This week, we are long overdue in honouring an αρραβώνα with gentle readers, arranged in March of last year, through the diatribe: 'Greco-Persian'. We hasten to point out that the diatribist has not taken leave of his senses, nor in fact, has he lapsed into delusions of grandeur, where, doge-like, just as the leader of Venice would glide out gracefully upon the spectacularly gilded Bucintoro, into the Venetian lagoon, therein to drop a ring, symbolising Venice's marriage to the sea, the diatribist, caparisoned only in papier mache strips of Neos Kosmos, ventures into Oakleigh, drops to his knees offering prospective readers a frappe, symbolising nothing in particular and a lifetime of devotion if only they read a diatribe to its punishing end. Instead, we are referring to the αρραβώνα, in its original sense - as a Semitic loanword, meaning a guarantor in Phoenician, and in Ugaritic, Aramaic and Hebrew, a promise or pledge.
For reasons that partly have to do with the manner in which the West appropriated aspects of Greek culture and history and re-lent them to emerging neo-Greeks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Modern Greeks tend to view their ancient past in a vacuum, whereby the Greek-speaking peoples developed in complete isolation from all the other cultures around them. As a result, Greek is the 'mother of all languages', and we decry any attempt at borrowing or syncretism, lest this dilution of perfection result in a commensurate decline in the fortunes of the Greek race. In purity, therefore, there is strength.
Of course, the claim that the ancient Greek language developed somehow unaffected and unadulterated by other tongues cannot be seriously upheld. After all, pre-Greek roots, generally by way of the now extinct Anatolian languages existing in the region, form a substantial basis of the ancient Greek tongue. Furthermore, we know that the emerging ancient Greeks were a peripatetic people who were considered serial pests by the Middle Eastern rulers whose lands they visited and pillaged. There is a lovely Hittite inscription lambasting the ancient Achaians for piracy, while a good deal of ink in the Bible is spilled over the trouble that the Philistines, who spoke an Indo-Aryan tongue, and were likely to have been early Greeks, gave the nascent Hebrews in the land of Canaan. The Greeks even appear in the book of Ezekiel, as connected with the slave trade in Tyre. As a result of these early contacts, the inspiration and influence of eastern goods and art transformed the culture of the Greek homeland, with geometric styles rapidly giving way to orientalising art.
Of course one of the most significant loans from the Semitic peoples to the Greeks was that of the Phoenician alphabet, a loan readily acknowledged in Crete, Ionian Teos, Aeolian Mytilene and by Herodotus, all of whom referred to it as the "Φοινικήια γράμματα", to the chagrin of modern day cultural supremacists who exhibit inordinate difficulties in accepting that not all major advances of civilisation were engendered by their ancient forebears.
Loan words are an excellent guide to cultural influence. In the case of Semitic borrowings, these appear to be of a kind made when a people or place is in possession of a thing wanted by that nation and not produced by them. Thus, as early as Mycenean times, the word χρυσός is imported from the Phoenician hrs, at a time before the gold mines of Thasos and Pangeum were created and gold had to be imported. Similarly, the word for ivory, ελέφας, or e-re-pa in Mycenean, appears to have been derived from the Hittite lahpa. Numerous loan-words from Semitic also exist in relation to cloth, and even the word for clothes-moth (σής), is the same as the Phoenician, bearing witness to a mass importation of finished cloth into Mycenean Greece from the Levant. Thus the word χιτών, in its Ionic form κιθών, is a derivative of the Semitic ktn, whence the word cotton also is derived. Much as the word for tea or coffee has been borrowed from native forms, so too have the Semitic tongues given their words for various products and plants imported into Mycenean Greece, such as κύμινον, from the Semitic kammon, for cumin, σήσαμον, from the Phoenician ssmn for sesame, γαυλός, from the Ugaritic gullah, meaning bucket, κανέον, from the Aramaic qn, κρόκος from the Akkadian βύβλος, from Byblos, the entrepot for papyrus trading in Phoenicia, kurkanu, οθόνη, from the Aramaic etun, meaning fine linen and now in modern Greek employed to denote a screen and even λέων, from the Aramaic lbu, meaning lion.
As contacts between the two civilisations increased, words pertaining to aspects of commerce, rather than just products, were received into Greek from Semitic, where trade was more developed. The word for promise and the adoption of the mina as a weight and unit of currency are analogous to the English adoption of the words bank, bankrupt and florin from Italian. The words for musical instruments such as σαμβύκη, a Syrian four to seven stringed harp, and νάβλας, a ten stringed harp, began to make their way into the Greek language in the fourth century BC, when a jaded musical appetite was developing a taste for the exotic, to the annoyance of purists, as Plato testifies in The Republic. There was, however, no reception of musical terms describing how to play.
The plethora of loan-words, with some more being σινδών, fine linen, from which the modern σεντόνι, derives, ίασπις for jasper, κάκκαβος or cooking pot from which we obtain the modern fish soup κακκαβιά, κινάμμωμον for cinnamon, κάδος for wine jar and in modern Greek a large rubbish receptacle, σάκκος for goatskin sack, are fascinating in their proximity to words that still survive in Modern Greek today. My absolute favourite would have to be χαλβάνη, for galbanum, an aromatic gum resin whose root word hlb, is the Semitic for milk and is exactly the same root as the modern Greek loanword, also from Semitic, χαλβάς.
The presence of these words suggests that while the Greeks were profoundly influenced by what they bought from Semitic peoples, they did not import from them any abstract, political philosophical notions that made a direct impact on the Greek language. They merely attest to trading contracts. A notable exception must be made for the word deltos, meaning writing tablet in Phoenician. Even Herodotus refers to a δελτίον δίπτυχον, two wooden tablets, coated with wax for writing on, which could be folded. This was a Semitic invention adopted by Greece and used for a millennium. Today, this Semitic word exists in Modern Greek as the term for a bulletin.
The history of the early Greeks in the Middle East is little known but inordinately fascinating. As pirates, they caused inordinate grief to the Assyrians by pillaging the eastern Mediterranean coastline, with the governor of Tyre writing to Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser in 738 BC: "To my king, my lord, your servant Qurdi-Asshur-Lamur. The Ionians have struck again..." The Greeks also incited a revolt against the Assyrians in Cilicia, causing Sargon II to move against them in 715BC: "I caught, like fishes, the Ionians who live amid the Sea of the Setting Sun."
As a result of their contacts with, at the time, more advanced peoples in the East, the Greeks slowly began to develop a sense of closer kinship among themselves and to distinguish between the themselves and barbarians, a process in which their modern day descendants are still absorbed. These contacts also give rise to fascinating stories, all of which deserve further prominence in the Greek historical narrative. Today, one of the most important islands of the Greek world, the nation state, Cyprus, owes its name to the Semitic word for henna, kpr, also the origin of the English word for copper, demonstrating just how close and how very ancient the Greek connection to the Semitic world has been, and how intrinsic, at least subconsciously, that connection is to the Greek identity.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 May 2014