Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Meditation on the Name of Elijah

There’s a baby on the way in my (chosen) family and we are thrilled, the first of a whole new generation in the North American sector. There is hope the world can go on, despite all the stuff and nonsense coming down the pike these days. We are happy for the world, and happier still for the mom and dad to be. As well as the rest of the family's usual suspects.

Elijah had a thing for chariots of fire
The baby will be raised in at least two languages: Spanish and English. And at the baby shower which took place last week, the proud abuelo (gramps-in-waiting) who was present polled the assembly to see how people would address the kid, assuming a Spanish and an English variation. The parents have chosen the name that has come down through the ages from the Hebrew assertion, “Jehovah is God!”  That’s אליהו (Eliyahu) in Hebrew. A whole lot more mellifluous in the Spanish variant, Elías, than “Allahu akhbar!” to be sure, but I’m told they were thinking less of the giver of the Ten Commandments, or of the Old Testament Prophet that carries the name Elijah, and more of the ancestor who brought the family to the Americas from the Middle East several generations ago. His name was Elías.

When the name fell into the hands of the Greeks, they modified Eliyahu to fit their phonology and came up with Elias, and passed it on to the rest of the world, who further massaged it into their respective phonologies. The result is a name which appears to have just about every variation one can imagine, plus a couple doozies of outliers.

The mother-to-be has a powerful way with words. When she was much younger, she would keep me hopping tracking down word origins. I loved every minute of it, even though her father (abuelo) and mother would roll their eyes (at least I imagine they did) at the sheer nerdiness of our little games.

Which of two variations you ask? 

I take that as an open invitation to take the nerdiness to a whole new level. You want to know whether people are going to call your grandson El – lee – as or El – lie – as? Well, grand-pa-pa, I'll have you know there's no reason to stop with just two possibilities.

To wit:

You can put an acute accent on the first letter and you’ve got the French version: Élias. Note that only changes the quality of the vowel; the word still gets the French word/phrase final stress. But switch the accent to the second syllable in languages in which accents mark stress, and keep the (ee) pronunciation of that letter i that is common to all European languages besides English and you’ve got the name as it lives in the Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese languages, as well as in Greek, the language through which the name passed from Hebrew to the modern languages: Elías. And in Icelandic and the other Germanic languages, as well. In English, the name is also stressed on the second syllable, but the vowel sound changes to /ai/.

The final letter /s/ becomes /ʃ/  (=sh) in Hungarian and Polish and a number of other languages. You write it Éliás in Hungarian, Eliasz in Polish, and Eliáš in Czech.  But note that Hungarian has another variant: Illés.

We’re not done yet with the variations. The initial /e/ of the name can be pronounced as a “tense” (non-diphthong) vowel, as in French, or it can be diphthongized, as a stressed /e/ usually comes out in English (We say /teik/ rather than /tek/, in other words). That diphthongization is made explicit in Irish, where the name is written Éilias.

The /i/ sound following the /l/ can be pronounced as a vowel. But the /l/ can also be “iotated” – that is the sound following it is equivalent to the English y in yes.  Sometimes this “consonantal” process is noted by the spelling j.  Finnish: Eljas. But also Elyas in Ethiopian and Filipino.

The name takes an intrusive /h/ for some reason in Classical Latin, where it becomes Helias. And, while we’re at it, it’s Ilias (Ηλίας) in Koine Greek, i.e., accent on the second syllable, but the initial vowel is /i/, not /e/.

In Slavic languages and in much of Eastern Europe, the initial /e/ commonly becomes /i/ and the final /s/ is dropped off: The name is Ilya (Илья) in Russian, Iliya (Илия) in Bulgarian and Church Slavonic, Illia (Ілля) in Ukrainian, Ilija (Илија) in Croatian, Macedonian and Serbian, Ilia (ილია) in Georgian, and Ilie in Rumanian. But note the exception in Slovene: Elija. That version appears to be the one used in Sinhala (Sri Lanka), as well: Eliya (එලියා). Ditto for Japanese, but for the l/r allophone: エリヤ (e – ri – ya).

In Kazakh, they seem to want to have it both ways: the initial letter is /e/ when written in the Roman Alphabet, /i/ when in Cyrillic, and note that the final /s/ is maintained: Eliyas (Ілияс).  Macedonian, in addition to sharing the name as it is used in Croatian and Serbian, has its own distinct version of the name which ends in /o/: Iljo (Иљо). And Macedonian isn't alone. Italian has Elio.

Initial /i/ is present in Arabic, as well, where the name is written  إلياس  (English transliteration: Ilyās), and I assume the Turkish variant stems from the Arabic: İlyas (note the dotted i and not the undotted i). The same may be said for Malay, where the name has several variants: Ilias/Ilyas/Elias/Elyas/Alias/Alyas. Persian, too, follows the Arabic: Elias (الیاس). I cannot tell you what the pronunciation of the initial letter is in Persian.

Linguists are familiar with the fact that the consonant /s/ varies geographically with /t/. English “what?” for example, is the German “was?” and shabbat is pronounced shabbos by Ashkenazi Jews. So it is not surprising to discover that in many languages, the name Elias, with all its variants, has an apical stop, /t/ or /d/ at the end, instead of an /s/. Elias in Welsh is Elisedd. And the name becomes sometimes Ellis, and sometimes Eliot/Elliot/Elliott in English.

Even more far afield is the Faroese variant: Líggjas

And the Armenian variant: Yeghia (Եղիա).

And the Chinese version of the name, spelled out phonetically: 埃利 (āi lì yǎ sī).

Variations, in other words, can be summed up as follows:




Thus endeth the meditation on the variations of Elijah.

photo credit: I am grateful to the Jehovah's Witnesses for their photo of Elijah, which I am using without their permission. If they object, it will have to come down. Elijah is remembered for his ability to bring fire down from heaven, among other things (raising folks from the dead, for example).

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