The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Arabic Loanword

I’ve encountered what could very well be the first genuine Arabic loanword I’ve yet seen in the text of the Doctrine of John. The word is hus, which appears at least twice, first on p. 4, ln. 15, and again on p. 76, ln. 14. Both contexts require something meaning the “source” of the Jordan, and have been translated by Lidzbarski as “reservoir.”

According to Nöldeke (Mandäische Grammatik, p. XXXIII, ln. 17), the word appears three times in the Doctrine of John, and comes from the Arabic حوض ḥawḍ- “basin, cistern.” On p. 670 of Book 1 of his Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Willams & Norgate, 1863), Lane identifies it with the root √ḥ-w-ḍ “to collect (water)” inter alia, which would seem to indicate that it is indeed a good Arabic root, and not potentially a loanword into Arabic from some other language. What is it related to?

Assuming no ad hoc sound changes, the PS root could only be *ħ-w-ɬʼ. This would give us Aramaic √ḥ-w-ʕ (or √ḤWQ), Hebrew √ḥ-w-ṣ, Akkadian √ʔ-w-ṣ, and so forth. The root √ḥ-w-ʕ is unattested in Aramaic; I likewise found nothing in Akkadian that would indicate the existence of this root (the expected G infinitive êṣum “to be(come) too little, small,” is actually derived through regular sound changes from Old Babylonian wiāṣum, according to the CDA, and the expected cognate to Arabic ḥawḍ-, ūṣum, only appears with the meaning “arrowhead,” which clearly comes from the unrelated PS root *ħ-ϑʼ-w).

Hebrew, on the other hand, has two roots that are potential candidates, חוץ I and II, the first of which is represented by the word חוץ ḥuṣ “outside” and the second by the word חיץ ḥáyiṣ “barrier, partition.” BDB relates the latter to Arabic root حوص √ḥ-w-ṣ, meaning “to sew” or “to contract,” but it seems to me that both could be related to the Akkadian root √ḫ-ṣ-ṣ (e.g. ḫaṣāṣum “I to snap off; II to erect (a reed hut)”), which would make them completely unrelated to PS *ħ-w-ɬʼ.

Quite apart from the question of the origin of the Arabic term is the question of how it came to be adopted into Mandaic.

  • Why would the Mandaeans, who live in a water-rich environment and have a correspondingly rich vocabulary for water features, need to borrow such a term from Arabic, which is not generally known for its aquatic vocabulary? It would represent a total inversion of the established principles by which borrowing operates, as if the Inuit were to borrow the English word for “snow,” or if New Jerseyans were to borrow the Inuit word for “hairspray.”
  • Why then, for that matter, would this stray Arabic word appear, isolated, in a text that is otherwise almost completely bare of other loans?
  • Why employ a borrowed word that means “basin,” i.e. a place where water is collected, in a context that clearly requires something like “source”? They’re not the same thing, and neither Nöldeke nor any of his followers have attempted to explain the semantic shift.
  • Finally, how can we explain the anomalous use of s to represent Arabic ض? Here is a spare list of words containing the same phoneme, borrowed into Mandaic:
Arabic Transliteration Mandaic Gloss
أرض ʔarḍ- arda earth
بياض bayāḍ- baiad whiteness
ضعيف ḍaʕīf- daeip weak
حوض ḥawḍ- hus basin

I could find no other words in Drower and Macuch, and at least one of these is dubious in the extreme, but the pattern is clear: the Arabic phoneme ḍ-, when borrowed into Mandaic, is represented by d, except for this one word.

Granted, one could easily counter that we’re not dealing with a lot of data here, and that the word hus, if it was indeed borrowed, may have been borrowed from Arabic when the articulation of ḍ- was quite different from what it was at a later date. Even so, there’s not much evidence that this was borrowed from Arabic, despite the superficial similarity between the two words, and as Mark Rosenfelder reminds us, chance resemblances between words in two unrelated languages are not at all uncommon. In the final analysis, it’s just not a good candidate for an Arabic loan word.

So, what does it mean, and where does it come from? I can’t find any good Middle Persian candidates, unless we assume it’s somehow related to xwaš “pleasant, sweet, nice,” which somehow entered nearly all the languages of Iraq, Semitic and non-Semitic, as xōš “good” and which precedes the noun it modifies in each of these. Unfortunately, this interpretation founders upon the same issue, that of the final sibilant, which is just not a match.


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