My wife and I have begun watching Simon Schama’s BBC series The Story of the Jews, and I was quite taken aback when I heard him refer to the island of Elephantine (once inhabited by Jews) as “el-ə-fan-TEE-nee.” All my life I’ve thought of it (when I had occasion to think of it, which was very infrequently) as “el-ə-FAN-tine,” just like the adjective, but once I heard him pronounce it I realized that was ridiculous — of course it wasn’t the English adjective. So I investigated and discovered that it’s from Greek Ελεφαντίνη, Latinized as Elephantine, which gets pronounced in English either as traditional el-ə-fan-TIE-nee or reformed el-ə-fan-TEE-nee. Schama uses the latter; I, being an unreconstructed traditionalist, will train myself to use the former.

Incidentally, Wikipedia doesn’t connect this name (“after its shape, which in aerial views is similar to that of an elephant tusk, or from the rounded rocks along the banks resembling elephants [or] because it was a trading center in the ivory trade”) with its Ancient Egyptian name of Abu or Yebu; Russian Wikipedia, on the other hand, flat-out says that the Greek name “восходит к переводу древнеегипетского названия острова и города — «Абу» (транслит. егип. ȝbw), означавшего одновременно и слона и слоновую кость” [goes back to a translation of the Ancient Egyptian name of the island and city, Abu (transliteration of Egyptian ȝbw), which means both ‘elephant’ and ‘ivory’]. (I note with amusement that they do not give the alternate transliteration Yebu, which sounds incredibly obscene in Russian.) Anybody happen to know anything about this?


  1. Siganus Sutor says

    From a specialist in placenames:
    Ebony, ebonis, ivory…

  2. Thanks, that’s very helpful:

    En ancien égyptien le nom de l’île était *èbu, mot signifiant ivoire. … Au Vè siècle av. J.-C., l’historien grec Hérodote traduit le nom égyptien de l’île, Ebu, par Elephantinē. Il s’agit d’une traduction fidèle puisqu’en grec ancien elephas, au génitif elephantos, désignait aussi bien l’éléphant que l’ivoire.

  3. Siganus Sutor says

    eboris, sorry…

    … and eburnean does exist in the English language…

  4. Michael Dunn says

    The pronunciation in Egyptian Arabic, including in Aswan, is usually al-a-fan-TEEN; no final vowel, but that i think comes via English.

  5. But English does pronounce the final vowel. I’d guess that it’s rather from the Arabic plural ending –in.

  6. The Hebrew Wiki entry for Elephantine is titled יֵב (between English Yev and Yave). “The meaning of the Greek name of the island, ‘Elephantina’ is ‘Island of the Elephants,’ so named because of its rocks that look like elephants, or because of the ivory trade conducted there. The word yev in the local language means ‘elephant;’ and this is the source of the Hebrew word for ivory, שנהב shenhav, hav-tooth.”

    The entry mentions a local community of Israelite mercenaries hired to protect the southern border of what during the reign of Cambyses II was part of the Persian Empire.

  7. Yes, that’s why it featured in the Schama show. The locals bribed the army to smash the Jewish temple (which had featured animal sacrifices, notably of rams, which offended the worshipers of Khnum).

  8. ‘Elephant’ and ‘ivory’ words are, for some reason, some of the etymologically messiest around, I suppose because ivory travels far beyond its origin.
    A recent review paper by Blažek on the etymologies of ‘elephant’ and ‘phoenix’ picks at some of the many etymologies proposed for ‘elephant’, referring to about every language family ever spoken anywhere near the mediterranean. Some bits gleaned from it:
    —Hebrew šenhabbim (as mentioned by Paul Ogden) is interpreted as šēn-wə-hābnim ‘tooth (i.e. ivory) and ebony’. If correct, then disconnected from the Egyptian word altogether. Blažek goes then on a little side excursion into the etymology of ‘ebony’, proximally also Egyptian, hbny. This at least explains the h, not in the ‘elephant’ word.
    — Indic ibha ‘elephant’ is apparently an early misinterpretation of Vedic íbha- ‘servants, retinue’, and is unrelated.
    — English ivory comes from Latin ebur, via French. The Latin “reflects a late pronunciation of the Egyptian ȝbw ‘elephant’ preserved in the name of the island Elephantine known in both Greek transcription Χνομώ [Ν]εβιῆβ, Χνουβώ Νεβιῆβ (the epochs of Ptolemaios VI and X) corresponding to Egyptian Ḫnmw ʕȝ nb ȝbw ‘Ḫnum the great, lord of Elephantine’, and Coptic Sahidic (Ⲉ)ⲒⲎⲂ ‘Elephantine’. The Egyptian ȝbw meant ‘elephant’ beginning with the Old Kingdom, from the Middle kingdonm on it was also used with the meaning ‘ivory’.”
    — From here, Blažek notes that Egyptian ȝ, nominally representing a glottal stop, often derives from an earlier *l or *r. He relies on evidence from loanwords and from possible Afroasiatic cognates.
    — Some pages later, Blažek concludes that later Egyptian ybht reflects an older unattested *ʔəȝbḥat = *ʔəlbḥat, which found its way through a Mediterranean substrate into Greek ἐλεφᾱς, and thence elephant. Given all the uncertainties, Blažek does not sign off on this, but says it’s the most plausible etymology available of the many proposed for the past 400 years (my fave bad etymology is < *alep hindi, from Semitic alep ‘ox’.)

    Lagniappe: Vovin has written a paper on the etymologies of Old Turkic *yaŋa and Middle Mongolian ʒa’an ‘elephant’. He argues that both come from Bulghar Turkic, and thence from an unknown source. He looks at Middle Chinese and finds it wanting. But I notice that Proto-Dravidian ‘elephant’ is something like *yānay. So perhaps that’s where the word started out.

    I have no idea where Russian слон comes from, but it’s probably an interesting story as well.

  9. Fascinating, thanks very much for all that!

    I have no idea where Russian слон comes from, but it’s probably an interesting story as well.

    People have plenty of ideas, but nobody knows. Vasmer rejects the usual (in his day) derivation from the verb sloniti as a folk etymology and says it might be from Turkic a(r)slan ‘lion’; Jakobson compares Tocharian kloŋ; Machek in his Czech etymological dictionary says it’s probably from *slop-n < *solopont, related to the Greek word.

  10. The 45 Tamil words for Elephant are yet a whole ‘nother thing.

  11. Gale and I just watched the first two episodes. We noted Schama saying /saɪniaɪ/ for Sinai at least twice. That seems to have too many syllables: do any of you know anything about it?

  12. My wife and I were struck by that as well; it appears to be a traditional UK pronunciation.

  13. The German pronunciation is three-syllabic as well (/’zi:-na-i:/).

  14. Daniel Jones’ “A Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language” (1913) gives the pronunciation of Sinai as [sainiai] with [saini] as an archaic alternative.

    In Handel’s libretti it’s scored as three syllables. Given their popularity in the 18th century, could the extra syllable have crept in via German ?

  15. marie-lucie says

    The name is trisyllabic in French too: le Mont Sinaï /si-na-i/.

  16. But the trisyllabic German and French pronunciations are Si-na-i. The surprising thing about the British version is the extra “i” stuck in: Si-ni-ai. Or is it really Si-na-i with English long vowels: /saɪneɪaɪ/?

  17. Investigating the dictionaries, as I ought to have done first, shows both the bisyllabic and the trisyllabic pronunciation (in that order) in Collins, ODO-UK, and m-w.com. So apparently there are Americans who say /saɪniaɪ/ too. AHD5 and ODO-US give only the bisyllabic pronunciation.

    And yes, the real mystery is the quality of the second vowel rather than that it exists at all. However, the Hebrew name is סִינָי SiYNaY, and the Arabic name is essentially the same, so I presume both pronunciations are bisyllabic. Its etymology is unknown, though a connection with the moon goddess Sin is presumed.

    m-l: How does one know in French when , which I suppose exists only in borrowed words, represents true hiatus and when it is a phonetic diphthong?

  18. marie-lucie says

    JC: How does one know in French when aï, which I suppose exists only in borrowed words, represents true hiatus and when it is a phonetic diphthong?

    Assume that the two vowels are pronounced separately. The pronunciation a-i exists in foreign words such as Sinaï but also in many French words such as naïf, naïve and their derivatives, archaïque, archaïsme, hébraïque, judaïsme, haïr ‘to hate’ (and some of its forms), the names Anaïs and Adélaïde, and some others. If an ï occurs between vowels, it is pronounced like j, as in païen(ne) ‘pagan’, paranoïaque ‘paranoid’, or pagaïe ‘mess, kerfuffle (etc)’ (also written pagaille, with same pronunciation). I think that Hawaïi and hawaïien(ne) are exceptions, pronounced as if the folloing plain i did not exist)(at least this is how I say these words).

    Similarly for , as in héroïne ‘heroin, heroîne’, héroïque and similar others.

    Without the ï, the written sequences ai andoi would be a single vowel and a diphtong wa respectively.

    With éi the problem does not occur, because the accent on é is enough to show the difference with the vowel written ei, as in protéine (3 syllables) vs peine ‘pain, sufferring, effort, punishment’.

    It is hard for many French people to pronounce English diphthongs as such. Around the time of the DSK scandal I had a conversation with a French person who pronounced the first name of “Cyrus Vance” as Sa-i-reus. In my youth I heard people pronounce “cowboy” (referring to American movie characters) ka-o-bɔ-è, in order to show off their English (the usual French pronunciation, which I still use in speaking French, was kɔ-bɔj).*

    Conversely, it is hard for English speakers not to use a diphthong in words like soleil ‘sun’ and pronounce them as “so-ley”. French words of this type end in a true consonant [j], and so does the French kɔ-bɔj).

    * There was also a (probably humorous) spelling pronunciation which I heard in a song when I was a child. I only remember one line: C’est moi la fille du [kɔvbwa] ‘I am the cowboy’s daughter>.

  19. There are nuances to vowels that I had no idea existed before taking up millinery chez Hat. That said, I’d like to offer my understanding of how Sinai is pronounced in modern Hebrew. It’s something like SeeNYe, with the final e designating a diphthong. Accent on the middle syllable, making the double ee a bit shorter than it would be in English. Sih-NY is pretty close too.

  20. Rodger C says

    Schama pronounces “Sinai” the way I was taught to pronounce “Haggai.” (It is, of course, very revealing of my background that I was ever taught to pronounce “Haggai” at all.)

  21. David Marjanović says

    Or is it really Si-na-i with English long vowels: /saɪneɪaɪ/?

    That makes sense. The only alternative I have to offer is “nookular”.

    How does one know in French when aï, which I suppose exists only in borrowed words, represents true hiatus and when it is a phonetic diphthong?

    Easy: French doesn’t have any diphthongs other than oi and – in Parisian, not everywhere else – oin.

  22. marie-lucie says

    French doesn’t have any diphthongs other than oi and – in Parisian, not everywhere else – oin

    I suppose you mean [wa] for oi. French does not have the same kind of diphthongs as English: the diphthongs in English words like tie or cow start with a vowel and end in an approximant. French diphthongs like [wa] (as in toi ‘you’) or [wi] (as in oui ‘yes’ or oin (as in moins ‘less’), and a few other diphthongs such as in nuit ‘night’ or juin ‘June’, start with an approximant and end in a vowel. This discrepancy makes it difficult for speakers of one language to pronounce or even approximate the diphthongs of the other.

    Where have you heard oin pronounced differently? And how? (I don’t mean in the South, where standard nasalized vowels occur as a sequence of vowel + nasal consonant).

  23. The Hebrew Wiki entry for Elephantine is titled יֵב (between English Yev and Yave)

    “Yev” is hare in Mauritian Creole, from French lièvre.

    This has nothing to do with what is at stake here? Oh, no need to blow the Oliphant* to raise the alarm (“report comment” or similar nasty suggestions), some sort of link can certainly be found somewhere.


    * or olifant if you will

  24. Blowing an olifant must be a strenuous activity with considerable risks.

  25. marie-lucie says

    As demonstrated by the story of Roland.

  26. David Marjanović says

    I suppose you mean [wa] for oi.

    Yes, of course I mean orthographic oi, which hasn’t been [oi] in a long time. It’s not really [wa], though. It rounds the preceding consonant when there is one, so quoi begins with a [kʷ] as unambiguous as any Italian one, but what follows isn’t directly the [ɐ ~ ɒ], and it’s not any kind of [u] either; it’s a short but stressed [o], even though it cannot be lengthened even for dramatic emphasis – the unstressed second part is lengthened instead, as illustrated by the comic-strip spelling KWÂÂÂ ???. It’s weird. 🙂

    I would not count a sequence of an approximant and a vowel (in either order) as a diphthong.

    Where have you heard oin pronounced differently? And how?

    By my former thesis supervisor, who’s originally from a town in Québec. He completely separates it into two syllables, o and in ([ẽ] for him when he doesn’t consciously approximate the Parisian [æ̃]), and stresses the latter! The same happens in southern France: in Marseille I’ve heard point pronounced [poˈɛŋ].

    For native Parisians, in contrast, moi(s) and moins are a minimal pair for nasality and have one syllable each.

  27. a town in Québec and a town in France and diphthongs.

    The town in Québec is Rouyn. The town (OK, a small city) in France is Rouen. My skills at describing the sounds of language range from near-nil to dismal. Concentrating on the vowel portion of both names, I’d say the former is pronounced with more of an A sound, while the latter is pronounced with more of an O sound. What do people who know about these things say?

    BTW, been to both. Much prefer Rouen.

  28. David Marjanović says

    You’re basically right, but I have to run now. 🙂

  29. Coptic /je:b/ indicates Late Egyptian /ju:b-/; see Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (1995). The wiktionary page (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ꜣbw) currently has a probably accurate reconstruction.

  30. Abera (Ivory). says

    Many of these comments have the effect of ‘hiding trees in the forest’. A few points. ‘Abu’ is the Egyptian name for the ‘elephant’. The word does not signify ‘rock’ or any other meaning. Grammatically, ‘abu’ is a plural form. The Hebrew form ‘habim’, also a plural, translates the Egyptian mode. ‘Abu’ and ‘ivory’ do not source from the same root. The animal itself was sourced from northern Ethiopia, and Ethiopian languages mediate the meaning of ‘abu’ and its grammatical tenor. They also mediate on ‘ivory’ and on ‘ebony’. At all times, Africa supplied ivory and ebony to the ancient world. Regretably, elaborating on the linguistic and historical dimensions of these notions is not feasible in a comment section.

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