Sino-Semitica: van kalebassen, cassia en hennep en oude sinitische reconstructies


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In a personal communication, Chris Button recently reminded me that I had once (more than two decades ago) written about the possible relationship between Semitic and Sinitic words for “gourd”:

You might remember a while back I was asking you about your Southern Bottle Gourd Myths paper.

Recently, I’ve been working a little more on the 瓜 series in my dictionary and have ended up with it as an etymological isolate (bar the obvious relationship with 壺). So, I started looking for an external origin. Your note on the Arabic form qarʿa jumped out at me as being strikingly similar to my reconstruction of 瓜 as qráɣ and very supportive of the areal associations you outline in the paper.

That would add to the other two Semitic loanwords 麻* and 桂** here.

The merger of *-r with *-l in Old Chinese means 麻 *mrál could have gone back to an earlier 麻 *mrár which then aligns very nicely with the Semitic source to support Prof. Mair’s suggestion.

We already have a precedent for a borrowing of this nature in 桂 *qájs “cinnamon, cassia” which could regularly go back to *qjáts and is likely associated with Hebrew qetsia “cassia

source of last two ¶s

[VHM:  *má (“hemp”)]

[VHM:  **guì (“cinnamon, cassia”)]

I had an old, learned German friend named Elfriede Regina (Kezia) Knauer (1926-2010) who was very much aware of the Semitic origins of her nickname and often asked me about its Sinitic parallels (see here, here, here, here, and here).  Hebrew קְצִיעָה‎ (“cassia tree”). Compare cassia. From Latin cassia (“cinnamon”), from Ancient Greek κασσία, κασία, κάσια (kassía, kasía, kásia), from Hebrew קְצִיעָה‎ (qəṣīʿā), from Aramaic קְצִיעֲתָא‎ (qəṣīʿătā), from קְצַע‎ (qṣaʿ, “to cut off”) (source).

Returning to the matter of the relationship between Semitic and Sinitic words for “gourd”, let’s start with the Semitic side:

Arabic qar’a yabisa (“dry gourd”) > “calabash”, cf. Persian kharabuz (source); so far as I can determine, the second half of these words means “dry” (yābisah).

There are many different ideas about the etymology of Persian خربز‎ (xarboz [“melon]), etc., for which see here, but I believe the one I have given just above is correct for its origin.

قَرْع (qarʿ) m (collective, singulative قَرْعَة‎ (qarʿa)) (“pumpkin; gourd”) Classical Syriac ܩܪܐܐ‎ (qarrˀā) (source).

From Joe Lowry:

The word is qar’ (root:  q-r-‘:  qaf-ra’-‘ayn) ( قرع ).  The ‘ayn usually makes one think that it is Semitic.  Modern Hebrew for pumpkin is qaraa ( קרא ) without the ‘ayn in the final position–but I don’t know why its lacking the ‘ayn.  There is some interchangeability between ‘ayn and aleph in Hebrew and Aramaic, but whether that holds here between Arabic and Hebrew I don’t know.  That is to say, I don’t know whether these are cognates in Arabic and Hebrew in the sense of having a common origin in Semitic.  This is a decidedly non-scientific assessment.  A quick consultation of Brown-Driver-Briggs (Biblical Hebrew) suggests it’s not in the Bible, but it is in Jastrow’s dictionary of Rabbinic Hebr. and Aramaic.

One more thing:  It’s in the Syriac translation of Jonah 4:6 (Peshitta), but the Hebr. in that passage (qiqiyon) is not cognate with that word.

Our English word “carboy”, in my estimation, probably comes from the same root, though that’s not exactly how most dictionaries derive it.  See, for example, The American Heritage Dictionary of English (5th ed.), where we find:

Persian qarābah, from Arabic qarrāba, big jug, from qarraba, to bring near, derived stem of qaruba, to be near

From there, we are directed to the entry for the triliteral root “qrb” in the appendix of Semitic roots at the back of the dictionary, p. 2076a, where we find:

qrb To be(come) near, draw near.

    1. carboy, from Arabic qarrāba, big jug, from qarraba, to bring near, derived stem of qaruba, to be(come) near.

I was hoping that there would be a more suitable Semitic root for the “qr” part.  Perhaps, though, if the Semitic word for “gourd” itself comes from an earlier, non-Semitic source, which I think is quite possible given the deep antiquity of human use of the plant as a container (see below), then we needn’t expect that there would be a Semitic etymon for it

Now the Sinitic side:

guā 瓜 (“gourd; melon”)

Old Sinitic

(Schuessler 2007:  264) /*kwrâ/

(BaxterSagart): /*kʷˤra/

(Zhengzhang): /*kʷraː/

This old word already appears in the Western Zhou bronze inscriptions c. 1st half of 1st millennium BC, but apparently not in the oracle bone inscriptions (c. 1200 BC).

To complicate, but also to enrich, the matter, it is my opinion that the common vernacular term for “gourd; calabash; cucurbit”, húlu 葫蘆, is essentially the same morpheme as guā 瓜 (“gourd; melon”), though written disyllabically.  Indeed, in my “Southern Bottle-Gourd (hu-lu) Myths” paper (p. 188 and passim), I list a dozen or more different ways for writing this morpheme, most of them disyllabic.

I should mention a rule of thumb to which I adhere in the philological study of old Chinese texts, viz., if a Sinitic morpheme has multiple orthographic variants, especially if many (or all) of them are disyllabic, then chances are fairly good that the word may have been borrowed from a foreign language or that it entered the Sinitic mainstream from a topolectal source.

For copious examples of Classical Chinese (or Literary Sinitic) polysyllabic words, see the massive two volume Cí tōng 辭通 (Comprehensive Phrases; 1934), one of my favorite old dictionaries.

One of the alternative variant forms is húlú 壺蘆, although, because this is a plant, that itself has a further variant, where the first character is written with a grass radical on the top.

Note, however, that already in the Shījīng 詩經 (Poetry Classic; ostensibly 6th c. BC, but extant editions date from at least four centuries later), no. 154, has just hú 壺 with the meaning “bottle gourd”.

A few Old Sinitic reconstructions:

húlu 葫蘆 (“bottle gourd”)

(BaxterSagart): /*[ɡ]ˤa  C.rˤa/

(Zhengzhang): /*qʰaː|ɡaː  raː/

hú 壺 (“bottle gourd; flask”)

(Schuessler 2007:  281) /*gâ/

(BaxterSagart): /*[ɡ](ʷ)ˤa/(Zhengzhang): /*ɡʷlaː/

The origins of the English word “gourd” are far from clear, but I have always suspected that it derives from the same source as the Semitic words discussed above.

Cf. “gourd” (n.) c. 1300, from Anglo-French gourde, Old French coorde, ultimately from Latin cucurbita “gourd,” which is of uncertain origin, perhaps from a non-IE language and related to cucumis “cucumber” (see cucumber). Dried and excavated, the shell was used as a scoop or dipper.


A brief note on the botanical history of the worldwide spread of gourds reveals that the transmission of important plant species occurred much earlier than can be documented by historical records, and is even hard to trace through archeological evidence.

L. siceraria or bottle gourd, thought to have originated in southern Africa, was brought to Europe and the Americas very early in history, being found in Peruvian archaeological sites dating from 13,000 to 11,000 BC and Thailand sites from 11,000 to 6,000 BC. A study of bottle gourd DNA published in 2005 suggests that there are two distinct subspecies of bottle gourds, domesticated independently in Africa and Asia, the latter approximately 4,000 years earlier. The gourds found in the Americas appear to have come from the Asian subspecies very early in history, although a new study now indicates Africa. The archaeological and DNA records show it is likely that the gourd was among the first domesticated species, in Asia between 12,000 and 13,000 years before present, and possibly the first domesticated plant species.

A major point of my “Southern Bottle-Gourd (hu-lu) Myths” paper (pp. 189-90) (see “Readings” below) is that there was originally a single origin of the word for “gourd” and that it spread with the plant to the far reaches of the globe already in prehistoric times.  Nothing in my current reflections on the subject would make me want to change my mind on that point.


From John Huehnergard [2/17/20]:

Hebrew qǝṣiʕā is unlikely to refer to Cinnamomum cassia, but rather to a plant found in Ethiopia or Arabia; a recent discussion of the Hebrew word is Benjamin J. Noonan, Non-Semitic Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible (2019) 196-97 (who, along the way, refutes a proposed Chinese etymology for qǝṣiʕā). As Noonan also rightly notes, the word is not found in Aramaic apart from Jewish sources referring to the Hebrew word, so it’s not a real Aramaic word.

As for calabash, neither OED nor Amer-Heritage give a Semitic etymology (and my Arabic dictionaries, at least, don’t offer the phrase qarʕa yabisa).

Still, interesting stuff.


February 1, 2020 @ 1:45 pm · Filed by under Borrowing, Etymology, Historical linguistics, Language and biology


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