Monday, March 12, 2018

Qaswarah revisited: a Qur'anic hapax in Modern South Arabian

A long time ago, I posted some rather speculative musings on the minor mystery of the allegedly Ethiopic word qaswarah قسورة in the Qur'ān, usually considered to mean "lion". An anonymous commenter years later came up with a much better but still rather speculative idea:
Research substantiates that both “lion” and “hunter” are plausible according to analyses of Proto-Highland Eastern Cushitic wherein “kas” is to stab, pierce or cut and the suffix of “wara” creates “agent nouns”. In modern “Ethiopic” languages such as Tigrinya and Ge’ez (as well as in some other African languages) the word “Wagatwara” means “hunter” and in earlier etymons of this word the “g” is rendered a “q” and the “t” is rendered an “s”.

But just now, looking through a Hobyot vocabulary (Nakano 2013:215), I came across an entry that makes all this discussion unnecessary. In Hobyot, "panther" is ḳáyṣ̂ər, with a plural ḳaṣ̂áwrət - clearly related to the term used in the Qur'ān, and clearly (given the ṣ̂) not borrowed from Arabic. The meaning corresponds closely enough to most commentators' consensus on qaṣwarah, while the location - in the extreme south of Arabia - helps explain why the term might have been associated in their minds with Ethiopia. In fact, the irregular correspondence of Hobyot ṣ̂ to Arabic s would suggest a loan into Arabic, rather than common inheritance, even if we didn't know how much this word puzzled the commentators.

Incidentally, the minority interpretation "archers" is presumably based on Persian, where -var added to a noun means "possessor of" - presumably, Arabic qaus "bow" + Persian -var would yield "bowman", and the feminine suffix -ah would form the plural as so often with nouns of profession. In light of the Hobyot form, it also should be clear that the majority of commentators were right to reject this interpretation.


David Marjanović said...


ṣ̂ turns out to be [ɬʼ]. There are four ejective fricatives – /θʼ sʼ ʃʼ ɬʼ/ – and no ejective affricates.

Al-Jallad said...

Great post Lameen. I have posted a Safaitic inscription from NE Jordan, pre-2nd c. CE, to your twitter ( that has this word spelled as qsrt, with a normal [s] sin. The Safaitic makes an MSA loan rather unlikely; moreover, it would be strange for Arabic to borrow an emphatic lateral with its plain sibilant, no? I do not have an opinion as to how these words are related.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

As I said there, I agree that this is good evidence that the root was present in Arabic too early to be a South Arabian loan. The sibilant correspondence is odd on any interpretation, but seems unlikely to be a coincidence. The w remains hard to explain...