Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ayin-less in Gaza

Gaza, Arabic غزّة ghazzah, is another extremely old city of the eastern Mediterranean, having been in existence for at least three millennia. After a period of Egyptian rule, it became a member of the Philistine Pentapolis. Its name has been recorded in several forms over the years, including:

  • Hieroglyphic: q3d3ti, g3d3y, g3d3tw (says Wallis Budge);
  • Akkadian (Tell el-Amarna): Az-za-ti;
  • Akkadian (Assyrian): Kha-az-zu-tu;
  • Biblical Hebrew: `azzah;
  • Greek (Herodotus): Cadytis (probably Gaza, but some dispute)
  • Greek (Septuagint): Gaza (Γάζα)
  • Latin (Pliny): Gaza
Some sources derive the town's Hebrew name, `Azzah, from the root `zz "be strong". However, this is a folk etymology. The two proto-Semitic consonants *` (pharyngeal voiced fricative/approximant) and *gh (uvular voiced fricative) merged to ` in Biblical Hebrew as we know it; but `zz "be strong" had ` in proto-Semitic (compare Arabic عزّ `azza), whereas Gaza clearly had gh (note that Akkadian had no gh, so a null/kh alternation in transcribing it is expected.) As a matter of fact, the Septuagint provides evidence that some dialects of Hebrew retained the `/gh distinction well into the classical period; some instances of written `ayin are left untranscribed in the Septuagint's Greek (eg Yehoshua` = Ἰησοῦς; Bet-`Araba = Βαιθαραβα), while others are transcribed as gamma (`Amora = Γομορρα; `Azza = Γάζα), clearly suggesting that the pronunciation was still distinguished.

The interesting thing is that Arabic has preserved the gh in Gaza, which would be impossible if it had taken the word from 7th-century Aramaic, which has no gh either (Hebrew was almost surely extinct as a spoken language by the time Islam arrived.) Could it have been borrowed from Greek? Maybe; but, given that Herodotus notes that "Arabians" dominated the coast between Gaza and al-Arish even in his time, another obvious possibility is simply that the word Gaza entered Arabic from one Canaanite language or another well before the loss of the `/gh distinction, and didn't change.

As an interesting coda, the name Gaza may apparently be the source of the English word gauze.


Anonymous said...

Another fascinating post.

I have a question though: Have you actually learned all the languages you write about, in the sense that you would be able to communicate in them, verbally or otherwise? You seem to have a very, very wide range of languages that you cover, I think my head would explode if I had learned that many! I have enough with Arabic and English and a tiny bit of Chaoui and you teach languages?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Have I actually learned every language I write about? Not a chance! I like learning languages, but there are only so many hours in the day... A few of them I know, though, to varying degrees. I don't teach languages, I just study linguistics - working on an MA right now...

language said...

Interesting stuff!

Someone once told me that Israelis say Lekh la 'Aza! 'go to Gaza' as a euphemism for Lekh la 'azazel! 'go to hell'; I don't know if it's true, but I like it.

Yehudha said...

Just wanted to add that the gh in Hebrew does exist, as it does in Judeo-Aramaic. It is the soft gimmel, which has the same sound as Arabic ghayin.