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Biblical Hebrew consistently uses the letter ס (s) to transcribe names with the Akkadian consonant š. For example, Esarhaddon for Aššur-aḥa-iddina, Esther from Ištar, Sargon from Šarru-ukīn (all Akkadian transcriptions copied from Wikipedia). Etymologically, Akkadian š and Hebrew š almost always correspond (š and ṯ, although Akkadian š can also correspond to Hebrew ś, but not to s to my knowledge).

The only exception I can think of is Aššur which is transcribed that way (with š). Since the Aramaic reflex is Attur, the word seems to have reached both languages as a descendant (through *Aṯṯur) and not a borrowing.

On the other hand, Shalmaneser comes from Šulmanu-ašarid, and yet preserves the š at the beginning of the word, while the second š is transcribed as s.

My question is: Why does Hebrew not transcribe Akkadian š with Hebrew ש (š) instead of ס (s)? Does this indicate that Akkadian š was actually pronounced s (maybe only in Assyria)? And why was the š preserved in the name of Shalmaneser (only one of the two times)?

  • @A.M.Bittlingmayer Akkadian š is cognate to Hebrew š and sometimes ś but not s. The Hebrew cognate of šarru is śar. Regarding Aramaic: Interestingly enough, Aššur-banipal is attested in Aramaic as Asnappar, but the Syriac translation (not sure where it's attested) is given by Wikipedia as ܐܫܘܪ ܒܢܐ ܐܦܠܐ, which is doubly strange since the Aramaic cognate is t and not š. – b a Mar 5 '18 at 11:05
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    You are correct. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 5 '18 at 11:12
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While Akkadian š is generally cognate with Hebrew š or ś, there's good reason to believe its pronunciation was quite different! The reason it's transcribed as š is mostly historical—Akkadian was first deciphered by comparison to other Semitic languages, so when a certain phoneme seemed to correspond regularly to Hebrew š, they named it š.

But there's evidence that, at least in some dialects, this š was pronounced as /s/. When the Hittites used Akkadian cuneiform to write their own language, they used the š signs for /s/ and left the s signs unused. (We know the Hittite phoneme was pronounced /s/, not /ʃ/, because of transcriptions of Hittite names into Egyptian: Ḫattušiliš becomes Egyptian xtsl, Muršiliš becomes Egyptian mrsl, Šuppiluliumaš becomes Egyptian spll. Egyptian had both /s/ and /ʃ/, so the consistent use of one transcription over the other is meaningful.)

EDIT: Further evidence comes from the tablet Tell el Amarna 1921 1154, which transcribes some Egyptian words in Akkadian cuneiform; Egyptian s is definitely rendered with Akkadian š, and Egyptian š may be rendered with Akkadian s (this half of the equation is less clear).

Huehnergard and Woods (in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages) explain it thus. Akkadian originally inherited four sibilants from Proto-Semitic: š s z ṣ /s t͡s d͡z t͡sʼ/. Later, s became a simple fricative, but this development happened separately in different dialects: š s /ʃ s/ in Babylonian but š s /s ʃ/ in Assyrian. Huehnergard had previously suggested that [s] and [ʃ] were realizations of a single phoneme, which would explain Šalmanesar, but the dialect-variation theory seems to have supplanted this.

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  • The phonetically conditioned distribution is interesting, but phonetically conditioned where? What other loans are there like Shalmaneser that could indicate free variation? (And in both cases: theorized by whom?) – b a May 26 at 22:06
  • @ba Currently trying to find a non-paywalled source for the idea that it was dialect variation (taken from your comment on the other answer); Huehnergard's grammar mentions the two-realizations theory, and I'll try to find a good cite for that too. – Draconis May 26 at 22:09
  • @ba Updated with new citations. Huehnergard's more recent writings agree with the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, so I put that theory front and center. – Draconis May 26 at 23:06
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Yes, some people think Akkadian š was pronounced [s].

For the sibilants, traditionally /š/ has been held to be postalveolar [ʃ], and /s/, /z/, /ṣ/ analyzed as fricatives; but attested assimilations in Akkadian suggest otherwise. For example, when the possessive suffix -šu is added to the root awat ('word'), it is written awassu ('his word')

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akkadian#Consonants)

There is also relevant discussion in the Wikipedia article on Proto-Semitic:

The "maximal affricate" position additionally posits that *s *z were actually affricates [t͡s d͡z] while *š was actually a simple fricative [s] [...] According to Kogan, the affricate interpretation of Akkadian s z ṣ is generally accepted

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Semitic_language#Fricatives)

I am not familar with any of the literature, so I can't expand beyond what Wikipedia says.

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    Good answer, but I still wonder why it got transliterated as š in the first place, if there might have been differences between dialects, or if it was just based on the Hebrew cognate – b a Mar 4 '18 at 9:56
  • @ba: The Wikipedia article on PS indicates that "The notation given here is traditional and is based on their pronunciation in Hebrew, which has traditionally been extrapolated to Proto-Semitic" – brass tacks Mar 4 '18 at 10:39
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    I found a more detailed answer that addresses the inconsistency. "Akkadian Lownwords" here (paywall): "Moreover, the consonants š and s were pronounced differently in the two principal Akk dialects, Babylonian (Bab) and Assyrian (Assyr), such that Bab š=[š], s=[s]; Assyr š=[s], s =[š], whence the BH spelling, imitating the pronunciation rather than preserving the etymology, (cont. >) – b a Oct 25 '18 at 15:20
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    (< cont.) permits identification of the donor dialect (cf. BH שַׁלְמֹנִים šalmōnīm < Bab šulmānu ‘bribe’, BH סֶגֶן sɛḡɛn < Assyr šaknu ‘governor’)." I think you should add that detail to make your answer more complete. – b a Oct 25 '18 at 15:20

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