2 Apr 2010

Death and daffodils

Andras Zeke slipped another blog entry under my nose which I missed until now but it's a very interesting post which talks in part about Minoan floral terms.

In a tidy table towards the end of his post, there are listed various terms of "Pre-Greek" origin: ἀμυγδάλη, ἀσφόδελος, κάππαρις, κέδρος, σέλινον, ἐρέβινθος, κυπάρισσος, νάρκισσος, δίκταμνος, ἄγλις, δάφνη, λείριον, ἐλαία, ῥόδον, κρόκος, κνήκος, τερέβινθος, and ἄψινθος. The trouble with the term Pre-Greek however is that it doesn't really identify the origin of anything since there are many potential "Pre-Greek" influences to choose from (ie. Anatolian, Minoan, Semitic, Egyptian, etc.). When misused, the term can be as meaningless as the phrase "of American Indian origin" in some dictionaries without further explanation, as if to say that all American Indians are part of an unspecified monolith of unified culture and language. (I suppose they would seem to be by an ignorant person or racist.) Detail is important and I don't believe that all of these words are automatically of Minoan origin just because their etymologies are "uncertain".

In the list, I can see some terms can't be Minoan, in my view. This is because of what I've encountered as valid sound sequences and syllable shapes in more certain Minoan etyma and because of comparison with Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian. Both ἀσφόδελος and ἄψινθος seem out of place because, if they were Minoan, we'd presume an onset like *aps- or *asp- to explain it, something perfectly expected in Indo-European but something that I'm suspicious of in Minoan because of the closed syllable ending in a sibilant or stop. (The question should be asked about what syllabic constraints this language had.) Zeke already compares the former word of this pair to Middle Persian aspand, another Indo-European language, and this fits my expectation. On the latter word, a related adjective ἀσφοδελός has already been offered an interesting analysis as "that in the meadow not reduced to ashes"[1] connected to its Homeric descriptions of the underworld, based on ἀ- [negational prefix], σποδός 'ashes' and ἕλος 'meadow'. Again, I find an Indo-European origin more likely in this case.

The rest of this long list deserves further exploration, but this will have to wait till later when I have time.

[1] Peradotto, Classical Mythology: An Annotated Bibliographical Survey (1973), p.10 (see link).


  1. I'm extremely skeptical of a connection between ἄψινθος and aspand. Aspand is from the Proto-Iranian *svanta (PIE *swentos) via a transparent series of sound changes (and a transparent borrowing from Median, which happened constantly in Old Persian). The Old Iranian form would be *spanta, with no initial a- (which appeared during the transition to Middle Persian).

  2. I guess then there isn't much more to say on this other than if ἄψινθος is original Minoan, I'd expect a form like *ápVsinta (V = intervening vowel) because I deem a sequence -ps- unlikely in Minoan. Similarly if ἀσφόδελος is Minoan, I'd expect *ásVputila or *ásVputida.