘Simon’, as ‘solid peak’. Twice oddly, a Chinese character for a Buddhist monk that is phonetically derived from the Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit was used to represent the Sogdian word for ‘rock’. I imagine our good scribe thought the character suitable for a holy man, a saint.

P.S. In modern Mandarin Chinese, Simon Peter is Xīmén Bǐde (西门·彼得). The Catholic Church in China uses either Bǎiduōlù (伯多禄) or Bǎiduó (伯铎) for ‘Peter’, and the Orthodox Church uses Péitèrè (裴特若). ‘Simon’ is also often written as Xīméng (西蒙) All are rather phonetic and based on European languages. It is a pity the link with the Syriac/Sogdian of the first to bring Christianity to China has been lost.

P.P.S. Simon Peter was obviously not a monk. Christian monasticism did not really get going until St Anthony in the third century. The fact that Peter was married can be ascertained by the reference to his sick mother-in-law in the gospels (Matthew 8.14, Mark 1.30, Luke 4.38).

P.P.P.S. Speaking of the Sogdian word for ‘rock’, the Sogdian Rock was a fortress in Sogdiana that was besieged by Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Arrian’s Anabasis tells us that the defenders thought the Rock to be impregnable but Alexander employed rock climbers to scale it with flax ropes and tent pegs. Alexander’s prize was to marry the princess Roxana. The Greeks thought her to be the second most lovely woman in all of Asia, which must have given her the hump. She was a Bactrian princess.

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Psyche, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A Cabbage White.

A Cabbage White.

I recently read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s short poem Psyche for the first time. In spite of its brevity, its address is deep and rich. Psyche was composed in 1808, and published first in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817). I do have a certain fellow-feeling for Coleridge, my fellow Devonian republican. And so, to the text

Psyche

The butterfly the ancient Grecians made
The soul’s fair emblem, and its only name –
But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade
Of mortal life! – For in this earthly frame
Ours is the reptile’s lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.

The form of this poem is unique. It is closest in shape to the rhyme royal stanza form championed by Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde. It was also employed by Shakespeare in his Rape of Lucrece. Thus, the form suggests a passionate tragedy. A standard rhyme royal is like a half-sonnet, consisting of seven lines of iambic pentameter, rhymed ababbcc. In Psyche, Coleridge follows this form with one exception: the final line is extended into an alexandrine, by the addition of an extra beat.

The initial idea of the poem is the Greek word ψυχή (psychē), which is most usually translated ‘soul’, but can be ‘breath’ or even ‘butterfly’. Coleridge extends this metaphor as the butterfly for the free soul (in some Neoplatonic afterlife) and the caterpillar for the embodied soul in captivity on earth. Coleridge does not mention the caterpillar directly, and even uses the word ‘reptile’ to describe it. I found that word wrong-footed me at first reading, but the effect makes me think of the Serpent of the Garden of Eden. However, the word, from the Late Latin reptilis ‘creeping’, used to be used to cover any sort of creeping thing (and sometimes still does). The Latin myth of Psyche and Cupid would be obvious material for a romantic poet to use here (Keats does so in his 1819 Ode to Psyche), but Coleridge focuses more simply on the soul–butterfly image.

The phrasing of Psyche is ternary: the first two lines make the statement about the Greek idea of the butterfly as an image of the soul, the third line and the beginning of the fourth extend this by noting that this is true only for the post-mortal soul, with the rest of the poem dwelling on the situation of the earth-bound, embodied soul. The ternary phrasing of Psyche makes me think of the various philosophical, theological and psychological anthropologies: spirit, soul and body; reason, emotion and desire; superego, ego and id. It is this third movement of the poem that packs the real punch, with the preceding two thirds setting the scene. Yet still, each of these movements has a little surprise for the reader. The first movement presents us with the butterfly image. The second gives us the timely wording ‘escaped the slavish trade’. Coleridge was an avowed abolitionist, and Psyche was written a year after William Wilberforce’s 1807 Slave Trade Act. However, many radical abolitionists, like Coleridge, felt this was something of a pyrrhic victory (too little, too late), as slavery itself was not abolished. Psyche appears to reflect on the arduous, seemingly never-ending struggle as an image of the wider romantic idea of Weltschmerz (world weariness) or mal du siècle (sickness of the [early-19th] century). For the romantics, their Weltschmerz was a realisation that their fully aware minds could never be satisfied by their experience of the world. Coleridge knew guilt, failure and depression (‘much toil, much blame’), and so the ‘slavish trade of mortal life’ suits both Coleridge’s romantic reading and his own experience.

The clearest poetical device used in Psyche is the alliteration that begins at the end of the fifth line — ‘much toil, much blame’ — and flowing onto the beginning of the sixth line — ‘manifold motions making’. On the fifth line these ‘m’s fall on offbeats, but the repeated word strengthens them and slows the poem recitation down. On the sixth line, these ‘m’s fall on the beats and create an initial inversion of the metre. The letter shape — ‘M’ — is reminiscent of the motion of a caterpillar or a snake, as is the DUM-di-di-DUM rhythm of the initial inversion. In fact, the word ‘reptile’ is introduced on the fifth line with a similar inversion.

A weaker initial inversion appears in the third and last lines. These lines begin with three unstressed syllables, which can be read as regular iambic rhythm, yet the contrastive stress seems to fall on the words ‘but’ and ‘and’ respectively, giving BUT of the SOULAND to deFORM. Well, I did read the third line a few times as regular iambic rhythm, but I think the initial inversion sounds better.

The diction of Psyche is quite contemporary for a 200-year-old poem. There are only two words that strike me as a bit dated: ‘Grecian’ and ‘fair’ (there is also the unusual sense of ‘reptile’ which I have already mentioned). I do not mind the word ‘Grecian’ so much: it fits with the schoolish opening phrase about the dual meaning of ψυχή. I find the use of ‘fair’ took more acclimatisation. As it occurs as a stressed syllable on an offbeat in the metre, it does have a tripping effect, slowing the line right down. The ‘fair emblem’ does make me think of the Cabbage Whites that flitted around my dad’s vegetable garden in the summer months of my childhood. Its large white wings make it quite a suitable ‘fair emblem’ for the soul. It is also considered by gardeners to be a pest for what its caterpillar-children do to plants!

Speaking of the demotion of the syllable ‘fair’ in the second line, Coleridge makes use of unstressed beats (‘promotion’) to pick up the pace in a couple of places. In the second line, the slowing over ‘the soul’s fair emblem’ is then accelerated by placing the beat on the unstressed first syllable of ‘and its only name’, propelling us onward. Coleridge does this again in the second phrase of the fourth line: placing the beat on the unstressed second syllable of ‘for in this earthly frame’ to catapult us into the realisation delivered in the final three lines of the what the existence of the unfree soul means.

The most striking aspect of the scansion, though, is that final alexandrine. This metrical extension avoids the poem coming to a neat, clackity-clack conclusion. It draws out the poem, and makes us wait for the end, which is very much the point. It is difficult not to think of French poetry when the alexandrine is deployed, which makes me think it a subtle comment on Napoleon’s perceived betrayal of the bright hopes of the French Revolution. With that and the slow progress of abolition, Coleridge channels his particular Weltschmerz into this poem.

The final image of that pest the caterpillar deforming, destroying, devouring its leaf stands for humanity’s parasitical lust for earthly resources. In the 21st century, Coleridge’s poem reads with a strong environmentalist message. I was first attracted to this poem by its opening two lines — a clever bit of classics — but my interest was deepened by this possible environmentalist reading. Psyche’s melancholic hopelessness about human life does not chime with my personal feelings, although there are plenty of opportunities for us to read current affairs in this light. The Neoplatonic anthropology of the freedom of the disembodied soul is not to my Christian taste either. My biblical theology is of the human being as a psychosomatic unity: the soul (נפש nephesh, ψυχή psychē) is the God-given life of the person, not the person’s distillated self. Thus, I have plenty to argue against Psyche’s heretical hopelessness, but it also highlights for me the central importance of salvation, without which we might as well be caterpillars destroying all before us. Yet, I am drawn — moth to flame! — back to this poem, charmed by its supple simplicity and high-blown romantic melancholy.

Addition: I just came across Alexander Pope’s description of the alexandrine in his 1709 poem An Essay on Criticism: ‘That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along’ (which, of course is an alexandrine itself, with a medial inversion). This would almost certainly have been known by Coleridge.


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What is Aramaic and Syriac?

11th-century West Syriac Melkite music book from Mount Sinai.

Robert Fisk recently wrote an article about Ma‘loula (معلولا) for the Independent. It is a good article, and I was glad to read it. However, there are a couple of small errors about the Aramaic spoken in Ma‘loula and its neighbouring villages of Bakh‘a (بخعة) and Jubb‘adin (جبّعدين) in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains of Syria. As someone who works in Aramaic, I tend to read many articles written by journalists touching on the language, and many make the same mistakes. So, I offer this article as a little corrective.

  1. Aramaic is a Semitic language — Fisk’s article declares “Did Arabic and Hebrew descend from Aramaic? Scholars – I always find that an odd word – are still undecided.” It is a rather silly statement because scholars, and it is always best to be a little more specific, are totally decided that the question of Arabic and Hebrew descending from Aramaic is rather silly. Aramaic, with Arabic and Hebrew, is part of the Semitic branch of Afro-asiatic languages (spoken throughout the Middle East and north-east Africa). All Semitic languages are descended from a hypothetical Proto-Semitic language, which branched off into the various Semitic languages that have existed throughout history. Thus, Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew do not have parent-child relationships, but more cousinly ones. In fact, Arabic branched off earlier, and so is slightly more distantly related to the other two, with Hebrew and Aramaic having more in common (these both belong to Northwest Semitic group). For example, the greeting of peace in Hebrew is shalom (שלום), in Arabic is salam (سلام), and in Aramaic is shlama (ܫܠܡܐ or שלמא).
  2. Aramaic has a long and diverse history — A major problem with reporting about Aramaic is that it is often treated as a monolithic language. However, no language stands still: we can see how English has changed from Shakespeare to hip-hop, let alone going back as far as Beowulf. Aramaic has a recorded history that is more than twice as long as that of English. Although, I would reckon that Aramaic has resisted change far better than English has, in different times and places people have spoken and written different Aramaics. Geographically, varieties of Aramaic tend to fall into two branches: the more vigorous Eastern Aramaic in Mesopotamia, and the near extinct Western Aramaic in the Levant. The earliest Aramaic inscriptions come from the tenth century BC. During the latter half of the eight century BC, the conquests of the Neo-Assyrian founder Tiglath-Pileser III, Aramaic became the diplomatic language of the region. Around the year 500 BC, Darius decreed Aramaic as the official language of Achaemenid Persian Empire. The standard Aramaic practised by Achaemenid scribes is known as Official Aramaic. After the conquest of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Seleucid Empire, Greek became the language of power and high society in much of the Levant, while Aramaic continued as a rural language, remaining strong in its Mesopotamian heartland. Thus, most post-Achaemenid Aramaic is written in Mesopotamian dialects. The Aramaic of Ma‘loula is the last living remnant of the western varieties of Aramaic. Greek and Aramaic coexisted for over a millennium, until Arabic gradually became the dominant language of the Middle East.
  3. Aramaic is one of the original languages of the Bible — The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) was originally written down in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. However, a few parts of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic. The largest portion of Aramaic is Daniel 2.4b–7.28, with the rest of the book written in Hebrew. Daniel 2.4 is odd as the text changes from Hebrew to Aramaic mid-flow: ‘And the Chaldaeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live for ever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation”’ (where the narration is in Hebrew, then the quoted speech is in Aramaic, but then the narration and everything else continues in Aramaic). Portions of the Book of Ezra are also in Aramaic, as is one sentence in the Prophet Jeremiah, and one word in Genesis. The variety of Aramaic in Daniel and Ezra is post-Achaemenid with many Greek borrowings.
  4. Jesus spoke Aramaic — This is one of the big selling-points of Aramaic for many, and almost every journalist who mentions Aramaic has to make the connection with Jesus. I would too! However, we obviously have no sound recordings of Jesus speaking Aramaic, nor is he alleged to written anything down, except in the dust (John 8.6–9). Jesus’ speaking Aramaic is based on two bits of evidence. Firstly, we know that Aramaic was widely spoken by Jews and their neighbours, particularly among the lower classes. Hebrew and Greek were also important languages, and Jesus would probably have been able to speak them too. Secondly, the Greek New Testament records quite a few Aramaic words and phrases, names and places in transliteration (with no spoken Hebrew). These little fossilised bits of Aramaic are interesting in themselves — ‘talitha qum’, ‘ephphatha’ (actual Aramaic ‘ethpethach’) and  ‘eli eli’ or ‘eloi eloi lema sabachthani’ (in Mark 5.41, Mark 7.34, Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34 respectively). So, we are pretty sure Jesus spoke Aramaic. However, the Aramaic he would have spoken is clearly different from any Aramaic spoken today. We Christians who speak Aramaic like to say that we speak the language of Jesus, but in practice we all speak slightly different varieties of Aramaic to that spoken by Jesus. It is just not quite so glamourous to admit that we speak a language that is as close as you can get to that spoken by Jesus.
  5. No gospels were first written in Aramaic — There are people around (in the Internet sense rather than around universities) who will go to great lengths to prove that some of the New Testament was written in Aramaic, and then later translated into Greek. They are wrong.
  6. People of different religions speak Aramaic — Religion is a big deal, and Aramaic is the language of worship and theology for Christians, Jews and Mandeans. Christians make up the largest religious group among fluent Aramaic speakers. Aramaic as a learned language is used in prayer and study by many more Christians, Jews and Mandeans who do not speak it fluently. As well as liturgical texts in Aramaic for all three religions, a little less than a fifth of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Aramaic, and the base language of the Talmud is also Aramaic.
  7. There are a few million Aramaic-speakers today — It is often stated that Aramaic is an extinct language, or that some small group is the last few speakers of Aramaic in the world. However, there are thriving communities of Christian Aramaic-speakers in Chicago and Södertälje, near Stockholm, produced by different waves of refugees. However, the various modern Aramaics are endangered. Chronic turmoil in Aramaic-speaking homelands is a major factor. Also, Aramaic is less useful for everyday life if everyone around you is speaking Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish, German or English. The erosion of Jewish modern Aramaics is the most acute — each variety spoken by a small cluster of families from a Mesopotamian village, they have low intelligibility with each other, and most speakers are now in Israel and are giving way to Hebrew. Mandaic in both its classical and modern varieties is severely threatened, as is the Mandean way of life in Iraq and Iran. Mlahso, a Christian Aramaic from southeast Turkey, became extinct upon the death of Ibrahim Hanna in 1998. Turmoil and diaspora has created a koine, or amalgam, language of the previously diverse spectrum of Christian Aramaic tribal dialects spoken from the mountains of southeast Turkey to the plains of northern Iraq. On the more hopeful side, young people are using music (Aramaic hip-hop is pretty good!) and the Internet to keep their language alive, yet still there is major language erosion going on all around Aramaic.
  8. Aramaic is written in a number of different scripts — It is not straightforward to answer the question which script Aramaic is written in. The earliest inscriptions use a modified Phoenician script, which was used by many Northwest Semitic languages. Official Aramaic developed a formal, chancery script that was adopted by Jews for writing both Aramaic and Hebrew. What we think of today as Hebrew script (אבגד) is the descendent of Official Aramaic script. In Daniel 2.4, when the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic, there is no change of script. In the first century BC, the cursive Aramaic script of the city of Edessa began its development, which was taken up by Christian Aramaic-speakers, and is known as Syriac script (ܐܒܓܕ). Other cursive Aramaic scripts were developed for Mandaic, Nabatean and Palmyrene. Cursive Nabatean and Syriac were influential in the development of Arabic script (ابجد). When Robert Fisk asks about Aramaic being the forerunner of Hebrew and Arabic, he is clearly confusing the history of development of writing systems with the languages themselves, which, to be fair, is not an uncommon mistake. Syriac script has been found on Turkic gravestones in Central Asia as well as on a Tang Dynasty inscription in China.
  9. How do Syriac, Chaldean and Assyrian fit in with Aramaic? — Different varieties of Aramaic have their own names, and names of the varieties often bear a relation to the speakers’ ethnic and religious identity. The  Syriac identity is almost synonymous with Christian speakers of Aramaic. As Christianity was adopted by many Aramaic speakers the name ‘Aramean’ came to be associated with their pagan past (armaya means ‘pagan’ in Classical Syriac), and so the Greek translation of ‘Aram’, which is ‘Syria’, was adopted. Many Christian Aramaic-speakers now refer to themselves as Assyrian in reference to Northern Mesopotamia, which long remained known as Assyria after the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (interestingly they often spell it ‘As-‘ after the Greek spelling or ‘Ash-‘ after the Akkadian spelling, rather than ‘Ath-‘ the historical Aramaic spelling). Modern Christian Aramaic varieties called Assyrian should not be confused with the ancient variety of Akkadian known as Assyrian, which is a very different Semitic language. The term Chaldean or Chaldee is quite confusing, it belonged to the Semitic people of the Southern Mesopotamian marshes who founded the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 620 BC. Seeing as the Book of Daniel is set during the final years of this empire, St Jerome chose to use the word ‘Chaldee’ to describe Biblical Aramaic (I have an old Aramaic dictionary that is charmingly titled A Chaldee Lexicon). After the fall of this empire, the term came to refer to the scribal class of Achaemenid Babylon, which led ‘Chaldean’ to becoming a byword for ‘magician’. The term received renewed use when a split in the Church of the East led to one bishop Yuhannan Sulaqa being consecrated as ‘Patriarch of the Chaldeans’ by the Pope in Rome in 1553, based on Jerome’s use of the term for the Aramaic language. This identity continues to be used by East Syriac-rite Catholics, and is occasionally used to refer to their dialects of Aramaic.
  10. Any other questions? — Leave a comment below.


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Indonesian, Malay, slang and Arabic names

Greater Indonesia or in the Malay language, In...

Most languages and dialects have slang, and much is playful, but Indonesians seem to take language play to a higher level. The linguistic heritage of the archipelago gives the perfect ingredients for wordplay.

The official language Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is derived from ‘market Malay‘ (bahasa pasar, the language of the bazaar), which served as lingua franca throughout the region. Although the official, standardised languages of Malaysia and Indonesia are both Malay languages with mutual intelligibility of around 80%, Malaysia‘s places far more weight on court Malay (bahasa istana, particularly the Classical Malay of the Malaccan Sultanate), while Indonesia’s emphasizes the language of the market. This can be illustrated with the faux amis budak, which means ‘child’ in Malaysia, ‘slave’ in Indonesia, and percuma which means ‘free of charge’ in Malaysia, ‘worthless’ in Indonesia. The colonial influence of English and Dutch in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively is illustrated by the word pair polis and polisi: in Malaysia they mean ‘police’ and ‘policy’, but in Indonesia they mean ‘policy’ and ‘police’ (from Dutch polis and politie).

Only around 10% of the around 240 million inhabitants of Indonesia speak the official language as their mother tongue. Most of these first-language speakers are city dwellers who have relegated their regional language in the melting pot of the city. The Malays of Sumatra, Riau and Moluccas (Maluku) speak a regional language that is close enough to the standard language for them to be considered first-language speakers too. The 90% of Indonesia’s population speak over 700 closely related regional languages, the top three are Javanese (basa Jawa), Sundanese (basa Sunda) and Madurese (basa Madhura). The influence of English in the creation of neologisms, especially in technology, is strong in both Malaysia and Indonesia. Only the older generations in Indonesia can remember much Dutch; younger generations are taught English.

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Risking your daily bread

Rather late, I came across this article by a lexicographer researching the etymology of the word ‘risk’. Most dictionaries state that the word comes to English  from Italian risco via French risque. The Oxford English Dictionary attests to it from 1621 in English (as ‘risques’). Its first attestation in Middle French is in 1578, where it is a feminine noun, quickly becoming a masculine noun to mark its testosterone-fuelled approach to life. The Italian rischio is attested in the 13th century, before simply becoming risco.

Although there have been a number of suggestions whence this Italian word came, many are unsatisfactory. The etymology is not certain, but it seems to come from the Middle Persian word rōzīg <lwcyk>, meaning ‘daily bread’ or ‘sustenance’, the ancestor of the Modern Persian word روزى ruzi, and a derivative of the noun rōz <YWM lwc>, meaning ‘day’ (as in nōg-rōz, now spelt نوروز nowruz, Persian New Year).

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An etymological history of ‘Pharaoh’

The word Pharaoh in Coptic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek and Hebrew.

The word Pharaoh in Coptic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek and Hebrew.

I recently received a copy of Bentley Layton‘s fairly new Coptic in 20 Lessons, a teaching grammar for Sahidic Coptic. Browsing through the first few chapters, I was reminded there of the Coptic word ⲣ̄ⲣⲟ (rro or erro) meaning ‘king’ or ’emperor’. It’s an odd word, but its origin becomes clearer when the Coptic definite article is appended, ⲡ-ⲣ̄ⲣⲟ (perro), ‘the king’. The word is taken from the Ancient EgyptianPharaoh‘. In spite of the fact that Coptic is the direct descendent of the Ancient Egyptian language, the initial ‘p’ of the word became mistaken for the definite article at some point in the word’s history, and Copts began to take the ‘p’ out of ‘Pharaoh’.

The Ancient Greeks, writing about the southern superpower, wrote the word as φαραώ pharaō, and the Hebrew Bible renders the name of the oppressor as פַּרְעֹה (parʿōh). Our Modern English spelling and pronunciation is a bit of both the Greek and the Hebrew. The Greeks seem to have used the letter phi to represent the initial sound of the word while that letter was still used as an aspirated stop //, before it became a fricative /f/, and so they contributed that sound change. The Hebrew spelling with the final ‘h’, which simply signal a final long vowel in Hebrew consonantal orthography, came into English spelling during the Reformation, when the Bible was being translated from the best available manuscripts in the original languages. This replaced the latinate spelling formerly used in English, ‘Pharao’ or ‘Pharaon’. The odd digraph ‘ao’ in the second syllable comes from the Greek too. We pronounce it as if the ‘a’ is not really there, which really confuses us when trying to spell. Well, the ‘a’ doesn’t seem to have been really there in the first place. It seems that the Greeks used the ‘ao’ spelling for an Egyptian sound that was a pharyngeal or glottal consonant that Greek doesn’t have followed by an ‘o’. Hebrew, being an Afroasiatic language like Egyptian, didn’t have a problem with this. I wonder whether the Coptic spelling with a double rho is actually meant to represent an ‘r’ sound followed by such an awkward consonant (in the same way that ⲙⲁⲁⲩ ma’u, ‘mother’, is spelt with a doubled vowel to stand for a vowel plus a glottal stop).

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