10 Sep 2011

Revisiting the lily

Looking back at my personal notes and some previous online conversations concerning the common words for 'lily' or 'flower' that spread across the Mediterranean, I believe there's still some unfinished business.

A conflict arises

Under Hittite alel-, Jaan Puhvel lists off related forms in a multitude of languages showing that this word must have been an important "culture word" since olden times. I surmised and still surmise that Egyptian is the one ultimate source behind all of this. I eventually reasoned to myself that the Ancient Egyptian feminine noun written only as ḥrr.t was once pronounced *ḥalūrat (~  *ḥarūrat) guided in part by the Coptic forms with vowels explicitly written in a Greek-based alphabet.

Everything seemed fine until I started to question when exactly Egyptian  evolved into  and how. Foreign texts from the Amarna period seem to suggest that a vowel-sound like  must still have been spoken at about 1350 BCE. The cuneiform inscription labeled EA 368 records the numeral mu-ṭu (the Egyptian word for 'ten'), leading therefore to Callender's *mūḏaw (whose orthography I simplify to *mūḏu). Clearly the eventual change to *mēḏ- (Sahidic Coptic mēt) hadn't yet taken place.

The Minoan perspective

Meanwhile, the hypothetical Minoan loan *aléri 'lily' had emerged out of the illuminating conversations I had with Minoan Language Blog's Andras Zeke. With the former Egyptian form I've attempted, I can't sensibly explain the connections Zeke had alluded to between a certain Cretan Hieroglyphic plant glyph known as CHIC 031 and its later derivative Lin AB 27 which has been given the value of RE. (See John Younger's The Cretan Hieroglyphic Script: A review article in Minos 31-32, 1996. It's mentioned in the middle of page 397.) A Mycenaean loan from Minoan can cleanly explain later Classical Greek λείριον (léirion) 'lily' and so this serves to doubly assure the term *aléri.

Surely the phonetic value of CHIC 031 and Lin AB 27 reflects the actual Minoan word for a flower or lily but to get *aléri out of *ḥalūrat, I would have to assume that the word was loaned only by the **closing of the 2nd millennium BCE** when the Egyptian vowel shift in question must have taken place! Ironically this is when the Minoan language was also becoming extinct (if not already moribund as the Achaeans swept through). It could never explain the said Cretan Hieroglyph dated to as early as the 17th century BCE.

Ground control, we have a problem.

Everything's coming up roses (or Egyptian lilies)

This all seems remedied however if I simply ammend the Egyptian 'flower' term to *ḥalīrat. Given that, the Egyptian term must be borrowed into Minoan around or before 1700 BCE. Minoan *aléri would acquire a new specialized meaning of 'lily' as well. The Cretan hieroglyphic lily symbol is subsequently created, understandably employed to write LERE ("l" and "r" not being distinguished in both Linear A and Linear B scripts) since this is afterall the stressed syllable of the surmised word. Sahidic hrēre should also be accounted for in the same way that Egyptian *rīʕa 'sun' likewise produces .

At any rate, this is one confusing little word but who knows what new weeds I might yet dig up in this untamed flower garden.


  1. I hate to bother you...but is the Latin word "Silva" of possible Aegean origin?

    (I had no other way to contact you)

  2. No bother at all. And yes, I do suspect that Latin silva 'forest' is from an Etruscan plural *silva 'woods, woodland', implying a singular *sil 'wood (as in the material)'.

    Note also Classical Greek ὕλη (húlē) 'forest, woodland' with former *s- having become h-. Let's also not neglect Silvanus, the Etrusco-Roman god of the woods.