Babel (was Re: Dutch Treat (1885))

Alice Faber faber at HASKINS.YALE.EDU
Thu Nov 7 21:27:30 UTC 2002

James A. Landau said:
>In a message dated 11/7/02 10:40:46 AM Eastern Standard Time,
>mam at THEWORLD.COM writes:
>>  Is "babble" < Greek? How about "Babel" in Genesis, as an assonance or
>>   folk etymology with (the city-name we know as) "Babylon"? The prima
>>   facie evidence for onomatopoeia seems fairly good. How widespread is
>>   this one worldwide?
>Gee, I always thought "babble" came from the Tower of Babel legend, but
>MWCD10 says "ME babelen, prob. of imit. origin" and dates it as 13th Century.
>"Babble" from Greek---if you assume it's from the Tower of Babel, then it
>passed through the Greek-language Septuagint on its way from Hebrew to
>English but has no other connection with Greek.
>"Babel" comes from "Babylon"?  Unproven, as far as I know, but probably yes.
>The Babylonian Gilgamesh cycle includes a version of Noah's flood, from which
>we can conclude that the Israelites were familiar with Babylonian legends, or
>vice versa, or that the Israelites and the Babylonians drew on a common
>source for legends (it doesn't matter which).  In other words, the
>Israelites, long before the Babylonican conquest, had some familiarity with
>Babylonia and its most famous city, Babylon.

Unproven? In the Hebrew Bible, Babylon is /bavel/ (intervocalic
spirantization...the earlier form would have been /babel/). There's
also a root BL, often reduplicated to BLBL, with meanings associated
with mumbling and confusion. My Hebrew dictionaries are all at home,
so I can't check how old this root is. But I would think a
folk-etymological "just so" story, of the sort the Hebrew Bible is
rife with, would depend on the prior existence of such a root. This
is a totally separate question from that of how the Mesopotamian
place name got its Greek form. I honestly don't remember what the
Assyrian or Babylonian forms of the place name were, but it wouldn't
surprise me if the -on ending came from Greek.
Alice Faber                                             faber at
Haskins Laboratories                                  tel: (203) 865-6163 x258
New Haven, CT 06511 USA                                     fax (203) 865-8963

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