Poems from the Edge of Extinction.

Alexander Adams reviews a new anthology:

Poems from the Edge of Extinction: An Anthology of Poetry in Endangered Languages collects short poems in languages close to disappearing, allowing us to glimpse a little of the poetry of ancient cultures. There is an attempt to anthologise new work by living poets or recent transcriptions of traditional poems. Each poem is presented in its original language, facing an English translation and a short discussion of the language, poet and some aspects of the poem.

Languages include those from cultures close and far. The British languages include Manx, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic and Shetlandic. Some readers will be surprised to encounter the very rare form of Norman – Lé Jérriais – spoken on Jersey. European languages include Occitan (from Provencal), Saami (the language of the indigenous nomads of northern Scandinavia), Sardinian, Faroese and Belarussian. Others include Maori, Navajo, Assyrian and Hawaiian. The selection is not entirely confined to languages in danger of extinction. Welsh, Pashto, Rohingya are not vulnerable, but they are selected because they are minority languages.

But some languages are so rare, as in the case of Gorwaa in Tanzania, that ‘there is no published dictionary, grammar, texts or standardised writing system’. The Gorwaa poem here features some poetic sounds in the singing of the text, and some audience participation, too. Indeed, each language example brings to the fore different values, such as rhythm, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, repetition, call and response and other parts of spoken verse. […]

Translation is, of course, a very inexact process. […] Obviously, sounds, rhymes and rhythms are lost in the translation of verse. What’s more, the very obscurity of these languages leads to problems with translation. One simply cannot find someone to translate directly into English; hence we get descriptions, such as ‘translated from Ainu into Japanese, translated from Japanese into English’. Although we get the original text, this chain translation does make one question the English language version’s fidelity to the original.

Artistically speaking, the poems vary in quality. But there is a beautiful poem in Navajo by Laura Tohe, translated by the poet herself. She is bilingual and able to approximate the original in her own translation, which aids fluency and the power of her imagery of cranes migrating. Likewise, Joy Harjo’s bilingual poem in Mvskoke (of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations) is rich and evocative.

The review starts by quoting a brief poem by John Elvis Smelcer in both Ahtna and English. Thanks, Trevor!

Not really LH material except that I’ve long loved both the legend of the sunken city of Kitezh and the fantastic wooden structures of Kizhi, so I’m smuggling this in here: Studiolum’s Kizhi and the submerged Karelia at Poemas del río Wang. He quotes Polish journalist Mariusz Wilk as writing “The most important event in Russia in the twentieth century was the destruction of the village,” and adds:

In this sense, Kizhi is really Kitezh. A submerged city in the middle of the lake, where the beauty and civilization of the former Karelia retreated from the advancement of barbarism.

It’s long and filled with gorgeous photographs and forgotten history. Highly recommended.


  1. (Kitezh) Yes but … “the roaring of cows”?

  2. Rodger C says

    @Charles: Poemas is an L2 English user. Some languages don’t have a plethora of noise verbs.

  3. Yes, Studiolum’s native language is Hungarian but he knows Russian, English, and goodness knows how many other languages. And specialized animal-sound verbs are hard to master in another language.

  4. Pashto seems like a bizarre inclusion in a collection of languages on the edge of extinction. It is not endangered in the slightest, with its 40 million speakers in Afghanistan (where it is one of two official state languages) and Pakistan (where it is an official regional language in Pashtun areas), widely used and taught in schools (both as a subject and as a medium of education) in both countries.

  5. ə de vivre says

    And specialized animal-sound verbs are hard to master in another language.

    In Sumerian, lions and sparrows vocalize with the same verb. Bovines and gods of war, however, use a different one.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Pashto seems like a bizarre inclusion

    Yes, the work needs a better name. In reality, it’s Poems from Languages that I Myself Think of as Obscure, but one can see why that title might have been thought problematic.

    there is no published dictionary, grammar, texts or standardised writing system

    This is of course the norm for the world’s languages. I know nothing of Gorwaa, but the statement was true of Kusaal as late as the late 1960s; Kusaal has some 300,000 speakers now, a number which (I am happy to say) is increasing steadily.

  7. SFReader says

    Manx and Cornish are better described as coming from beyond the edge of extinction.

    Undead languages, so to speak.

  8. January First-of-May says

    Pashto seems like a bizarre inclusion in a collection of languages on the edge of extinction.

    Belarussian is also a weird (admittedly less outrageously weird) inclusion unless the focus is on the specific dialect. Standard Belarussian, kind of like Standard Irish, is an artificial interdialect mixture that people have to learn at school and mostly don’t actually speak; the actual local dialects are dying out (admittedly probably slower than the Irish ones), but the official standard language isn’t exactly going anywhere (any more than Irish is, at least).

  9. David Marjanović says

    In Sumerian, lions and sparrows vocalize with the same verb.

    Have sparrows under my windows, can confirm that sparrows are twice as loud as lions per volume.

  10. ə de vivre says

    To be a city-dweller is for sparrows to account for more lifetime cumulative decibels than lions.

  11. What do the cows do when they don’t moo, if they are not roaring?

    I find the seagulls louder than the sparrows, and the doves chattier (although at lower volume). Although no bird likes chatting as much as the jackdaw. The jackdaws like to meet in trees and chatter all evening.

  12. @Moa and David, compare


    A clothing store where my wife used to shop had one of these in a cage on the counter, and when you said hi to him he would reply, unisex-democratically, “Pret-ty GIRL!” In Honolulu the ones that live in my eaves occupy the position of morning alarm.

  13. Jonathan Morse, that’s nothing to the racket they kick up when they spot a cat.

  14. @ Jonathan: That’s a talkative sparrow! It would fit in right away with the jackdaws.

    @ Juha: Ah, that’s why the sparrows around here aren’t as loud! There are too few cats. The danger of living in a high rise building. Although, I guess for the sparrows it’s a point in favour? Less cats sneaking about in the neighbourhood.

  15. We don’t let our cat outdoors, and a good thing too, because a robin has built a nest in a crook of the drainpipe from the corner of the garage, and three nestlings are peering out and cheeping, soon to try their wings and inevitably wind up on the ground as easy targets for prowling predators.

  16. A couple of years ago blackbirds built a nest in the mock orange bushes outside my window. Alas, one morning I heard a mighty commotion there and looked out. A magpie was helping itself to its contents, and the distraught hen was hopping from twig to twig, unable to stop the marauder.

  17. AJP Crown says

    This Indian myna does both cats and dogs. The dogs are in the distance and the cats close:

    There’s a very complicated tweeting here that I try to imitate and the bird replies. It makes all sorts of variations and so do I.

  18. What a delightful clip!

  19. AJP Crown says

    Yes. [Grumbles about people killing birds.]

  20. Alon Lischinsky says


    What do the cows do when they don’t moo, if they are not roaring?

    They bellow

  21. Owlmirror says


    Other b-noise words:



  22. For those interested in Gorwaa (South Cushitic):

    Andrew Harvey’s 2018 dissertation The Gorwaa Noun: Toward a description of the Gorwaa language can be downloaded from his website.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    Another good b-noise verb is “bleat,” which supposedly runs back through Proto-Germanic to a PIE root that has attested non-Germanic descendants in at least Latin, Latvian, and Russian.

  24. AJP Crown says

    Maybe it was different in Ur back in the old days but the cows in the pasture by my house sometimes moo as a greeting but more often (as Moa said and taking lions as my reference) they roar into the remote distance.

  25. Owlmirror says

    As I recall: Stags bell, bulls bellow and/or bawl, and hounds bay.

    ObAnimal Sounds: Pouches, pockets and sacs in the heads, necks and chests of mammals, part IV: reindeer and a whole slew of others.

    Also, Pouches, pockets and sacs in the heads, necks and chests of mammals, part VII: rodents, rabbits and hyraxes (and featuring procrastination on cranial sinuses) — this entry mentions the skulls of some bovids as having large sinuses, presumably with amplification and alteration of produced sounds.

    (Evolution and functional morphology of the frontal sinuses in Bovidae is open access)

    Alas, no mention of the cranial anatomy of gods of war is on offer, so we cannot even guess at whether they actually did or did not sound like bovines.

  26. David Eddyshaw says


    Kusaasi cows bʋʋl.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Andrew Harvey’s 2018 dissertation

    Well found, sh. Interesting, too.
    He’s evidently fallen among minimalists, nebekh.

  28. ə de vivre says

    The Sumerian texts that have survived are pretty light on onomatopoeia, although an unidentified marsh-dwelling bird that goes “wa” did have some significance for the cult of Nanše. Bovines vocalize with the verb “gu3 de,” literally “to pour voice.” At the time, aurochs were still a going concern, and were an important symbol of physical and military might. The heavenly bull that Gilgamesh killed, was referred to with a word usually meaning “domestic bull,” though. Gods often gave instruction with “gu3 de,” and the verb is also the root of the name of the ruler Gudea, “He was called (by a god, probably Ningišzida or Ningirsu in this case).”

  29. John Cowan says

    Kusaasi cows? bʋʋl.

    In that case the males ka’u, I suppose?

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, they might at least kaas “cry out”, which can be used for pretty much any animal that makes a noise, including people.

    Lions (in case you were wondering) nwa’am [w̃ã̰:m]. Only the Kusaasi and their neighbours have noticed the glottalisation, but it’s clearly audible when you listen to lions, once you know. Obviously an African thing.

  31. There is a book (in Russian) called Глаголы звуков животных: : типология метафор (Verbs Describing the Sounds Animals Make: Metaphor Typology).

    A sampler can be found here:

    The languages covered are: (IE) English, German, Yiddish, Norwegian, Welsh, Greek, Armenian, Hindi; (FU) Mordvin, Finnish; (Turkic, Mongolian) Bashkir, Tatar, Kalmyk; (Caucasian) Bzhedug Adyghe dialect, Agul; Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    AFAIK, birds “cry out” in Kusaal; they don’t “sing.” The notion that birds sing is so firmly embedded in SAE that it’s only just now struck me that this is not in fact an obvious metaphor. Do birds sing in other non-SAE languages? Did they sing before Europeans came along?

  33. SFReader says

    Birds emit all kinds of sounds – some of which can be classified as singing and some as, well, twitter.

    So naturally there would be different words for these sounds even in the same language.

  34. AFAIK, the general verb for avian sounds in Japanese is
    さえずる【囀る】 ローマ(saezuru)
    sing; chirp; chirrup; twitter; (うぐいすなどが) warble; 〔しゃべる〕 prattle; chatter.
    ▲鳥のさえずる声 the ┌twittering [chirping] of birds.

    In general, Japanese does not have many ‘sound’ verbs. It has all-purpose ‘sonic’ verbs

    なる4【鳴る】 ローマ(naru)
    1 〔音を立てる〕 sound; make a sound; (鈴・鐘が) peal; (雷が) roll; (きしんで) creak; 〔音が感じられる〕 sound [ring] in one’s ear; 〔反響する〕 resound; echo.

    なく2【鳴く・啼く】 ローマ(naku)
    ▲鳥獣が鳴く cry; 〔呼ぶ〕 call
    ・獣が鳴く 〔吠える〕 howl; roar; 〔うなる〕 growl; snarl
    ・犬が鳴く 〔わんわん〕 bark; 〔きゃんきゃん〕 whine; 〔猟犬が〕 bay; 〔子犬が〕 yelp
    ・猫が鳴く meow; mew
    ・牛が鳴く low; bellow; moo
    ・馬が鳴く neigh; whinny
    ・ロバが鳴く bray
    ・象が鳴く trumpet
    ・サルが鳴く gibber; chatter
    ・豚が鳴く 〔ぶうぶう〕 grunt; oink; 〔きーきー〕 squeal
    ・ヤギ・羊が鳴く baa; bleat
    ・鹿が鳴く bell; bellow
    ・アザラシが鳴く honk
    ・ネズミが鳴く squeak
    ・雄鶏(おんどり)が鳴く crow.
    ・雌鶏(めんどり)が鳴く cluck; cackle
    ・ひなが鳴く peep; cheep
    ・七面鳥などが鳴く gobble
    ・アヒルが鳴く quack
    ・雁(がん)が鳴く honk
    ・オウムなどが鳴く screech
    ・フクロウが鳴く hoot
    ・ハトが鳴く coo
    ・カラスが鳴く caw; croak
    ・ツルが鳴く whoop
    ・ワシなどが鳴く scream; shriek
    ・カエルが鳴く croak
    ・小鳥や虫が鳴く sing; chirp; twitter
    ・コオロギが鳴く chirp; chirrup

    combined with an onomatopoeic adverb.

    Specializes verbs that I can think of at the moment are:

    ほえる【吠える・吼える】 ローマ(hoeru)
    1 〔犬が〕 bark; bay; (かん高い声で) yelp [yap]; (猟犬が獲物を見つけて) give [throw] tongue; 〔犬・オオカミが〕 howl; 〔ライオン・トラなどが〕 roar.
    ▲(犬が)人に吠える bark at sb
    ・(オオカミなどが)月に向かって吠える bay (at) the moon
    ・犬に吠えられる be barked at by a dog.
    ▲こいつは知らない人を見ると吠えるんだよ. She barks when she sees a stranger.
    ・吠える犬はかまない. Barking dogs don’t bite. | Great barkers are no biters. 【諺】
    2 〔海・風などが〕 howl; roar.
    3 〔人が〕 (わめく) cry; utter a cry; (大声で文句を言う) moan; complain out loud; (気合を入れるために大声を出す) grunt; (発奮して力を出す) moan [yell, exclaim, grunt, utter sounds] when exerting great effort.
    ▲ここで吠えたってしかたがないだろう. What’s the use of complaining here to me?
    ・(野球の試合などで)最後になって主砲が吠えた. Finally at the end (of the game) the big bat boomed.

    いななく【嘶く】 ローマ(inanaku)
    neigh; (静かに, うれしげに) whinny [nicker]; (ロバが) bray.
    ▲(馬が)一声高くいななく give a loud ┌neigh [whinny].

  35. ə de vivre says

    Do birds sing in other non-SAE languages?

    AFAIK birds didn’t sing in Sumerian. A full study of speech/noise vocabulary in Sumerian would be a very useful contribution, since what aspect of the vocalization is being expressed with the word choice isn’t always clear. The compound-verb “še(g) gi” is the verb most commonly used for bird noise; everything from sparrows to thunderbirds (which have lion heads, so the choice of verb may be due to the animal’s overall birdness or the identity of the mouth the sound comes out of) use it. The noun “še(g)” usually refers to unintelligible noise: other animals and inanimate objects can create it. Other noises birds make are often expressed with words relating to the time of day + an onomatopoetic element or crying/mourning/sadness. Though they don’t sing, birds do converse or “exchange words,” invariably with a reduplicated verb root, from what I can tell, to express pluractionality.

    That said, music in Sumerian tends to be highly connected to specific musical professions or performance contexts. The most general word for music is “šir,” which was connected to the “nar”* profession. So having a bird sing (literally, “to say a šir”), might have connotations to human life that were too specific to lend themselves to more abstract metaphors.

    *Possibly /nār/, Akkadian glosses suggest the word had a long vowel, but vowel length wasn’t expressed in native Sumerian texts; there are so many tantalizing known unknowns!

  36. Owlmirror says

    The notion that birds sing is so firmly embedded in SAE that it’s only just now struck me that this is not in fact an obvious metaphor.

    Not all birds sing, even in English. Many call or cry.

    Weren’t many birds classically called songbirds? [. . . checking . . .] The OED says, on oscines:

    classical Latin oscinēs, plural of oscin-, oscen bird from whose song or call (rather than flight) auguries were taken, songbird < obs- , extended form of ob- ob- prefix + canere to sing (see chant v.)

  37. @Owlmirror: Songbirds are conventionally taken to be more-or-less equivalent to the category of passerines (birds with three forward toes and one backward).

  38. David Marjanović says

    In Wikipedia, “Passeri” redirects to “Songbird”, which begins:

    A songbird is a bird belonging to the clade Passeri of the perching birds (Passeriformes). Another name that is sometimes seen as the scientific or vernacular name is Oscines, from Latin oscen, “a songbird”. This group contains 5000 or so species[1][2] found all over the world, in which the vocal organ typically is developed in such a way as to produce a diverse and elaborate bird song.

  39. Owlmirror says

    The most general [Sumerian] word for music is “šir,”

    Hm. Any connection to the Hebrew word for “song”?

    šir ha-širim ašer l’šlomo

  40. I was wondering the same thing.

  41. ə de vivre says

    The PSD gives “zamāru” as the only Akkadian equivalent of “šir,” so it seems unlikely.

    Hurrian might have picked up Sumerian words independently of Akkadian (this is one explanation for how Sumerian /haykal/ might have made into West Semitic languages without getting its /h/ axed by the haitchless Akkadians). But West Semitic to Sumerian via Hurriuan would… need some justification.

  42. ə de vivre says

    Also, I forgot a big bird-song (not to be confused with big-bird song) connection in Sumerian: the “tigidlu” bird shares its name with the “tigidlu” instrument. I searched in vain for any account, or even acknowledgement of, the connection between these words to the much more robustly attested “tigi” lyre, but was unable to find any. Also, the tigidlu bird does not vocalize musically in any of its textual appearances. This should give you an idea of the current state of Sumerian lexicography. The obvious solution is to pour money into Assyriology, but, alas, eccentric billionaires insist on riding other hobby horses.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    When I am an eccentric billionaire, I will pour money into Assyriology.

  44. AJP Crown says

    Aunts bellow and Bellow’s aunt (Rosa).

  45. Trond Engen says

    David E.: When I am an eccentric billionaire, I will pour money into Assyriology.

    Not (Western) otivoltology? Or wouldn’t that count as eccentric?

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    Not eccentric at all. It astonishes me that billionaires in general don’t see the tremendous potential of getting in on otivoltology on the ground floor, as it were. It almost makes you wonder whether their financial success is due more to luck than judgment.

    Perhaps I need to do another TED Talk.

    The PSD gives “zamāru” as the only Akkadian equivalent of “šir,”


  47. Very cool — alongside the usual suspects they have chapters on Adyghe and Aghul. And I learned a new slang term; in the chapter on English it says:

    Глагол to woof употребляется в переносном значении в разговорной речи (особенно он характерен для американского английского) и обозначает ‘говорить впустую / говорить неправду’:
    (7) Quit woofing! You sound silly.
    ‘Кончай врать (букв. «лаять»)! Ты выглядишь глупо’.

    I had never heard that, but sure enough, Greene has:

    2. (mainly US, also wolf) to speak in a variety of ways, the meaning differs as to context: flirtatious, aggressive, meaningless, threatening, bullying, bluffing, joking [US black pron. of SE wolf].

    1934 [US] N. Cunard Negro in Hurston Folkore, Memoirs & Others Writings (1995) 837: John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford was woofing at each other. Rockefeller told Henry Ford he could build a solid gold road round the world. Henry Ford told him if he would he would look at it and see if he liked it, and if he did he would buy it and put one of his tin lizzies on it.
    1943 [US] ‘Whitman College Sl.’ in AS XVIII:2 Apr. 155/1: you ain’t woofing; you can say that again; you’re on the beam. Terms denoting satisfaction and agreement.
    1945 [US] C.H. Hogan ‘A Yankee … on Texas Speech’ in AS XX:2 Apr. 82: ‘A-woofin’’ is […] widely used and is more or less synonymous with ‘lying’ or ‘kidding.’ ‘I figgered she was a-woofin’ me so I hauled off and knocked her bowlegged’ […] The expression also denotes hearty agreement with someone’s remarks, as in ‘Brother, you ain’t a-woofin.’.
    2015 67 ‘Skengs’ [lyrics] They’re woofin’ on Twitter when I see them on road they be running like bo’.

  48. @languagehat: The 2015 lyrics with “woofin’ on Twitter” are also a pun, based on the low-frequency and high-frequency parts of a standard speaker—the woofer and the tweeter.

  49. Ha, I totally missed that!

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    Since “woof” is already a verb that could be easily repurposed to mean “speak in a fashion that might be metaphorically analogized to a dog’s noisemaking,” I’m a bit skeptical that “dialectical variation of ‘wolf'” is the right etymology here, but would be happy to learn more.

    Also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Woofer_in_Tweeter%27s_Clothing

  51. Well, the fact that it also occurs as “wolf” certainly lends credence to the etymology: “1969 C. Brown Mr Jive-Ass Nigger 61: He was nothin’ but a skinny, puny little-bitty felllow, but if you listen to him wolf about himself you’d think he was really bad. He was nothin’ but a bullshit artist, see.”

  52. That doesn’t seem conclusive to me as a transcription from AAVE, where “wolf” and “woof” are homophones.

  53. J.W. Brewer says

    Cecil Brown, author of the sentence hat quotes, is likely an L1 speaker of some version of AAVE, having grown up in a sharecropping family in rural North Carolina before heading out into the wider world and acquiring degrees from Columbia, U of Chicago, and UC-Berkeley. But if woof and wolf were homophones for him that could either: a) confirm the etymology hat cited; or b) indicate an eggcornish reanalysis, which would itself I suppose be of some interest.

  54. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, in googling about the “C. Brown” hat cited, I am intrigued to learn that more recently (early in the new century) he published w/ Harv. Univ. Press a book-length treatment of the Stagolee/Stagger Lee narrative (based in an actual event circa 1895 but subsequently mythologized), which I am now interested in reading. https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674016262&content=reviews

    EDITED TO ADD: and of course particularly relevant here since a dispute over a hat is the precipitating cause of the Stagolee/Billy confrontation that ended fatally for the latter.

  55. That doesn’t seem conclusive to me as a transcription from AAVE, where “wolf” and “woof” are homophones.

    Of course it’s not conclusive, but it’s certainly suggestive.

    particularly relevant here since a dispute over a hat is the precipitating cause of the Stagolee/Billy confrontation that ended fatally for the latter.

    Indeed, and “Stagolee” is one of my favorite songs. There’s a list of versions (along with some historical analysis and a sidebar on the Stetson hat) here, and anyone who hasn’t already read Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with its brilliant chapter “The Myth of Staggerlee,” should remedy the omission. (I have both the dogeared first edition and the third revised.)

    EDITED TO ADD: and of course I too am now interested in reading the Cecil Brown book; thanks for finding it!

  56. @LH:

    I was wondering the same thing.

    I looked into this question again to see if there was any improvement in etymological clarity from the last time I looked into it, but it seems there hasn’t been.

    A root š y r(?) “sing; song” can be found in Northwest Semitic. In Ugaritic:

    šr yšr šr (tảr)

    “the singer will sing a song (of glory)”?

    In Hebrew, as for example Ps 144:9:

    שִׁיר חָדָשׁ אָשִׁירָה לָּךְ

    šîr ḥāḏāš ʾāšîrāh lāḵ

    “I will sing a new song unto thee.”

    And it’s also attested in Aramaic varieties, but not in very early ones.

    Akkadian, on the other hand, has the noun šēru “song”. As far as I can tell, this noun is morphologically isolated in Akkadian. Also, the same element also appears in several other Akkadian words which are obvious borrowings from Sumerian, such as šerdingirgallukku “song of the great god ” (Sumerian DINGIR, “god” GAL “great”), šergiddû “long song” (Sumerian GID.DA, “long”), šernamgalakku “song of the office of GALA” (Sumerian GALA, a kind of priest who sang cultic lamentations), etc. So it looks likely that the Akkadian is a borrowing of Sumerian word ŠIR “song”.

    The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament on Akkadian šēru (vol. 14, p. 612):

    Akkadian attests the word šēru(m), “singing, song,” also the general word for “singing” and “making music,” zamiru, corresponding to Sum. šir, lidu. Hence the word probably represents a loanword from pre-Semitic Mesopotamia. Witnesses extend back to old Babylonian ritual texts from Mari. In Neo-Babylonian the general term probably came to be restricted semantically to the musicalinstrument of the harp or perhaps even further to the strings of the harp. These considerations permit a look at the Hurrian lexeme šaḫri, which also allegedly exhibited this meaning.

    So what about the Northwest Semitic? It would seem that Northwest Semitic root š y r “sing” was extracted at some point from a *šîr “song”, or the like, ultimately of Sumerian or other Mesopotamian substrate origin.

    The Hurrian word corresponding to Akkadian šēru, as used in as the name of an interval or pair of strings in later Babylonian music theory texts, is šaḫri. It’s odd, because a pre-Akkadian *šaḥru and *šaʕru and perhaps *šaġru would yield an Akkadian šēru. A Hurrian text from Ugarit (RS 19.157c) has ta-al-mi-li ši-ir-ri, which has been translated “Let me praise… through a song!”, but this is doubtless a borrowing from Ugaritic.

    Mary Bachvarova has a summary of some interesting speculations here.

    The Arabic word šiʕr شعر “poem, poetry” (from “knowledge, perception”) is from šaʕara شعر “to understand, perceive, realize, compose poetry”. (The semantic match with שִׁיר is imprecise anyway, and phonology wouldn’t work at all–for example, the Arabic root has a middle radical ʕayn, not –y-. And Arabic š regularly corresponds to Hebrew ś (שׂ), while Arabic s corresponds to Hebrew š (שׁ).)

    And lastly, what about Greek σειρήν? Here is the latest article I know of that treats this old Semitic etymology of the Greek word. JSTOR has 100 free articles a month available now, so everybody should be able to read it.

  57. Fascinating — thanks for digging all that up!

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