Very often there are words in Tanach that did not originate in Hebrew and are foreign “loanwords.” Here I am going to discuss some of the foreign non-Semitic loanwords in Tanach. I will also include Akkadian loanwords. Although Akkadian is a Semitic language, it is the Semitic language that is most distant from Hebrew.
Egyptian: Some examples of Egyptian loanwords in Tanach: avnet (=girdle), achu (=grass or reed), iy (=island, spelled aleph-yod), tzi (ship), chotam (=seal, signet ring; this noun also gave rise to a verb), tene (=basket), kof (=ape, monkey; this word appears only two times in Tanach, both in the plural), keset (=ink vessel, only three times in Tanach, all in Ezekiel), and shesh (fine linen).
Also, the following units of measure are Egyptian loanwords: eifah, hin, and zeret.
Of course, there are the more obvious ones: gome (=papyrus, at Ex. 2:3, twice in Isaiah and once in Job), suf (=reed), ye’or (Nile river and then expanded to “river” in general), and “Paroh” (big house).
Finally, another interesting example is found at Jer. 30:16: “ve-hayu shosayich li-meshisah”= they that spoil thee shall become spoil. (This phrase was later adapted into Lekha Dodi: ”ve-hayu li-meshisah shosayikh.”) Those two difficult words come from Egyptian. The original Egyptian noun is “shasu”= nomads, marauders.
A classic article on this topic (with more examples) is T. Lambdin, “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament,” “Journal of the American Oriental Society 73” (1953), pp. 145-55.
Most likely there are around three or four dozen Egyptian loanwords in Tanach. (If a word appears more than once, I am still considering it as only one.) Anyone who investigates this topic realizes that this is not an exact science. Many times, particularly with Egyptian, scholars are just making educated guesses.
Akkadian: Akkadian was the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Unlike the other Semitic languages, all written in alphabetic script, Akkadian was written in cuneiform. (From here we learn that languages can be related even though their writing form is completely different.)
Some examples of Akkadian words in Tanach: machoz (=harbor, town; only at Ps. 107:30), segan (=high official; many times in Nach, never in Chumash); and pechah (=governor; many times in Nach, never in Chumash).
What about the word: “igeret”? This word only appears in Esther, Nechemiah and II Chronicles. (A related word also appears two times in Ezra.) Everyone realizes from the context that the word means a letter. But why? There is a root in Hebrew, aleph-gimmel-resh, that means “gather.” See, e.g., Deut. 28:39. Therefore, many of the traditional commentaries believed that an “igeret” was a collection of thoughts. But scholars now realize that the word is more likely derived from the Akkadian word “egirtu” that meant “letter.”
I have given only a very small sample of Akkadian loanwords found in Tanach. In 2009, the scholar Hayim Tawil published a book: “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew.” Tawil’s book is over 400 pages. (It is usually available at the YU sale.) This book includes the many Akkadian loanwords in Tanach. There are many dozens, many more than Egyptian.
The reason the book is so long is that it does other things as well. For example, it helps clarify the meaning of Hebrew words where the Hebrew words did not occur often enough in Tanach to deduce their meaning. Akkadian comes in handy here as well.
Sumerian: Sumerian was not a Semitic language. But many of its words continued to be used in Assyria and Babylonia even after Sumerian died out in Mesopotamia as a spoken language. The Tanach was influenced by Sumerian through Akkadian. Sumerian loanwords in Tanach include:
Aman (A-M-N)=craftsman. In Hebrew, this root means “trust, believe.” But one time in Tanach, at Shir Ha-Shirim 7:2, it means “craftsman.” This meaning is from Sumerian.
Okar (A-caf-R)=farmer (not in Chumash, but a few times in Nach)
Kiseh (caf-samekh-aleph)=chair, throne
Tifsar (tet-pe-samekh-resh)=scribe (Jer. 51:27 and Nah. 3:17). The Sumerian original was “dubsar,” which meant “tablet writer.”
Heichal (heh-yod-caf-lamed)= temple. The Akkadian word was “ekallu.” This was derived from the original Sumerian “e-gal”=big house.
A very interesting word is mem-lamed-chet=sailor. This word appears four times in Tanach in various forms, three times in Ezekiel and one time in Yonah. You would never suspect that it is a foreign word. S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, suggests it derives from the saltiness of the sea. (In Hebrew, mem-lamed-chet means “salt.”) But it turns out that this word is a loanword from Sumerian. It is formed from “ma”=ship and “lah”= to direct, drive, steer. (It is accepted that the influence of Akkadian on the book of Ezekiel is a strong one.)
Persian: Persian rule over Palestine spanned the years 539-332 B.C.E. There are probably less than 20 Persian loanwords in Tanach. Here are a few:
Gizbar = treasurer (Est. 1:8; see also Ezra 7:21 and Dan 3:2,3).
Achashdarpan: three times in Esther, once in Ezra, and nine times in the book of Daniel. The original Persian word was “khshatrapanan.” The Greeks shortened the word to “satrap,” while the Megillah added an initial “aleph.”
Achashtranim (Est. 8:10): This is a well-known word because an amora in the Talmud (Meg. 18a) admits that the amoraic Sages did not know its meaning. Now we know that the word means “royal/governmental.”
Karpas: Est. 1:6 is the only time this word appears in the Tanach. It means “fine fabric, linen.” It is not related to the word in the Mishnah and later rabbinic sources that has the meaning of “plant, celery, parsley.”
Pitgam: decree. This word appears several times in Daniel and Ezra, and one time each in Kohelet and Esther. The literal meaning was “that which has arrived.”
Pardes: It means “park, orchard.“ It appears in Shir HaShirim, Kohelet, and Nechemiah, once in each. Its literal meaning is “around the wall.” It is related to the English word “paradise.”
Greek: The main period where Greek began to influence Hebrew and Aramaic started around 332 B.C.E. when Alexander’s army took control of Palestine. The book of Daniel, in its Aramaic section, includes four words of Greek origin. These are some of the musical instruments included in Chapter 3. In the Hebrew portion of Tanach, “aperion” at Shir Ha-Shirim 3:9, may be of Greek origin.
This article is based in part on the section “Foreign Loanwords” in E. Y. Kutscher, “A History of the Hebrew Language,” pp. 46-53 (1984). Kutscher also points to words like “pilegesh” and “barzel” that are found in Tanach and were common to many ancient languages, Semitic and non-Semitic. Their origin cannot be determined. There is also one word of Philistine origin in Tanach: “seren”=ruler. It is found in the plural in various books of Tanach.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He has an idea for a book: Tawil’s book is organized alphabetically. Someone should go through it and organize it by parsha.
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.