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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 :-)


Great minds think alike. :-)


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.


There was far more trade going on in the ancient world than traditional historians have thus far believed (and far less religion, I believe!!)

The recent genetic assay of the mediterraen shores, and its extention down the West coast of Africa have shown some history-busting results. One is that the Phoenicians were phenominal travellers - they've always had a reputation as seafarers, but until the genetic assay was done, no-one realised how far and for how long they'd travelled. Also, the assay showed that there is no difference genetically between Jew and Arabs...which has lead to a theory that there was much more intermarrying in ancient times than previously believed.

Back to trade - One of the bodies buried at Stonehenge in England was analysed and determined to be a well fed and elderly healthy traveller from the eastern Alps. Some of the stones in the Sutton Hoo viking burial came from China - expensive but not necessarily fantastically rare in their day.

All of these things mean that no Euro-Asian-North African language was truely isolated, and so words would migrate. As someone else said, if you don't have a Dorotiab* in your land, then you aren't going to invent a word for it, you're going to use the word the natives use...although you may not remember it exactly, or pronounce it properly....

I've been told that the name "Russian" comes from a corruption of "redhead" and refers to the Viking/Norsemen who settled in the area. Their conqueroring ways meant that they subdued the native Slav inhabitants and became, in time, the ruling families. A bit like the French Normans (Norsemen) did in England. If so, there would have been strong trading links from these invaders back to their families in Scandanavia. If anyone knows more, please share :o)

(*Yes, I made it up!)


True. I imagine the majority of that contact would have been along the trade routes, though, which were mainly there for trading with Byzantium. So it seems to me that, regardless of whether the Vikings got the word actually within the Byzantine Empire or not, we can still thank the Byzantines for it.


I didn't say the trade routes were only there for trading with Byzantium. Not even going to try to argue that, I don't usually argue for things I know are incorrect. :) Nonetheless, there would undeniably have been significantly less trade if the Byzantines hadn't been there, so even if not directly involved they certainly greatly increased the likelihood of words travelling north by that route.

I know it's not technically correct to call them "Vikings", but a lot of people don't know or ignore that fact and it isn't one of my pet peeves, so I generally call them that too. But I'm happy to use the correct terms if you prefer. :)


On that note, Viking clothing with the word 'Allah' in Arabic embroidered into the hem has recently been discovered (or deciphered - they have had the clothes for a while, but only just worked out what the symbols meant). Article here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41567391 And according to the same article, Islamic coins from that period have been found all over the northern hemisphere. So there was certainly some form contact.


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.


That was what I said, from Persian via Arabic. In other words, Old Norse got it from Persian, but it went through Arabic on the way.

If I'm not mistaken (which I may very well be), the Franks called it an "olifan", taking it from Latin "elephantus". Don't quote me on that, though, I'm by no means an expert and as yet have no idea where to find a reliable source for it (if anyone has one, please share, I love reliable sources for such things!).


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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