Word Family - Lion

December theme: Lions 🦁


It has long been noted that the Ancient Greek λέων léon: "lion" (whence the word for lion in nearly all Balto-Slavic, Germanic, and Italic languages, as well as a few others) looks almost like it comes from Semitic *labu, but not quite. Pre-Classical Greek would be expect to have a digamma in the middle (loss of digamma is completely regular), λέϝων léwo(n). This is corroborated in Mycenean Greek by the Linear B 𐀩𐀺 (r/l)e-wo (Linear B does not distinguish between Greek r and l sounds, assumed to be because the Minoan language did not have separate sounds of r and l.) The similarity between lewo and labu is even harder to dismiss, but still irregular.

I would suggest that Mycenaean Greek gets 𐀩𐀺 (r/l)e-wo from 𓃭 rw, the Egyptian reflex of the same Afro-Asiatic. And that it came via Minoan, which probably had only one liquid (thus lack of distinction in Cretan writing), and Mycenaean borrowed it as indeterminate between l and r, later settling to l, or that Minoan r was allophonically l in that position.


lion, leopard, chameleon

Full Text

  • Proto-Afro-Asiatic *labwʾ- lion
    • Semitic *lbʾ lion
      • East Semitic
        • Akkadian 𒊊 lābu lion
          • Unknown transmission
            • Proto-Kartvelian [1]
              • Old Georgian ლომი lom lion
                • Georgian ლომი lom lion
                  • Chechen лом lom lion
                • Svan ლო̈მ löm lion [1]
              • Svan ლო̈მ löm lion [1]
          • Demotic Egyptian
            • Coptic ⲗⲁⲃⲟ labo Bohairic
      • Central Semitic
        • Northwest Semitic
          • Canaanite
            • Hebrew לָבִיא laví lion (archaic)
          • Ugaritic 𐎍𐎁𐎜 lbủ lion
      • Semitic *lbʾt lioness
        • Central Semitic *lbʾt lioness
          • Arabic لَبُؤَة labuʾa(t) lioness
          • Central Semitic *ʿbdlbʾt Servant of the Lioness (personal name, likely theophoric)
            • Northwest Semitic
              • Canaanite
                • Phoenician 𐤀𐤁𐤃𐤋𐤁𐤏𐤕 ʿbdlbʾt Servant of the Lioness
            • Ugaritic 𐎀𐎁𐎄𐎍𐎁𐎓𐎚 ʿbdlbʾt Servant of the Lioness
    • Egyptian 𓃭 rw lion [2]
      • Minoan
        • Mycenaean Greek 𐀩𐀺 re-wo lion
          • Ancient Greek λέων léon lion
            • Greek λιοντάρι liontári lion
            • Albanian luan
            • Coptic ⲗⲉⲱⲛ leōn Sahidic
          • Latin leō lion
            • Vulgar Latin *leōne from the accusative, with regular loss of -m
              • Sardinian leone lion
              • Western Romance
                • Old French lion
                  • Middle French lyon
                    • French lion
                    • Haitian Creole lyon
                  • English lion
                    • Hawaiʻian liona
                    • Japanese ライオン raion
                • Italian leone lion
                • Spanish león
                  • Quechua liyun
          • Albanian luan
            • Germanic *laujan
              • East Germanic
                • Gothic *liwa
                  • Slavic *lь̀vъ [3]
                    • East Slavic
                      • Belarusian леў ljeŭ
                      • Russian лев lev lion
                    • South Slavic
                      • Old Church Slavonic львъ lĭvŭ lion
                      • Serbo-Croatian ла̏в lȁv lion
                    • West Slavic
                      • Polish lew
                  • Lithuanian liūtas lion
              • West Germanic *lawe
                • Frankish *lewo
                  • Dutch leeuw
                • Old High German
                  • German Löwe lion
                  • Yiddish לייב leyb lion
                • Old Saxon
                  • Low German Lööw lion
                  • Danish løve lion
                    • Kalaallisut løveq
                  • Latvian lauva lion
              • Old Irish léoman lion
                • Irish leon lion
                • Scottish Gaelic leòmhann lion
              • Old Norse
                • Icelandic ljón lion
                • Swedish lejon lion
                  • Finnish leijona lion
                  • Northern Sami lēdjon lion
            • Basque lehoi
            • Brythonic *lew
              • Welsh llew
            • Romanian leu lion would be *ieuna if inherited
            • Ancient Greek λεόπαρδος leópardos leopard [4]
              • Greek λεοπάρδαλη leopárdali leopard
                • Latin leopardus leopard
                  • Western Romance
                    • Old French
                      • French léopard leopard
                      • English leopard
                    • Italian leopardo leopard
                    • Spanish leopardo leopard
            • Ancient Greek χᾰμαιλέων khamailéōn chameleon [5]
              • Greek χαμαιλέοντας chamailéontas chameleon
              • Latin chamaeleōn chameleon
                • Western Romance
                  • Old French cameleon chameleon
                    • French caméléon chameleon
                    • English chameleon
                  • Italian camaleonte chameleon
                  • Spanish camaleón chameleon
              • Russian хамелео́н xameleón chameleon


Image is a visual representation of the text content above.

Collected English words

lion, leopard, chameleon


  1. ^

    A Svan cognate to Georgian ლომი lom apparently pushes the borrowing of *lom- from whatever source back to before Svan splits from the rest of Kartvelian, estimated to be 1000 years before the next division among surviving Kartvelian languages (c. 1800 BCE vs. c. 800 BCE), which leaves a significantly smaller pool of possible sources of the borrowing, and probably represents a second hand borrowing originating in the northern Akkadian Empire.

    Unless Svan borrowed it from Georgian at a later date, and it is not actually an independent descent from Proto-Kartvelian. In which case it could be borrowed from any number of different routes.

  2. ^

    Written Standard Egyptian does not preserve Afro-Asiatic *l, merging it into various liquids and glides depending on environment, and Egyptian r in this position is completely expected within the limits of Afro-Asiatic reconstruction. I'm unclear on whether the *b to w would be regular in this position: it seems reasonable, but the number of Afro-Asiatic reconstructions that both have *b in them and have an Egyptian reflex is low enough that it would take more specific expertise than mine to confirm that.

  3. ^

    Slavic *lь̀vъ is thought to be borrowed through East Germanic because it shows the i vowel we would expect in a Gothic form. The Gothic form is not directly attested, though it is possible that it is preserved in Latinised Gothic names like Leovigild.

  4. ^

    Greek λεόπαρδος leópardos: "leopard" is λέων léō(n) + πάρδος párdos. Párdos is an Indo-Iranian borrowing meaning "leopard, panther", compare Sanskrit 𑀧𑀾𑀤𑀸𑀓𑀼 pṛ́dāku. Greek πᾰ́νθηρ pánthēr is also Indo-Iranian, quite possibly a different form of the same word.

  5. ^

    Ancient Greek χᾰμαιλέων khamailéōn: "chameleon" is a calque of Akkadian 𒌨𒈤𒊭𒆠 nēšu ša qaqqari: "chameleon, lizard", literally "lion of the ground" or "predator that crawls".