Is the etymology of the word "semen" (eng. "seed") in Latin connected to the hebrew word שֶׁמֶן "shemen" (eng. "ointment")?

I've just read a peculiar article that attempted to make this connection:

The word for "ointment(s)" here in the Hebrew is SHEMEN meaning "ointment, oil, fat, cream, fertility". This word is almost certainly the origin for the Latin word "semen" meaning "seed", from which we get our English word "semen".

The context is the "Song of songs" book from the Bible. The coincidences are interesting: Song of Songs is an erotic poem, there is phonetic similarity between "shemen" and "semen", and the meaning "ointment" that could refer to sperm.

But then, this could just be a coincidence. Can anyone disprove that the latin "semen" is not derived from or related to the hebrew "shemen"?

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    You've got it back-to-front. The person proposing an etymology should present evidence to back it up, not the person disputing it. A rough phonological similarity and some tenuous semantic similarity are not evidence. Anyway the etymology of Latin /semen/ can be traced back to proto-Indo-European so that would seem to disprove the connection (unless you want to claim it was borrowed into pIE from proto-Semitic?). – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 22 '12 at 10:27
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    Well, I'm not proposing the etymology, I'm asking whether the etymology this article proposed has good basis. – André Staltz Aug 22 '12 at 20:10
  • Currently, a question like this one may be more suitable for the proposed Hebrew stack: area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/75348/hebrew-language – Isaac Kleinman Jul 9 '15 at 13:48
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Latin semen comes from sero, "to sow", which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European *sē(i)-, "to sow". (The Latin r is from reduplication and rhotacism between vowels, in that order. The reduplication happened in Proto-Indo-European.)

The Latin suffix -men is related to Greek -ma as in comma, stigma, telegram[ma], etc.. It is quite common in Latin, as in limen, gen. liminis (English sub-lime), omen, nomen. It probably existed in Proto-Indo-European already, since it also exists in Germanic and Slavic; the ancestor of semen was probably formed in Proto-Indo-European, not in Latin.

Unless we could prove that Hebrew borrowed it from Latin or Proto-Indo-European, or that Hebrew had the same morphemes, I think it is safest to assume that this is a coincidence, as it is usually the case with resemblances across different linguistic families.

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    Thanks, I'm a layman in all this. Apparently it is a coincidence. – André Staltz Aug 22 '12 at 15:09
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    The suffix also occurs in English words such as "seam" (that which is sewn) and "gleam" (that which glows). – Colin Fine Aug 22 '12 at 16:12
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    In Latin, its IE origin is not so obvious because of (1) rhotacism in a (2) reduplicated stem. However, in Modern (!) Russian, the verb is "se-jat'" and the noun is "se-mja" (NOM. reduced stem), "semen-i" (GEN.SG. full stem). – Alex B. Aug 22 '12 at 19:32
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    @Colin and Alex: I have added some information from your comments into the answers, thanks. – Cerberus Aug 23 '12 at 13:17
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    Very good. Also, שמן shemen "fat, oil" is related to Arabic Arabic: شَحْم shaħm "grease", so one would indeed have to go back to at least Proto-(West)-Semetic to find any purported common root with PIE. – Mark Beadles Aug 23 '12 at 16:55

Hebrew šɛmɛn שמן “oil, fat” is a Semitic cognate of Arabic samn سمن “fat, butter” (with Semitic s1). It is not related to šaḥm شحم “fat, grease” (with Semitic s2 and ḥ) or to the IE words mentioned above.

It is true that šɛmɛn looks superficially like Latin semen, but the vowels of the former are the result of a specifically Hebrew development (Semitic qatl > Hebrew qɛtɛl; so-called segolisation). If you posit a proto-Semitic *šamn- the similarity with the Latin word becomes considerably less.

  • Given that the PIE form was see̯mn, the similarity does not go away. – Anixx Jul 20 '16 at 13:40
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    There are two hypothetical possibilities. One is that Sem. *šamn- and IE *seh¹-mn have a common “Nostratic” ancestor. But in this case one ought to expect the laryngeal to have survived in Semitic. The other is that some borrowing has happened, but one would have suggest who specifically borrowed from whom. But in either case, the main difficulty is that *šamn- means “fat, grease” and that *seh¹-mn means “seed”. The semantics do not really match. – fdb Jul 20 '16 at 13:57
  • is the -mn suffix known in proto-Semitic or proto-Afro-Asiatic? – Anixx Jul 20 '16 at 14:12
  • No, it is an IE suffix. – fdb Jul 20 '16 at 14:15

The word for "seed" in PIE was see̯mn. It indeed uses the -men- suffix (in zero-grade).

  • Sounds really interesting that you found the connection. Do you have any references to that? – André Staltz Dec 16 '12 at 13:02
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    There is no connection. – Anixx Dec 16 '12 at 21:34

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