Traces of Semitic qoph in English Words
The Traces of Semitic qoph in English Words
Qoph, the nineteenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, was a Semitic emphatic sound spoken while the airflow is blocked with the throat . In ancient Greek and Latin texts, it was usually rendered as c or k as their alphabets did not have an equivalent sound . English spellings follow the same convention of transliterating qoph to c. For example, Hebrew Ya`aqob is translated to Jacob. While this convention has been widely accepted in translating Semitic qoph in Indo-European languages, it receives a little attention in the etymological study of Germanic words. The reason is that academic circles generally hold that Germanic languages descend from a Proto-Indo-European origin and dismiss the possibility of a Semitic origin except for a few words.
This paper finds that the convention of transliterating qoph to c or k is, in fact, effective in tracing some Germanic words to those in the Aramaic or Hebrew languages. For example, cut derives from Semitic root QT which yields many Aramaic and Hebrew words with the sense of ‘to cut’ . Moreover, applying the Greek and Roman conventions of transliterating qophand other foreign sounds brings to light previously unknown Semitic etymons for Germanic words. Aramaic `nq’, the origin of neck,is just one example. This paper traces some Aramaic and Hebrew words which contain qophto their English equivalents based on the transliteration of qoph to c/k.
The Background of Semitic qoph
Besides Semitic qophturning to c/k in Greek or Latin texts, we also see c or k changeto qophwhen Aramaic borrowed words from Greek or Latin. We find examples such as q’lndwn ’calends’ (Latin calendae); qdrws ‘cedar’ (Gr kedros); and qnṭrwn ‘centre’ (Gr kentron) . Hebrew shared the same tendency of adopting qoph in place of c/k when appropriating foreign words.
How Semitic qoph was pronounced is not certain although scholars believe it was originally glottalized . History shows that this sound was prone to disappear among Jews in the milieu of a foreign culture. Kutscher states that in Christian countries, Hebrew consonants with no equivalent in the vernacular, generally did not prevail and he notes that qoph merged with its non-emphatic counterpart k (or c) . Rendsburg observes that the loss of the ability to pronounce the Semitic qophoccurred among Jews in Europe . These facts suggest similar circumstances in which Germanic speakers would have likely compensated for their inability to pronounce qophin borrowed words of a Semitic origin .
Some Evidence of the Former Qoph in Old English Words
Using the same principles of transliteration employed by the Greeks and Romans, it is possible to identify a Semitic origin in some Old English words as evidenced by the following list of Aramaic words (note that unitalicized words are shown as consonant roots without vowels):
qattā ‘cat’ compares well with OE catt, catte .
qattōn ‘kitten.’ Late Middle English kitoun, ketoun comes from an Anglo-Norman French variant of Old French chitoun, the diminutive of chat ‘cat’. Curiously, cat and kitten begin with two different letters which share the same sound despite their shared Semitic origin . Dictionarists appear unaware that cat and kitten correspond to Aramaic qattā and qattōn.
qeren ‘horn;’ ‘corner, angle.’ This word is homonymic in Aramaic . 1. Gothic haurn; OE, OIc horn. 2. OE hyrne ‘angle, corner,’ reflecting the Germanic sound shift of c > h.
saq, saqqā ‘sack; sackcloth.’ OE sacc; Olc sekkr. Dictionaries recognize the Semitic origin of sack.
šq` ‘to sink.’ The earliest Germanic cognate is Gothic sigqan. The combination of gqis an orthographical sign of nasalization. Gothic uses the Greek tactic of indicating a nasal consonant with the consonant g (Greek γ), such as γγ for ng and γκ for nk. In Aramaic, the consonant qoph could be geminated, therefore it would be subject to the later dissimilation of qq > nq . Likely the articulation of Gothic sigqan was in transition before it evolved to OE sincan as the result of nq > nc (nk).
`nq’ ‘neck,’ OE hnecca; OIc hnakki .
qṭ’ ‘to cut.’ This word bears the proliferative root QT. Gesenius remarks, “The biliteral stock קט has the signification of cutting, cutting off.” Biblical Hebrew examples are qeteb ‘to cut off,’ qatat ‘to clip off,’ qatal ‘to cut off,’ qataph ‘to strip off’ and qatsab ‘to clip’ .
This Semitic antecedent did not appear in any Germanic dialect until in the late medieval period. The Oxford Dictionary of English maintains, “Middle English (probably existing, although not recorded, in Old English); probably of Germanic origin and related to Norwegian kutte and Icelandic kuta ‘cut with a small knife’, kuti ‘small blunt knife.’’ Refer to endnote 15 for an explanation of the late introduction of cut in English vocabulary.
ḥlq ‘fate’; ḥlqw ‘lot, fate, good luck.’ ME luk, lucke‘good fortune.’ Semitic ḥ (kh) was a pharyngeal, unpronounceable in Germanic speech and thus, was elided. Hence ḥlq > LQ > LC. The origin of luck is Middle Dutch luc.
`lwq ‘leech.’ OE laece, leece > ME leeche > leech.Skeat states that k at the end of a syllable sometimes becomes the fricative ch .
raqa` ‘to stretch, spread,’ OE ræcan ‘to 'reach' out, stretch out’ > reachas a result of the fricatization of c to ch.
The Dropping of Initial q
Further, evidence suggests thattransliteration was not always a tactical response to the difficulty of pronouncing the Semitic qoph. It strongly indicates that this sound was sometimes dropped altogether. Speakers would speak the word without the initial goph and yet, for the most part, maintain the lexical intelligibility of the word’s remaining syllable . Several examples below demonstrate how some Germanic words retained the meaning of a former Semitic provenance in spite of losing the initial qoph.
qbl ‘to become dark.’ This Aramaic word may account for the origin of OE blaec ‘’black,’ dark’ (with the element -c).It is observed that the suffix -cfunctions with the sense of ‘to become less visible’ in several OE words: deorc‘dark,’ mirce ‘murky,’ smoca‘smoke,’ sweorc ’cloud, darkness, mist,’ and Middle English dosc, deosc < OE dox ‘dusk’ .
qbr ‘to bury, inter’ > OE byrgan ‘to raise a mound, hide, 'bury,' inter’ > bury.
qdyr ‘dark’ > OE deorc ‘'dark,' obscure, gloomy’ > dark (with the element -c).
qṭyn‘fine, narrow, thin’> OE ðynne‘thin, lean’ > thin .
qlh ‘light, contemptible’ Aramaic QLL > QLH > OE leoht ‘slight, trifling, inconsiderable’(with the suffix -t) [20,21].
qly ‘a little’ > OE lýt, lýtel‘little, few’ > little (with the suffix -t, complemented by the diminutive suffix -l) .
qṣr ‘be short’ > OE scort ‘'short,' not long, not tall’ > short (with the suffix -t). The Semitic consonant ṣ (ts) sometimes changed to s in Germanic, but in rare instances in OE, it became sc .
The Presence ofcw in Old English Texts
This paper would not be complete without a discussion of the sound q in Old English texts. Very early on, this consonant was written as cw. Sometime after the Conquest, it began to be written as quin Anglo-Norman texts, but it was only an orthographical change: the pronunciation remained the same . A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary records only three and half pages of cw- entries in comparison to the large corpus of Aramaic words replete with qoph.
By and large, the origins of cw- words are uncertain or unknown . Due to the small surviving corpus in OE, it is difficult to deduce how those words evolved . According to the Germanic sound shift, kʷ (q) changed to xʷ (hw) and subsequently h (assuming that kʷ existed in early Proto-Germanic). However, regarding some OE words, this paradigmatic statement is at odds with the phonological evidence of Semitic qoph > c. For example, OE catt ‘cat’ is anomalous to the Germanic sound shift since it is apparent that qoph in the Semitic etymon changed directly to OE c (k). On the other hand, it is possible that cw- words became h- words as we can observe when the former homonyms of qeren separated into OE horn and hyrne with distinct meanings.
Interestingly, Elder Futhark, the oldest form of the runic alphabets, leaves out the consonant equivalent to the sound q. This fact seems to fly in the face of the presence of the cw- words in OE and this dissonance raises questions. Do these words represent the surviving stock of a Proto-Germanic origin? Or, do they represent the surviving lexical stock of a Semitic import? Perhaps the historical patterns of sound changes are not what they appear to be. Was there a turning point when Semitic qoph ceased to convert to c (k) and was preserved as qinstead, a form pronounceable in Germanic speech? Gothic sigqan, which contains the apparent vestiges of Semitic qoph, suggests this possibility. Also, was there a pivotal point when Germanic kʷ (q) ceased to shift to xʷ (hw) and remained intact as, say, cw in OE? OE words with a cw- lend credence to this possibility.
In any case, the sound q is as uncommon in today’s English as it was in Old English. Its glaring absence in Elder Futhark implies that its presence in OE words was due to the lexical transmission from other languages, rather than having an active, indigenous role in OE vocabulary creation. Alternatively, its presence may attest to a surviving legacy of cw- words from a pre-Germanic period. It is frankly difficult to see how the sound q could have continued to be pronounced in OE without some sort of a sustaining phonological environment or source.
This paper finds that the principles of the transliteration of qoph used by the ancient Greeks and Romans works equally well with some Germanic words. On the basis of Semitic consonant word roots, the OE examples listed in this paper correspond to their Semitic etymons remarkably well in form and meaning, although they counter conventional etymological consensus. The elision of initial q provides helpful insight into the emergence of some Germanic words. The lexical evidence cited in this paper points strongly to past interactions with a Semitic language which may explain why the sound q appears to be a curious quirk in our modern English language.
 In Aramaic, the letter is spelled qop. This paper will use the term Semitic qoph to refer to the same sound in both Aramaic and Hebrew.
 Speiser, Ephraim. “The Pronunciation of Hebrew Based Chiefly on the Transliterations in the Hexapla.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 23 (1933),252-53; Krasovec, Joze. “Phonetic Factors in Transliteration of Biblical Proper Names.” Textus 24 (2009), 28.
 Gesenius, Wilhem. Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, London: Bagster, 1857, 730.
 The source is the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon.
[5a] The term ‘glottalized” refers to the complete or partial closure of the vocal folds (glottis) while articulating a sound. Semitic qoph is pronounced differently from English q.
[5b] Rendsburg, Gary A. ‘Phonology: Biblical Hebrew.’ Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, edited by Geoffrey Khan. Volume 3.Leiden: Brill, 2013, 103.
 Kutscher, Eduard Y. A History of the Hebrew Language, edited by Raphael Kutscher. Jerusalem:Magnes, 1982, 153.
 Rendsburg, “P:BH,” 105.
 Alternatively, Germanic people were the descendants of a Semitic ethnic group who migrated to the European continent and spoke the Hebrew language substantially influenced by Aramaic. In an Indo-European context, they would eventually lose the ability to pronounce qoph.
 Many etymologies ascribe the origin of cat to late Latin cattus.
 Old English seldom used the letter k until after the Norman Conquest when scribes began to expand the use of k at the expense of c. The word cat was already in circulation when kitoun or kit(t)on, of Continental French origin,was introduced in late Middle English.
 Jastrow, Marcus. A Dictionary of the Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. London: Luzac, 1903, 1422-23. Also,Gesenius defines Biblical Hebrew qeren in one of four senses as “projections like horns at the four corners of the altar” (HACL, 744).
 The term refers to the nasalization of the first of the doubled (geminated) consonants hence CC > nC. This phonological phenomenon, originating in Aramaic, is commonly found in Germanic words.
 The BH root NQ is reflected in chanaq‘to strangle’ and `anaq‘necklace.’ In Aramaic, `nq denotes either ‘neck’ or ‘necklace,’ according to CAL.
 For the source of Gesenius’ words, refer to endnote 3. The source of the Hebrew examples is Strong’s Concordance.
 The late entry of cut in Middle English may be explained by Blodgett’s hypothesis regarding the Old High German Sound Shift (dated between 450-750 CE). Blodgett submits that it was prompted by the migration of Aramaic-speaking Ashkenazic Jews into the German territory from the south. It is suggested that this event injected a fresh quantity of Aramaic vocabulary into the Old High German dialect. Over the few centuries, words originating from this period, including qṭ`’to cut,’ gradually spread northwards, emerging in Middle Dutch, Middle English, and Scandinavian languages during the late medieval era. See pages 71-72 in Blodgett’s dissertation, “Phonological Similarities in Germanic and Hebrew,” published at the University of Utah in 1981.
 Skeat, Walter. Principles of English Etymology. Oxford: Clarendon, 1887, 354-355. A fricative is a continuous aspirate such as f, th, and s.
 Assuming 1) that the word that lost the initial qoph was modified with a lexical suffix such as -l or -t or a denotive element such as -c; and 2) that vowels eventually functioned to distinguish the meanings of OE words with common consonants (e.g., bâr ‘boar,’ baer ‘bare,’ and bur ‘apartment’).
 Blodgett offers a different etymology of black. He states that it comes from Hebrew balak ‘void of light’ and suggests that the Hebrew root could also mean ‘void of colour’ from which bleak ‘void of vegetation, barren,’ bleach ‘to remove colour, to whiten,’and blank ‘void of all marks’ apparently stemmed (“Linguistic Evidence for the Dispersion of Israel,” 10-11. Paper presented at the Friends of Sabbath seminar in New Zealand in June or July 2003). Blodgett cites the modern Hebrew word with the meaning of “destroy, lay waste" and states that the original Hebrew meaning is ‘to make empty, void.’ He references balak, but he likely intended Biblical Hebrew balaq‘to waste, lay waste.’
 In the transliteration of Aramaic script, the letter ṭ (with a dot underneath) is represented by the sound t. In Old English, ð, called eth, was used for the sounds th in thin and th in thine interchangeably (Skeat, POEE, 298). This OE sound reflects the Germanic sound shift of t > th as in ðynne.
 The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states, “Scholars generally consider the verb qlh II, a by-form of qll, “be light, small, insignificant” (Volume 3, 32).
 Skeat, POEE, 269. The OE suffix -t renders the word stem adjectival.
 Ibid., 220, 222, 266.
 Gesenius remarks that the cognate letters for tsade (ts)are the sibilants z, s, and sh (HACL, 698),while A Dictionary of the Targumim states only that it exchanges with z, t, and s (page 1256). The examples of ts > s are šd, šydˀ for ‘side,’ tsippowr for ‘sparrow,’ and məṣādā for ‘Masada.’ As for the change of ts > sc, ṣwp‘sheep, wool’> OE sceap ‘sheep' is a possible example.
 Skeat, POEE, 304, 358.
 Linguists attribute the origins of many q- words to Proto-Germanic or Proto-Indo-Europeanwhich is not directly attested by any surviving texts but is reconstructed based on the comparative method.
 Perhaps there is one exception. Gothic qainon ‘to weep, mourn, lament’ seems to answer to Hebrew qonen‘to chant an elegy or dirge.’ This Hebrew word is the denominative of qinah‘elegy, dirge’ in the Piel verb stem and is the cognate of Aramaic qwnn ‘to sing a dirge.’ OE cwanian‘to lament, bewail, deplore, mourn’ and Old Icelandic kveina‘to lament, wail’ are cognates of Gothic qainon. Furthermore, OE wanian ‘to complain, lament, bemoan’ and Olc veina ‘to wail’ are synonyms of cwanian and kveina. They obviously reflect the weakening of the former cw to OE w and kv to Olc v(which Skeat says was formerly pronounced as w (POEE, 475)). This pattern of change suggests that former cw- and kv- words turned into initial w and v words. This possibility opens up new lines of etymological inquiry.