E 0292          ELEPHANT

The English word "elephant" comes from Greek

H 0030          א ל ף

Concept of root: large hoofed animal

Hebrew word


English meanings

א ל ף



Related English words


Comparison between European words and Hebrew




English meanings

Similarity in roots


א ל ף



e l . ph


ף ו ל א


bovine , big cattle

a l . ph




deer, fallow deer

e l . ph





e l . ph



Proto-Semitic *ALEPH < *EL --- *ELAPHOS Greek < Indo-European "EL



There is a clear similarity in sound between these two Greek words for respectively " deer " and " elephant " . And as well between them and the abovementioned Hebrew words for " bovine " . It is worthwhile to see if this similarity arrived by chance or if it may be based on a common origin . This entry then requires some more extensive comments, that will be devided in four parts :


  1. Elephant
  2. Bovines and deer
  3. El- Morpheme
  4. Bovine and letter A


  5. See also the Table "EL" with related words E 0292 (Hebrew 0030)




    While looking at the names of the elephant , it is important to know that this animal lived in the Middle East until about 1000 years a.e.v. or 3000 years ago. It has rather nomadic habits and was domesticated in Egypt and India not later than 3.500 years a.e.v or 5.500 years ago . Ivory objects were in possession of the Cro Magnon in Europe 25.000 years ago . This is seen as proof that elephants were then living in Western Europe . The alternative would have been trade between the Cro Magnon people and others that lived far away .


    English "elephant" comes, via Latin , from Greek "ελεφας, elephas ", which had as the genitive case "elephantos". As such " elephas " does not come from Hebrew. The Jews called and call an elephant " פ י ל, pil", with the vowel sounding as in English "peel", but briefer. For the record, the Arabs , who pronounce an initial "P" often as "PH", call an elephant "phil".


    In Middle English we find " olifount " , from Vulgar Latin via Old French . Modern French has nearly returned to the Greek origin with " éléphant " , like English " elephant " . In Dutch it stayed " olifant ".


    Greek. The explanations sought for the etymology of the Greek word "elephant", are very many and very different.


    A common explanation goes as follows : The first part, "el", would be akin to the Hamitic (North-African) word "elu", which already means "elephant". The second part "ephas" would be akin to old Egyptian "abu", also meaning "elephant". This thesis would mean that the Greeks, lending two different words from different places during their travels by sea through the Mediterranean, had come to call this big exotic animal "elephant-elephant", somewhat like a Malaysian way of indicating that the animal was big . But this is hardly in line with the Greek way of thinking and reasoning . We briefly refer to some further theories about the etymology of " elephant " .


    Some people think that "elephant " may come from "helpphant", as the animal is a great helper to the people of India. This because they saw "helfant" in Old High German as the word for "elephant." But Germanic speakers may very well have placed an initial H in front of a loanword without changing its meaning . "Helpfant " had nothing to do with " help " .


    Others say that elephant means "ivory horn" in a sort of " pars pro toto " construction, that is where a part of the animal ( the tusks) becomes the name for the animal itself. And again that the Europeans, and thus the Greeks, became familiar with the tusks before knowing the " exotic " animal. Such a reasoning does not take into account the inevitable exchange of information between the people who offered ivory and their customers. Naturally they would talk about where ivory came from, its origin , and thus about this impressive animal , that did not even live very far off in Homer’s days . By chance when Homer talks about " elephas " , he uses this word to indicate "ivory" , and this may have induced people to develop the mentioned theory . But people when speaking about objects or materials, often use the name of the origin to indicate them . Very simple examples are : " This is ( made of ) wood " or "This is turtoise" .


    There also are some scholars who recognize a relation between our two words, and say that an "elephant" is a "Hindi-bovine". But the simple fact is that Greeks invariably shape nouns with a suffix after the root. Such suffixes for male words are the most frequent "-os" or the less frequent "-as". So that is all there is to it. And the Greeks had "elaph-os" for a deer and "eleph-as" for an elephant. Both words seem related to Hebrew "eleph" for "bovine".


    Latin. The Romans used and trascribed the Greek word as "elephas" , and used a genitive with the vowel " I " : " elephantis ". They of course considered the nominative case as the basic word and shaped the other cases the Latin way. Later on , Italian or vulgar Latin seem to have considered the most frequently used case , that is the ablative , as the real word . Thus in Italian the elephant became an " elefante", with a final E .


    In their logic way the Romans then shaped a new word " elephantus " to indicate " ivory ", but yet as well " elephant". It is not clear which came first . Anyhow the common word for " ivory " became instead " ebur " , which in fact led to the English word . This Latin word " ebur " may be related ( loaned via Coptic "abu " ? ) to Old Egyptian . Latin placed a suffix, that probably was " (u)s" . The S became an R as the Romans did not like the genitive case to remain with an "S" in a word ending with "-US ".


    Old Egyptian also used one and the same word, we understand, both for "elephant" and "ivory" : "abu" or also " ab" . As such this does not sound as giving origin to Greek "elephas". Interesting is though to see that another Old Egyptian word , "apis" , indicated a bovine and an Egyptian deity in the shape of a bovine . This was the same sacred calf the Jews, having become impatient while waiting long for Moses who had gone up the Sinai mountain, shaped out of their gold in order to celebrate. Now the two Egyptian words, "abu" for elephant and "apis" for bovine , might be related, which would reinforce the idea of using the same root in words for both bovines and elephants.


    Hamitic, which includes Berber, called an elephant "elu". It is rather generally accepted that Semitic and Hamitic have a common origin, called "Afroasiatic". This Hamitic word is composed of the letters Aleph, Lamed and Waw, that is here "E L W". And the Semitic root for "bovine" is "E L PH". At the end of a word, the letters "W" and a "P" in Hebrew may have had a no too different pronunciation ( in Modern Hebrew practically identical ) and this may have influenced both development of words and original choices of spelling . Therefore these two roots seem to be not very far apart and this supports our idea of kinship between Hebrew "eleph" (bovine) and Greek "elephas" (elephant).


    Semitic in Proto-Semitic called an elephant "*pil" or "*palpal" . Akkadian had " pilu " and in Hebrew we see " pil " , as mentioned before . It is often thought that these Semitic names for "Elephant" were loanwords, as the animal would have been exotic. This is simply a factually wrong supposition, because the elephant lived in the Middle East until even after 1000 A.E.V.


    Besides this, the name " pil(u) " fits well into the group of names for large or special hoofed animals , as shown in the Table for morpheme " EL " , under part four of this entry .


    Icelandic still has and and Old Norse had the word " fill " for " elephant " . Naturally comes the supposition that this is a loanword from Arabic , that is identical . It is difficult to establish how the Arab word would have traveled to the North . Anyhow there certainly have been commercial contacts, as well as military conflicts, especially in Sicily .


    Old Norse also used " alpandyr " and " alpandill " for elephant . These were probably loanwords that underwent considerable changes . An impressive change though is the one from PH into P : from "elephant " into " alpan " .


    Old English called an elephant an " ylp " . It is not easy to image how and why the Old Saxons shortened a loanword like " elephant ", that has resisted in continental Germanic , into just this brief term " ylp " . An intermediate form "* elp " is obvious , also from another well abbreviated loanword for elephant : " elpend " .


    Shortening of words occurs mostly with very frequently used words . Is it possible that the Old Saxon and Old English people spoke so often about elephants ? Probably they talked more about ivory . Anyhow to say " ivory " they added " bone " or " tooth " to the name of the animal itself : "ylpesbān , elpendbān, elpendtōđ". Thus they made a clear distinction between the animal and the material from its tusks .




    • Greek clearly uses identical roots or better one single root , for both " deer " and "elephant" . The second one can hardly be a loanword, as the surrounding languages did not have it . A kinship between a Greek word standing for the hoofed and horned deer and the Hebrew word for a hoofed and horned "bovine", both of considerable dimensions, should not surprise us too much .


    • Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew , when dealing with bovines , also used a related plural word , with a vowel " U " istead of " E" . Thus, besides " א ל פ י ם , alphim = bovines, big cattle ", we see " א ל ו פ י נ ו , allupheinu = our cattle " from " א ל ו פ י ם , alluphim = big cattle , bovines " .


      This word with the vowel U , which may recall a past participle , is usually translated as " cattle " or "big cattle" as in contrast with " small cattle ". The singular version " alluph" , with the same different second vowel " U ", is explained either as " bovine ", as "cow" or as "bull " .


    • Hebrew uses a similar root ,א ל ף, Aleph L P , also for two quite different concepts . One is that of teaching and protecting, seen in item Hebrew 0029 or LA 1245. Here we see as well a word "alluph" , meaning " chief " . It has been tried to see a link between "teaching " or "protecting " and " bovine " or " cattle ", because cattle has to be raised and protected .


      Something can be said for that, but it remains little convincing as the origin of the word for the animals . One should also consider that the basic form of the verb , that is " alaph " , does not stand for " to teach " but for " to become expert in , acquire knowledge of …". The so-called intensive form " illeph " carries the meaning of " to teach " . This kind of version of a verb, with the vowel " I " and doubling of the second consonant , usually has an intensifying function , but in this case it is causative . Teaching makes somebody else acquire knowledge .


      The other concept is that of the number " 1000 " , in " א ל ף , elef " . In this case the word is also translated as " family, clan, region" .


    • Phoenician, Ugaritic and Aramaic , used this same root to express the concept of bovine animals. And also Akkadian had "alpu = cattle".


    • Proto-Semitic existed well before the domestication of bovines began, which is dated about 3500 a.e.v. This means that the supposed Proto-Semitic word א ל ף , elef , that more probably was pronounced "*aleph" should well already have indicated bovines that were not yet domesticated .


    • Proto-Semitic and Indo European. Proto-Semitic according to expert scholars already had the same root " א L P " we have seen in Hebrew . But in other Afroasiatic languages we find for big hoofed and horned , or horned-like animals , as well shorter roots, without the final P. And also roots that have a guttural like K as third consonant . Such roots are also seen in European words , as English " elk" (see entry Hebrew 0097 E 0293).


      This may indicate that the third consonant P, is really a development common to Semitic and Greek, but absent from some other Afro-asiatic as well as other Indo-European languages .


      Here we have one of those instances where the view of development and splitting of languages according to the image of regularly grown trees and their branches encounters some problem .


      For some reason Greek scholars give our word "elaphos = deer " as derived from a hypothetical word " * ελν , eln". But Greek itself has also " ελλος , ellos " for "young deer ". And there the possibly old root consisting of " Aleph (vowel) plus L " is clearly present .


    • Indo-European itself had the combination "Initial vowel (Aleph) + consonant L". This can be seen in other languages not mentioned in our Table "EL": E 0292 (Hebrew 0030). We quote Armenian "ełn = deer (female), Hittite "alijan = roe(buck)" and also Tokharian "yäl = gazelle".


    • English "calf " , a word that has its sisters in many Germanic languages , does not seem very far off the Semitic word for " bovine " of this entry. There is no explanation , only some vague conjecture, about the origin of this Germanic word .


      Germanic has , in Old English , a word "ċeolbur" that says " female lamb " that some scholars see as possibly related to " calf " , together with Old High German "kilburra " for she-lamb . And then " calf " is explained as coming from an Indo-European word "* gwlbh" for " womb " .


      In order to make a hypothesis for an Indo-European word, one has to reason back from known words in various languages . The reasoning , abbreviated , is as follows. Old Indian had "gárbah" for "womb" , but also for " embryo "and " young" . And Greek "δελφυς , delphüs" for "womb" . With Avesti "gәrә bušbuš" standing for a "young" , scholars have combined these words together with Germanic "* kalbaz" for "calf " . The conclusion would be that all four have been derived from that hypothetical Indo-European "*gwelbh" . We find it rather difficult to share this view . The word " womb " is shown in our entry E 1009 (Hebrew 0816).


      Comparing popular Dutch for "calf " , that is " kallef ", with the Hebrew bovine " alef " the only real difference seems to lie in the , perhaps added , first letter, the K-sound . But if we look better we see that in fact also the last consonant is different. The F-sound of Hebrew " aleph " is based on a P, but the F-sound of English " calf " instead seems to come from a B or V , as is clear from other Germanic sisterwords . In fact German has " Kalb" and Dutch " kalf, in plural kalveren " . So our English "calf " has no clear link to Hebrew bovines .




    To the abovementioned facts may be added that in Hebrew and other Semitic languages one finds also other words that , comprehending the element " Aleph plus L " , are names for animals with hoofs and mostly with horns, not all very big, but perhaps definable as relatively impressive or interesting . We list them together with some Indo-European words . This indicates a possible old Nostratic root " * Vowel + L " or better " Aleph + L " , used to indicate hoofed and/or horned herbivores or some categories of the same .


    Looking trough the table in entry E 0292 (Hebrew 0030), we find " Aleph plus L " in names for bovines, deer, elks , rams, ibex , elephants and camels . In the case of ibex and also mountain goats , the morpheme is preceded by an " Ayin " , a guttural in front of a vowel that is characteristic for Semitic languages and unknown in Indo-European ones . This difference is not necessarily significant, as one can find in Hebrew more examples of related roots with Aleph and with Ayin :


    * א מ ה " umma " family, descent , race
    א ם " om " people
    ע ם " ‛ am " people


    It is possible to form an hypothesis, according to which the common ancestor of Semitic and Indo-European languages , and that is called " Nostratic " , would have known a root consisting of " *Aleph + L " or in a different approach " * E + L " , with the meaning of a possibly big " hoofed ( and horned ? ) herbivore " .


    Such an hypothesis has been made in fact, but for hypothetical roots " *IL " and " *EL" with the more limited meaning of " hoofed ruminants, cud-chewing animals ".


    Others even claim that these roots in Nostratic just stand for the activity of " cud-chewing" , on the basis that they would also mean " to chew ". We feel that the primary characteristic for which the animals needed a specific name, has not been their ruminating . We will not try to go into this any further, but feel some support for our idea upon hearing that Mongolian has " ili " for a young deer from Altaic " *elo " for deer . The Khalkha language from Mongolia has " il " for the same animal .




    Two very different fates are those of this specific word א ל ף , read as א ל ף , aleph and also eleph". Firstly, it means "bovine" and it is pronounced "eleph" in the Bible-texts . But much earlier, it was pronounced "aleph". In pre-alphabetic writing it had its own symbol, as one would expect for an important animal as the domesticated bovine. And then, secondly, once alphabetic writing had been invented, in the days and the Land of the Patriarch Abraham, the symbol for the bovine, pronounced "aleph", became the symbol for any vowel at the beginning of a word or syllable. A modern capital A if seen upside down, still ( or again ) recalls the head of a horned animal .


    We may regret this choice of using one symbol for all vowels, but how did it come about? The scholar or scholars who invented the aleph-bet ( now called alphabet ) believed firmly in the build-up of words by those sounds that we today call consonants. They remarked that within the frame of for example three consonants, different vowels may be inserted. The different sets of vowels in Hebrew did not change the basic meaning of that three-consonant-root, but gave just variations of it. For example the root "K . T . P", filled with various consonants, gives different meanings within one concept , that of writing :


    active formkatavto write
    intense formkittev to engrave
    passive formnikhtavto be written
    causative formhikhtiv to dictate ( to make somebody write )
    medium formhitkattevto correspond ( to exchange letters )
    intensive passive formkuttavto be engraved
    intensive causative formhukhtavto be made to write


    Once established this fact it had become clear that basic concepts were carried by consonants and that the role of vowels was that of helping in refining and differentiating specific meanings within the range of that concept.


    Yet there were many words that began with a vowel. In order to pronounce a vowel, one has to prepare a position of the complex speaking organ that is the mouth. And though the positions for various vowels are not identical, only one symbol was chosen for this, the "aleph". This was probably done because in the concept of the inventors, all vowels behave equally in a "consonant-like" function in the development of words. Thus it remained up to the reader to pronounce, on the basis of his knowledge of the language, the right vowel where he saw an "aleph" written. And this was and is the same up till today, also for all other vowels and other positions within words. They are not written in Hebrew and the reader must know them.


    However, the choice of this symbol, later redesigned into א made its name into a worldwide famous first component of the international word "alphabet". Yet in Hebrew itself, perhaps as a sort of counterweight against the new role of the letter-symbol , the word "aleph", later "eleph", went out of fashion for its original meaning of "bovine". Other words are used, such as " par " and also "shur", which is a far relative of English "steer". Naturally these words have old roots as well. We find them in our entries Hebrew 0703, E 0322 and Hebrew 0984 , E 0871 .





Created: Tuesday 6 November 2007 at 22.30.54 Updated: 25/09/2013 at 10.04.28