Monday, January 06, 2020

pelishtim and palash

I've discussed previously how I like to listen to language podcasts, particularly those with a focus on etymology. One that I somehow forgot to mention is Words for Granted by Ray Belli. The podcast usually deals with the history of a particular English word, telling its story.

Recently, he dealt with the history of the word "Philistine." Here's his abstract of the episode:

In common usage, a "philistine" is a derogatory term for an anti-intellectual materialist. The word derives from the ancient Middle Eastern Philistines, a people best known as an early geopolitical enemy of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. The historical Philistines were far from "philistines" (note the lowercase P). The circumstance by which the latter derives from the former can be traced back to a murder in the 17th century German city of Jena. (Yes, actually.)

I recommend giving it a listen. In it, he describes how the Philistines went from being a people living on the southern Mediterranean coast of Canaan, with uncertain, but probably Aegean origin, to the enemy of the Israelites, and eventually disappearing after the Babylonian conquest. The Greek historian Herodotus called the region previously under Philistine control Palaistinē, and then after they conquered the entire area, the Romans called it Palestine. He does his best to avoid the political discussion of the name "Palestine", and then moves on to the interesting story of why "philistine" became a term to describe a person who doesn't appreciate arts and culture.

The one point that I would like to add on to was his brief discussion of the origin of the name Philistine itself. He claimed that derived from whatever name the Philistines called themselves. Since the Philistines likely were of Greek origin (as we discussed here when talking about the origin of the Hebrew words seren and lishka), that name would not have Semitic roots.

However, I always assumed that the name actually came from Hebrew. In Hebrew the people are called Pelishtim פלשתים and the land is known as Peleshet פלשת. These words would appear to come from the root פלש palash - which in Modern Hebrew means "to invade." As the Philistines were considered to be invading sea-peoples (in both Biblical tradition as well as according to recent scholarship), I thought that this was one of those frequent cases where the name of a people was given to them by others (an exonym).

Well, first of all, my understanding of palash wasn't entirely accurate. It did take on the meaning of "invade" in post-Biblical Hebrew. But in the Bible, it meant "to roll (in dust)". That said, Klein connects the two meanings. He says the original meaning of the Biblical usage was "to burrow into", and so is ultimately identical with the other meaning - "to open through, penetrate, invade." And he brings a number of cognates from other Semitic languages where it has that meaning, including Ethiopian, which gave the word falasha for the Ethiopian Jews. (But since that term - whether it meant "wanderer" or "invader" is considered derogatory, the term Beta Israel is preferred.)

And yet, Klein doesn't claim Peleshet comes from palash. I did find some sources that do make that claim, but from what I can see the question remains unanswered (probably due to the lack of written material from the Philistines). Maybe the people called themselves something like Pelishtim or maybe it was an exonym.

However, I do think that an association between the two terms was likely understood even back in the times of the Israelites - even as a folk etymology. And this could help explain something Belli mentioned in the podcast.  He pointed out that in the Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), some occurrences of the word Pelishtim was translated not as "Philistines" but as allophuloi - "foreigners." This translation may very well be from an ancient understanding that Pelishtim derived from palash.

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