26 Jul 2010

A Mediterranean flute wanderword

Here's a quick note about a wanderword that I noticed. It starts with a quote from Festus, 403 which equates Latin tibicen 'flute player' with an alleged Etruscan word subulō 'flute player'. What first has to be realized is that this is surely a Latinized form of the original word and so I've had *supulun logged in my database as a suggestion.

Now I found the term sb.t 'flute' written in Ancient Egyptian, leading me to wonder about its exact vocalism and its connection to the Etruscan word. A quick gander in Crum's Coptic Dictionary shows the same word in Sahidic as sēbe 'reed (of a flute)' which points me to an Egyptian form *sūbat, curiously similar to the Etruscan. The word relates to sbȝ 'to play a flute' which in turn is cognate with Semitic *zamāru 'to play music', suggesting Afro-Asiatic heritage. If the Etruscan word is related, there's no question then that the word is ultimately Egyptian. The next question is how this word would have travelled to Italy.

Relating to this caper is another word I've discovered recently in Greek: συβήνη 'flute-case, quiver' (Myc *subānā ?). This is pretty coincidental, I think. The same root *sub- appears to be present as in Etruscan and Egyptian and we even may be seeing an Aegean derivational suffix *-na attached. Is an Eteocretan or Minoan term *supana in order? Is the word for 'flute' in Etruscan then *sup?


  1. It would not suprise me to see such a name borrowed all across the western hemisphere. I say this because the names of many musical instruments tend to be quite ancient (I have read some really interesting articles on this topic). Many of them likely stem from the Ancient Near East. The word you mentioned is no exception.

    Unfortunately, I was unable to find any good Linear A examples that could attest the stem. The only similar ones were SU-PU-*188 [HT8] (likely a transaction term, *425VAS+SU+PU [HT31] (a type of jar), *402+SU+PA3+RA [HT31] (another type of vessel), TU-SU-PU [HT49] (a name) and QE-SU-PU [HT83] (another name). Unless the names were derived from a word for 'flute' (cf. Greek Auletes), there is unfortunately nothing more than just conjectural evidence of this word. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind, that Minoan might also have possessed the stem *auli- for 'flute' (or a 'type of flute'), as this word is already attested from Hittite sources (you can check it here).

    Up to date, I can support only the names of two instruments in Minoan sources. All of these come from comparing the shape of Hieroglyphic signs with their probable phonetic values (based on Linear A). One of these resembles a lyre, and its value indeed seems to be "RU" (*lura?). The other one is a sistrum-like sign with the value "KI" (perhaps *kithara, if we accept a transfer of meaning to "a small corded instrument"). So this is all what I got at the moment. No flute, yet.

  2. I highly doubt that this term is going to appear in the impoverished Minoan records unless Minoan traders were somehow importing a lot of flutes. :o)

    I notice that both Beekes and the Hittite Etymological Dictionary that you linked to consider αὐλός to be an Indo-European formation: either *h₂eu-lo- or *h₂oul-i-.

  3. I should also add that Puhvel offers a different translation for Hittite auli-, that is, 'spleen' (read Puhvel's Hittite Etymological Dictionary (1984), p.231). Since Puhvel offers many direct text examples to further justify his views, I find myself suspecting that the connection between Hittite aulis and Greek aulós is actually a false connection.