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Etymology Question

Note: I don't what forum or even website to post this under, but I thought this really interested me. There isn't an icelandic forum yet, so I posted it in general. Sorry if it causes any upsets.

In Icelandic, the word for elephant is "fíll," which I assume comes from Arabic/Farsi/Turkish? I've tried looking this up but I couldn't figure out why. What intrigues me is that Icelandic barely has any loanwords in the first place, so why did they adopt a very common noun that most likely came from middle eastern origins? Do you guys know or what do you think?

November 1, 2017



According to Wiktionary, Icelandic got it from Old Norse, which took it from Persian "پیل" via Arabic "فِيل‏ ". So my theory would be that Viking traders who went down to the Byzantine Empire got the word from Arab traders who went to the same area and took it home with them. After all, who else would be talking to them about elephants? In that situation it would be quite logical to use the same word, since they would have no word of their own for something like an elephant that they wouldn't have at home, and then Icelandic borrowing the word from Old Norse isn't that surprising.

Disclaimer: This is pure speculation, the extent of my research was looking up the word on Wiktionary, which is hardly the most reliable source, so it's possible my theory is based on a false premise.


Ha ha, you beat me to it :-)


The Vikings did have contact with the Arabs outside of Byzantium. There was quite a bit of contact between the two cultures in the modern Ukraine. There has been some interest recently in making more of that contact than has been seriously supported by archeology or history, but the two cultures certainly had more contact than just sporadic Viking/Varangian mercenaries in the service of the Byzantines fighting Arabs in Asia Minor.


I believe the pathway was from Persian to Arabic, not the other way around, and Persian got it from much older Mesopotamian languages. Certainly, the Varangians had contact with Arabs and Persians. The Sassanids and Ghaznavids used war elephants, so not an impossible stretch that Varangian mercenaries would actually have had direct contact.

Charlemagne was also supposedly given an albino elephant as a gift by an Arab ruler, which he used against Viking forces at least once. No idea what the Franks called it, but an Arab loan word doesn't seem unlikely.


According to https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/f%C3%ADll it comes from Arabic via old Norse. I don't think it is that surprising that it comes from the middle east. It was an area which traded with the Vikings and where elephants once lived (though they appear to have become extinct in antiquity, well before the Vikings). Since the word was imported to old Norse there was no reason to keep it out since that was well before the era of linguistic purism.


This is what the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary (2nd Ed.) says of it:

This interesting word, which is still in exclusive use in Icel., was borrowed from the Persian fil, and came to Scandinavia in early times, probably by the eastern road of trade through Russia and Constantinople; it occurs in a verse of the 10th century (Fb. i. 209), the genuineness of which may be doubtful, but at all events the word is old; freq. in Al., Stj., Flóv., and romances. But úlfaldi, Goth. ulbandus, A.S. olfend, a corruption of the Gr. ἐλέφαντ-, means camel.


I don't know anything about Icelandic or Arabi/Farsi for that matter (I only speak basic Turkish) but I've heard that various nations have adopted foreign words for things that don't exist within their culture/lands - such exotic thing as an elephant would be a perfect example.


Ivory trade. Norsemen liked ivory like the rest of the Ancient World.

By the way. the Spanish word for "bishop" (the chess piece), is "alfil", from Arabic "al-fil", "the elephant".


Al-fil is not far from 'elephant'. Certainly, the Spanish 'elefante' is not far away at all. Latin got it from Greek, although the Greek etymology emphasizes the 'el' sound, I have to wonder about the pir-pil-fil path of evolution.



how interesting! I love etymology questions. Thanks to those who ask and ponder these things.

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