Looking at old German orthographies, the long-s (ſ) spelling of the following five words (and I have not found any others so far) contradicts the spelling systematics of all other words:

Iſrael, Iſlam, Moſlem, Iſmael, Aſbeſt

Broken down to what matters for these words, a long s would only be consistent with the spelling systematics, if it were at the beginning of a syllable. While this is the case for none of these words in their German pronunciation, I can at least explain the spelling of Aſbeſt to some extent: It originates from the Greek ἄ-σβεστος and thus the first s was at the beginning of a syllable or word part etymologically (the second long s is consistent anyway, since it is followed by a t). I now wonder whether there is a similar explanation for the other words.

Actual Question

Is there any etymological predecessor for any of the words Israel, Islam, Moslem (muslim) and Ismael (Ishmael), in which the s (or a corresponding sound) was at the beginning of a syllable or word part?


Thanks to the comments and answers so far, I looked into Semitic morphology and understood that the concept of discrete word parts cannot be applied here. Still, my question about syllables stands, since they are relevant for long-s spelling, regardless of the underlying morphology.

Also, I looked for other words of Semitic origin (and with an s in a comparable position), and found only Kismet and Esra, both spelt without a long s.

  • 2
    Depends on what you mean by "word part". Islam and muslim both have the same S-M-L 'peace, surrender' root; this also shows up in Hebrew shalom. Semitic languages have interesting word-formation procedures.
    – jlawler
    Feb 18, 2014 at 0:55
  • @jlawler: Word part can really be any meaningful division. To take Islam for example: Anything that justifies saying that this word is composed of I and slam or that it is pronounced I-slam (in contrast to Is-lam). Feb 18, 2014 at 13:43
  • 2
    The meaningful division is the consonants and the vowels, with assorted pre- and suffixes. Look into Semitic morphology.
    – jlawler
    Feb 18, 2014 at 15:59
  • 1
    Might it be phonetic? "Esra" is actually written with zayin in Hebrew, hence English transliteration "Ezra" - don't know about Kismet. Probably the authors tried to indicate a voiceless "s" pronunciation (rather than an English "z" sound) by using long s in that context and an English "z" sound when using "s". To dispel/confirm, could you search the Bible for more words written originally with shin, samekh and zayin, at the beginning or the middle, and show how they're transliterated in Greek/Latin and in German?
    – Joe Pineda
    Feb 20, 2014 at 2:47
  • 1
    Joe Pineda, I thought you were interested in the distribution of long s and s. Here's a good source babelstone.blogspot.com/2006/06/rules-for-long-s.html
    – Alex B.
    Feb 20, 2014 at 21:27

2 Answers 2


Islam and Muslim return to one root S-L-M س ل م which means peace and surrender as professor jlawler said. Ismael is composed of two parts which are Isma (or yishma) and El. Isma is from the Semitic root S-M-ʕ س م ع (In Hebrew the S here is Sh) which means hearing. El means God in Hebrew and in Arabic. The word Israel is composed of Isra (or yisra) and El. Isra is derived from the Semitic root Ṣ-R-ʕ ص ر ع which means contending.

Conclusion: All of the words you asked about have roots starting with S.

  • Thank you so far, but could you clarify the following, please? Does whatever is before the s in these words carry its own meaning? And: Are or were there cases with nothing before the s in pronunciation, so for example, it was just Sra-el? Feb 18, 2014 at 13:51
  • Wrong question. You're assuming that the parts are continuous; in Semitic languages they often aren't.
    – jlawler
    Feb 18, 2014 at 16:00
  • @jlawler: Considering meaning and morphology, I got that now. But syllables should still be continuous. Feb 18, 2014 at 23:34
  • Syllables are continuous. But the meaningful parts of semitic morphology are not syllables. Syllables have almost nothing to do with semitic morphology.
    – jlawler
    Feb 19, 2014 at 0:13
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    @Wrzlprmft forget about syllables. In Semitic languages what matters is the consonantic root, usually 2 or 3 consonants. The root gives you the general meaning, vowels the specific one - so, depending on where the vowels go, the same triconsonantal root can give you words with one, 2, 3 or 4 syllables!! Probably that's what the original writers of the text you're seeing wanted to emphasize by using such large "s" - that such consonant was special and formed a logical group (rather than a syllable) with what followed in the word.
    – Joe Pineda
    Feb 19, 2014 at 0:14

The root of the word ‘Israel’ is sin-resh-he (ש ר ה) combined with אל (god).

The first two syllables in the names Ismael [yishma’el -ישמעאל ] and Israel [yiśra’el - ישראל] are actually finite verb forms of the same type (yi + first stem consonant + second stem consonant + vowel + third/last stem consonant] which basically indicates: the third person singular masculine verb form [he … s: in casu ‘he hears’ and ‘he fights’].

In the case of the words muslim and islām we’re dealing with a passive participle and a noun belonging to the verb ‘aslam’ (to submit, to bring to peace) which is derived from the basic triconsonantal stem S-L-M; the word ‘muslim’ means basically ‘submitted’, and ‘islām’ means ‘submission’; the corresponding third person singular masculine verb form in Arabic from this verb is ‘yuslim’.

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