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I want to start off by acknowledging that this is tendentious speculation, but I cannot say for sure why it might be wrong, except that I cannot create a clear trajectory for this relationship.

Is the name Caspius/Caspi (the Caspian Sea, the Caspians) ultimately derived from a Semitic root? I came across the Akkadian word kaspum meaning "silver" and wondered if there was a connection. The root KSP is common across Semitic languages; cf. "Hebrew כֶּסֶף‎ (kɛ́sɛp̄, “silver”), Classical Syriac ܟܣܦܐ‎ (kespā) and Ugaritic 𐎋𐎒𐎔 (ksp kaspu)."1.

I don't believe that silver is associated with the Caspian Sea, but Etymonline does mention the possibility that the word is related to "white":

of or pertaining to the great inland sea of central Asia, 1580s, from Latin Caspius, from Greek Kaspios, named for native people who lived on its shores (but who were said to be originally from the Caucasus), Latin Caspii, from a native self-designation, perhaps literally "white." Middle English had Caspy, Capsi.[2]

I'm not sure what led to this conclusion, but I do note that an area on the banks of the Caspian sea was called Albania.

Silver is often related to various words relating to white. The PIE *h₂erǵ- "shining, white" is the root for various words meaning "silver", including Latin argentum and the Sanskrit रजत (rajata). While this doesn't seem to be the case for the Semitic root KSP, it could be a case of an exonym placed on the sea by a Semitic-speaking population (Aramaic is the likely culprit, if any, since I don't believe the Akkadians, Assyrians, or Babylonians ruled that far north), which later obtained the associations that came with IE speakers, perhaps Scythians or other Iranian tribes?

I didn't see it in the Muss-Arnolt article mentioned by Jasper May here, though that doesn't mean others have considered it before.

Is the above hypothesis valid? If not, what major obstacle prevents it from being a possibility?

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  • The Wikipedia article has some interesting info, claiming that the "root" of the name is the same as the Iranian city of Qazvin. I don't enough about Semitic languages to pursue that lead further.
    – brianpck
    Nov 4, 2022 at 15:31
  • relevant to note that the Caspi, the Caspian Sea, and silver are all spelt in Hebrew with a kaf, not with a qof. Typically kaf is borrowed into Greek as chi, with qof borrowed as kappa (likewise for borrowings in the other direction). This pattern also holds with most borrowings up until late antiquity from or to most Semitic languages (I'm not sure about Akkadian though) with the notable exception of the alphabet itself which has them reversed (likewise tau~tet and theta~tav). Seems suggestive to me that this isn't a borrowing, but a phonosemantic match into Semitic
    – Tristan
    Nov 4, 2022 at 15:39
  • @brianpck Thanks! I overlooked that in the article. Seems though that the influence is unidirectional: Qazvin, founded in the 3rd century CE, must have taken its name from the sea, if they are indeed related.
    – cmw
    Nov 4, 2022 at 15:40
  • @Tristan That's a good point, and expanding that note would make a good answer, although it's not definitive, I guess, because Greek could have gotten the name not from Semitic, but from locals who got their name from a Semitic language. (That's my original hypothesis anyway, not that the borrowing came directly from a Semitic language.)
    – cmw
    Nov 4, 2022 at 15:52
  • there are plenty of borrowings counter to the rule, and it could have gone via an intermediary so I don't think it's conclusive, but I'll write something up in a bit
    – Tristan
    Nov 4, 2022 at 15:53

1 Answer 1

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Generally speaking, up until Late Antiquity or so, Semitic kaf /k/ is borrowed into Greek with chi (or transcribed in Latin as <ch>), reflecting its typical pronunciation as [kʰ] (or, when the source language is Aramaic or Hebrew from around the Mishnaic period onwards, its spirantised allophone /x~χ/), whilst Greek kappa (or <c> in Latin transcriptions) is used for Semitic qof [q(ʼ)~kʼ].

Similar correspondences apply to tav /t/ being borrowed into Greek with theta (and transcribed in Latin as <th>), reflecting its typical pronunciation as [tʰ] (or, when the source language is Aramaic or later Hebrew, its spirantised allophone [θ]), whilst Greek tau (and <t> in Latin transcriptions) is used for Semitic ṭet [tˤ~tʼ]. Likewise, whilst Semitic languages lack an emphatic p, pe /p/ is generally borrowed into Greek with phi (and transcribed in Latin as <ph>), reflecting its typical pronunciation as [tʰ] (or, when the source language is Aramaic or later Hebrew, its spirantised allophone [ɸ~f], a realisation which seems to have also been in free variation with [p] in later Punic).

These correspondences are reasonably regular and apply for a very long period to borrowings in both directions.

One notable exception being the borrowing of the alphabet itself, where the emphatic stop ṭet gives its name to the aspirate theta in Greek, whilst the voiceless (aspirated) tav gives its name to the tenuis tau in Greek, and both the stops kaf & qof give their names to tenuis stops in Greek (kappa & qoppa), with chi being a Greek innovation. Pe also gives its shape to tenuis pi rather than to aspirated phi although the letter names don't help us here.

With that in mind, lets look at the Hebrew words כסף késef "silver" & כספי Kaspi "Caspian", taken here as indicative of Semitic as a whole.

If they were the source we'd expect Greek Χάσπιοι Cháspioi instead of Κάσπιοι Káspioi (we might also expect the stress to move backwards one syllable to match the usual final stress of Northwest Semitic, although this is much less consistently rendered).

If they were borrowed from Greek, we'd expect the word קספי Qaspi instead of כספי Kaspi.

What I suspect has happened is that the Hebrew terms for the Caspians are a phono-semantic match, either from the Greek or a common source with the Greek. That is, they heard something like /kaspi/ and rather than render it the expected way with a /q/ decided that the semantics of silver were appropriate and instead adapted it as if it was from the root k-s-p with a /k/. In this instance, the most likely source is Iranic, given the location and assumed ethno-linguistic identity of the Caspians.

It's also possible that the Semitic words entered Greek via an intermediary without aspiration (potentially an Anatolian or Iranic intermediary).

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    Also worth noting that Wiki mentions a 5C BC Aramaic reference to kspy, which is presumably too early for Greek influence.
    – TKR
    Nov 4, 2022 at 17:45
  • Thanks for the fuller write up! That last line is what I was wondering if possible, which I guess still is. I.e., Aramaic -> Iranic peoples in the area -> Greek. Certainly though it would not have come through Hebrew.
    – cmw
    Nov 4, 2022 at 18:19
  • Chaspioi or Chasphioi? Does Grassmann apply to Semitic loans?
    – Draconis
    Nov 4, 2022 at 20:16

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