Wednesday, June 15, 2011

About elephants and ivory

The word ivory comes from Latin ebur with the same meaning. Etymological dictionaries of Latin usually do not provide a particular origin for ebur itself. Ebur is quite certainly an Ancient Egyptian word. It can be compared with three words with similar shape and related meanings:

- Coptic ab, eb 'elephant' from Egyptian jb, hence from *ˀib, with vowel *i according to the same sound change as in *lis 'tongue', hence Coptic las, les. This word has a derivative *jbr 'ivory' from which Latin most probably comes.
- Egyptian b 'ivory', from which Semitic words most probably derive: Akkadian sinn-iburi 'tooth of ivory', Ugaritic bn 'ivory', etc.
- Egyptian ˁb 'tooth'.

All three words have a guttural /ˀ/, //, /ˁ/ followed by /b/ in relationship with elephant, ivory or tooth. This amounts to a kind of phonosemantic matrix. What is interesting is to compare Egyptian *ˀib 'elephant' with Sanskrit ibha with the same meaning. This is certainly not a chance coincidence. Sanskrit ibha is a loanword from some Indian substrate *ib. It can be noted that the phoneme /b/ of Egyptian and of the Pre-Sanskrit substrate has become /bh/ in Sanscrit.

More to come soon.


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