13 Aug 2010

On to the kinnor

Continuing on with my unintentional yet alluring theme of "musical instruments of the ancient Mediterranean", I'm lately exploring the whole issue with the stringed instrument known as a kinnor which is variously translated as a zither or a lyre. If it's true that the name of the kithara is ultimately from a Minoan compound meaning 'three-stringed' and containing the element *ki 'three' (see Paleoglot: The kithara), then it stands to reason that the similar name, kinnor, is probably likewise Minoan in origin and containing the same petrified numeral with a different second component.

I racked my brain on this one, looking at all the available comparanda I could amass this past few days and my findings can be summarized as follows:
  1. Greek κινύρα (kinúra) 'lyre'
  2. Mycenaean ki-nu-ra = *Kinúras [PY Qa 1301]
  3. Hebrew כִּנּוֹר (kinnōr)
  4. Hittite kinartallas ~ kinirtallas 'singer, musician'
  5. Akkadian kinnāru 'lyre'
After reflecting today, I believe however that in the above pile that there are subtle red herrings lurking about, veering us away from the most rational solution. Although I was reluctant at first to accept it, Beekes' conclusion that Greek kinúra is loaned from Hebrew kinnōr now appears sensible to me. However his online commentary in his database is much too brief for a labyrinthine etymology such as this because the direction of borrowing implies that we must then reject the connection often cited between kinúra and an earlier Mycenaean name *Kinúras which therefore cannot mean 'kinyrist' but rather 'lamenter' (via an unrelated Greek word, kinurós 'wailing') in contradiction to, for example, John Franklin's suggestions in his elaborate article Kinyras at Pylos (see online pdf) that there is a connection.

From the Hebrew reflex, the famous Canaanite Shift of *ā > *ō by the close of the 2nd millennium BCE brings us back to an earlier form reflected directly in Akkadian as kinnāru. This same form explains the derivative in Hittite, kinartállas, whose accent I presume lies on the syllable just after the foreign stem kinar- in order to explain the alternation of a and i in spelling (ie. a reduced pretonic vowel perhaps?).

This all means that, to update the form I offered in a recent comment, the compound we're looking for in Minoan is precisely *ki-naro. I will withhold my analysis of the second component for a future entry.


  1. (Please ignore my earlier attempt at this message)

    Holy crap. Look at what I found on Apte's Sanskrit-English dictionary on the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia website (http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.2:1:839.apte):
    किन्नर kinnara
    किन्नर See under किम्.
    1 किम् ind. Used for कु only at the beginning of comp. to convey the senses of 'badness', 'deteriora- tion', 'defect', 'blame' or 'censure'; e. g. किंसखा a bad friend; किन्नरः a bad or deformed man &c.; see comp. below. -Comp. -ज a. born somewhere (not in a noble family) मन्ये किंजमहं घ्नन्तं त्वामक्षत्रियजे रणे Bk.6.133. -दासः a bad slave, or servant. -नरः a bad or deformed man; a mythical being with a human figure and the head of a horse (अश्वमुख); चयोदाहरणं बाह्वोर्गापयामास किन्नरान् R.4.78; उद्गास्य- तामिच्छति किन्नराणां तानप्रदायित्वमिवोपगन्तुम् Ku.1.8. ˚ईशः, ˚ईश्वरः 1 an epithet of Kubera. -2 a kind of musical instrument. (-री f.) 1 a female Kinnara; Me.58. -2 a kind of lute. -पुरुषः 'a low or despicable man', a mythical being with a human head and the form of a horse; Ku.1.14; किंपुरुषाणां हनुमान् Bhāg.11.16.29. ˚ईश्वरः an epithet of Kubera. -प्रभुः a bad master or king; हितान्न यः संशृणुते स किंप्रभुः Ki.1.5. -राजन् a. having a bad king. (-m.) a bad king. -विवक्षा Slandering; Rām.5. -सखि m. (nom. sing. किंसखा) a bad friend; स किंसखा साधु न शास्ति यो$धिपम् Ki.1.5.

  2. The sections in bold are what I'm trying to focus on:
    -2 a kind of musical instrument. (-री f.) 1 a female Kinnara; Me.58. -2 a kind of lute.

    This is obviously a reflex of the kinnor Wanderwort; clearly, the term had made its way to India at an early enough date to be incorporated into the Sanskrit lexicon. Granted, its arrival may be relatively recent, but it's still another attestation of the Wanderwort.

  3. I didn't mean to seem abrupt but I like to encourage commenters to get straight to the chase and state their points overtly. Thanks for elaborating.

    Expectedly, Kunst in The cultural background of Indonesian music (1980), p.7 deems Sanskrit किन्नर kinnara a loan from the west.

    I think this reinforces my caveat that many words and their concepts have traveled between West and East so when an IEist reconstructs a root, even when the evidence seems robust (because of, say, words that seemingly relate in both Greek or Latin on the one hand and Sanskrit on the other), there's often still room for skepticism by historians who have reason to believe the words are more recent. In fact, in jovial mockery of some short-sighted IEists I secretly have in mind, I shall reconstruct PIE *kinor- 'musical instrument'. (PS: Please, no one take my suggestion here seriously!)

  4. A Kinnura is like a Lyre and a Kithara is somewhat like a guitar. The Kinnura is "The Harp of David". Am I right?

  5. When in doubt, Google Images can be very handy. You're right about the Harp of David. But even though the *word* for 'guitar' comes from the Greek, you'd be stretching it to say a kithara looks like a guitar. A kithara was closer to a lyre or harp.

    To add even more confusion, the modern Hebrew word kinnor (כִּנּוֹר‎) doesn't refer to the harp but the violin!