Monday, July 31, 2006

Mountains of Lebanon - some etymologies

Lebanon's cities and villages, tragically now in the news, have some interesting etymologies. I always used to wonder about the different names: why is the same city called Tyre in English, but Ṣuur in Arabic? or Byblos in English, and Jubayl in Arabic? The reasons illustrate the sheer length of these towns' history, and the time depth of Greece's contact with them.

Sometime before the characteristic sound shifts of Proto-Canaanite happened - perhaps 1200 BC or so? - Tyre would have been known by a Semitic term meaning something like "peak" or "crag": θ'uur-u. This was borrowed by the early Greeks as tur-os > tyros (when u got fronted to y) > Latin Tyrus > English Tyre. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, that glottalised θ', perhaps unsurprisingly, was among the first sounds to disappear; in Canaanite (that is, Phoenician, Hebrew, and assorted minor languages of the area), it became s' (or ṣ - it's hard to be certain whether the Canaanite emphatics were glottalised or pharyngealised). Case endings also vanished. This gave the Phoenician name: S'uur (or Ṣuur). It was adopted without change into Aramaic, and thence Arabic, as the region's languages shifted over time. The regular cognate of Proto-Semitic θ'uur-u in Arabic would have been ظور đ̣uur; this root is unattested as far as I know. However, in Aramaic *θ' became ṭ, and from this source the root entered pre-Arabic as طور ṭuur "mountain", a rare but well-attested term used in the Quran, notably for Mount Sinai. (In Ugaritic, freakishly enough, *θ' became γ (gh), and γuur- "mountain" is a well-attested Ugaritic word. In Ugaritic, incidentally, Tyre was actually called ṣuur-; so either my etymology here is wrong, which is possible, or Ugaritic borrowed the name after it had already changed *θ' to γ.)

Likewise, Byblos would have started out as gubl-u (attested in Ugaritic and Akkadian), which (judging by possible Arabic cognates) may have meant "mountain" as well. This went into early Greek as gwubl-os > byblos (Mycenaean gw > Greek b, u > y) > English Byblos. In Arabic, the g of course became j; and, for some reason (maybe it was a little town at the time?), it looks like a diminutive got added, turning it from *jubl to jubayl (colloquial žbeyl), which in Arabic just means "little mountain".

Let's hope the day that these towns appear on the news for their history or their beaches, not for the bombs being dropped on them, comes more quickly than looks likely.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Also see this recent post on the etymology of Byblos from a Hebrew language perspective.

Dave said...

Thanks anonymous.

I also wrote about Bint (of Bint Jubail) here:

http://balashon.blogspot.com/2006/07/bint.html

M. Tucker said...

I don't really know where else to leave this, because I can't find an email address for you, but we've linked to your blog on our blog, Linguistics Anonymous. A couple of the authors have been readers for a long time, and thank you for an excellent resource!

Lameen Souag said...

Looks like an interesting blog - I'm a sucker for anything involving early Semitic myself... I've linked it and left a couple of comments.

rob said...

This has been my favorite post of yours I have read.

Dave said...

Hi Lameen, glad to see you're back on the blog. I haven't been diligent about updating mine these past couple of weeks because of my move to Kansas from California and now doing battle with financial aid to make sure I can feed and house my cat and me through the semester! Thought it was all figured out, but there are always glitches I guess. Thanks for the "Mountains of Lebanon" etymology post. Hopefully I'll be back in linguistic mode soon once I get things straightened out here.

Dave

Yaser said...

Thanks, this was much fun to read, as I was browsing your earlier posts.