Tuesday, March 14, 2006


As we've discussed in the past, there are a number of Hebrew words that have made their way into Indo-European languages such as English. Since the passage of words from one language to another often happened thousands of years ago, it is difficult to authenticate any particular claim. Today I'll bring up one that I find interesting - and I'd like to hear from the readers whether they agree, and particularly if there are any sources that back them up.

The English word asphalt comes from the Greek asphaltos. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c.1325, "resinous mineral pitch found in Biblical lands," from L.L. asphaltum, from Gk. asphaltos, probably from a non-Gk. source, possibly Semitic.

Horowitz (p. 285) has an interesting theory. He claims that "an ancient name for the Dead Sea was 'Yam Shafelet' from the Hebrew word שפל shafel meaning 'low'."

He then continues: "Along the shores of the 'Yam Shafelet' was a tough, sticky, substance useful in road building. The Greek who dug it out called it 'asphaltos'. The Greek language has no 'sh' sound. This becomes the English word 'asphalt'."

There is no question that the Dead Sea is associated with asphalt. The Jewish Encylopedia gives the sea the following names:

The Dead Sea, known at present as "Bahr Lut" (Lot's Sea), is called in the Old Testament "Sea of Arabah" (R. V. Deut. iii. 17; Josh. xii. 8), "East" or "Eastern Sea" (Ezek. xlvii. 18; Joel ii. 20; Zech. xiv. 8). and "Salt Sea" (Gen. xiv. 3). The Talmud refers to it as "Salt Sea," or the "Sea of Sodom"; and Josephus and Pliny call it "Lake Asphaltites." The name "Dead Sea" is used by Pausanias, Justin, and the Church Fathers.

So we see that even in ancient times it was known as "Lake Asphaltites". And it's true that shafel means low and that Greeks replaced "sh" with "s". But I can't find any source that called the Dead Sea "Yam Shafelet". So where does this leave Horowitz's theory?

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