03 January 2016

Etruscan φersu 'masked character (in games)' (updated)

Latin persōna 'theatre mask' is an Etruscan loanword from an unattested *φersu-na, in turn related to φersu 'masked character (in games)'. This word can be analized as a derivative *φers-u from *φers 'husk', an agricultural term with correspondence in the Greek theonym Perséphonē (Etruscan Φersipnei, Latin Proserpina), attested on several Attic vases from the 5th century BC as Persóphatta, P(h)erséphatta, Pherréphatta.

Rudolf Wachter analyzes this is a compound whose second member would be derived from I*-gʷhn-t-jā < *gʷhen- 'to beat, to kill', and the first one would be linked to Sanskrit pará- 'sheaf (of corn)', Young Avestan parša 'sheaf', thus literally meaning 'sheaf-beater', i.e. 'threshing maiden'1. Michael Weiss (in a personal communication to Wachter) also links Latin porrum and Greek práson 'leek' to the Indo-Iranian word.

However, like most Indo-Iranian lexicon related to agriculture, this happens to be a substrate loanword from the language spoken by BMAC people2. In fact, as noticed by De Vaan, the meaning 'sheaf, bundle' can hardly be reconciliated with either 'leek' or 'ear of corn'3.

In my opinion, a better cognate would be Kartvelian *purtś 'husk, foliage' (Georgian purcel 'leaf, foliage', Megrel purča 'chaff, husk', Laz purča 'sweet corn ear', purčumale 'a k. of weed'), *prtś-wn- 'to husk, to scale'4, linked by Alexei Kassian to Hittite paršdu 'leaf, foliage5.

This reminds me of Slavic *proso- 'millet' < *ps-o- 'ear of corn', regarded by Georg Holzer6 as a substrate loanword from a language he calls Temematic (Temematisch in German) on account of its proposed sound correspondences with PIE and where *r̥ ro. According to him, the source would be IE *bhar(e)s 'a k. of cereal (milletbarleyspelt)' (Latin far, farris), a remnant of the languages spoken by the Neolithic farmers who colonized Europe from the Near East.
1 R.S.P. Beekes (2010): Etymological Dictionary of Greek, p. 1178-1179.
2 M. Witzel (2003): Linguistic Evidence for Cultural Exchange in Prehistoric Western Central Asia, in Sino-Platonic Papers 129, p. 33.
3 M. De Vaan (2008): Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages, pp. 481-482. 
4 A. Kassian (2009): Anatolian lexical isolates and their external Nostratic cognates, in Orientalia et Classica, §48.
5 Wrongly translated by some authors as 'sprout, sprig'. See A. Kloekhorst (2008): Etymological Dictionary of Hittite, pp. 645-646. 
6 G. Holzer (1989): Entlehnungen aus einer bisher unbekannten indogermanischen Sprach in Urslavischen und Urbaltischen, §2. See also F. Kortland (2010): An Indo-European substratum in Slavic?, in Studies in Germanic, Indo-European and Indo-Uralic, pp. 73-81.


  1. The few near matches in Afroasiatic do not have the (af)fricative at the end.

    1. hat's right. But Semitic *barr- (the only of these words whose relationship to the IE word is sure) perhaps could be explained by an assimilation -rs- > -rr- like in Italic. If (as I supect) this is a Nostratic (in my idosyncratic use of the term) Wanderwort, then with some luck we should be able to identify its Caucasian and/or Eurasiatic (again idiosyncratic) relatives.