Notes on the Semantic Fields of Papyrus and Service in Semitic and Egyptian
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It has long been accepted that Jewish Aramaic and MH נְיָר “papyrus” is derived from Akk. niāru, but the latter has no accepted etymology. Semitists have composed a number of Egyptian phrases containing ı͗ṯrw > יְאֹר “Nile” and presented them as the etymon of Akk. niāru, but none of those phrases bears any resemblance to the dozen or so papyrus words attested in Egyptian. In all likelihood, niāru derives from Eg. nꜣ ʿr.w “the scrolls (of papyrus or leather).” The latter is the definite plural of a noun first attested in the Middle Kingdom, whose form matches an Akk. spelling (ni-ʾ-a-rv) attested twice. Moreover, as a count noun, Akk. niāru sometimes refers to a roll of flexible writing material (papyrus or parchment), a referent very similar to that of Eg. nꜣ ʿr.w. Another Egyptian loanword in Akkadian containing the Egyptian plural definite article is the word for “crocodile(s).” ¶¶ Hebrew עָרוֹת (Isa 19:7) is widely believed to be a borrowing of Egyptian ʿr “rush, reed,” but it is closer in form to Demotic ʿrṱ.t “id.” If the latter was a colloquial form, its late attestation would not disqualify it from being the etymon. ¶¶ The noun גֹּמֶא in Hebrew and Egyptian Aramaic is often taken as denoting papyrus alone, but it seems more likely that it refers to both (1) marsh reeds and rushes in general and (2) the papyrus plant in particular. It is usually assumed to be a borrowing from Egyptian, and that assumption is plausible for several reasons. Nevertheless, Zohary’s neglected theory, positing a borrowing in the opposite direction, is supported by enough evidence to deserve serious consideration, as well. ¶¶ Hebrew גְּמִי is the post-biblical counterpart of גֹּמֶא, just as Hebrew טְנִי is the post-biblical counterpart of טֶנֶא. The MH vocalizations גְּמִי, גֳּמִי, and גֳּוֹמִי—all attested in reliable manuscripts—correspond reasonably well to the vocalization of Targumic Aramaic גּוּמְיָה, and they parallel the BH vocalizations צְרִי (Gen 37:25), צֳרִי (Gen 43:11), and צֹרִי (Ezek 27:17), respectively. The vocalization גֶּמִי—found in editions of the Mishnah printed in Italy, not to mention Israeli lexica of Hebrew (Ma’agarim, Even Shoshan, etc.)—is later. ¶¶ The meaning of g-m-y in tannaitic sources is “sip”—not “swallow” or “gulp down.” BH g-m-ʾ, the etymon of MH g-m-y, also means “sip,” as recognized by Rashi and numerous modern scholars. This understanding is also implicit in a Rabbinic interpretation of a literary parallel between הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט־מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ (Gen 24:17) and הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה (25:30). The former is a refined request to sip a little water; the latter, a crude request to have food crammed or poured into (the back of) one’s mouth. This is a remarkable literary insight, worthy of serious attention from Bible scholars. ¶¶ The relationship between גֹּמֶא and הַגְמִיאִינִי is controversial. Some believe that גֹּמֶא is a loanword with no connection to the root g-m-ʾ. Others claim that the noun was derived from the verb—that גֹּמֶא denotes a marsh plant that “draws up water in great quantity.” A third suggestion is that the derivation went in the opposite direction—that the verb for “sip” was derived from the noun for “reed” because straws, originally fashioned from long, hollow reeds, were used to sip inaccessible drinking water. This last suggestion, offered in the 19th century, has been made quite plausible by research on ancient drinking straws. Such straws are depicted in Sumerian art—on cylinder seals and elsewhere. There is also a great deal of evidence for the use of drinking straws in the Levant, especially in the 2nd millennium BCE. ¶¶ Despite the reticence of some scholars, there is no reason to doubt that Northwest Semitic (Aramaic, Hebrew, and Punic) שׁמּשׁ “serve” is a loanword from Egyptian. The Egyptian etymon is šms “follow, accompany, serve,” attested from the Pyramid Texts down to Coptic šmše “serve, worship.” The semantic equivalence of the Coptic and Aramaic verbs is confirmed by their appearance as indirect translation equivalents in Bible versions, e.g., Coptic šmše = Greek λειτουργείν = Hebrew שׁרת = Aramaic שׁמּשׁ. Their formal equivalence is the product of assimilation at a distance (š…s > š…š), attested in two other examples.
. “Notes on the Semantic Fields of Papyrus and Service in Semitic and Egyptian.” Eretz-Israel 34 (Ada Yardeni volume, 2021): 170*–184*.
*This is constructed from limited available data and may be imprecise.
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