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During my time in Georgia one word came to puzzle me and I'm still thinking about it:

დელფინი (delp'ini) "dolphin"

Wiktionary says this comes from Greek via Russian.

The thing is Georgia is on the Black Sea which has plenty of dolphins so why wouldn't they have their own word since the times before contact with Greek civilization? Georgian is pretty resistant to borrowing basic vocabulary. There's a native word for "whale" for instance.

Now loanwords are not as common in Georgian as in English, but they're not really rare. They are however mostly for modern/introduced concepts but Georgian is a pretty ancient language, it hasn't really moved, and dolphins have always existed in the world the Georgians inhabit.

I have a couple of theories but they're unconvincing and I haven't been able to find any information:

  • There was once a native word but it fell out of use.
    (It's not in any of the bilingual dictionaries I've been able to find.)
  • Dolphins were considered to be fish, like elsewhere, until relatively recently with the study of biology, taxonomy, etc.
    (But different kinds of fish still have different names and dolphins are pretty different.)
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    Or maybe Wikipedia is simply wrong and the word was borrowed directly from Greek a long time ago. Long enough so that no record of the previous word survives. But, of course, this is also another unconvincing hypothesis... Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 23:01
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    I think that having babies is a long-established custom among Germanic-speaking people, and nevertheless, Germans have recently borrowed the noun for “baby“ from English...
    – JPP
    Commented Sep 6, 2012 at 13:45
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    Klimov's Etymological Dictionary of the Kartvelian Languages shows nothing related to the semantic sphere of dolphin/porpoise/whale/cetacean. Starostin's Kartvelian etymology database likewise shows nothing for dolphin/porpoise/whale/cetacean/дельфин/кит. Commented Sep 6, 2012 at 22:24
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    I think that many of the names for dolphin are periphrastic, like Russian морская свинья morskaya swin'ya "sea pig" (porpoise). Even the Greek δελφίς is a derivation from PIE gʷelbh- "womb". It is evidently a matter of dispute whether this semantically arose from wombed (fish) or whether it arose from (creature of) Δελφοί. Commented Sep 6, 2012 at 22:25
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    It turns out some old Georgian-Russian dictionary have ზღვის ღორი (zḡvis ḡori), which literally means "sea pig". Well English has "sea pig" and "sea hog" too. I wonder if this is common or just a calque from Russian and still not a native word? Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 22:26

2 Answers 2

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How about აფალინა /apʰalina/? the Black Sea bottlenosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus ponticus)?

It is/used to be common in the Black Sea and has a similar name in (all?) languages bordering on the Black sea: afalina (Turkish), афала (Bulgarian), afalin (Romanian), афаліна (Ukranian), афалина (Russian).

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    I never came across this word before Mario - I'm going to commence researching it right away - thanks! Commented Dec 6, 2013 at 1:45
  • Another current language on the Black Sea is Abkhaz, one I'm pretty sure was formerly on the Black Sea is (Western) Armenian. One dying one is Laz. Commented Dec 6, 2013 at 2:02
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    Even if so, it is not native either.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 6:55
  • @Anixx Could be. It would be interesting to find the origin of აფალინა/афала though, since the same species seems to be Ρινοδέλφινο 'nose-dolphin' in Greek Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 20:48
  • See my new answer for this question.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 22:50
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The word აფალინა /aphalina/ is a word of Greek origin, derived from φάλλαινα, "whale". This word came from Greek φαλλός which in late Greek meant "penis" due to similar shape of the whale. This word in turn came from PIE root bhel- "to swell, blow".

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  • I wonder if the initial ა- might be due to it arriving in Georgian via Abkhaz where а- is the marker of the nominative case, which is used as the lemma/citation form. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 0:14
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    Interesting. It seems that the Latin "balaena" is also related, but I'm not sure why it has "b" instead of "ph." en.wiktionary.org/wiki/balaena Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 16:17

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